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Leave Rail Line Plans at the Station; Try 'Rapid Bus'

Proven System Would Be Cheaper to Operate and More Convenient for Riders

August 10, 2003|Kenneth A. Small | The writer is professor and vice chairman of economics at UC Irvine.

Even as voters continue to whittle down the CenterLine light-rail proposal for Orange County, we hear continued debate over the merits of rail transit. And after Irvine voters rejected a plan to extend CenterLine to UC Irvine, the Orange County Transportation Authority responded by shortening the route yet again, this time to just eight miles.

A better use of our energies would be to consider the transportation goal rather than the hardware to be used by asking: How else can large numbers of people move around conveniently and efficiently?

In fact, mass transit can meet stated goals of CenterLine without spending $1 billion for a rail line. What Orange County needs is a fleet of clean, modern buses and some operational rules and modest investments that would make selected bus routes every bit as fast as light rail.

The concept, known as "bus rapid transit," or simply "rapid bus." has been proved in cities around the world. The details are sophisticated but the idea is relatively simple.

First, designate a route, perhaps even the same one proposed for CenterLine. Treat the bus as a priority vehicle on this route and treat its passengers as important customers who deserve to be pampered. This will cost money, but far less than the past or current CenterLine proposals.

As a priority vehicle, the rapid bus would not have to fight its way into traffic at every stop or wait in line at every traffic light. It wouldn't be thrown off schedule by random traffic delays.

Instead, street markings are configured to facilitate bus movements, sometimes along an exclusive rapid-bus lane. Traffic signals are programmed to keep approaching buses moving, and advanced communications help drivers stick to the schedule.

Platforms or specially designed buses would allow customers to enter and exit more easily. Tickets would be sold along the route so riders could buy tickets before boarding the bus. Electronic equipment would tell waiting riders where the bus is and when it will arrive. And shelters would truly shelter riders from wind, rain, sun and traffic fumes.

All these things can be accomplished with proven technology that's available today. It is more expensive than run-of-the mill bus service, but nothing like the cost of building light rail. It cannot be accomplished everywhere at once, but it surely can become a reality on the proposed eight-mile CenterLine route, or even on the 30-mile route originally proposed to run from Fullerton and Anaheim to the Irvine Spectrum.

Rapid bus service is feasible in Southern California. A recent survey found 18 systems in place or being planned throughout the nation. Los Angeles has two successful routes, resulting in 25% faster service along Ventura and Wilshire boulevards. And more improvements are in the works that should bring the average speed on the extremely congested Wilshire corridor to just a little below that of the recently opened Gold Line to Pasadena. Closer to home, OCTA has examined several options and even drawn up preliminary plans -- which, ironically, are on hold for lack of funds while CenterLine planning absorbs millions of dollars.

What is needed is a decision to make rapid bus, and therefore real mass transit, a priority.

Buses are easier to access than light-rail systems. How many people live and work near a light-rail station? If consumers must use their cars to access transit, they will be tempted to use them for the whole trip. But the same bus that serves as rapid mass transit on a main line also can make a pickup loop at each end. Unlike the proposed CenterLine, a rapid bus linking UC Irvine to the Santa Ana train station could complete a campus loop before starting the rapid part of the trip. Or the rapid bus line could use park-and-ride lots at one or both ends, just as a rail system would.

Rail has the advantage of being visible and permanent, enhancing public awareness of the system and enticing developers to build near tracks. With astute marketing, a bus system can take advantage of the same strengths. Attractive stations, a simple route structure, easily identified vehicles and heavily publicized schedule and fare information can turn a rapid bus line into a highly visible part of the urban landscape.

CenterLine proponents are right that Orange County needs some real mass transit. But it need not run on steel tracks. We can create transit with virtually all the advantages of the current or past CenterLine proposals, transit that is affordable as well.

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