A closer look at transit ridership around LA County

The proportion of commuters who use mass transit to get to work varies wildly across the Los Angeles Metropolitan Statistical Area (which encompasses Los Angeles and Orange Counties). Source: 2000 U.S. Census.

Last week, The Source mentioned an Australian study that concluded that perhaps the connection between higher density and transit use was not as robust as previously thought. The study authors also suggested that Los Angeles was a prime example of their theory: a dense city with “relatively low rail and bus use.” I think that suggestion merits a closer look.


For starters, what’s relative? Across Los Angeles County, 7.3 percent of people over the age of 16 ride mass transit to commute to work. That is certainly below many older cities and counties with more miles of fixed rail than Los Angeles. These cities include Washington D.C., Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York — where in the New York-White Plains metro area 44 percent of commuters use mass transit. But the percentage in L.A. County is still above the national average of five percent who use transit to get to work. And it’s similar to the percentages in some metro areas that are about the same size as massive L.A. County.

Secondly, as the following map illustrates, the proportion of residents who ride mass transit to work varies wildly across the Los Angeles Metropolitan Statistical Area, as defined by the Census Bureau. Noticeably, the densest parts of L.A. also contain high proportions of transit commuters. Here are some examples from randomly chosen Census Block groups around L.A.: UCLA, 41%; Hollywood, 39%; Downtown, 59%; Koreatown, 64%; MacArthur Park, 67%; the area southeast of the 10 and 110, 85%.

Source: 2000 Census data.

And take a closer look at the maps below: you’ll see there are many pockets outside L.A.’s densest areas which contain high concentrations of transit ridership; These areas include the Van Nuys Boulevard corridor in the San Fernando Valley and parts of Santa Ana, Anaheim and Garden Grove in Orange County.

Perhaps density is not the best way to predict how many people ride transit, as the Australian study concludes. But the suggestion that L.A. is a dense city with poor transit ridership is an oversimplification and downplays the complexity of transit riding habits and patterns in our city and region.

Close-up of transit use in the San Fernando Valley. Source: 2000 U.S. Census.

Close-up of transit use in Orange County. Source: 2000 U.S. Census.

Interested in seeing more?

If you have Google Earth, you can download the KMZ file I used to create the maps here and take a spin for yourself. Click around to see all sorts of demographic data from individual Census block groups in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Note: The data is from 2000, so be on the lookout for more recent data analysis in the future when the Census Bureau releases its new version of the American FactFinder.

13 replies

  1. The article points to Los Angeles as the densest city in the country. This is false. The Los Angeles metropolitan area is the densest metropolitan area in the country.

    The New York metropolitan area doesn’t have all that high of an overall density, but because it has an incredibly dense core with a large proportion of jobs in a small centralized area, it is very well-suited for transit use.

    LA doesn’t follow this pattern. Jobs and housing are scattered all across, so it’s very hard to build transit that gets people from their homes to where they want to be. The transit we have gives people people great connections to downtown: the problem is, downtown only contains a few percent of the jobs in the region.

  2. This is really interesting, especially the pink and purple pockets in the middle of seas of yellow. What’s going on outside Palmdale and Placentia that those places are so much more transit-friendly?

  3. Alex – low population (workers 16+) size for both of those Census Block Groups. If there are 21 workers and 6 take transit, the average looks high.

  4. If you map poverty in Los Angeles County you’ll find that the corresponding transit usage rates make more sense.

    Its a cost issue, not a density issue. Cars are expensive and transit is comparatively inexpensive.

    What is more useful in mapping transit ridership is a. patron contentedness with usage and b. the ratio between distance travelled and time taken to get there.

    Those factors are where older cities with their higher densities blow LA out of the water.

  5. These are interesting maps showing the share of commuters utilizing public transportation. More interestingly, what are the starting and end points of their commute? For that we need to see (1) an employment density map and (2) a map showing share of residents in a track who use public transportation.

  6. @ds
    An important thing to keep in mind is that LA still does not have a well developed transit network yet, which is probably the second if not first factor in transit use besides area density. Although the LA metro area may not be as dense, I think the biggest reason is that there simply is not enough connectivity because the level of service (as opposed to just simply the presence of it) is not up to the standards that many other areas are. Therefore many people do not see transit as a viable option because its not attractive to enough of them. Transit has to work well for it to be successful (no really?). Metro has a problem of fragmented routes that don’t always interface well with each other and don’t really come across as having a true systems approach. You have to have a good level of service for more people to use it. That means speed, frequency, user friendliness, and destination points. We still struggle with all four. Because our area is not a spoke and wheel type city we need to develop more of a grid type transit system. It can work, just so long as there are more lines and the level of service is improved. And that means actually building the infrastructure for it which does cost money but is going to need to be done in order for this city to sustain itself.

  7. as a person who depends on the public transportation all my life, I think LA public transportation is very terrible. Many people regardless of their income will try their best to get the cars. Without cars -> without income. I know that. It is an open secret that employers don’t like prospect employees to take public transportation.
    Many WLA residents complain about traffic in WLA, but people do have to realize WLA has the public transportation in LA (I went there all the time). I do agree compare with other cities, WLA public transportation is still terrible.
    The other issue is people commute between LA and OC county, but cars are still the best choices. People could take 460 which is not the best option (and MTA is going to cut that service further). Metrolink is the other option, but people have to go to downtown LA. Plus Metrolink is for long distance commuting (for work), and I believe it is not a dependable options. There should be better public transportation for the cities that border LA/OC.
    Will subways in WLA help to encourage more public transportation?
    I doubt
    First, how could people get around after they leave the station. Expo mentioned $350,000 shuttle services. Anyone knows that is not enough to get to many destinations in WLA that
    The other issue, how could people get to Union station. Remember metrolink does not frequently. Many Metrolink lines do not operate after 6pm. I believe many people work between 9 to 6. You figure.
    I don’t know why many of Expo/Wilshire subways bother to ask those questions. They just want to build the rail, and hope the number of cars will disappers on the street of WLA. That is not going to happen

  8. Note the correlation to density and frequency of bus (and train) services. That is, there really are no areas where there’s a lot of transit but no (or few) riders using it.

    Do people take transit in these areas because it is widely available, or is transit widely available in these areas because that’s where the people live that need it?

    Chicken or egg?

  9. @MK – there is some truth to that statement, however, that does not explain ucla, koreatown, hollywood and downtown. these happen to be areas i go frequently and i use the subway cause it is more convenient and much cheaper than parking structure rates. these areas are not poor and most of us using the subway do so for convenience and reduced cost.

  10. Santa Monica would be another good example, going along with the ones Joshua gave. The Big Blue Bus is a comprehensive mass transit system that covers the entire city and key outlying areas, has an understandable fare system (30 day cards that start on the day you first use them; cash purse options, 13-ride option) and runs frequently and they have a huge ridership. People in Santa Monica do take the bus, and it’s not just the poor folks, because mass transit has proven to be a viable option.

    New York would be another good example. You’ll find plenty of well-off people in NYC who spent $2000 or $3000 a month on their apartment rent and rely on mass transit, because it’s there for them.