Los Angeles commuters next week will be greeted with a bus so long, it's technically illegal.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is set to unveil a 65-foot-long bus -- longer than four Toyota Priuses parked end to end -- to debut on its Orange Line busway.
It is five feet longer than the longest bus allowed by California law, so the MTA had to seek an exemption from Caltrans to operate the prototype.
"When you get inside, the middle aisle looks like a bowling alley," said MTA spokesman Dave Sotero.
But those extra five feet give the bus three extra rows of seats and the ability to hold up to 100 passengers, while the current 60-foot models on the Orange Line can hold up to 84.
The bus comes in two sections with a flexible, accordion-style center that allows the bus to bend around turns.
It is part of a new trend in recent years of transit agencies around the world ordering longer buses for their commuters.
In Shanghai, officials recently started using massive three-section articulated buses that hold up to 300 people.
In London, articulated buses are so successful that they have replaced the iconic, red double-decker buses.
In L.A., articulated buses were tried in the 1980s but quickly disappeared because of mechanical problems with the accordion-style linkages.
In 2005, a new generation of the buses was introduced on the Orange Line busway in the San Fernando Valley.
Since then, the MTA has placed articulated buses on other popular routes along Wilshire Boulevard, Western Avenue, Vermont Avenue and Van Nuys Boulevard.
Transportation officials say the higher-capacity vehicles provide relief on crowded buses navigating congested streets. The more people a single bus can carry, the less crowded each bus will be.
Such relief is necessary on the Orange Line, which during rush hour can already be packed when it begins its journey, either heading east from Warner Center or west from North Hollywood.
"The purchase of these long, articulated buses is born out of necessity, and the necessity is driven by the overwhelming success of the Orange Line and some of our Metro Rapid lines," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who was an advocate for creation of the Orange Line.
"Just adding more service is not always the best solution," Sotero said. "If you can increase the bus' capacity on an existing corridor, you help in reducing congestion by carrying more riders at the same time."
Cities across the country have been looking at buying longer buses.
In Los Angeles County, articulated buses make up more than 10% of the MTA's fleet: 295 out of the agency's 2,500. (About 100 more will arrive by the end of the year.)
Seattle and Eugene, Ore., have made obtaining them a priority, and Foothill Transit uses them on its new Silver Streak express bus service on the 10 Freeway between San Bernardino County and the San Gabriel Valley to downtown Los Angeles.
Agencies in Santa Clarita, Phoenix and Chapel Hill in North Carolina, as well as Los Angeles International Airport, which uses them to ferry passengers to airplanes for which there is no gate, have also made purchases.
The "bendy-buses" have even taken over London, which used them to replace its double-decker Routemaster buses.
But they have not been popular everywhere.
Boston's transit agency stopped buying them in 2002 after realizing they could not easily maneuver on some of the city's roads, which began as cow paths and are narrow, with tight corners.
But in recent years, longer, bigger buses have become more popular because they fit the concept of "bus rapid transit," which the Federal Transit Administration supports.
"What makes a rail system appealing is the service: the service arrives frequently, you have high-capacity cars and easier boarding. But because you're using a bus-based infrastructure, it's substantially less expensive," said Lisa Callaghan, technology director for Breakthrough Technologies Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
And that's what is appealing to a federal agency that wants to get the most bang for its buck, Callaghan said.
Such systems have become popular in Los Angeles County. And for the most popular and crowded routes, officials say it is important for them to accommodate a larger number of passengers.
Adding too many standard-sized buses can increase road congestion. And longer buses reduce costs by providing more capacity with the same number of vehicles.
Still, the new buses could result in additional capital expenses, as well as higher fuel costs. A standard 40-foot bus costs $350,000 to $400,000; a 60-foot bus costs about $700,000. (The 65-foot prototype was given to the MTA at a discount of $100,000. The agency will test it for one year.)
Yaroslavsky said he can imagine a day when the Orange Line could need buses so long they would be made up of three sections connected by two accordion-style joints, which can be found in Brazil and China.
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Big and bigger
Standard 40-foot bus:
Size: 40 seats; up to 50 passengers
Cost: $350,000 to $400,000
Current 60-foot bus in use on the Orange Line:
Size: 57 seats; up to 84 passengers
Cost: About $700,000
65-foot bus (beginning service Monday):
Size: 66 seats; up to 100 passengers
Source: Metropolitan Transportation Authority