Los Angeles Transportation: Facts and Fiction


We at U.C.L.A. hear from reporters a lot, and they are often looking for a few quotes to help write a familiar script. In it, Los Angeles is cast in the role of the nation’s transportation dystopia: a sprawling, smog-choked, auto-obsessed spaghetti bowl of freeways which meander from one bland suburban destination to the next. The heroes of the picture are cities like San Francisco, or especially New York, which are said to have created vastly more livable urban forms based on density and mass transit.

But this stereotype is as trite and clichéd as any that has spewed from the printer of the most dim-witted Hollywood hack. And it is just as fictitious. The secret is that Los Angeles doesn’t fit the role it’s been typecast in.

I have not yet been granted authorization to distribute the coveted Freakonomics schwag, but challenge yourself with the following quiz anyway.

Exactly one of the following statements about transportation in Los Angeles is indisputably true. Two are (at best) half-truths, and the rest are flat-out myths. Can you figure out which of the following is accurate?

1. Los Angeles has developed in a low-density, sprawling pattern.

2. Los Angeles’s air is choked with smog.

3. Angelenos spend more time stuck in traffic than any other drivers in the nation.

4. 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.

5. Los Angeles is dominated by an overbuilt freeway system that promotes autodependence.

6. Los Angeles’s mass transit system is underdeveloped and inadequate.

Answers to follow over the next few weeks.


1. I would believe that the smog is a myth.

2. Half truth. It's definitely sprawling. Malibu to Laguna Beach, Hermosa Beach to San Bernadino is an enormous metro area.

3. How is the time spent measured? Per driver? In total? Time per mile? This would be true by most of those measures.

4. Most Angelenos probably stay close to their neighborhoods. However, there are probably more than in other cities that have long commutes within the metro area. Also, for somebody local to Long Beach to have an evening in Hollywood every other weekend tacks on an extra 100 miles of driving without ever leaving town.

5. Definitely true. I love that I'll never be lost in LA since I have a basic understanding of the freeway grid and one is never far.

6. A thousand times yes. Sure, it's big - probably bigger than most other cities. However, relative to the size of LA, it is absolutely inadequate. I have a co-worker that lives near Dodger Stadium and works in Santa Ana. She spends $60 just to park at the train station. When I lived in Hollywood, I didn't have that luxury, as the drive to the nearest train station took too substantial an amount of time. Relying on a bus to the train would be even worse and completely unreasonable.


Corky Drury

John Brennan seems to be the only one who researched and gave sources for his answers. Most of the rest seem to be personal experiences which can be misleading. Mine in Los Angeles certainly would be.


Number 3 is true.


"Los Angeles" is at best a vague notion of the California metropolis. There is Los Angeles County, which is filled with unincorporated cities, (Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Claremont, Culver City etc...) and within Los Angeles County there are the various parts of Los Angeles the city. Finally there is L.A. which is an entirely different cultural beast. But they all exist and intermingle in the way that we move around the various boundaries.

As a resident of Los Angeles, county and city for my entire life, I feel obligated to mention these differences in light of the casual way that "Los Angeles" gets thrown around, considering four of the questions use that term, and it greatly impacts the answers to all of the questions.

For Example:

1) Partly true: During the summer, especially in the valley areas, and the communities that reach into the east, near San Bernadino the air is choked with smog. However the air nearer the beach comparatively cleaner.

2) I refer to MikeM's comments.

3) This I don't know for sure, but I would say No. For the most part we don't have to deal with truly inclement weather, and we have as a metropolis freeways but many many many many major roads that criss cross around getting us where we need to go.

4) No. Not true, and here is why, while we may have to drive to get to places, actual mileage is really not that many miles. What is 12 miles to get from the westside to hollywood? It's not the length it is the time that could mean at any given part of the day. For example, 2 hours in traffic, and 25 minutes at 1:30 in the morning.

I live in Los Angeles, and I love my Car, and my Bike, and the Buses. If we Angelenos have our great "love affair with cars" and many do, it's because the car is the true symbol of personal space, more than a living environment certainly.

5) Yes. Semantics aside...this is true.

6) Partly true. Within the county there are many many many different services that are offered, Bus and Train alike. But what makes it inadequate, is that distance is still distance...



True or False:

This guy is completely biased towards Los Angeles.

Hint: it is NOT false.


Well, number 6 is definitely true. Whole sections of the city are effectively inaccessible via bus, and the trains don't work particularly well, because you can't get anywhere from the end points; say you wanted to take the subway from the Valley to anywhere... Unless you live walking distance from it, it'll probably take at least an hour to get there via bus, and there's no place to park. From the valley, you can't get to downtown, can't get to anywhere east, and you can't get to the westside, and that's just from my part of town.


5&6. half-truths

Alvaro Fernandez



5 is true. 2 & 6 are half-truths. The others are false. But having lived in both NY and LA, I have to say LA is a vastly better place to live if you like the sun and outdoors. Even on a nice day in NY, you feel like you are inside because you see so little sky between all the huge buildings. And it is way too crowded. I vote for Boston #1, SF #2 in terms of nice cities to live in.

Willie Cavecche

While I'm up in Seattle for school right now, I grew up to the south of LA in Orange County, so here's from my experience:

1.Half-truth. It can get pretty bad (the city literally glows if you look at it from Catalina at night) but it's not as bad as people think

2.Truth. The city seems fairly spread out to me.

3.False. The people here in Seattle keep telling me they have the worst traffic (quality, not quantity), but I don't see it. Either way, this can't be right.

4.False. Everything is actually pretty close together. The only time you're driving to a "far-flung destination" is on a road trip.

5.Half-truth. There is a large and complex freeway system in LA, and in Southern California for that matter. Whether it's overbuilt or promotes autodependence is a different story.

6.False. There's buses, there's trains, and there's light rail. That's more than I can say for Seattle at the moment.


Andrew in NYC

1. True
2. True
3. True
4. True
5. True
6. True


Numbers 3 and 4 seem like the only ones that could be verified by facts. The others are opinions or subject to arbitrary definitions.


It's been a while since I've been to LA, but from what I've heard from friends living there:

1) No. Unless you live in Eugene, Oregon and are snotty about all of California's air quality.

2) Yes. Seriously, compared to other major cities + suburbs, yes.

3) I have no idea, but given the stories that I have heard about the traffic, people spend far too much time in traffic in LA.

4) If this is a no, then it's only because people don't go out as much as other Americans in order to avoid driving.

5) Yes.

6) LA is a major city with no subway.

Seriously, it's not like LA is a super transit hell compared to other major urban centers, but it's a super transit hell compared to almost everywhere else in the US. I think people who live in big cities start to forget that most people think it's kinda crazy to have to drive for 45 minutes to get anywhere.


1. Is obviously true according to the American lung association (http://www.citymayors.com/environment/polluted_uscities.html) and last year had 74 days where air was either "unhealthy for sensitive groups" or just plain "unhealthy" acccording to the EPA (http://airnow.gov/).
2. Is probably true. The greater LA area has an area of 4,850 sq miles and a population of 13 million. The city of Los Angeles by contrast has a population of 3.8 million. IE: 70% of the population in the LA area does not live in the city. By contrast about half of the NYC Area population lives in NYC. (wikipedia)
3. True. According to the most recent article I could find (2007 in the IHT, the international version of NYT), LA has the worst congestion.
4. I can't find any data on this.
5. I suppose this depends on the metric. According to "The Public Purpose" LA ranks 32nd in lane miles per capita in 1999. (http://www.publicpurpose.com/hwy-tti99ratio.htm) However, a downright ridiculous number of freeways do exist in the greater LA area (I count 34 on wikipedia's list).
6. True. LA ranks 34th on Wikipedia's list of public transit ridership in the 50 top US cities at around 10%. NYC by comparison is over 50%. All of the cities below it are very small. (Interesting graphic: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8e/USCommutePatterns2006.png)

It seems obvious that LA removed (or stopped adding) some freeways and thus decreased people's incentives to drive while simultaneously implementing a decent rail system (Metrolink is only 17 miles), people would take public transit.



I think regular traffic is avoidable, but the tradeoffs are usually high.

Adi K.



I think Mike is right. All these things are realtive.

1) Lots of Smog - Bejing, Almost none - Iqualuit, Canada

2) Dense - Mumbai, Not Dense - Rural Montana

3) I'll bet truckers spend more time in traffic than the average Angelenos

4) People commute from PA to NYC

5) Probably more HOV lane miles than anywhere else

6) Ask the average rural American how good their transit system is

The speed of light is constant. Most things are relative.

Mike B

1) Used to be true, but thanks to the emissions regs LA is much better. Houston now takes the smog cake.

2) The parts of LA built in the 50's are much higher density than modern suburban sprawl of the type seen in Las Vegas, Atlanta, Phoenix etc. but was still at the vanguard of poor urban planning.

3) I think Houston wins this one again, but LA is not a cakewalk. The problem with LA is that there are few reasonable alternatives. Anyone trying to drive into NYC is just an idiot, you're going to get stuck in terrible traffic, but it doesn't matter because its their choice. They have the option of driving/walking to the closest NJT, LIRR or Metro North station and taking a train in.

4) This could be a bias question because A) Los Angeles proper is only a small part of what most people consider to be LA and B) LA proper has a large number of poor people that probably don't drive much due to economic considerations. This statistic needs to be broken down by income level and include the entire LA metro area.

5) I don't know if it's overbuilt, but what promotes auto-dependence is the de-centralized, unplanned metro area that lacks a single, compact, transit connected, urban core. Freeways are just a band-aid on the underlying wound and the blood loss is now getting unsustainable.

6) Most definitely. Again, because of poor planning LA is highly resistant to mass transit because you can't employ the traditional hub and spoke system to being people to a common destination. Also, if you remember, a crucial part of the Subway system Santa Monica was blocked for 20 years by NINBY legislation at the Federal level. Due to this and other cutbacks the LA Metro is known among transit circles as going from nowhere to nowhere.



I grew up in one of the canyons near Malibu on one side and Calabasas on the other. I guess its debatable whether or not that counts as part of LA, but it has zero public transport at all. There are literally no public busses that go within a 20 minute drive of my house. When I was in middle school the schoolbus would only drop us all at the elementary school and our parents had to pick us up there.

So depending on what you count as LA, its public transportation system is a joke. But I hear there is better public transport in other parts of the city.


I lived for nearly a year in L.A. so I'll take these one by one, based on that admittedly anecdotal experience:

1. Not true. I never saw "choking" smog in all my time there. A little morning haze in some places, yes, but not more than that. (And that morning haze effect was more pronounced in the Bay Area, where I also lived a while.)

2. Truth or falsity of this statement cannot be evaluated without some definition of "low-density." In my experience, though, lots of parts of LA are high-density.

3. This one I find possible, but cannot be sure of it.

4. I find this one difficult to believe. Sure, it may be a long ride to some attraction, but this is balanced by the fact that in most cases you never need to go far to get needs met ... stores, schools, etc. are close by.

5. There is no way that LA's freeways are "overbuilt," considering the population that they serve. If anything they have not kept pace over the last 30 years or so.

6. Mass transit in LA could be better, I suppose, but I rarely drove anywhere, using mass transit all the time -- and I never had much trouble getting around. So I find it difficult to believe this one is true.



Five is true.

California expands the freeways for the demands of today. When the project is done in five years, they take a survey to find that the infrastructure is inadequate for the current needs and start another project for those current needs.

The system is overdeveloped and always under construction. This may not seem to be the case when you are sitting in traffic but it is true. Add to this the sprawl (not just for living but also for walking around any given point) and you have an incentive to drive your own car and not carpool - auto independence.