The first attempt to determine if the new Orange Line busway has eased rush-hour traffic has found an improvement in the morning commute on the 101 Freeway -- although one so small that most harried commuters probably haven't noticed.
The study of the freeway, conducted by researchers at UC Berkeley on behalf of The Times, determined that traffic through the south San Fernando Valley from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. has sped up about 7% -- from an average 43 mph to 46 mph. And since the 14-mile busway opened Oct. 29, the amount of time that morning commuters waste being stuck in congestion -- defined as traffic slower than 35 mph -- has declined about 14%, the study found.
It also found that congestion on the heavily traveled freeway is now beginning about 11 minutes later than before the Orange Line opened, with the onset of the morning slows shifting on average from 6:55 a.m. to 7:06 a.m.
The researchers were quick to point out that the changes are only shaving a few minutes off a commute that can still take more than an hour and removing perhaps a few hundred cars from a freeway that carries more than 7,000 vehicles an hour during peak periods.
But they concluded that traffic on the freeway has improved because of the Orange Line.
"The freeway is operating more efficiently," said Hamed Benouar, director of the California Center for Innovative Transportation at Berkeley, which is primarily funded by the California Department of Transportation and conducts research for other government organizations.
Researchers said that saving even a minute or two a day adds up over time and results in less smog and a significant saving in gasoline.
"When more vehicles go through at higher speeds, the pollution is less," Benouar said. "That has an impact on the environment."
The research finding is significant, because there had been questions about whether the Orange Line, despite its high ridership, was actually taking people out of their cars.
The busway now handles about 16,400 passenger boardings a day. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority estimated before the line opened that it would have 5,000 to 7,000 daily boardings.
But the MTA has acknowledged that many Orange Line users had already been taking buses to get around, and critics noted that the park-and-ride lots have been far from full.
Officials don't know how many of the Orange Line riders used to take the 101. The busway's five parking lots, with a combined 3,200 spaces, are 25% filled or less most days. Official estimates range from 500 to 800 parked cars, mostly in the West Valley lots.
"Our objective was to offer people an alternative to the freeway. Without a doubt, we've gotten people out of their cars," said county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a member of the MTA board of directors. "If you talk to people on that line, they love it. If that has contributed to a reduction in congestion on the Ventura Freeway, it just further validates the wisdom of this line."
But some freeway drivers say they haven't seen any improvements.
"It's just as bad as before," said Scott Mullen, whose drive from his Woodland Hills home to his audio recording supplies company in Burbank takes 45 to 50 minutes. "It's still a lot of traffic."
Marshall Stoddard, a lawyer who lives in Hidden Hills at the west end of the Valley, said his drive remains miserable and sometimes takes more than 90 minutes.
"I get on at Valley Circle, and I get off downtown. Some days, I have to get up at 5 just to beat traffic," he said.
The Berkeley researchers made their conclusions after reviewing traffic data from Caltrans sensors embedded in the freeway between Woodland Hills and Studio City.
This stretch more or less parallels the path of the Orange Line, which runs between Warner Center and the North Hollywood connection to the Red Line subway.
The study looked at freeway conditions from Tuesday through Thursday in the weeks before the busway opened, compared with the weeks afterward. The researchers excluded holiday periods when freeway usage was light, as well as certain days when accidents made traffic unusually bad.
In the weeks since its opening, the Orange Line has been plagued by minor accidents involving cars running red lights and colliding with the buses. Despite that, officials have been cheering because so many more riders than expected are using the busway.
The Berkeley researchers found a paradox they consider interesting in traffic on the 101.
Although the commute has slightly improved, there are actually more cars on the freeway during rush hours -- indicating that the freeway is operating more efficiently. Before the Orange Line opened, about 6,800 cars per hour traveled east. Now, the number is about 7,300.
The increase probably stems from the way freeway meters work.
Because traffic in the West Valley is lighter, the downstream ramp meters -- which respond to traffic flow -- are letting cars onto the freeway that previously would have been waiting on onramps, said Gabriel Gomes, a postdoctoral researcher who worked on the study.
The ramp meters allow cars to enter in an orderly fashion, enabling vehicles already on the freeway to travel more smoothly and at higher speeds.
More cars are also coming onto the freeway from adjacent streets, because drivers are seeing shorter queues at onramps.
"The bus line is sucking users from the freeway, then the freeway is sucking users from the arterials," Gomes said.