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.


Check out this great visual by GOOD Inc: http://awesome.goodmagazine.com/transparency/012/trans012delays.html.
Apparently, people in Los Angeles do spend the most time in traffic--72 hours per year, in fact, compared to the 60 hours and 48 hours that San Francisco and New York drivers spend listening to the car stereo, respectively.


Morris is doing a great series on how to lie with statistics!

Redbird Rider

Talk about obfuscating revisionism! This article is "underdeveloped and inadequate," just like LA's mass transit system. Get out from behind your desk and do real-world experiments of getting from point A to point B in Los Angeles, and the inadequacies of the system will be clear.

Also, you praise the Orange Line for "providing virtually all the amenities of a rail line." To paraphrase, "by real-world standards, that's false."

Bikes cannot be taken aboard the "Orange Line." but must be fastened to racks on the front of the bus. Many stops do not have level boarding, meaning there are large gaps that are hard to navigate for people with disabilities or people with strollers, carts, etc. (Some have a horizontal gap between the bus floor and the platform - about 5-6", and others have a vertical gap of 8 or 9 inches between bus floor & the platform.)

The other obvious issue is that the bus route has to cross traffic and stop at lights. The ability of trains or subways to by-pass this is a major difference.

I'm glad LA is investing in more mass transit. But there's far to go. And let's not praise the shortcomings and mistake. We don't need apologists for half-measures and LA's woeful transit situation.



Some comparitve stats from Mayor of London's website:

During 2006/07 public transport accounted for 36% of journeys made within London.
? In central London, cars and vans are used by only 11% of people as the main mode to work. This rises to 63% in outer London and 76% in the rest of Great Britain.
? In 2006, on an average weekday 1.11 million people entered central London during the morning peak (7am to 10am). This was 4.6% higher than the previous year.
? The proportion of people entering central London by car fell by 7%, representing only 7% of total journeys.


I get that Freakonomics represents the emerging study of counterintuitiveness or whatever, but come on. You ask the question whether public transportation in Los Angeles is underdeveloped and inadequate and then you throw out some statistics about, e.g., Milwaukee and Kansas City.

Here are some suggestions for your next round of questions (there will be more in the series, right?). Is burning gasoline harmful to the environment (focus the answer heavily on astronauts who have driven those little Moon cars on the Moon)? Does professional baseball pay well (consider only salaries made by members of the Pittsburg Pirates and the beer leagues played in by the pirates of Somalia)? Is online dating successful? (don't define the terms "online" "dating" or "successful"; just look at overall marriage/divorce rate in Sandusky, OH vis-a-vis the post-Prop 8 craigslist fueled Castro in San Francisco). Etc, etc.

I bet the results will be counterintuitive and freaky and can be tranched and securitized and sold as a NYTimes best selling book.



I regularly take the bus in Los Angeles. For me, the system on works if you're on a very predictable schedule (i.e., home to work). It's just too hard to deviate from that schedule and use public transit to make additional stops on the way somewhere. Part of this is due to limited schedules on the bus. Most commuter lines stop running early in the evening. There's also the problem of bus stops for discharging passengers only. This means that if I did get off my commuter bus at certain points to run an errand, I might not be able to get back on it since that stop might not allow new passengers aboard.


I live in the Los Angeles metro area and bought my house close to the Metro Blue LRT Line so I do not need to use my car as much as most LA area residents are required to do. When I travel to other major cities world wide I use their metro's and lament that LA is still very much a 3rd world city when it comes to moving people.

I have to mostly agree with the article and comments with the exception of the Orange Bus Line. It is not like Light Rail but only cheaper.
The Orange Bus Line was a failure from the start. It could not begin to handle the required ridership. The busses are small and cramped inside, rough riding and very difficult to handle a wheelchair or bicycles. Capacity can not be increased do to blocking traffic on the cross streets. It now takes twice as long to make the trip than it would if it were a light rail line. Now the MTA in their infinite wisdom wants to extend their bus line to Chatsworth at many millions of dollars. The idea of throwing good money after bad for this ill conceived extension is almost criminal. If there is such a need for this service why isn't the Orange Bus Line running now on Canoga Ave to the MetroLink Chatsworth transit center? How much time will be saved by running the bus on the right of way instead on Canoga Ave?

Because the busses are full, cramped and uncomfortable, many people who would be riding a LRT line are now driving.

The Orange Bus Line needs to be upgraded to a LRT line or extend the Red Line to Canoga Park and Chatsworth. Not one more cent should be spent on this bus line it needs to be upgraded ASAP.



From the beginning, I took this post as a comparison of LA to other metro areas in the United States, not the world (Mexico City smog, anyone?) or specifically NYC. On that note, I would I agree that the term "inadequate" is poor, but if defined as "failing to meet a standard", well, it seems L.A.'s mass transit system is meeting our low national standard. A city that would not may be: maybe Detroit, which has no local train system at all.
If failing to arrive from point A to point B efficiently is how you define inadequate, then almost all train systems are inadequate, because they run on a single line (thus requiring transfers). Many people in the Chicago area commute via train from suburb to suburb, which usually requires traveling into the city and back out again. I wouldn't call that efficient, but I wouldn't call it inadequate either.


I was willing to accept the notion that Los Angeles may not be (extremely) spread out, I believe the smog is improving, I might even be convinced it doesn't have that many freeways. However, no statistic the author can quote will provide a reliable way to get around Los Angeles without a car.

A relatively high 22.1% of Los Angeles' population is below the poverty line (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Los_Angeles) , and it seems likely that most of this part of the population needs to ride public transport, regardless of how inconvient it is. I would argue, therefore, that use statistics for public transport aren't that relevant unless you are somehow controlling for different levels poverty in each city. And no, I don't accept the hypothesis that the sample is self controlling in this regard because poorer people may travel less.

Eric M. Jones

#16 Daniel, ..."a rail line can carry more than ten times more people than the theoretical capacity of a lane on a freeway."


I admit to not having the references in front of me. Comparisons like this are fraught with problems. But "carrying capacity of a single lane of blacktop road" would include buses. All the busses and cars would have to be completely full. Comparing this to the rail capacity would require more definitions of terms than either of us is likely to be interested in crafting. Nevertheless you have called the point into question.

But thanks for commenting on my statement.


It seems the idea of LA as car capital is something of a sacred cow, and anyone who dares question that assumption (in this case, Mr. Morris) must be struck down.

Look, all the guy is saying is that LA gets held up as the absolute worst in transit and car dependence, when in reality that title should go to Houston or Kansas City. And yet people on here react as if he's insulted their mothers. We really should make LA-bashing an official religion.


Taking the bus in L.A. is possible, but requires a small amount of extra planning, fortitude and (gasp!) walking. I made a daily 17.7 mile one-way commute on the bus and only had two transfer twice. What happens most of the time is for those who can afford to drive they always will, while the people who do rely on the bus lack the political power to demand better service. The few dozen who do speak out are heard and their input taken into consideration. I read just as many complaints on NYTimes about NY's metro system from broken elevators to crime.


As has been pointed out numerous times, navigating LA public ransit requires agreeing to its destination and schedule.

I was very upset with my brother working at the same job for 30 years while living 45 miles away and literally wasting 2.5 hours per day of his life sitting on "freeways". He's been in a van pool now for 14 years that cuts the expense, the need for a second vehicle (although he still has it parked in the driveway), and avoids the parking fees ($600/year). But he still sits on the highway 2.5 hours per day so he can live in an affordable McMansion in the 'burbs. I thought the metrolink would at last provide relief but we looked at the service and it goes from 4 blocks walking distance from his house to north LA/Pasadena (40 minutes) where he then has to transfer to a bus back to West LA (another hour), adding a daily twenty more minutes to his wasted travel time. It's like the great circle route without the time savings.

Statistics don't tell the whole story. And I was not just a visitor, I lived in LA for four years. Its overcrowded sprawl and unbreathable air were the prime reasons for leaving. I live in a fairly compact city of 125k population. My commute is seven minutes, 15 on a bicycle. I wish the survivors well and the courage to fix what is a several century set of problems. Allegiance to LA is a good thing, but comparing it favorably to places with significantly better tranportation systems (but still not that good), including DC, and New York, is just hash pipe analysis.


David Murphy

As someone who grew up on the East Coast then moved to L.A., I do agree Metro has really expanded the rail system here in the past couple decades -- but I must say that there is so much more to be done.

We need a fully built out mass transit system. And much headway has been made, we're nowhere there yet.

And after getting frustrated with worsening traffic gridlock and a lack of political willpower to do something about it, I started a nonprofit, Building LA's Future, to fight for a fully built out subway & light rail system, along with other short & long term highway & transit improvements.

Check out www.endinggridlock.org. Together we can change L.A. for the better!


I realize I am commenting on an ancient post, but you have to be kidding. Of course LA has the second highest transit patronage... it's by far the second biggest metro area in the country. And comparing the LA transit network to the rest of the US... that's a real case of the one-eyed man being king in the land of the blind. If you compare LA to similarly sized urban agglomerations - say London, Shanghai, Tokyo, Seoul - the rapid transit network is much smaller. It is crazy that a corridor as dense as Wilshire is only served by the Rapid 720. Kudos to LACMTA and the mayor for trying to be aggressive in expanding the system!