Low Costs and Emerging Technologies Make BRT a Better Solution for L.A. than Light Rail

Instead of wasting billions building light rail (LRT) lines, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (or simply Metro as locals call it) could build Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines that are as fast with as many passengers as LRT for a fraction of the cost.

Back in 2012 the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority began construction on a 6.5-mile extension of its LRT system’s Expo Line for a whopping cost estimate of $1.5 billion. The construction has been ongoing with heavy fanfare and promotion by Metro and other local authorities.

At the same time that construction work for the light rail extension was beginning, Metro was also completing a four-mile expansion of its bus rapid transit (BRT) Orange Line for a relatively modest cost of $180 million.

To illustrate the sheer cost effectiveness of bus rapid transit, consider that each mile of the LRT Expo Line extension cost $230.1 million vs the per-mile cost of $45 million for the BRT Orange Line extension. More than five miles of BRT could be built for every mile of LRT.

Both lines run at comparable speeds. The BRT Orange Line averages 15.5 mph and the light rail Expo Line clocks in at 14.4 mph. The Expo Line is expected to increase its speeds as it is continually expanded, but it is doubtful it will ever be significantly faster than the Orange Line. For comparison, other LRT lines operated by Metro average around 20 mph (the Blue and Gold lines respectively). The quicker Green Line has an average speed of 29 mph, but it runs on a grade-separated track.

From an engineering perspective, the Orange Line and other BRT lines could reach equivalent, or superior, speeds to the fastest light rail lanes in Los Angeles County. Advances in driverless technology alone should reduce the cost of operating BRT, increase safety by reducing associated dangers and allow for faster speeds. Driverless vehicles are already legal in California and, due to its proximity to Google’s HQ, Los Angeles may find its cars equipped with greater automation technology in coming years. The Orange Line could theoretically implement driverless technology much sooner since it runs on a dedicated lane for most of its route.

Some defenders of light rail argue that it might have higher fixed costs, but is cheaper to operate and can carry more riders (allowing for a lower cost per rider). Both of these claims have been refuted. In a recent study Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute found that bus rapid transit lines are already cheaper to construct, operate and maintain than their light rail sisters. An earlier report by the Federal Transit Administration found similar results when it reviewed the Orange Line’s cost effectiveness and found the Orange Line’s operating costs per passenger mile to be $0.53 vs. the LRT Gold Line’s operating cost of $1.06 per passenger mile. These variable costs should decrease driverless technology is implemented into transit.

Buses are already capable of reaching the same rider capacity as rail transit. Double decker buses could be implemented to increase rider capacity. Furthermore, cost savings resulting from the implementation of driverless technology could offer an alternative to increasing the number of buses operating by freeing up funds. There are some concerns that the Orange Line, and other BRT lines, are already running the maximum number of buses possible but driverless technology should alleviate the potential problem by allowing buses to run in closer proximity to one another without presenting safety concerns. Stations on the Orange Line can accommodate multiple buses docking at the same time, thereby increasing bus capacity on the line, but planners are reluctant to run buses together due to safety concerns. Driverless technology would eliminate these safety concerns and allow buses to run in groups.

Los Angeles Metro would do well to build its future transit projects as bus rapid transit lines.