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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.

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