Los Angeles Transportation Facts and Fiction: Transit

INSERT DESCRIPTIONPhoto: ceeb Inside a Los Angeles bus.

In the last posts, we learned that Los Angeles is not a poster child for sprawl, that the air has gotten a lot cleaner, and that the freeway network is surprisingly small given the region’s enormous population. What about the charge that Los Angeles’s mass-transit system is underdeveloped and inadequate?

By U.S. standards, that’s false.

Los Angeles has a reputation as a city where people get around in limos, not buses.

But compared with the majority of U.S. cities, Los Angeles is not a transit wasteland. The region is second in the nation in transit patronage, behind only New York. Even on a market share basis (passenger transit miles traveled as a share of all miles traveled), Los Angeles’s ridership rate is relatively high: 11th among the 50 largest urban areas.

Ironically, Los Angeles once had one of the most extensive rail transit systems in the world. The oft-repeated story is that it was destroyed by a conspiracy led by the car companies. (For a dramatized version, see Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I’ll take this up some other time.) In any event, the last rail service in Los Angeles was gone by the 1960’s.

But the situation has changed dramatically. In the last two decades, Los Angeles has been on the nation’s most ambitious rail-building program, spending $11 billion dollars (around $1,000 for every resident of Los Angeles County) on five new rail lines. At present, Los Angeles has the sixth-most-extensive heavy and light rail network in the nation, and several new extensions are in the works. I personally have some misgivings about how this system has developed, but you certainly can’t fault our transportation agencies for not keeping the dirt flying.

Los Angeles has done reasonably well at providing good bus service. Its pioneering Metro Rapid lines use techniques like limited stops, low floors, traffic signal priority, and high bus frequencies to significantly cut travel times. Ridership on the Rapid lines has been strong, and the program is being copied by other cities. The new bus rapid transit line (the Orange Line) is also a trend-setter, providing virtually all the amenities of a rail line at a fraction of the cost.

Local bus service has also improved over the last decade, though admittedly this was in large part due to a lawsuit filed by the city’s Bus Riders Union. Also, Los Angeles has converted a large portion of its bus fleet to cleaner-burning compressed natural gas.

Despite all of this, I can’t look you in the eye and tell you the car is not king in Los Angeles. It is. Our transit share is quite small: a bit under 2 percent.

But then again, the car is king in Houston, Atlanta, Cleveland, and even San Francisco, which is often held up as a model of sustainable transportation. The San Francisco Bay area is second in the country with a transit market share of 5 percent — quite high by U.S. standards. But this is very small in terms of the region’s overall transportation profile (19 miles traveled by auto for each one traveled by transit).

The median urban area among the largest 50 — Milwaukee — has a transit share of 0.7 percent, 40 percent of Los Angeles’s. The Kansas City region is lowest at a startling 0.2 percent, perhaps one eighth the share of Los Angeles (you may remember Kansas City also had the most freeway miles per capita among the largest 36 metro areas).

New York, the mecca of American transit, has a market share of around 10 percent. This certainly towers by U.S. standards, but even so, it pales in comparison to auto travel. It is also quite low compared to comparable foreign cities like London or Paris (which has twice New York’s market share), let alone Tokyo (five times New York’s share).

So judged against other American cities, public transportation in Los Angeles has not, with apologies, “missed the bus.”

Two stereotypes to go.

  • Angelenos spend more time stuck in traffic than any other drivers in the nation.
  • Thanks to the great distances between far-flung destinations, and perhaps to Angelenos’ famed “love affair” with the car, Angelenos drive considerably more miles than most Americans.

Tune in next time when the correct answer will be revealed.

Mike B

Quoting the number of route miles or amount of money spent on transit projects is useless as a measure of transit effectiveness. The key measure is transit density, ie are large parts of the urban area within walking distance of non-bus transit.

In LA the answer is an astounding NO. Unlike many older urban centers LA grew as a de-centralized blob and the absolute absence of any transit after the Pacific Electric system went bust left no skeleton for development to grow smartly on.

For LA the horse is already out of the barn. Among transit planners the LA metro is known as the subway that takes someone from nowhere to nowhere. Without the sort of hub and spoke travel patterns seen on the East Coast it will be impossible to retrofit a transit system that can efficiently get people where they want to go, especially since transit systems cost between 100 million and 1 billion per mile. There is nothing they can do but hope for a massive Earthquake and then start over building homes along transit corridors and businesses in centralized urban cores.



I spent a year living in Sun Valley, working at the Federal Courthouse downtown, taking an hour-long bus ride each way every day. It was /so/ much better than driving. I got a ton of paperwork done every morning before I ever hit my desk, and knocked off, inter alia, the Rouse translation of Homer's Iliad in the afternoon on the way home.

There was this lady who got on before me--every day she would carry a bud vase with a single flower.

I shared the bus with a bunch of civil servants from Glendale who made it a social club; they'd share the birthday cake even with an unsociable bookworm.

Also: the driver knew how to merge from the (five?) lanes of I-5 down to the (three?) of the Pasadena.

I remember the LA bus system as a model of civility and public order.


Um, that is a very poor measure of the adequacy of the LA public transport system.

By U.S. standards, by common sense standards, by nearly any related measure, the LA public transportation system is inadequate and underdeveloped. Try taking pubic transportation from two random points in LA, during rush hour, versus two random points in NYC under the same circumstances. You better be lucky if you expect to get there faster in LA.

Take it from someone who has lived in both cities.


The transportation profile facts seem misleading. It's no surprise that in San Francisco 19 times more miles are traveled by car than by transit because many people who use transit are in the city and don't need to go far by transit and can even walk and the people driving are coming into the city from far-flung suburbs.

I'm just not sure how this specific stat (miles traveled by transit versus miles traveled by car) is more useful than, say, percentage of people who commute by transit versus percentage commuting by car.


Other measures of transit "market share"

Percent of trips taken by transit (modal split). Perhaps, transit trips are shorter than auto trips. Also, not all trips are for work - something like 20% of all trips are non-work.

Percent of population within 1/2 mile of a rail station. I imagine this is a lot higher in NYC metro area.

To be forward looking in the metro area, policymakers and citizens should advocate for new real estate development near existing or new stations. That way, the overall transit accessibility will increase - it's not just about increasing transit coverage geographically, it's about getting development near new and proposed stations.


I use to take the bus to school in high school and later to work. It was so not worth it for so many reasons. In one unrelated and memorable day, the bus driver got angry at a homeless woman riding around the bus with her shoes off and told her to get off because she stunk. All the other riders agreed and wanted her off.

Eric M. Jones

I too, have lived in both LA and NYC. There is essentially no low-cost public transportation system in LA. The removal of the final leg of the Pacific Electric light-rail system in 1961 was not so much a conspiracy as a recognition that it did not serve the needs of the public as well as the automobile (and the bus).

Although I lived for years in NYC with no car (and didn't want one), the structure of the city made this possible. Most of the jobs were in Manhattan and most of the people lived in the surrounding burroughs--and you could use public transit nearly any hour of the day. Taxis (and jitneys), ferries, busses, subways, trains, shoe-leather and airplanes provided convenient links. Townhouses, co-ops and apartments dominated.

But the ideal transportation system really is a car of your own--assuming you have a place to park it at both ends of the journey--and costs are reasonablle. It is simply incorrect to think that rail is more efficient for moving people. A single lane of blacktop has a higher capacity of persons per hour that any railroad. True--traffic jams are to be avoided--and it takes a high degree of idiocy to put up with them over any period of time. In LA you just can't walk from public transportation to your destination.

Now when I go to Manhattan, I park at 59th Street and use public tranportation and taxis. When I go to LA I rent a car.

Comparisons between LA and NYC are impossible. LA is a giant, almost endless sprawl. NYC is a tight hub around which the world spins. To hypothesis about ,and to compare these two cities with any others is really nonsensical.



This is a very poor reading of the data, as transit market share is obviously related to the population of the city. If you plot population vs. transit share (which took me about two minutes in Excel). You'll see that while most of the cities fall roughly on a linear interpolation, and Los Angeles is the clear outlier. Try it yourself.

Not to say my analysis is conclusive, there are probably a number of complex factors that contribute to transit share that aren't being accounted for, but the lack of basic rigor in Eric Morris' presentation of the data reveal his desire to exonerate Los Angeles regardless of what the data actually say.

Chris Fuhrman

Of course people in Los Angeles can walk to their destination after taking public transportation: They have reached their jobs. The subway has routes that don't work on a broad geographic scale, but the buses (such as the cited Rapid lines) go everywhere and are not the dens of low-life behavior they are characterized as. Still, most people drive, alone, and while that's not likely to change, even subtle nudges by other forms make a difference.


OK - this series has been mildly amusing, but completely defined by using the quirky treatment by the census bureau and other statistics sources for defining geographies and populations.

First off - here is something about sprawl in NY vs LA. If you go to the census bureau and find the population for the five counties that comprise NYC against LA county (arguably imperfect as a substitute for what 'means' LA, but as long as we're using imperfect statistics to back things up here goes):

As of 2007 ACS, LA County has 9.88M people against NYC's 8.3M people. (about 15% or so more population). However, NYC's total land area is somewhere around 303 sq/mi, making for an average density of 27,000 persons per square mile. LA county's land area is 4,061 sq/mi, leaving it with a population density of just north of 2,500 persons per square mile or 10 times less dense than NYC.

Even if you use the LA MSA, you're at 7,000 persons per sq mi or 1/3 as dense as NYC.

On to transit, if you look up 2007 ACS data on total workforce, you find that LA and NYC have similar amounts of workers 16 and over. (4.5M to 4.3M) Reviewing the ACS data on means of transportation to work (a much more reliable metric of transportation to use in a place like NYC where car ownership increases with distance from the city center), you see that only 325k workers utilized public transportation in LA, (a whopping 7%) while 2.4 million NYC workers utilize it. (56%).

So maybe by Milwaukee's standards, LA is doing just fine, but it has quite a way to go against the benchmark for public transportation in the US.



I just happen to have this handy:

Estimated share of all daily (not just commute!) trips (not trip miles, but trips!) by public transportation for 12 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), 2001 National Household Travel Survey

NYC MSA 7.7%
D.C.-Baltimore MSA 4.3%
Philadelphia MSA 3.0%
Chicago MSA 3.0%
Boston MSA 2.9%
Miami MSA 2.9%
San Francisco MSA 2.7%
Los Angeles MSA 2.0%
Seattle MSA 1.9%
Buffalo MSA 1.3%
Milwaukee MSA 0.7%
Houston MSA 0.7%

Note: These data are for MSAs with a lot of responses in the NHTS dataset... this tracks sort of closely with population, but not entirely. Some states (or was it regions?) opted to "buy up" to a more intense sampling rate.


Oh, also:

If the NYC transit stat leaves you feeling glum, just remember that NYC MSA residents walk A LOT more than residents of other MSAs.

NYC MSA 19% of all trips are on foot
Philly and Washington MSA 12%
Most of the others fall between 9% and 11%

The read baddies for walking appear to be Buffalo (6%) and Houston (4%).

Willie Cavecche

Look, the claim is whether the system in underdeveloped and inadequate. There are two ways to go about that: how it compares to other systems, and how it fulfills the needs of the people of LA.

By comparative standards, he proved the statement false. Miles driven by mass transit versus miles driven by car seems a decent enough measure for me, though not perfect (possibly doing a per capita measure would be better). And yes, the NYC system is better. It's much better. It's always going to be much better. But NYC is the mass transit exception in the country, and just because it's great, doesn't mean LA sucks.

However, how the needs of the people of LA are fulfilled isn't really shown. From what I can tell living near LA for a number of years, it seems to be doing just fine, though there's always room for improvement. He did show that, at the very least, they're trying to build a system that will fulfill the needs of the people.

And, once again, the length of time in traffic is the truth.



I am not and do not think anyone else is under the impression that LA is more car dependent than the states in general... who is??

The difference is that LA proper is way more car dependent than NY proper, or Philly proper, or Chicago proper, etc.

The comment about LA county vs. New York City was probably most apt in explaining:

you see that only 325k workers utilized public transportation in LA, (a whopping 7%) while 2.4 million NYC workers utilize it. (56%).


I agree that it's problematic to check city-specific stereotypes with regional statistics. It makes it easy to dilute the promise of successful city-specific transit programs, which seems like what happened in the article.

Most would agree that regionally "the car is king" in the San Francisco Bay Area, as you've said, but within the City of San Francisco (where only 1/10th of the regional population lives) walking and transit does take visible priority. Here, transit miles and car miles are clearly divergent statistics, since so many people live very close to where they work within this compact city. They do, however, use a car when they drive long distances, or to distant destinations on the other side of the Bay.

Most Angelenos that I know still feel trapped and obligated to their vehicles. So even if an adequate transit infrastructure exists, a large percentage find it inaccessible from their front door, and have a hard time figuring out how to use it given LA's indisputably car-specific urban pattern. And that's why the stereotype persists.



@Eric M Jones: "A single lane of blacktop has a higher capacity of persons per hour that any railroad. "

Uh, no, sorry. A lane on a freeway has a capacity of about 2000 cars per hour. Even if you assume 4 people per vehicle (which of course is never seen - typical is something like 1.1 or 1.2), that's only 8000 people per hour, though about 2400 is going to be more typical.

A heavy rail train can easily carry a thousand people, though some have a much higher capacity. Just 8 trains per hour is easy capacity for 8000 people -- and rail lines can carry 20 or even 30 trains per hour.

So in truth a rail line can carry more than ten times more people than the theoretical capacity of a lane on a freeway.


This is getting ridiculous. This guy makes unmeasurable claims, using terms like "insufficient" or "considerably" without defining what they mean, then refutes them with data that does not actually get at the heart of the issue. OF COURSE the miles share is going to seem ridiculous. How many people drive 1/2 mile to work? Very few. Most people drive to work because it is far away. How many people take a subway 40 miles to work? No one. But what percentage of people drive versus publicly commute? And, regardless of people's usage patterns, look at the how well the system actually accomplishes it's goal. Even if you accept this data at face value, does it really mean that LA's system is adequate? Just because people use it, doesn't mean it is good. Some people have no other choice.


If you want to see urban sprawl, goto Phoenix, AZ.
I only saw buses and cabs, and you don't want to get stuck walking anywhere there.


What, exactly, is the point of using U.S. standards?

It's fairly well-known that the U.S. lags far behind other developed nations in public transit scope & effectiveness. L.A. is a world-class city. Compare it to other world-class cities.


You wrote "By U.S. standards, that's false".
But U.S. transit systems are underdeveloped and inadequate.
If you set the bar low enough, LA looks fine.
Like other transit systems in the U.S., the LA transit system in underdeveloped and inadequate.