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II. Alternative Transit Options

There are other transportation options of great importance to Los Angeles. The mainstay of Los Angeles public transit remains the bus, despite the relative insensitivity of public bus franchises to rider tastes and preferences. Part of this unresponsiveness flows from limited role of the fare box in bus finances. Public buses are financed by tax revenues: The revenues provided by fares are a small part of the fiscal picture. Not even the most dedicated public transit official believes buses can compete effectively with single occupancy vehicles in the minds of those riders with sufficient income to opt for the private mode. In most cases these experts' decisions lead to outcomes consistent with their assumptions. However there are untapped markets for transit. These markets will remain untapped unless the level of bus service can be improved. There are a variety of ways this can be accomplished.

Focus on busways instead of rail transit

Rail's most obvious limitation is its inflexibility. The exceptional capacity provided by exclusive guideways is real, but rail has no monopoly on this advantage. Buses on exclusive guideways do as well as trains in most respects, and better in most others. Busway capacities meet or exceed the capacities of all rail lines except heavy rail trunk lines, in large part because busway speeds are higher, and because buses can be separated by seconds instead of minutes. In addition, buses offer the special advantage of being able to leave the exclusive guideway, and operate at grade as collectors and distributors.

Busway capacity

Ottawa has the most extensive busway system in the world (34 miles), and has plans to almost double its system. Most of Ottawa's busways exclude High Occupancy Vehicles (HOV). The longest such exclusive US busway is in Pittsburgh. Houston will have 105 miles of HOV lanes by the end of the century. Most of these are reversible freeway lanes that were designed for automobiles, but to which buses were subsequently admitted. This almost double average bus speeds from 26 MPH to 49 MPH.

There are at least three reasons busways are less expensive to construct than railways (Biehler 1988).

  1. Busways are roadways, and there are more firms experienced in the design and construction of roadways than firms experienced in the construction of light rail.
  2. Buses are better able to negotiate grades than are trains, and light rail lines are more likely to have subway segments.
  3. And, even above ground, light rail has special design requirements associated with electrifica-tion, train control, computerization, rail alignment, weight, and other considerations.

Busways are also less expensive to operate than light rail lines. Busways do not need operations control centers, have simpler maintenance facilities, and do not require separate communication, power, signal, and propulsion systems. Broken down light rail cars present more of a problem than a malfunctioning bus.

Table 3 summarizes and compares aggregate cost and performance information for light rail systems and busways. The comparison relies a format provided by Biehler (1988), but includes updated cost figures. The comparison includes Los Angeles' El Monte Busway/HOV(3) lane and the Long Beach Los Angeles Blue Line train. The El Monte facility consists of a dedicated lane in each direction along Interstate 10, running from Northeast of the Los Angeles CBD to just East of the City of El Monte. The transit ridership on the El Monte busway is four times greater per mile of guideway than the ridership on the Blue Line. Service is provided at more than twice the speed of the Blue Line. Details are provided in Table 4, along with comparisons to the theoretical maximum service levels achievable by rail systems and busways. Table 4 includes a comparison of passenger miles per hour not provided in Table 3. Rail's relative performance improves in these terms, but the El Monte busway still outperforms the Blue Line train by a factor of 2.5.

Table 3: Cost and Performance of Busways and Light Rail Systems

Guideway Lengtha
Weekday Ridership
Capital Cost
1992 $
1992 $
1992 $
1992 $
Light Railb
San Diego
Los Angeles
Blue Line
(LACMTA 1995c)
12,260593 / yr
(LACMTA 1995c)
unlinked trips
(Rubin, Moore II, and Lee 1999b)
Simple Average
Mile Weighted Average
Ridership Weighted Average
Pittsburgh East
Pittsburgh South
Los Angeles
El Monte
(LACMTA 1994)
excludes buses
(Rubin and Moore 1997;US Dept. of Commerce 1995)
No comparabledata is available.f
Simple Avera
Mile Weighted Averagege
Ridership Weighted Average

a. These are bidirectional miles.
b. The data for the Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Portland, and Sacramento light rail systems are from Pickrell (Pickrell 1990; US Department of Commerce 1995). Costs have been adjusted to 1992 $ (Rubin, Moore II, and Lee 1999a). The data for the San Diego light rail system are cost adjustments to figures provided by Biehler (Biehler 1988; US Department of Commerce 1995), and are optimistic. The Blue Line data are from the MTA and Rubin and Moore II, as indicated.
c. MTA reports a Blue Line operating cost of $30,443,433 for fiscal year 1995 (LACMTA 1995c). This is incorrect because it excludes over $ 10 million in Blue Line security costs that were classified as bus expenses. The figure reported here is an average of fiscal year 1994 Blue Line costs (LACMTA 1994) and the fiscal year 1996 Blue Line budget (LACMTA 1995b), ($43,943,461 + 44,700,000)/2.
d. The two Pittsburgh facilities include the South Busway and the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway. The Pittsburgh data includes price adjustments to Biehler's figures. The Los Angeles' El Monte busway consists of a dedicated lane in each direction along Interstate 10, running from the Northeast corner of the Los Angeles CBD to just East of the City of El Monte.
e. Most of the service on the El Monte busway is provided by Foothill Transit rather than MTA. This conservative estimate is based on a Caltrans survey reporting 49 buses per peak hour and an average occupancy of 31 passengers per bus. Adding two passengers per bus to account for mid-corridor boardings, and multiplying by 10 to convert peak hour totals to daily totals produces an estimate of 1,617 daily riders. This excludes HOV passengers, which is a much larger number (Rubin, Moore II, and Lee 1999b).
f. Biehler's operating cost basis is unknown, making it difficult to generate comparable values for the El Monte facility (Biehler 1988). Averages relating to operating costs are based on the two Pittsburgh facilities.

Table 4: Peak Hour Ridership: El Monte Busway and the Blue Line

Busway: Theoretical Maximum
El Monte Busway:Actual
Blue Line: Actual
Heavy Rail: Theoretical Maximum
Trains / Hour (Peak Direction)
Cars / Train
Average Vehicle Load
Average Operating Speed
Passenger Miles / Hour
Divided by: Average Trip Length
Passengers / Hour
Bi-Directional Guideway Miles
Passengers / Hour / Mile

a. This implies a headway if five seconds and vehicle separations of about 400 feet, which is feasible at speeds of 55 MPH.
b. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is attempting to achieve headways as low as 2 minutes.
c. This is the passenger crush load for a double-articulated bus.
d. This is the passenger crush load for a Red Line car, which greatly exceeds the rating for BART cars.
e. This implies operating speeds of 65 MPH and skip-stop operations with full off-line stations.
f. This speed is possible if the distance between stations is large. BART operates in this range. One other US operator exceeds 30 MPH, and most operate at much lower speeds.
g. This exceeds by a factor greater than four the combined capacity of all freeways serving the Los Angeles CBD.

Retrofit rail rights of way for use as busways

Placing a new emphasis on exclusive guideways for bus suggests a new destiny for the MTA's light and heavy rail rights of way. The standard political perspective is that the MTA should ultimately finish the rail system to avoid wasting the resources it has already committed to the project. This is good public relations, but bad economics. The objective of the MTA and everyone else should be to spend the next dollar as wisely as possible, and ignore resources that cannot be retrieved from past mistakes. This approach helps firms and households maximize benefits and control costs, but invites scrutiny of public sector failures. This scrutiny is something that agencies very logically prefer to forego. Unfortunately, attempts to avoid scrutiny and controversy often lead to more uneconomic decisions, and larger failures.

At first glance, the MTA's rail rights of way appear to be sunk costs; and as long as they remain dedicated to rail cars, they are. However, the capacity, range of services, and level of service available from these facilities can all be simultaneously increased by substituting buses for trains. This is certainly cost effective for the above ground rights of way, because these facilities could accommodate the existing bus fleet. Further, more busways usually reduce vehicle requirements. The high speeds made possible by exclusive guideways, tends to reduce the size of the fleet needed to provide service, at least until the improved level of service the busway provides stimulates demand.

In 1990, Seattle opened a 1.3 mile bus tunnel running underneath its central business district. One mile consists of twin bore 18 ft. diameter tubes; and 5 stations, 3 underground and 2 more open air, below grade facilities. The Seattle bus tunnel and stations cost $490 million to plan and construct (Simpson 1994). Delivered on time and ten percent over budget, the bus tunnel cuts transit travel time thru the CBD from 20 minutes to 8, and provides a 20 percent reduction in buses operating on the surface. Observed capacity is constrained by the size of the current bus fleet to about 40,200 riders per day. The current fleet consists of 236 dual mode diesel/electric buses and two tow vehicles costing a total of $124 million. 173 buses are assigned to weekday tunnel service. 47 are assigned to Saturday tunnel service. The remainder are used on diesel surface routes, are used for spares and training, or are receiving maintenance. These vehicles provide 843 bus trips per weekday, 250 bus trips on Saturday, and 110 buses per peak hour, 55 in each direction. About 25 percent of all rush hour bus trips through the downtown take place in the tunnel. Seattle Metro authorities predict this value will be 40 percent in the year 2000 (King County Department of Transportation 1991). The maximum theoretical capacity, unconstrained by fleet size, is 18,000 riders per hour. This presumes 290 coaches per hour, 145 in each direction operating on 25 second headways.

The Seattle tunnel includes rail track, and was constructed to eventually accommodate both buses and trains on the same right of way. The grade and clearance requirements associated with rail vehicles are more restrictive than bus requirements. If Seattle can accommodate buses in a facility built to handle trains, then so can Los Angeles.

The existing bus fleet probably could not make use of the MTA's underground rights of way: Vehicle emissions are too high. The MTA would have to emulate Seattle and place dual mode electric buses in tunnels. Dual mode vehicles can operate from an external electric power source or as a standard diesel coach. Dual mode vehicles would allow bus tunnel operations to be integrated with operations on other exclusive rights of way, and to serve as collectors and distributors on streets. Even if dual mode buses were used only for collection and distribution related to underground service, this is more utility than a train can provide. Combining dual mode buses with exclusive, counter flow lanes on city streets would make even better use of these vehicles.

The MTA should subject the option of retrofitting the Red Line tunnel for use by dual modes buses to a full scale engineering and cost study. Converting the subway tunnels for use by electric buses would require a number of engineering changes. Facilities permitting vehicle access and egress to the street would have to be constructed. Further, most MTA rail stations are constructed with center platforms that require riders to board the left side of the vehicle. A few stations have outside boarding platforms requiring riders to board the right side of the vehicle. Tunnel buses would have to permit boardings from both sides, like trains, Alternatively, crossovers or flyovers would have to be constructed. These changes might or might not be more efficient than simply scrapping the trains and closing the tunnel, but there is reason to take the tunnel retrofit option seriously.

Automatic transit systems

Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) have important implications for public transit, though these probably are not the Advanced Public Transportation System (APTS) technologies conventionally associated with ITS/transit applications. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) technologies such as the signal priority LADoT grants MTA buses traveling along Wilshire Blvd. provide measureable improvement in the level of service available to transit users (Transportation Management & Design, Inc., 1999), but exclusive guideways for transit will do much more enhance the use of technology to further increase capacity. The institutional mechanisms for establishing technical standards needed by Automated Highway Systems are much investigated, but remain largely unknown. The set of institutional decisions needed to implement an Automated Transit System (ATS) is no smaller, but standards are easier to establish if both the guideway and the fleet are under the control of public authority. It is technically simpler and more cost effective to establish an ATS system architecture for public transit vehicles with access to an exclusive guideway than it is establish standards for the AVCS elements required by private vehicles operating as part of an AHS.

Public transit properties have deeper pockets than households; and, at present, are less likely to be punished by the market place for taking risks than are private firms. Consequently, public transit agencies and have demonstrated a useful willingness to experiment with alternative fuel vehicles, automatic fare payment systems, vehicle monitoring systems, new materials, and other technologies. They are equally likely to be willing to participate in ATS demonstration projects, particularly if participation is voluntary, and the on-vehicle components of the system are provided at no charge.

Thus a transit first approach to automation circumvents the deployment problem that constraints AHS initiatives. Once ATS technology is in the field, it will be more likely to penetrate other, more risk sensitive markets. Introducing private competition into the field provides an important intermediate step. Once technical standards have been established for public fleets, elements of these same standards can be applied to private transit fleets hoping to provide ATS services. Private fleet vehicles are more likely to be shuttle size than bus size, and thus the equipment designed for the transit entrepreneur could also be introduced into the consumer market.

Competitive transit

Public resources are used to provide transit services because the objective is to serve those who would not otherwise be served, and to ensure at least a minimum degree of mobility and access for all. The objective is laudable, but the results most often are not. The goal of most bus riders is not a seat on a cleaner, faster, more timely bus. The goal of most bus riders is automobile ownership. Public buses are usually the carrier of last resort, and the travelers who ride them are usually captives with no alternatives.

Municipal bus franchises are insulated from the economic forces that refine decisions in the private sector, while simultaneously subject to political constraints that do not apply to private firms. Still, these franchise operators remain economic decision makers within the context defined by their own states of information and the incentives they face. Most of the income accruing to municipal operators consists of tax revenues. Because the farebox is most often nearly irrelevant by comparison, there is no substantive way for public transit's market to punish franchise operators for poor service performance. Bus riders have no access to competing alternatives, because competition is prohibited by law. Even if the bus rider does withhold his or her patronage, he or she is only withholding fare revenues, and these are miniscule. It is no surprise that municipal bus properties tend to be characterized by decisions that are informed by the transit markets these properties serve. This produces outcomes ranging from using vehicles that are too large to paying excessive wages, poor utilization of inventories, and customer relations that can only be interpreted as hostile by private sector standards. Los Angeles is something of an exception. The MTA's bus system remains so crowded that bus capital at work in Los Angeles is achieving record efficiencies (Rubin, Moore, and Lee 1999b).

Equity arguments

The fundamental rationale for public transit systems is improved equity. Consequently, public transit agencies frequently counter arguments for private by noting that private providers of transit services will not be motivated by equity: They will be motivated by profit. If market barriers are dissolved and private enterprises are allowed to compete with public transit, these private operators will only serve profitable routes. Because the private operators will be smaller, their coordination costs will be lower, and entrepreneurs will be able to both provide a wider range of services than public transit, while at the same time undercutting public fares. This will effectively eliminate the fare box revenues available to the public operator, while leaving unprofitable routes unserved. Thus, the public operator would be left with fewer resources; and sole responsibility for addressing the equity objectives, i.e., for ensuring the mobility of those least able to pay.

A wholly privatized market for transportation services would not treat the equity concerns conventional public transit was originally chartered to address. However, neither does the status quo. There is a genuine trade-off between equity and efficiency, but this does not mean that everything that is inefficient automatically improves fairness.

Ideally, wealth transfers should not be implemented with subsidies to carriers, public or private. Instead, the subsidy should be provided to the rider in the form of a voucher (Rubin, Moore, and Lee 1999b). Unfortunately, this is likely infeasible. The administrative costs of such a program would be large. The alternative, then, is to permit competition against a subsized service provider. The MTA's service performance would necessarily improve if the Authority faced the discipline imposed by competition. Private carriers should be allowed to compete with the MTA in the same market, with the rider free to select the best alternative, presumably the cleanest, most frequent, most responsive, least expensive service. Further, allowing competition would reconcile two fundamentally inconsistent objectives currently imposed on public transit authorities, serving the interests of the poor, while simultaneously providing services capable of attracting travelers with the means to drive alone.

There is nothing new about private transit, particularly in Los Angeles. The nation's first jitneys were private Los Angeles automobiles used to provide short rides for nickel fares. The jitney innovation spread East across the US before restrictive new regulations increased costs and put jitneys out of business (Lombardo 1994). The potential for jitney service in Los Angeles remains high: Los Angeles' ethnic immigrant community is an excellent source of both supply and demand.

Common carrier options

The standard arguments against privatization imply that transit is necessarily an inferior good, and that consumption decreases as income increases. But this does not have to be the case. The demand for transit is not a fixed quantity. Premium services can be provided that will compete effectively with the private automobile. The high level of service made possible by exclusive guideways is a potentially important part of this formula. Legalized private transit competing with public transit on the same exclusive guideway will greatly expand the market for transit services. The existing transit dependent population would benefit from efficiencies induced by competition. These efficiencies would be expressed as some combination of lower fares, and increased quality and quantity of service.

For example, California Senate Bill 63 opened the El Monte Busway to HOV-2 traffic effective January 1, 2000. Up to this date, the transit capacity delivered by the El Monte facility swamped the service provided by the Blue Line train by a factor approaching five, but transit accounted for only a small fraction of the passenger miles delivered by the El Monte. Most of the travel on this busway/HOV facility was accounted for by HOV-3 traffic. This suggests that throughput could greatly be increased if a larger proportion of the vehicles using the El Monte were buses. SB 63 moved management of the facility in the wrong direction, saturating the El Monte with new HOV-2 traffic. Prior to this, the most important reason for the paucity of buses on the El Monte busway was the difficulties associated with entering the bus business. If exclusive guideways for public buses are a better idea than exclusive guideways for trains, then guideways for public and private bus services may be the best idea of all.

The El Monte is not the only facility available to the MTA. The $498 million, 10.3 mile Harbor Transitway running above the Interstate 110 Harbor Freeway opened in June of 1996. Caltrans District 7 designed and built the facility with the intention it provide priority bus and HOV service, but the facility receives no new use from MTA buses. Buses currently operating on the busway are serving lines that existed before the facility was constructed. No new service has been added. The agency has no buses to spare because agency's capital is tied up in rail facilities and rolling stock.

Alternatively, MTA may be avoiding more bus service on the Harbor Transitway to avoid competing with the Blue Line. The former SCRTD Planning Department forecast that expanding express bus service on the Harbor Transitway would reduce Blue Line ridership by 20 percent or more, even with zone based bus fares greatly exceeding the Blue Line fare. This predicted shift is due to reduced transfers, time savings, and access to downtown stations closer to the riders' ultimate destinations.

HOT lanes

The incentives for privatization also reinforce the rationale for construction of High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. Access to an extensive network of high occupancy lanes would greatly enhance the quality of service that could be provided by shuttle van operators,. The level of service provided by public transit is unlikely to ever be sufficient to attract significant numbers of riders able to afford alternatives. These riders are sensitive to level of service. For them public transit is an expensive option: The level of service is too low to be acceptable. Combining an extensive network of HOT lanes with new opportunities to enter the transportation market would make it possible for transit entrepreneurs to configure new, flexible, relatively low cost, high level of service options that cannot be provided by public systems. The entrepreneurs who get it right will attract riders from single occupancy vehicles. The ones who get the formula wrong will either adjust to attract more ridership, or shift their carefully shepherded capital resources to other opportunities.

HOT lanes are one of several models available for introducing pricing (May 1992; Hau 1992). Successful implementation of congestion pricing in Los Angeles or anywhere else will have include certain key elements. Public support for congestion pricing can be maximized if public authority (Jones 1995)

  1. makes certain the scheme speaks to the public's largest concerns;
  2. demonstrate that there are no effective alternative solutions;
  3. predicts the revenue stream;
  4. keeps the scheme as simple as possible;
  5. anticipates technological problems and opportunities; and
  6. addresses equity concerns.

Practical steps for facilitating the implementation of congestion pricing include (DeCorla-Souza and Kane 1992)

  1. introducing charges for non-qualifying vehicles on high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes which are under-utilized;
  2. initiating tolls on new or improved segments with toll charges related to the cost for providing new capacity;
  3. standardizing toll charges to make it simpler for the tripmaker to calculate the cost of the trip; and
  4. developing compatible toll collection technology nationwide to allow non-local vehicles easy access to toll systems.

These steps are largely consistent with measures identified by the Task Force to Reduce Emissions and Congestion on Highways (REACH) and others. REACH is funded by the FHWA under ISTEA Section 102(b) in response to a proposal by SCAG and Caltrans; and includes SCAQMD, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), MTA, LADoT, and several other foundations, agencies, and private sector groups. Perhaps the most striking prediction provided by the REACH Task Force is the prospect that the efficiency gains associated with congestion pricing may be sufficient to suggest pricing has much smaller equity implications than most assume, particularly if tolls are rebated. Table 5 summarizes preliminary calculations summarizing the vertical and horizontal equity impacts of the REACH Task Force's base case pricing scenario. These projections are sensitive to a number of assumptions, particularly with respect to how toll revenues are rebated to individuals. These are crude bench marks at best. The Task Force calls for much further study.

Prospects for change

Wholesale privatization of the transit market, however desirable, is unlikely. Incremental changes are much more likely. The liberalization of the California Public Utility Commission's position with respect to airport shuttle vans is an excellent example (Poole, Jr. and Griffin 1994). In this case, reducing unnecessary market barriers produced a burst of activity benefitting providers and consumers alike. Airport vans are an unsubsidized airport transit option that reduces congestion and subtracted 84.2 tons of emissions from the South Coast Air Basin in 1993(Poole, Jr. and Griffin 1994). The airport shuttle industry remains an intensely competitive, cost effective alternative. Opportunity keeps the services available, competition keeps fares to an efficient minimum, and airport authorities keep the peace at the curb. Competition is so intense that the largest providers are beginning to call for new regulations for owner/operators. This is understandable, but undesirable. The largest operators face the highest coordination costs, and are being out competed by smaller, nimbler entrepreneurs.

Table 5: Net Equity Impacts of Pricing, With Selected Mitigation Measures

Income Quintile
Median Income per Capita
Share of Income
Share of Vehicle Miles
Share of Transit Person Miles (Cameron 1994)
Assumed Value of Time per Hour
Net Annual Transportation Bene-fits Per Capita: 1991 Base Case
Net Annual Transportation Bene-fits Per Capita: 1991 Priced Casea
Percent Change: Pricingb
Percent Change: Pricing + Couponc
Percent Change: Pricing + Enhanced Transitd
Percent Change: Pricing + Coupon + Enhanced Transit

a. 90 percent direct rebate to individuals.
b. $.05/mile on uncongested freeways, $.10/mile on congested freeways, and an average emissions fee of $.016/mile on all highways.
c. $100 coupon good for vehicle maintenance and repair of public/private trans-portation alternatives.
d. Moderate public investment and addition market enhancements such as smart shuttles.
REACH Task Force. (1996) Draft Final Report. Los Angeles, CA: Southern California Association of Governments
Cameron, M. (1994) Efficiency and Fairness on the Road: Strategies for Unsnarling Traffic in Southern California. New York: Environmental Defense Fund.

The case for reducing barriers to market entry (and exit) will almost certainly have to be made at the State and local levels: There is almost no genuine constituency for privatization in the Federal Department of Transportation (DOT), quite the opposite; and most of the barriers are the product of State or local jurisdiction. Local rules are a jumble, so there is much to be learned from the changes that engendered the airport van industry. The same authority that permitted the California PUC to legalize airport vans could be used to create a private transit industry.

Perhaps the only regrettable aspect of the State Legislature's decision to replace the South Coast Air Quality Management District's (SCAQMD) Regulation XV with Rule 2202 is the effect this has had on Transportation Management Associations and Organizations (TMA/TMO). Under Regulation XV, companies of 100 or more employees were required to file acceptable employee trip reduction plans with the SCAQMD. The plans did not have to succeed, but they were subject to District approval. Failure to achieve approval could lead to fines of up to $25,000 per day. This was a burdensome but compelling incentive for employers to sponsor or join active TMAs as one way of demonstrating commitment to the District's cause. Some of these TMAs were sources of considerable innovation with respect to providing private transportation alternatives to their members' employees. The legislature's weakening of Regulation XV and subsequent rules raised the threshold for compliance to 250 or more employees and introduced alternatives to filing employee trip reduction plans, with the unfortunate effect of reducing the role of the TMAs in promoting effective private transit.

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