LA's First Bus-Only Lane Hits Some Roadblocks

There is no doubt that we need to start prioritizing public transit over cars, and quick.  In addition to emitting greenhouse gases, cars also emit ozone.  Ozone is an invisible gas that combines with oxygen and sunlight to form that icky brown stuff on the horizon that LA residents know all too well: smog.  Ozone also causes asthma and triggers asthma attacks.  A new study released last month found that exposure to even low levels of ozone causes decreased lung function and increased airway inflammation in healthy young adults


So given what we know about the harmful impacts of our cars’ air pollution, we should be moving forward with changes that will help us drive less and use public transit more.  One such change is the rush-hour bus-only lane that LA is currently contemplating for Wilshire Blvd.  I blogged about this last summer, when it seemed that the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and the City of LA—backed by local businesses, UCLA students that take the bus to school, the Bus Riders Union, and environmental groups—were moving full steam ahead to implement this project.  The staff of the MTA have done extensive analysis showing that this project will improve our bus system and only minimally increase traffic for cars.  The buses in their own dedicated bus lane will whiz by all the traffic; and once the people sitting in their cars see that the bus goes faster than the cars, an estimated 10% of drivers will take the bus instead. 


Yet sadly this simple but effective project has run into some roadblocks.  Several homeowner and resident associations in Westwood and Brentwood have convinced some of our MTA Board of Directors and LA City Councilmembers that the bus-only lane on the west side of town is a bad idea. 


They incorrectly argue that the bus-only lane on the “westside” will cause more congestion, will not increase bus speeds, and will block driveways.  And, since the portions of Wilshire running through the cities of Beverly Hills and Santa Monica will not have dedicated bus lanes (this is so far just a City of Los Angeles-only project), they argue that the stopping and starting of the bus-only lane will cause confusion for drivers. 


All of these concerns are unfounded.  MTA’s analysis shows that while the bus-only lane will increase traffic congestion, it will do so by only a few seconds at a handful of intersections, and 29 seconds at one intersection.  And in exchange for this minuscule delay, the project will improve bus passenger travel times by an average of 24%!  The project will also not block driveways, as drivers entering or exiting the driveways on Wilshire during rush hour can still pass through the bus lane just as they could at any other time of day.  And, finally, it is true that segmentation of the bus-only lane is not ideal.  It would be much better if the curbside lane all along Wilshire from downtown to the ocean became a dedicated bus lane for the entire journey.  However, the segmentation cannot be used as an excuse to not implement the bus-only lane within the full length of Wilshire that is within the City of LA’s jurisdiction. 


The City of LA and MTA must continue to be leaders in creating a better transportation system for our great city.  Just recently MTA celebrated the retirement of its very last diesel bus, becoming the only major transit agency in the country with a bus fleet that is entirely run by alternative-fuel technologies.  It is this kind of leadership that is necessary to move forward with a successful bus-only lane.


MTA staff originally proposed that the bus lane run for 8.7 miles from South Park View Street in the east to Centinela in the west, excluding a small segment around the 405 freeway, and of course also excluding the City of Beverly Hills.  But because of opposition from a minority of Westwood residents, on December 9, the MTA Board of Directors proposed cutting a chunk out of the bus-only lane for the part of Westwood known as Condo Canyon.  On January 12, the LA City Council Transportation Committee proposed cutting the project back from the westside entirely, reducing the bus lane to only 5.4 miles.  And yesterday the full LA City Council asked agency staff to analyze moving forward with this 5.4 mile mini-version of the project.


The Westwood and Brentwood residents that are opposing the bus-only lane for the westside do not represent the views of the majority of the people that will benefit from this project, and do not even represent the views of the majority of westside residents.  Like star-sightings and suntans, complaining about the traffic in LA is a mainstay of our city.  The bus-only lane offers a great step in the right direction to solve our notorious gridlock.  Angelenos want a better public transit system, and it would be a shame if our leaders let the baseless concerns of a minority of westside residents stand in the way.