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The napkin line

October 29, 2005

NEARLY SEVEN YEARS AGO, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky drew some lines on a napkin while flying home from Curitiba, Brazil. His doodle was a map of the San Fernando Valley, with a line running from the high-rise office complex of Warner Center in Woodland Hills to North Hollywood. Today, that line shows up on real maps: It's the Orange Line busway, which opens today.

The Orange Line is L.A.'s first and only busway, but that may not be the case for long -- there were two other lines on that napkin. Despite some grumbling from naysayers, busways are an inventive part of the solution to the city's perennial traffic misery.

Yaroslavsky and other local transit planners fell in love with busways during a 1999 trip to Curitiba. Busways are simply roads that are open only to buses, and in Curitiba a number of innovations combine to turn them into an efficient transit system. Traffic lights are timed to let the buses pass. Passengers pay before getting on the bus, much as they do on trains. The buses are expandable via an accordion-like system that bends with each turn. Some variations on all those innovations are present in the Orange Line.

The Orange Line probably won't affect freeway congestion at all in the short term. Busways are impractical for some parts of the city and inappropriate for others. But they are faster than conventional buses, far cheaper than rail and offer a pleasant enough ride to tempt many people out of their cars.

The knock on the Orange Line is that it isn't a subway. The route crosses 36 major intersections, and though there are transponders on each bus that make green lights more likely, the bus won't always hit a green. The 14-mile trip from Warner Center to North Hollywood takes about 42 minutes. That will often be faster than the 101 Freeway at rush hour, but not always, and not by much.

But subways can cost up to $300 million per mile to build. If transit planners had waited to accumulate the money to build one across the Valley, it easily would have taken another decade, and the project would have come at the expense of others in parts of the city where the need is greater. The Orange Line, by contrast, cost a total of $350 million.

Ridership will grow. As the freeway gets more congested, the time savings will increase. Higher-density development along the route will also boost ridership.

There is no single solution to L.A.'s transit woes. Very high-density corridors, such as Wilshire Boulevard, demand subway lines. Lower-density routes call for light rail. For sprawling neighborhoods of single-family homes, such as most of the Valley, busways are cost effective, efficient and forward looking.

So where were those other lines on Yaroslavsky's napkin? Both were north-south routes perpendicular to the Orange Line, one along Van Nuys Boulevard and the other along Canoga Avenue. Those aren't the only areas worthy of study for future busways, though. There are plenty of old railroad rights-of-way in Los Angeles County, many part of the now-defunct Red Car trolley system. They're a great place to start.

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