Playing With Politics

A Blog on Law, Politics, Planning, Development, and Other Vices

Trolley Buses Won’t Solve LA’s Transit Woes

Posted by Roobs on April 22, 2013


SF Muni Trolley Bus

When I was at UCLA for my urban planning master’s, one of my professors told us that whenever you are provided with a potential solution, you have to ask if that solution solves the problem you set out to solve.  A post by Alexander Friedman on Streetsblog LA makes a decent argument to bring back trolley buses – electric buses powered by overhead wires – to Los Angeles as a way to provide a temporary fix to LA’s transit woes.  While I have no problem with trolley buses given their great environmental benefits and long-term savings, I believe Mr. Freidman overestimates the effect trolley buses have on transit ridership and their benefits to overall transit service.

Mr. Friedman focuses on several arguments in favor of trolley buses:

  • Long-term cost – trolley buses require more up-front capital for purchase, but are cheaper to operate in the long-term.
  • Energy efficiency – they run on electricity provided by overhead wires.
  • Pollution free – they are electric buses.
  • Quiet operation – buses are quiet when operating compared to diesel, CNG, or gas buses.
  • Technologically advanced and aesthetically pleasing – they look good and people will ride them because they look good.
  • Wiring creates a sense of permanence – The wires serve similar function as rail tracks, which is beneficial to economic development.
  • Overhead wiring equates reliable transit – buses can’t deviate so you know it’s there.
  • Trolley buses have lowest operating cost compared to LRT, streetcars, subway, or regular buses.
  • Trolley buses last longer than regular buses.
  • Maintenance of trolley buses Is far less than gas, diesel, or CNG buses.

Mr. Friedman then goes into several Myths v. Facts of trolley buses and why we need them.  They are, for the most part, perfectly fine points so I’m not going to spend time going over all of them.  But, again, the issue here is over transit service and whether or not trolley buses can actually improve service compared to their non-electric counterparts.  The answer is no.

Transit Access vs. Service

First, let’s actually look at the issue of overall bus transit in Los Angeles.  A Brooking’s study found that the LA metro area actually had great transit coverage, with about 96% of metro workers having access to transit (usually a bus).  I even did a study while at UCLA that came to a similar conclusion.   The issue in this study (as well as mine) that helps explain the poor ridership in LA is that, while LA Metro covers 96% of workers, it only provides access to 26% of the jobs.  So regardless of the type of bus available to you, why get on if it can’t get you to where you are going?  Therefore, a trolley bus that still doesn’t get you to your jobs is not going to improve ridership.


Trolley Bus vs. Traditional Bus

Second, in order for trolley buses to be as much of a game changer as Friedman argues they will, they need to be dramatically different from traditional buses.  But the fact is that they are not.  Trolley buses look and feel very much like traditional buses and there should be no illusion that they differ in those respects from regular buses.  It is true that you can find examples of really “cool” looking trolley buses, but it is no less true that you can find really “cool” looking traditional buses.  Aesthetics is no reason to invest in one over another alone.  I, for one, think that LA Metro’s new fleet of buses are actually much more attractive than San Francisco Muni’s.

New SF Muni Articulated Trolley Bus

New SF Muni Articulated Trolley Bus

New LA Metro Articulated Bus

New LA Metro Articulated Bus

Electricity Powered by Coal

Further, the concept of 100% pollution free is a bit of a misconception, though to no fault of Friedman.  This is because electricity is generated from somewhere.  Sure, the bus itself may not be emitting pollutants, but that electricity is probably being generated from a coal power plant.

Economic Benefits of Stops / Stations

Finally, the economic benefit they provide is, I believe, untrue.  This I will preface by saying I need more data on this and it is a topic of research I would like to continue.  But it is my belief that it is not the rail (or wire in this case) that really spurs development.  It is actually the stops.  Having worked with some developers myself, most have confided in me that they actually care very little about the mode of transportation that is used.  They do like the idea of permanence but they go more for the “place” that is created by an LRT stop/station then they are by the rail itself.  Similar, the trolley bus wire may be akin to rail in that once it’s placed it is difficult to move (though much easier than rail), but it is how stops are designed that really brings the development dollars in.  And stop design is independent of any form of power the bus receives.

Urban Form Needs to Support Transit

Now I want to talk about San Francisco.  Mr. Friedman uses my favorite City by the Bay’s Muni service as an example for many of his points, such as people in SF ride the bus because it is a trolley bus and because they are cool.  However, there are several reasons why this is a bad comparison.

First, San Francisco’s urban form is set up very differently from Los Angeles.  Friedman’s assertion for success of the trolley bus assumes it’s the bus, not the urban form, which is the reason. This is a mistake.  People in San Francisco are not riding the bus in droves because it is a trolley bus.  They are riding the bus because it’s transit within urban corridors that are already set up for transit of any kind to succeed.

For example, Market Street in San Francisco is a dense urban corridor that allows for many riders to have access to transit from their home and work.  On Market, there are not only trolley buses, but regular CNG buses, and two subways (BART and Muni Rail).  More to the point, the CNG buses that travel on Market Street as well as the many other corridors of San Francisco are as full as the trolley buses.  Similarly, in Los Angeles, the Wilshire Corridor with its complete dearth of overhead wiring has some of the highest bus ridership in the country with over 41,000 daily weekday riders on the 720 in 2012.  This is comparable to some of the busiest routes in New York City for the same year. This is because the Wilshire Corridor is actually an ideal urban form for transit with its great density of jobs and workers.  So any transit, whether, the Purple Line extension, a BRT lane, or trolley bus, will enjoy high ridership.

If a trolley bus was installed on, say, Van Nuys Blvd. in the San Fernando Valley, it would likely see very little difference in ridership compared to traditional buses.  This is because Van Nuys Blvd., whether it has a trolley bus with overhead wiring or not, does not have the urban form or population density to support a dramatic increase, as well as the issue of whether or not it can get you to where you want to go (see Brooking’s study above).  So if we want to see a trolley bus in LA, you would still need to identify the appropriate corridor that could support transit, but this would be no different than any other transit vehicle.

San Franciscans Love to Hate Muni

Second, Friedman talks often about how people seem to love taking transit in SF.  Having spent my college years in Berkeley and working in both SF and Oakland, I can say that this is true but not in the sense that Friedman thinks.  Bay Area residents love their transit options but they are not without a GREAT DEAL of complaints (just peruse www.munidiaries.comfor a short while).  They often complain in San Francisco of poor transit service, such as full buses, infrequent service, unpredictable headways, etc.  Clearly, trolley buses are highly patroned  in SF but they do not solve their transit woes.

Focus on Operations

This leads me to my final and overall point.  Trolley buses do not actually solve the SERVICE issue of transit.  Trolley buses are useful and, in of themselves, not a bad option when looking to replace existing buses given that they can lower operating costs in the long run.  But they do not increase ridership or increase frequency of service by simply existing.  Now, there is a small argument to be made over long-term savings.  That is, if we envision the same LA Metro where all buses are trolley buses, then the overall operating costs for the fleet would be lower, thus allowing us to spend the savings on increasing quality of service.  However, this is a very weak argument for trolley buses per se.  This is because the increased quality of service came not from the trolley buses but from the increased availability of operating funds.  And this increase can come from many sources that are not trolley buses or require the up front capital costs.

Again, I have no problem with trolley buses and I feel a little bad that I am essentially taking a big dump on Mr. Friedman’s idea.  But to solve LA’s transit woes, it’s less about thinking outside the box and rather getting ourselves back in.  That is to say, large capital purchases of a new fleet of buses or even new rail projects to suburbs I think can’t support the ridership won’t solve the underlying problem of service.  LA Metro, like most transit agencies in the US, suffer from a ridiculously low operating budget.  It is this lack of resources in operations that prevent more buses/rail cars, more frequent service, shorter headways, and the like.  When we focus our attention on fully funding the service that we actually have (remember, LA’s service covers 96% of workers already), and better connecting our job centers to worker populations, then we will likely begin to see a increase in quality of transit service and ridership in LA.

Roobs is an Urban Planner in Los Angeles.  He received his Master’s in Urban & Regional Planning from UCLA with concentrations in Urban Design & Transportation.


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