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Boarding at the back: LA Metro's experiment to speed up late buses

Passengers line up at the 720 Rapid stop at Wilshire and Vermont, one of two stops where Metro is piloting all-door boarding.
Meghan McCarty
Passengers line up at the 720 Rapid stop at Wilshire and Vermont, one of two stops where Metro is piloting all-door boarding.

Los Angeles County buses are the least punctual according to a survey of major American cities, so the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is trying out a new way to speed things up: all-door boarding.

Allowing passengers to use any door to board the bus rather than just the front door is common in Europe and on certain buses in New York and all buses in San Francisco.

"If we’re able to expedite the boardings we can hopefully keep the buses more on time going down the street," said Conan Cheung who works on "service development and performance analysis" at Metro.

Metro will try all-door boarding through July 10 at two stops along its 720 Rapid line (a commuter bus which traverses about 20 miles of Wilshire Boulevard from Santa Monica to Commerce - and is frequently late):

  • Wilshire at Vermont westbound from 6 am to 11 am
  • Wilshire at Westwood eastbound from 2 pm to 7 pm

The agency's preliminary analysis showed boarding times halved from about a minute to about 30 seconds when more doors opened up. Metro created this video to illustrate the difference:

It shows the Wilshire and Western stop, equipped with special TAP kiosks on the curb. Boarders at the middle and back doors are supposed to swipe their TAP cards, the universal transit electronic payment card.

A KPCC analysis found the 720 was the second most tardy bus in the whole system, running five minutes or more behind schedule a third of the time. It's also the most popular, carrying upwards of 35,000 riders every weekday.

The Bus Riders Union, frequent Metro critics, said they approve of efforts to improve efficiency on L.A. buses as long as the program will be rolled out equally.

Aurora Reyes-Harris, a medical translator, rides the 720 frequently to get to work. She said when she first saw people boarding at other doors she was a little confused but she quickly caught on.

"I think this is fantastic," she said. "It’s going to reduce time and it’s going to take pressure off the bus driver."

But the fact that drivers are no longer watching those at the back pay their fare also means there's less guarantee they will do so. Fare evasion is one of the biggest concerns about this system.

Part of the pilot program will involve comparing fare receipts to an automated passenger count taken by a passenger counter at the doors using infrared light.

In a comprehensive evaluation last year, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency found fare evasion had actually decreased slightly since it started all-door boarding in 2012, in part due to the increase in fare inspectors the agency hired to do random checks of passenger proof of payment.

The same evaluation found bus "dwell" times - the time a bus spends at a stop - were reduced by almost 40 percent.

"We are thrilled with it," said John Hayley, the head of transit with SF Muni who characterized the program as a total success. He said the public loves it.

Jarrett Walker, author of the book and blog "Human Transit", said all-door boarding simulates the experience of riding rail - a form of transit that is generally perceived more favorably by the public. 

"That whole psychological experience of being briefly judged or evaluated by the bus driver as you get on the bus and have some kind of fare transaction is a big part of the difference people perceive between bus services and rail services," he said.