MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
They're not glamorous, but buses have a few things going for them. They are the most flexible form of public transit. They can also be the slowest. Buses get caught in traffic and take much longer than trains and subways to load passengers. In Los Angeles, though, transit planners say that they've discovered the secret to zipping buses along, and a delegation from New York City is headed to LA to check out the progress. Well, we sent two NPR reporters out onto the streets of Los Angeles and New York to put the buses to the test and to compare notes.
ROBERT SMITH reporting:
I'm Robert Smith in New York, or specifically, I'm at a bus stop here at the corner of Third Avenue and 42nd Street. And I'm standing here with Jackie Lane(ph), who's going to Times Square. There's a joke in Manhattan says that you can walk faster than taking a cross-town bus. Now what I was thinking of doing is I'm going to race the bus to Times Square.
Ms. JACKIE LANE (Bus Passenger): Oh, wow.
SMITH: Do you think I can win?
Ms. LANE: During rush hour, a good possibility.
SMITH: All right. Here's a M104, bus number 5130. I'm going to go for it.
Ms. LANE: Good luck.
(Soundbite of traffic)
SMITH: The bus hasn't even left the bus stop, and I'm a block ahead.
(Soundbite of traffic)
SMITH: I'm passing in front of the New York Public Library, and I think I can slow down a little bit. That bus is at least two blocks behind me.
(Soundbite of traffic)
SMITH: So I'm here at Times Square, and the M104 has just arrived about 15 minutes behind me. What happened, Jackie?
Ms. LANE: Oh, my God. We were waiting in such traffic, it was terrible. You were right. You beat the bus.
SMITH: I didn't even have to walk that fast. That's how sad it was.
Ms. LANE: Wow. Very bad.
SMITH: It was kind of an unfair battle. The New York City buses are the slowest in the nation, and they're trying to make them faster. But you know, other cities have done this thing called rapid bus transit, cities like Los Angeles, and so New York's trying to learn from them.
Ms. LANE: Well, hopefully, they'll learn something, 'cause it certainly look me much longer than I thought.
SMITH: I asked NPR's Mandalit del Barco to get on a bus in Los Angeles to see how fast they're going there, and I'm going to give her a call now on my cell phone.
(Soundbite of music)
MANDALIT DEL BARCO reporting:
SMITH: Hey, Mandalit, where are you?
DEL BARCO: Hey, Robert.
I'm on Wilshire Boulevard headed towards downtown. I started off near the La Brea Tar Pits. Now I'm on the Metro Rapid bus, which is a speedy new bus they have here in Los Angeles.
SMITH: Does the Metro Rapid bus actually live up to its name?
DEL BARCO: It is rapid, as a matter of fact. And, you know, they've been bragging that the passenger travel time has been reduced by as much as 30 percent on this line. What they've done to make them faster is that they have fewer stops, and so they space out the stops. In other words, this is more like an express bus.
Another thing that they've done here is that they've made the buses actually lower to the street level so that you can just walk onto these buses. You don't have to climb any steps to get onto the bus.
And one of the other things that's kind of interesting that they've done is that they have this new technology, so that if a bus is approaching a red light, they can signal to the master control back downtown and they can actually extend the green light so that the buses can go through faster. You know, I spoke to the director of Regional Transit Planning, Rex Gephardt, about how fast these buses are.
Mr. REX GEPHARDT (Director, Regional Transit Planning): The buses don't go any faster than the speed limit. What happens is they just stop less. They're delayed less. It's not like they're jets. They just don't stop as frequently, and that's good for the public.
DEL BARCO: Now I'm speeding along. I'm already downtown, Robert. It hasn't taken very long, just about maybe seven, eight minutes to get downtown.
SMITH: Buses here in New York City have been known to spend that much time on a single block. Now I'm actually going to try and get on a bus here.
DEL BARCO: OK. Good luck.
SMITH: So I just got on an M42 bus here, and I'm going to try and venture beyond Times Square. And we've made it about two feet away from the curb.
Well, you know, the things that you were talking about, Mandalit, the traffic improvements, are the same sort of things that New York City would love to try here. And, in fact, transit planners have a three-million-dollar study to eventually pick five routes and try some of the things you're talking about: exclusive bus lanes, fewer stops, traffic lights synched up. I talked about this with the traffic consultant known as Gridlock Sam--his real name is Sam Schwartz--and I asked him: `If you get everything that you want, how fast could buses conceivably go in New York City?'
Mr. SAM SCHWARTZ (Traffic Consultant): Ten to 12 miles an hour. And at 12 miles an hour, you could do a mile in five minutes. So you can knock a lot of time off travel. You'd find yourself in competition with taxis.
SMITH: Twelve miles an hour. Dare to dream.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: If you get to double digits with buses, it's the equivalent of the moon shot for traffic engineers.
DEL BARCO: I'll tell you that this is not a new idea. In fact, Los Angeles stole this idea from Brazil, Curitiba, Brazil, which is a city that I understand is southwest of Sao Paulo, and it was built around transportation, public transportation. So there's actually more to be learned from other cities, other countries even. But this is one time when Los Angeles, a city that is so car-dependent and car-obsessed, can actually have some bragging rights over New York. Hold on.
Unidentified Man: Ma'am!
DEL BARCO: What?
Unidentified Man: Put that in your interview!
SMITH: Mandalit, I hear somebody yelling on your end. It doesn't sound like everyone in Los Angeles is happy with their bus service.
DEL BARCO: Well, not everybody. I think this guy wanted to stop, but since it stops so infrequently, he missed, you know, where he needed to go. And that's been one complaint, that some people are having to go farther away to get to where they need to be.
We're now on the bridge going over to East LA, so we've made it really far on this bus.
SMITH: I'm amazed, Mandalit, 'cause I--we've made it less than a block. So I'm going to get off this bus. I'm Robert Smith, NPR News, on the M42nd bus, stuck in traffic on 42nd Street.
DEL BARCO: And I'm Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, riding Metro Rapid bus in Los Angeles, heading into East LA.
(Soundbite of bus)
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