Guest Op-Ed: Bus Lanes in the Car Capital: Lessons and Challenges from Los Angeles

This month, the Eno Center for Transportation released a new report titled “A Budding Model: Los Angeles’s Flower Street Bus Lane,” focused on the pilot peak-hour bus lane on Flower Street in Downtown Los Angeles. Click here to read the full report and learn more about the pilot results.

Can bus lanes unlock a more multimodal Los Angeles? The LA region has a reputation as a car-oriented metropolis, yet some of the features that have favored private vehicles, such as wide boulevards, multiple business centers, and medium-density communities across much of the LA basin, offer a promising future for buses. Historically in Los Angeles, buses have not been given long-term priority road space. Until 2019, LA County had fewer than 107 bus lane miles compared to over 22,000 maintained miles.

In Summer of 2019, LA Metro piloted a peak-hour bus lane on Flower Street in downtown Los Angeles as part of a mitigation for temporary closure of the A Line light rail service  (formerly the Blue Line.) This bus lane greatly improved mobility, accounting for more than 80 percent of people moving in the corridor—or around 10,000 bus riders a day during the peak period. Soon after, bus lanes on 5th and 6th Streets and Aliso Street in downtown were installed, and plans are in place for more bus lanes on Alvarado, Grand, and Olive streets. A new Metro initiative looks to dedicate staff and resources to accelerate the bus lane program.

How did LA get here? Strategic planning, leadership, and the power of pilots and research has contributed to facilitating the expansion of bus lanes in Los Angeles.

Strategic Planning. In 2018, Metro’s Board adopted Vision 2028, which calls for Metro to invest in a world class bus system that is reliable, convenient, and attractive to more users for more trips. In addition, based on the public engagement and outreach conducted as part of the NextGen Bus Study, the Board passed Motion 38.1 endorsing travel speed, service frequency, and system reliability as the highest priority service design objectives for the study. The NextGen Bus Plan, approved in 2020 with routing changes in place by end of 2021, redesigns the bus system for the first time in two decades and will increase the share of bus riders with ten-minutes-or-better frequency from roughly half to more than 80 percent. As part of the Plan, the Board approved a major capital program to support the NextGen service changes through investments in speed and reliability infrastructure as well as bus stop and layover optimization.

Recently, Metro staff also proposed a five-year, $2.1 billion Better Bus Program for adoption by the Metro Board of Directors to drive systemwide and long-term investments in bus customer experience improvements, including more bus shelters, bus priority infrastructure, and a whole suite of pilot programs to test new models to address customer pain points such as reliability and cleanliness. This plan incorporates the NextGen capital program to advance speed and reliability infrastructure, including bus lanes, in up to 50 corridors over five years.

Leadership. These changes in direction would not have been possible without leaders within and outside Metro taking actions that prioritize better bus service. An example is a directive from Metro’s Board and the City of Los Angeles’s Council to assemble a Bus Speed Engineering Technical Working Group consisting of Metro Service Planning and LADOT’s equivalent technical team tasked with developing a list of priority bus-supportive infrastructure projects. This group institutionalized and codified a regular working relationship across multiple agency teams necessary for making bus lanes in Los Angeles possible. Additionally, advocates’ leadership and dedication of resources calling for improved bus services, such as the Better Buses for Los Angeles Working Group, drew attention to the need for improved bus service.

Pilots and Research. Bus lanes were also bolstered by evidence from pilots and case studies documenting the benefits of bus lanes and new technologies to ensure compliance in the bus lane. The Flower Street bus only lane pilot was evaluated to determine its effect on speed and reliability. An unsolicited proposal for on-vehicle camera enforcement technology spurred a 2019 case study documenting the frequency of bus lane violations on Wilshire Boulevard. After analyzing various bus lane enforcement methodologies, Metro made the decision to seek legal authority for automated bus lane enforcement. AB917, which would allow any California public transit operator to enforce parking violations in bus only lanes through video imaging, has passed the California Assembly Transportation and Privacy Committees, and an assembly vote is expected soon.

Despite momentum for bus lanes in Los Angeles, there are still numerous challenges to achieving the vision laid out in Vision 2028. LA Metro’s service area extends far beyond downtown Los Angeles, and bus lanes require supportive local leadership. Three current projects to expand Bus Rapid Transit in Los Angeles County have not yet broken ground in part because concerns over traffic impacts for single-occupancy vehicles. Yet, people of color and low-income communities are already bearing the brunt of the status quo by relying on buses that are becoming more unreliable due to congestion. While a new Federal Administration and a California budget surplus promise to boost transit dollars, there is still a lingering preference for funding large capital projects over bus service improvement, bus lanes, and dignified bus stops.

Bus riders make up more than 70% of Metro’s ridership, and they are disproportionately from Equity Focus Communities. More bus lanes, signal priority, bulb-outs, and other transit supportive infrastructure can help make the case for a broader roll-out of these types of speed and reliability improvements. Metro can elevate riders’ voices through regular customer surveys, as well as innovative and improved public outreach. LA Metro can take advantage of policies like SB288 that accelerate transit planning. Metro can better align budget with mission to fund bus improvements and help build a countywide consensus for better buses and a network of bus lanes.

Improving the speed and reliability of LA County’s bus network will reduce transit travel times, as well as improve competitiveness with other transportation options. An expansive network of bus lanes would go a long way to maximizing the potential of buses in Los Angeles.

The views expressed above are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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