Big Blue Bus officials are proposing creating bus-only lanes on parts of 4th Street and Pico Boulevard during peak hours in the hopes that faster service will boost ridership.
BBB ridership fell by one third over the past five years but has started to recover in the past several months after officials decided to run buses more frequently on popular routes and install signs announcing bus arrivals in real-time at almost 200 bus stops. Other transit agencies in Southern California have seen similar drops in ridership during the 2010s as more low-income residents, who represent the bulk of bus passengers, have been able to afford cars.
Betting that shorter travel times will attract more riders, BBB director Ed King will ask the City Council Tuesday to explore adding bus-only lanes on two of Santa Monica’s busiest routes: 4th Street and Pico Boulevard. It also plans to work with other local transportation agencies to speed up service on Los Angeles corridors with BBB routes, such as Wilshire and Westwood boulevards.
BBB already operates six bus-only lanes in Santa Monica and Los Angeles that have improved travel times by up to 25%, King said.
“Big Blue Bus staff has determined that improving travel time on buses is a critical strategy to further increase ridership,” he said. “This conclusion is based on national data that has established a positive correlation between improved travel times and increased ridership, as well as surveys that cite excessive travel time as a primary barrier to bus use among non-riders.”
On 4th Street, where 10 routes and 7.5% of all BBB passengers pass through each day, buses often travel just five to nine miles per hour during the afternoon rush hour due to congestion from the daily surge in the downtown population, multiple parking garages and an interchange for the 10 Freeway, King said.
King said BBB has submitted a grant application to the California Department of Transportation to conduct a study on the corridor and identify ways to improve bus travel times. If it does not secure the grant, BBB will work with the city to collect data and develop pilot programs on 4th Street, which could include bi-directional bus-only lanes.
Officials are requesting similar measures along Pico Boulevard, which is the busiest corridor in the BBB system in terms of ridership with an average of 11,760 customers each day on Route 7 and Rapid 7 combined.
King said the congestion heading eastbound in the afternoon rush hours makes buses travel less than nine miles per hour on average during the journey from Santa Monica College, the system’s most popular stop, to city limits at Centinela Avenue. From there, riders experience even worse congestion and travel times as buses approach the 405 Freeway overpass.
Officials recommend an eastbound bus-only lane during afternoon peak hours, which would require altering the median on Pico or eliminating a lane. The bus-only lane would increase bus travel speeds to at least 12 miles per hour during rush hour.
The 12-foot lane the bus would use currently acts as an eight-foot parking lane with a four-foot informal bicycle lane. If transformed into a bus-only lane during peak hours, it would provide 12 feet of parking during the rest of the week, officials said.
BBB has also put forward strategies to reduce travel times on Ocean Park Boulevard between 25th Street and Centinela Avenue, where Route 44 carries 500 SMC students each day but averages 7.5 miles per hour during afternoon peak hours. Officials have proposed adding eastbound queue jump lanes, which would allow buses to bypass traffic at certain intersections, rather than a full bus-only lane.
King said that L.A. Metro and BBB surveys have shown that people choose to use buses and trains when travel time is no more than twice the travel time of using a private vehicle. Transit is especially competitive when travel times are either faster than, or up to 1.5 times the travel time of using a private vehicle.
While bus-only lanes would improve travel times, they are only one tool in BBB’s arsenal. King said the agency has implemented or is planning to implement other strategies, such as reducing cash boardings to decrease loading time and increasing the average distance between stops.
“While the ability of Big Blue Bus to directly impact congestion is limited, continued efforts to improve travel time by making full use of opportunities presented at each stage of a transit trip will ultimately have a positive impact on congestion, as people are persuaded to leave their cars and use transit,” King said.
The City Council will meet at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 10 at City Hall, 1685 Main St.