She Gave the Push That Got Rapid Bus Rolling

Times Staff Writer

Waiting in a shell-shaped Rapid Bus stop on a frosty downtown Los Angeles morning, Martha Welborne dug in her purse and pulled out what looked like a bruised penny.

"See this?" she asked. "It's a bus transfer from Brazil. It's something like a good luck charm. I guess you could say it's working."

Moments later, a Rapid Bus, candy-cane red and white, rumbled down the street and pulled to the curb. The doors were flung open. Welborne entered and casually scanned the crowded bus, inspector-like. "Everything looks good," she said. "It's a feeling that gives me a certain amount of pride."

Using high-tech sensors to cut the times of trips, the Rapid Bus is helping break gridlock across Los Angeles.

Two routes were recently added by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, complementing the pair of successful lines established in 2000. Two dozen more routes are planned. And with the state and federal budget crunches, some observers say that the MTA should add more Rapid Bus lines and trim plans to build costly railways.

The line's popularity and spread are the work of many people, but none more than Welborne. A 50-year-old architect with piercing blue eyes and an all-business manner, Welborne spent years working on the MTA from the outside, prodding the agency to adopt the Rapid Bus after seeing it work in a South American city.

"I guess I just started looking at the problem. I thought I found a good, smart solution ... and, well, I just began to push," Welborne said.

Eight years ago, Welborne was managing director at the Los Angeles office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, one of the world's largest architectural firms. A newcomer to Los Angeles, she was boggled by the traffic and frustrated that the city -- unlike Chicago and Boston, where she previously worked -- seemed to have few answers other than the slow build-out of a multibillion-dollar subway that served a sliver of the population.

Welborne began researching the simple, effective and low-cost transit system in Curitiba, Brazil, a city of 1.6 million people with a spoke-like network of dedicated busways.

She was so taken with the approach that she ended up leaving her architectural practice to form the Surface Transit Project, a one-woman nonprofit organization advocating a Curitiba-type solution for Los Angeles' traffic problems.

By 1997 -- with a grant meant to help her educate public officials on transit matters and a moxie that often got her into the offices of movers and shakers -- Welborne had organized a series of trips to South America to see the busways.

She took then-Mayor Richard Riordan and county Supervisors Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and Zev Yaroslavsky to Brazil, escorting them through the city, telling them that Los Angeles should borrow from Curitiba.

"I was just stunned, just simply amazed," said Riordan, who came back to Los Angeles a convert.

"Not only was what we were seeing down in Brazil a method I felt we could use in our city, but here was this woman, a person just focused on the problem and not even working for our own MTA guiding us. Martha got people like me to take in a new vision. Without her, what we've seen since going to Brazil" would not have happened.

Once the trips were over, Welborne continued pounding the pavement, selling the "Curitiba model" in Los Angeles, speaking at colleges and conferences and in one-on-one meetings with civic leaders. For inspiration, she frequently took her Curitiba bus token from her wallet to remind her of her mission.

Welborne says of that time: "It wasn't ever clear how it was going to actually happen, but the idea just seemed to snowball. I felt like a charioteer for a bunch of wild horses. I was just trying to hang on and guide the process a little bit."

Hang on she did, serving as an unpaid advisor to MTA planners who held similar ideas about buses and loved what they saw in Curitiba. Welborne assisted in shaping what would grow into the blueprint for a network of Rapid Buses.

Meantime, Riordan and other MTA officials, stung by a budget crisis that caused them to halt their most expensive projects, were happy to find a mass transit project that would save about 95% of the cost of building a subway. They soon passed plans to create the first two Rapid Bus lines, on Wilshire and Ventura boulevards.

By the summer of 2000, the red and white Rapid Buses were rolling down city streets. Virtually everything about them was new. As Welborne hoped, Rapid Buses had a red and white color scheme and modern, cantilevered shelters meant to "brand" them as being special.

More important, as in Curitiba, the Rapid Buses came equipped with sensors that keep lights green at intersections and with low floors for fast boarding. They made fewer stops and were driven by operators told to travel their routes as fast as possible rather than to follow a strict schedule. The result: Rapid Buses sped through their trips 20% faster than standard bus service, attracting far more passengers.

On Wilshire Boulevard, ridership of the Rapid Bus stands at nearly 50,000 boardings a day, doubling bus use on the city's densest corridor, forcing the MTA to start buying bigger buses there and spurring the expansion plans.

The success on Wilshire has attracted the attention of the Federal Transit Administration, which touts the MTA projects as it urges cities across the nation to consider Rapid Buses in lieu of building railways.

Welborne has a few reservations about those plans, which started in December with new routes on Vermont Avenue and South Broadway and call for 24 additional Rapid Bus routes to be in place by 2008.

She would like to see the new network be a straightforward, easy-to-understand grid system, like the subways of Boston and New York.

Welborne also wants some of the buses, particularly on Wilshire Boulevard, to use dedicated lanes, landscaped and curbed off from other traffic.

The MTA likes the idea and is considering it for Crenshaw Boulevard.

But the agency is also concerned about opposition from merchants who fear parking lanes would be sacrificed.

Welborne thinks the agency could get around the problem by purchasing property just off busy boulevards and building multilevel parking lots.

"Dedicated lanes, that's certainly key," said Welborne, who for now has left her transit advocacy work to lead a nonprofit effort to revitalize parts of downtown Los Angeles, working with businessman Eli Broad.

"A dedicated lane on Wilshire would make Rapid Bus truly rapid, and that is going to take guts and vision," she said.

Welborne added: "It can happen, though, especially when you remember it wasn't so long ago that hardly anybody here even knew about a city called Curitiba."

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