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BUSES OUTRUN STUCK CARS AUTOS POKE ALONG WITHOUT RIGHT LANE.

Byline: Lisa Mascaro Staff Writer

Buses are going faster than cars on Los Angeles' busiest street - that's what's happening under a pilot project that could be a model for easing gridlock at minimal cost.

But the bus-only lane along a one-mile stretch of Wilshire Boulevard doubled the commute time for motorists who've had to jam into the remaining lanes. Still, busways have emerged as the darling of transportation planners, who note they're cheaper and faster to build than billion-dollar subways or freeways.

``It's a nightmare,'' said motorist Jack Vincent, whose commute between mid-Wilshire and West Los Angeles takes 15 minutes longer than it did before the bus-only lane was opened last March. ``We're in a driver's town. It's a bad alternative.''

But supporters advise motorists to get used to it. Designating traffic lanes for buses only is the kind of option that's needed to encourage the use of mass transit.

``I hope eventually we do it on Van Nuys Boulevard,'' said transit advocate Kymberleigh Richards, a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Valley Governance Council. ``MTA needs to develop the political will to do things in the face of parochial objections.''

Under the pilot project, planners designated the parking lane between Federal and Centinela avenues for buses only during morning and evening rush hours. They spent $161,000 to repaint the street and post no-parking signs along the stretch, which reverts to a parking and vehicular lane in off-peak hours.

After the first six months, the MTA and Los Angeles City Council extended the experiment through March 2005 so they can better weigh the results.

But during the first trial period, bus speeds improved by as much as 14 percent, and on-time performance improved significantly.

The increase in speeds resulted in a decrease of just 30 seconds off the one-mile trip. And while supporters concede that doesn't sound like much, they say it shows what is possible if the route is extended.

``You start adding it up from downtown to Santa Monica, those 30 seconds can be a huge gain,'' said Manuel Criollo, an organizer with the Bus Riders Union.

But what really thrills transportation planners is that buses beat motorists during rush hour - a scenario unheard of in Los Angeles, where the average bus travels about 12 mph and cars go about twice that.

In the pilot project, buses traveled the one-mile route in 4.5 minutes, while cars took six minutes - double their previous average, officials said. During one especially bad rush hour, buses made the trip in seven minutes, while it took cars 19 minutes.

``If we can keep the buses moving through those very congested areas, we think we can attract more people to transit,'' said the David Mieger, the MTA's director of Westside planning.

``We hope that will get a lot of drivers to think about transit instead of sitting in their cars contributing to traffic congestion.''

But James Okazaki, assistant general manager for the city's Department of Transportation, said cars are getting ``unnecessarily penalized.''

``Unless a whole bunch of people are taking the bus, you're hurting more than you're helping,'' he said.

The Automobile Club of Southern California said more study of bus-only lanes is needed.

``This has come at the expense of significantly increasing travel time for vehicles,'' the Auto Club wrote in a letter to the city.

And Wilshire Boulevards merchants have been among the biggest opponents, upset over lost parking that the West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce says has shuttered at least two businesses.

Still, the City Council and MTA have agreed to continue the experiment for six more months, and are considering extending it. The MTA is also looking at other possible routes.

Supporters say as the region's population grows without new roads being built, mass transit becomes a main tool to keep people moving across the 470-square-mile city.

The MTA's Mieger compares the bus-only lanes on surface streets to car-pool lanes on the freeway, which can handle more people than the single-occupancy lanes.

``The choice before us now is, How are we going to use our streets more efficiently?'' he said. ``If we can get them faster than their car, that's the incentive. We think people will start voting with their feet and trying it.''

The MTA initially proposed a bus-only lane on Wilshire from Santa Monica to downtown in 2000, but the City Council shot it down, with only Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski supporting it. The council told the MTA to start with the pilot project now under way.

Miscikowski continues to support the project through her district, saying an extended bus lane could provide a tool for easing gridlock.

``The No. 1 thing we hear everywhere we go is we need to do something about traffic,'' the councilwoman said.

But the city might halt the pilot project next March if the lane can't be extended into other jurisdictions. City officials are loathe to continue impacting motorists and merchants if other cities don't commit to share the pain in the name of faster buses.

``That's why this next six months is critical,'' Miscikowski said.

But Santa Monica has been reluctant to lose its parking lane along Wilshire for the bus, that city's transportation planning manager said.

And the West Los Angeles Chamber will continue fighting the project if its neighborhood remains the only one to suffer.

The chamber says one-third of the corridor's 185 businesses have reported a 20 percent drop in sales because of the lost street parking.

``I have always said from Day One we would support a complete project - if it's a complete project,'' said chamber President Jay Handal. ``The problem is we don't believe it's a matter of time before they do it.''

Besides, he doubts that Angelenos will actually give up their cars for mass transit.

``You will never get a $200,000 suit into an MTA bus,'' he said. ``It is never going to happen.''

But some commuters say they are intrigued.

``Maybe it's worth it,'' said Jorge Media, who would like to reduce his two-hour evening commute from his job at a dry cleaner in West Los Angeles to his home in Highland Park.

``It prioritizes again this concept that the disadvantage now has to go on the car driver,'' said Criollo of the Bus Riders Union, ``and the advantage goes to the transit-dependent.''

Lisa Mascaro, (818) 713-3761

lisa.mascaro(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

photo, map

Photo:

With one of the three lanes of Wilshire Boulevard west of the 405 Freeway converted to a bus lane, other traffic is suffering delays. Also complaining are businesses, which have lost their street parking.

John McCoy/Staff Photographer

Map:

Proposed buses-only lane project

Gregg Miller/Staff Artist
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 10, 2004
Words:1114
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