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Santa Monica to Study Creating Two Bus-Only Lanes

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By Jorge Casuso

Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated the City Council approved implementing the two bus-only lanes. The Council approved studying the proposal from staff.

By Jorge Casuso

December 16, 2019 -- Santa Monica will study implementing two new bus-only lanes -- one on Pico Boulevard, the other on 4th Street -- to speed up service on the two busy routes.

The City Council last Tuesday unanimously directed staff to study the lanes as part of a package of "tools" to boost declining ridership on Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus (BBB).

The Council asked staff to move quickly after the City's only other bus-only lane -- on Lincoln Boulevard -- was implemented two years ago, a decade after it was proposed.

Staff proposed the location of the two lanes after determining which routes showed "the most minutes lost by the most people," said Ed King, the bus system's director of transit services.

"We're looking at where people are already riding to make it more useful to more people," King told the Council.

The proposed bi-directional bus-only lanes would be implemented on 4th Street between Wilshire and Pico boulevards.

An eastbound lane would be implemented during afternoon peak hours on Pico Boulevard between 18th Street and Centinela Avenue.

The bus stop in front of Santa Monica College (SMC) has the most boarding of any of the BBB's 929 stops, transit officials said.

Staff did not propose an eastbound bus-only lane on the eastern stretch of Ocean Park Boulevard during peak hour because it would require removing the median or a traffic lane.

The Council also directed staff to work with other jurisdictions served by the BBB to propose similar measures, especially on Pico Boulevard from Centinela to Sepulveda Boulevard.

Other measures transit staff will study include implementing "queue Jump lanes" that allow buses to bypass the line of cars waiting at a traffic signal by using the right lane to advance.

Such lanes were implemented last year at eight intersections that do not have traffic signals by installing a "simple cost-effective signage program," BBB officials said.

"These specialized treatments have saved, on average, 20 seconds of travel time per trip in these intersections," staff wrote in their report.

As part of the study, staff will undergo "a thorough public engagement process," prior to returning to Council to present their findings, transit officials said.

Transit officials hope the measures will boost plummeting ridership, which was hard hit be the opening of the Expo Light Rail line extension to Downtown Santa Monica in 2015.

Since then, ridership, which was already dropping, fell by nearly 25 percent by June of this year, officials said ("Big Blue Bus Continues to Lose Riders," November 21, 2019).

That compares with a nearly 15 percent drop on LA Metro buses and a 10 percent decline in bus ridership nationwide.

A UCLA study last year found that low-income riders, particularly immigrants, are abandoning public buses and, in most cases, the region’s light-rail systems, as they scrape together enough money to buy their own vehicles.

Among foreign-born residents, zero-vehicle households were down 42 percent, according to the study ("UCLA Study Suggests Low-Income Riders in Santa Monica, Southern California Switching to Own Wheels," February 6, 2018).

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