Los Angeles Transportation Facts and Fiction: Driving and Delay

Time to bring the quiz to a close. We’ve seen in past posts that, by the standards of U.S. cities, Los Angeles is not sprawling, has a fairly extensive transit system, and is decidedly light on freeways. The smog situation has vastly improved. The final two stereotypes await.

Thanks to the great distances between far-flung destinations, and perhaps Angelenos’ famed “love affair” with the car, Angelenos drive considerably more miles than most Americans.

Answer: False.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, Angelenos drive 23 miles per resident per day. This ranks the Los Angeles metro area 21st highest among the largest 37 cities. The champions (or losers) are probably Houston, followed by Jacksonville and Orlando, all of which are over 30 miles per day. New Yorkers drive the fewest miles (17 VMT per resident per day), thanks in large part to relatively high transit ridership and lots of walking trips.

Despite our reputation, we Angelenos don’t exhibit any particularly great predilection for freeway travel either. Los Angeles ranks 14th out of the 37 largest metro areas in terms of highway miles driven per resident per day. To be sure, this is above the median, but it hardly points to the sort of unique freeway fetish Angelenos are accused of harboring.

This leaves the answer you’ve all been waiting for: Angelenos spend more time stuck in traffic than any other drivers in the nation.


According to the Texas Transportation Institute’s 2005 Mobility Report, Angelenos who traveled in the peak periods suffered 72 annual hours of delay. This was number one in the nation, by a large margin.

The T.T.I.’s methodology has some issues, but it is probably safe to say they got this right. I have studied Los Angeles traffic conditions for an 18-year period. My conclusion, to put it in formal transportation terminology, is that Los Angeles traffic really, really sucks.

Not that this eases our pain much, but San Francisco and New York, cities that supposedly show Los Angeles how transportation and urbanization should be done, are tied for second and 15th respectively in most hours of congestion delay.

Moreover, New York’s situation may be even worse than this implies. Instead of driving, many New Yorkers are riding transit, which is generally considerably slower than travel by private vehicle. Thus the Census Bureau’s 2006 American Community Survey reports that New Yorkers have the longest commutes in the nation, at 34.1 minutes. Angelenos rocketed to work in a mere 28 minutes. By the commute-time criterion, New York’s transportation system could be considered more dysfunctional than ours.

But pointing fingers at others does nothing to change our grim reality. As anyone who’s ever sat on Wilshire Blvd. at rush hour or experienced the frustration of trying to lead police on a high-speed freeway chase during peak travel hours can tell you, Los Angeles’s traffic jams do indeed live up to the legend.

However, the reasons for Los Angeles’s problems are murkier than they may seem. In fact, it’s quite possible to make a plausible case that Los Angeles’s traffic woes stem from the fact that it doesn’t sprawl enough and has overinvested in costly rail transit at the expense of developing its undersized freeway network.

Congrats to those of you who guessed correctly that Los Angeles is a traffic nightmare. Now if you really want to prove your acumen, have a technologically feasible, politically palatable, fiscally responsible solution on my desk by the morning. And for those of you who have stuck with the quiz, I have a special treat: a bonus myth, which will bite the dust in the next post.


@15: Car driving as a hereditary skill? Must be the latest discovery in genetic science !!!


I just moved back to the NYC area from suburban Pasadena, which I would consider part of the LA transit network.

It is true that there is a large rail network in LA County; but the problem is that it doesn't go anywhere. As I am sure you know, most of the working population does not work in "Downtown LA" but in the various areas around the city. The subway system that exists is basically useless.

To highlight the absurdity of the current system, the Metro Gold Line (train) originates IN THE MIDDLE OF THE 210 FREEWAY. Asinine is the only word I can think of that describes it. You have to drive to a parking garage and walk to the platform in the middle of the east and west bound sides of the freeway.

The cities and towns that feed commuter traffic have no access to trains that go anywhere useful.

And I think your posts about bus service are a little misleading. I tried taking the bus from my apartment in Monrovia to my office in Pasadena for a week. The billboards advertised "Free WiFi" on the bus lines which did not exist. The bus was literally overflowing every morning, air conditioning was sparse, and it took OVER AN HOUR to make an 8 mile trip.

The system cannot be fixed out there, it is a disaster in every sense.

I now happily take the train to work.



@ 7:

I completely agree with you. This statistic is not only flawed, but just shows how someone with a chip on their shoulder and a point to prove can manipulate statistics to try to prove their point. I challenge this posts author to give a statistic that is acutally relevant such as vehicle miles drive per driver. Most four year olds I know don't drive, nor do all of those in inner LA who don't own cars.


@15's comments might have been politically incorrect and even flat-out wrong, but he clearly introduced explanations other than heredity. If you are going to criticize someone, at least try to criticize what they actually said.

Chris Fuhrman

One characteristic that distinguishes Los Angeles traffic is that with the denseness of development (jobs and residences alike) away from freeways, city streets carry a high volume of commuters and inter-neighborhood travelers alike. As an example, to get from UCLA to downtown by freeways is not efficient, so people use the same few boulevards. The subway doesn't go west, and because buses use the same streets, flow is constrained much of the time.


Common understanding in my field is that if you build more highways you fail to reduce traffic.

No wonder your field has left us in such a mess.

The idea isn't to reduce traffic, it is to increase throughput.

I believe youare referring to the induced traffic theroy that says if you create a new spot for someone to dive in, new traffic will develop to filll the spot.

That theory has mostly been debunked with the current estimates for induced traffic being much lower than the original estimates. Then there is the problem of HOW you create that additional spot. under induced traffic theory itmakes no difference HOW you create a new spot for someone to dive in (available capacity).

Whether you get that capacity by building more road space, or convincing people to use transit, that new available capcith will still be there, inducing traffic.

Same goes for traffic demand maagement, except now thee is a financial element involved. For every poor person you force off the highway, more rich people can avail themselves of the "new capacity".

In short,you can no more build your way out of traffic congestion by building rail than you can by building roads.



As for San Francisco and New York's snarled traffic system: The only reason people take mass transit is because car-based transportation is expensive (in time and money) or difficult. If it was easy to drive around, few people would take the bus.


So what's the point? You drive 23 miles and where are you? Looks the same. Feels the same. Same people. Selling the same stuff. It's still LA (or Houston, or whatever). Why did you have to go 23 miles? Oh, because you can.


SammyC, you are right that AMG didn't really effectively argue against lobosolo's statement, but it is also a hard statement to even engage. Beyond being "politically incorrect", it is flat-out racist.

A few possible counterpoints:
1.) Does LA have a higher influx of 1st and 2nd generation drivers than other cities?
2.) Is there ANY evidence that 1st and 2nd generation drivers are less well practiced than other drivers?
3.) Why lump in 1st generation drivers with 2nd generation drivers? Their experiences are generally wholly different from one another, particularly with regards to their exposure to "American" life.
4.) What is this "huge" amount of illegals you speak of? What is an "illegal"? Are these illegals only in LA?
5.) What evidence is there that illegals (as you call them) drive timid to avoid being caught by "the man"?
6.) If you have observed a driver who seems not "well practiced" or driving "timid", how do you know their immigration status, citizenship, or country of origin?
7.) In the unlikely event that there IS data suggesting recent immigrants to the LA area are more likely to be involved in a traffic accident, receive a ticket, or otherwise demonstrate a disproportionate contribution to LA's traffic, how do you account for the role that racial profiling could play in these numbers, given the LAPD's documented history of race relations?

I doubt you can provide a SHRED of evidence (outside of anecdotal observations which are essentially meaningless in a conversation like this). Without this, it is likely that your statement is based solely on assumptions and generalizations based on a person's race/ethnicity/country of origin. THAT'S RACIST!


Scott Mercer


This myth that the Los Angeles County Metrorail sysstem "doesn't go anywhere" is a racist lie. It might not go anywhere that YOU want to go, but it certainly does go places.

I'm sure the people in Hollywood, Los Feliz, Koreatown, Downtown, East L.A. (coming this summer), Long Beach, Compton, Watts, South L.A., Norwalk, Lynwood, Inglewood, El Segundo, Pasadena, South Pasadena, Highland Park, Cypress Park, Lincoln Heights, Chinatown, North Hollywood and Studio City would certainly NOT agree that they live "nowhere."

But don't worry, once we build the Subway to the Sea, the subway will actually go "somewhere", like Beverly Hills, where the residents probably have an income level that is high enough for your liking.

Jon E.

Thanks for this work. Very enlightening.

I was born and raised in LA and am now in an Urban Planning program out of state. LA is the favored target for "what not to do" for all of these criteria. It's good to see that the educators need some education.


1.) yes

2.) yes

3.) as studies show, 1st generation drivers take more time to acclimate themselves to their new driving area, the second generation grows up learning from the first, but adapts more readily to their new area. the 3rd generation will learn from the 2nd and usually become wholly acclimated.

4.) are you kidding me ? http://tinyurl.com/bq7kf3

5.) well i worked construction in LA for 6 years... it not rocket science. do the math. the same thing happens to people with no insurance, smoking pot.. etc etc. you drive more cautiously to avoid suspicion.

6.) see answer 5. live within the community and you can see it as well.

7.) not on topic, stay on topic to find the answers we need.


no it not. as a 3rd generation American i can point out my observations and nothing more. nothing i said was racist. stop throwing the racist card around because you disagree with something.



The ACS questionnaire and the congestion measure are two very different animals. The ACS asks how long the respondent spent on average in the last week driving to work. This is a) likely to under count congestion related delays -- if your commute normally take 20 minutes but on Fridays or whenever there's an accident it takes an hour, you're likely to answer 20 minutes -- and b) only measures travel to work, a journey that has long been losing "market share" to other types of trips, such as vacation, shopping, etc.

Part of what makes LA's traffic so bad is the limited choice of travel mode and the location of destination land uses. In the cities you mention, New York and San Francisco, you're almost always a quick walk from a good restaurant, convenience store, park, or place to hang out. In LA with the exception of a few neighborhoods, it seems that you have to take your car or a bus to do just about anything.



More highways is certainly not the solution. Especially not ones with more poorly designed interchanges (the 45-degree turn from the 110 N to the 5 N -- two major highways), and on ramps that are quickly followed by an exit off the highway. Congestion is quickly formed with cars trying to merge on and off in the same 200 yards (Try taking the 405 S past the 10 freeway -- traffic from Olympic entering on the right while the 3 right lanes are exiting off to the 10.) I won't even touch on the quality of driver.

For years they they have been studying the bus system in Curitiba Brazil, yet seem to be making no advancements towards any system that works remotely as smoothly, effectively, and efficiently. What a difference it would make in this city to have a [good] public transit system. Until then, it will only get worse, as more residences are being built (crammed in) and being occupied with more who rely upon private transportation.



Among the primary reason's that transportation, and particularly automobile traffic, is so bad in Los Angeles is the complacency of the region's citizens. People in LA just seem resigned to their horrible situation. Human beings are simply incredibly adaptable and people in LA just don't seem to mind having to drive everywhere and sitting in traffic for hours while their cars pump out pollution with very little return for that consumption of fossil fuel. What it really comes down to are options. In SF or NYC you can take public transportation to get most places, or you can choose to drive, or perhaps take a cab, or better yet you can walk. All of these modes of transportation are occurring along most city streets at all times. In LA often driving is often the only option. Even in areas where there is lots of potential to "urbanize" LA, such as Los Feliz, people drive 3 blocks to go grocery shopping. This mainly out of habit, but also because the layout of sidewalks and pedestrian crossings don't support foot traffic. And it's primarily about scale. In SF or NYC you might walk 50 - 100 feet from your front door to the nearest cafe or corner grocery store. In LA 50 feet doesn't get you past the driveway sometimes and 100 feet doesn't get you to the corner on your block. Again no options. People who don't live in LA see and experience this loss of mobility immediately when they visit or relocate to So. Cal. People who live in LA seem oblivious because they've adapted to their sad lot. I think the only hope for the region will come from legislation at the federal and state level that will provide funding for, and politically force the construction and implementation of mass transit. Massive rezoning with requirements to build to maximum densities along major and second-tier thoroughfares wouldn't hurt either. And don't get me wrong, there is actually much to love about So.Cal, it's just all overshadowed by the omnipresent anxiety of gridlock. I live in No. Cal now, and yes, it is as wonderfully pleasant and relaxing as people in So. Cal fear.



What kind of fuel economy do LA drivers get? I bet it's not good.


Solutions, Accelerate faster. Improves fuel efficiency and throughput, reducing stop-and-go traffic.

An informational campaign, culminating in an activist event: Horn Day.


Key points, because of lack of capacity, LA uses more time and fuel to get about the same work done as the rest of the country.


Lobosolo, where is the data? Where is the evidence? Saying "yes" without backing it up is useless. What studies show that 1st or 2nd generation drivers learn in the method you described? You're using a Google Search as evidence? So now "math" will tell me that people guilty of crimes drive more carefully (and thus, worsen traffic)? Really? I can think of a host of logical reasons why that is NOT true, but don't need to, because you still lack evidence. And your life in the community is not particularly relevant. Again, see my point about "anecdotal evidence" and it's reliability/accuracy.

And my last point is certainly relevant. You argue that immigrant drivers are the cause of the problem partly because they drive timidly to avoid the police. Perhaps they drive timidly because they are being racially profiled.

In many ways, you are trying to have it both ways. They are awful drivers! And way too cautious! What? How can both be true? If you really can't see how racist and xenophobic the ideas you posted are, then there is little hope for further dialogue. At least claim your racism. Don't claim you're not racist/xenophobic because "it's all true". It's not true. And your "facts" are based on your own racist and xenophobic attitude.

Just to show how, I got stuck behind a dump truck one time, going 25MPH in a 40MPH zone. Can I rightfully conclude that construction workers (like yourself) are responsible for traffic? No? Oh.


OC Progressive

I can't for the life of me figure out what the point of this series was. In a region as immense and complex as Southern California, setting up and dispatching some ambiguous questions with some unsatisfying answers. The comments are frequently far more interesting than the original posts.

But it's all just thin. Sometimes it seems as if the only good work to come out of UCLA has been Shoup's work on parking, and that's a little too focused on the westside to reach more general status.

You could have written about the Measure R campaign, the history of competing agencies, the impacts of the state budget crisis, lots of interesting stuff.

Instead, you came up with your facts and fiction, which are in some cases, just not very accurate.