Is getting around L.A. without a car easier than it was a decade ago?

10 years ago there was no Gold Line.

10 years ago there was no Gold Line.

I stumbled upon an article from the travel section in the UK paper The Independent, dated April 29, 2001, entitled Los Angeles without a car.

In the article London based writer Jenifer Duncan recounts a visit to Los Angeles without a car despite warnings against doing so from nearly every travel guide she consulted.

A non-driver for her entire life, it only took one visit to L.A. without a car for Jenifer to sign up for driving lessons and leave her European transit-oriented lifestyle behind. The combination of the sprawling landscape, long bus trips (Brentwood to Huntington Gardens in 2.5 hours) and lackluster taxi service led her to this conclusion in April of 2001: “Yes it is possible to survive in LA without a car, but it is certainly not desirable.”

Fast forward ten years. Since 2001 Metro has added another 20 miles of light rail to the system with the opening of the Gold Line to Pasadena (2003) and the Gold Line Eastside Extension (2006). The Orange Line opened in 2005 and brought 14 miles of exclusive bus rapid transit to the San Fernando Valley. Metro Rapid grew from a four line pilot program to a full fledged system. Technology innovations like TAP card and real-time bus arrivals have been implemented to make the system more user friendly.

On the taxi front, it’s safe to say that L.A. still doesn’t have a vibrant taxi culture, but progress has been made. The Hail-A-Taxi pilot program has made it possible to hail a cab from the street in downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood – although there’s no guarantee it will be easy to find a cab to hail.

On thing that seems to remain the same: L.A.’s car-oriented sprawl. The article describes it perfectly:

Unlike Britain, with its clearly allocated shopping areas, LA’s shops were often spread out all over the place, sometimes miles from one another. A supermarket may be miles from a post office, a specialist food or boutique situated in a no man’s land beside a freeway. Tourist attractions, theatres, galleries ­ all were miles apart. Even the supermarket next door to our apartment was a long walk.

But there are signs that may be changing as well. Downtown L.A. has certainly blossomed in the last decade, transforming from a no-man’s land to home of some of L.A.’s best restaurants, nightlife and loft living. The city center even had its first grocery store open in 2007. Hollywood too has seen a mixed-use, transit-oriented revitalization with residences, shopping, nightlife and hotels all popping in up within walking distance.

Sure, it still takes two and half hours to get from Brentwood to Huntington Gardens, but to be fair, that’s a 26 mile trip. If you were to travel without a car from Westminster in Central London to Windsor Great Park, 26 miles away, the trip would also take over two hours and require several transfers.

So is it easier to navigate L.A. without a car than it was a decade ago? I’d say yes, but where you choose to live (or vacation) makes a big difference. A bigger question might be how will L.A. look in another decade? The passage of Measure R in 2008 means a lot more transit is on it’s way – the Westside Subway alone could knock an hour off that Brentwood to Huntington Gardens trip.

Plus, the hope of accelerating Measure R projects through the 30/10 Initiative/America Fast Forward could mean that by 2021, immigrating Europeans won’t feel the need to succumb to driving lessons.

27 replies

  1. Yes, but at the same time many people have also begun NOT to take public transit as well due to their non-sensical flat rate pay-per-boarding system.

    Just as there are more people leaving their cars to public transit for longer distances, there are also those who initially tried out public transit, saw that it was too expensive and unreliable for shorter distances.

    What Metro has done during the past decade is eliminate transfers, change to a pay-per-ride system, and alienate short distance transit riders away from public transit.

    The effect that we see today is the loss of ridership from the short distance rider market where they have begun to seek alternate methods like bicycling, or investing $250 on a motorcycle safety course to get around the city on a 70-100 MPG scooter/motorcycle .

    I imagine that trend will continue as fares will have to inevitably be raised as transit expands.

    Just wait until we have to go to $2.00 and more per ride fares. More and more people will just ride scooters and motorcycles as it has been the trend across America, and Metro will be scratching their heads why transit ridership is decreasing.

    It used to be cost of driving a car vs paying for “cheap” public transit. Times are changing where it’s now cost of driving a motorcycle/scooter vs paying for “expensive” public transit.

    With Metro starting now to compete with more fuel efficient and more convenient scooters and motorcycles, it’s still going to be a no-win game for Metro under the pay per ride flat rate model.

  2. I’ve convinced people to try trains/ transit more often on the basis of the Gold Line from Union Station to Little Tokyo, a route that wasn’t there in 2001.

    And that’s without the Regional Connector, which will make getting there even easier.

    We still have improvements to make, but TAP and more rail lines will make things even better in the future.

  3. I think it is easier than it used to be. But for it to work, you have to cooperate with it by structuring your life accordingly.

    I choose to live in a walkable neighborhood with nearly every amenity I need in walking distance, accessible to multiple regular bus lines, with rail service one-seat away.

  4. Great post, Fred. By the way, the eastside extension of the Gold Line opened in 2009, not 2006. That would’ve been great if it did but no, it happened in 2009.

  5. I am a “discretionary rider” of the Metro System (I have a car and don’t use it when possible.) I commute to business meetings all over Los Angeles from my home in Sherman Oaks. Getting to a meeting downtown is much easier now with the Orange and Red Lines than before. Even getting to Westwood is OK via the 761. Both trips take about an hour from the Orange Line Van Nuys Station where I park my car. Unfortunately, it can also take an hour (or more!) from there to get to a meeting in Encino or Northridge or Glendale. And the buses continue to be erratic and unreliable in their scheduled stops. We are better off than ten years ago, but not that much better off. The delays and unpredictability of the bus lines continue to frustrate me as a discretionary rider, and I believe this does nothing for getting more drivers off the road. My two cents’ worth….

  6. Metro’s projects are certainly helping those of us without a car, thank you!

    But I think a larger obstacle to getting drivers off the road is rethinking our car-centric built environment.

    A lot of our neighborhoods are not pleasant to walk around… the skinny/cracked/missing sidewalks, the unpainted/removed crosswalks, the crazy speed limits, the endless curb cuts, traffic lights synced for cars at the expense of pedestrian crossings, the lack of seating/lighting/public space in general, all of the superfluous parking structures and surface lots sitting half empty and wasting valuable urban space, fortress building facades and insular shopping destinations — I don’t see LA ever becoming a truly transit friendly city until a lot of these issues (LADOT? City Planning?) are addressed and our neighborhoods evolve into nicer, safer and more convenient place to simply go for a walk.

  7. I’ll be the first to say that Los Angeles is all the better for being car-light or car-less now than it was 10 years ago. Yes, Gold Line, Orange Line, Eastside Extension, Silver Line, Metro Rapid routes, a much improved MetroLink, and Expo Line (hopefully maybe this year) have dramatically transformed the landscape of Los Angeles in a big way pushing out to further reaching areas with the near or the same familiar high quality and frequent service that the Blue and Red Lines have been offering for the better part of 20 years and it will only keep getting better with extensions to existing lines and the continual development of transit-oriented developments and transit villages from the embrace of new smart growth in the same old places. In short, mass transit may have always been possible with slow buses replacing slow streetcars, but in the last 20 years we’ve gained a rapid transit system of fast, frequent, and increasingly friendlier (ex.: Google Transit, NextTrip) multi-modes of transport. Los Angeles is looking more and more like a mature, integrated metropolitan area with each passing decade.

  8. If you’re poor and/or transit dependent, I think service is better. If you’re middle-class or higher income and you don’t live or work in the inner city/ghetto/barrio, than service is less than it was. Of course, this is why traffic on the freeways is more than it has ever been.

  9. @IT Guy In Irvine: I’d have to disagree, the ridership trends show that ridership on LA Metro and many of the municipal buses are trending up as of late.

    By the time Metro to goes to a $2.00 fare someone will have to have realized the value-add of a 2 hour transfer with fare in a single direction (similar to San Francisco, for example) or they would lose that discretionary short trip bus rider you describe.

    I also work in Irvine as an IT professional, I do own a car, I have a nice bike, and I also have a MetroLink EZ Pass. I trek from West Los Angeles on a Rapid bus to Union Station and board a MetroLink train to Irvine every weekday morning, I have to say the commute (1h 25m) works for me (sleeping or working on the train) and I it’s far more desirable than driving 2 hours+ on the 405 and it will actually improve in the near future with Expo Line factored in. I’m all for the bike craze sweeping across America, I’m sold on it and a part of it too, but riding my bike to work (which I’ve done locally) doesn’t work for me on the long haul without showing up doused in perspiration.

  10. Dan makes a good point. The biggest difference you can make about transit in LA is to live in a place that is transit (and walk/bike) friendly. If you decide to live on the hill in Brentwood or in a cul-de-sac in Northridge (these are just examples… I have nothing against either place), don’t expect easy transit to come to you… ever.

  11. Certainly Metro has improved coverage with the aforementioned rail and rapid additions, however they still need to do better in better scheduling and more frequent service. Seems like every article published has a comment about distance based fares, but I am happy with the fixed fare system. I am willing to pay higher for short fares knowing I can also go to Long Beach or Pasadena for the same rate. The simplicity in the system along with improved TAP goes a long way in my book.

  12. @the dude abides

    I hope that you recall your words once we start seeing fare hikes to $2.00 or more, or when sales tax have to be increased to 15% here in LA.

    Everybody has a limit.

  13. Its a little bit easier due to increased coverage from the gold line as well as the orange line bus. The street buses are also slightly improved to the presence of limited stop buses (“rapid” buses) on key corridors however frequency is still a huge issue with local buses (often having 30 minute to 1 hour headways).

    Metrolink still suffers from abysmal frequencies and end-of-service times. The San Bernardino line is somewhat better than the rest due to halfway sensible frequencies but it could still be much better, especially on weekends (think Caltrain, Metra, LIRR, and Metro North).

    So while coverage improved, much of that coverage did not improve in terms of rapid transit. In other words its still very hard to get around LA on transit without it being encumbered by street traffic, save the gold line and the orange line bus (and of course the other rail lines. While the orange line bus has many problems (no signal priority/preemption, the fact that its a bus pretending to be a train, non level boarding, capacity issues) and the eastside gold line also having the same signal problems, they at least are separate from traffic. So the two biggest factors that can make LA more car-lite are vastly improving bus and metrolink frequencies and adding more rapid transit options (rail preferably grade separated but if not it needs to have signal preemption).

  14. Excellent analysis of the rapid transit situation. I am flabbergasted to learn that the ersatz orange line doesn’t have signal preemption. And disappointed that valley voters presumably with memories of noisy new york city subways managed to defeat a genuine rail line. One other scheduling problem: I was about to take the very comfortable Amtrak to San Diego only to discover they substitute buses on Sunday. We drove. Avoid Amtrak buses at all costs.

  15. There is much more mobility along certain corridors, but sometimes i feel i need a car. I feel this in the late evening when the bus i used to connect to the gold line (Hilly region, 30 minute walk) ends its run. Not to mention the frequency at night (and for that matter the low 45 minute frequency doing the day). I always though why their could be “sweeper” trains after midnight that would run through every once in a while throughout the night, like after the bars close or at least after midnight. The owl service is always still very disorganized and unclear.

    Though despite the gaps i personally feel between me and my closest Gold Line Station at night, mobility is better overall. I feel i can bike in more places, and go more places via rail.

  16. The zenith of the LA bus system was probably 2003 for the suburbs, and 2008 for the urban core. Starting in 2003 Governance Councils started popping in and slashing a lot of the suburban service. Lines that served the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Manhattan Beach, the San Gabriel Valley, and Southeast Los Angeles County started getting slashed. In 2008, the Consent Decree expired and buses in the urban core started getting cut, with the double whammy of the economy dropping ridership and tax revenue. There’s more rail, but many routes that 10 years ago had a bus every 10 or 15 minutes are now down to 20 or even 30 during the midday and weekends. Evening service, in particular, is much worse in Los Angeles than in most other major services. You can count the number of bus corridors with 20 minute or less service after 8 pm on one hand. By contrast the busy lines in New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco don’t drop off from 10 minute service to half hourly or worse until the last two or three trips of the night.

    LA’s bus system is still primarily a work based system. To really live without a car you need a lot of night and weekend service, even if it is underused. The rail network has it right by not dropping below every 20 minutes, but the bus network needs to do the same. The Silver Line should be treating like a rail line and not run hourly after 9 pm. Rapids on streets like Vermont, Venice, Pico, and Van Nuys Boulevard need to run like rail – every 10-15 minutes during day, but no worse than every 20 at night.

  17. It isn’t any easier in Torrance. The bike racks have helped in non-rush hour situations (but availability is too undependable to base one’s commute on). Slashing the routes using the Harbor Fwy transitway made no sense and it’s so tough for me to figure out practical bike/bus/bike commute routes around greater LA, as someone who doesn’t own a car. This is especially true for weekends and late nights.

    If we ever get an actual train, not a “Silver Line” wannabe, and it runs somewhere besides the poorly sited Artesia Transit center, then getting around L.A. without a car would actually be easier for me.

  18. @calwatch

    “To really live without a car you need a lot of night and weekend service, even if it is underused”

    The question is, how much will you be willing to pay for that service. Nothing is free in this world.

    In order for Metro to provide that service, we have to pony up more by means of either higher taxes or higher fares. But everyone has a limit to how much taxes or how much more in fares they are willing to pay.

    We’re already seeing increasing number of frustrated Angelinos on this board who are getting sick and tired of taxes and the amount they pay for public transportation in this city. I imagine things will get worse as the economy continues to worsen.

  19. @ Gary Trudeau

    How about we stop making the conversation about paying for metro with higher taxes or higher fares. They are other means to increase tranist ridership and service without having to resort to either of those options.

    Yet this would require putting pressure on institutions outside of metro, like the city of los angeles for example. If the city would allow to developers to create high density housing along transit corridors without parking minimums it would reduce the cost of building new housing for developers and would lead to cheaper housing prices for consumers. By having people live in more compact spaces transit becomes a much more appealing as a means to get around.

    This is the reason why the transit ridership in downtown la is at 40% versus the city as a whole which is at 10%

  20. Actually MTA always likes to compare their fares to New York, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco, all of whom have fares in the $2 range. You could help the distance based fares people by having a base fare of $2.25 valid for two hours, while using the TAP to have a short distance fare of 50 cents or 75 cents a mile (requiring tapping in and out). Raise the monthly pass and weekly pass slightly to the $85 and $25 level respectively. I don’t have a problem with fare increases as long as they go somewhere that the public sees, and not to higher wages for employees or rail extensions to nowhere.

  21. @calwatch

    The flaw in your idea is that it doesn’t consider politics into play.

    Morality issues aside, public transit is mainly a political issue for those in office to continue to be elected by gathering support from those that rely on it the most: the economically disadvantaged.

    Hence, moving to a distance model from the start with a base fare of $2.25 with an incremental increase of $0.50 per mile would spell a nail in the coffin for re-election for local politicians who want the support of lower income riders who travel over longer distances. But, it is also true that low flat rate fares cannot be sustained much longer in a city/county as big as Los Angeles.

    With that in mind, I still say the best approach that would get our elected officials to agree to at least beta-test distance fares is by introducing the concept as a “$0 base fare at $0.10/mi with a cap at $1.50 for those that use TAP,” and make programming updates when everyone has gotten used to “pay less for short rides/pay more for longer rides” idea.

    We can gradually move to $2.25 base fares at $0.50-$0.75 per mi increments later with a simple software upgrade, but such a fare should not be implemented from the start.

  22. By all means. I currently have a job in the same area (Miracle Mile) where I worked another job over a decade ago. Back then, I never thought about going to work using anything else but a car.

    Today, I ride my bike for the 12-mile roundtrip commute most days and take the Metro Red/Purple lines and Metro Rapid 720 once a week.

    I still do own a car (a different one), which is used for longer-distance trips, but it stays in the driveway most of the time and has very low miles on it. I have yet to see a mechanic in the 6 years I’ve owned it.

  23. I don’t know what transit service here was like 10 years ago, as I moved here from San Diego 7 years ago. It’s hard to imagine it being any worse than it is now, though. Here in the San Gabriel Valley, the Foothill Transit buses I take are almost never on time, and are routinely late 20 to 70 minutes every day, both ways. Trips that would take less than half an hour by car turn into 2+ hr odysseys (that’s one way) because of having to wait for hours a day at a bus stop doing nothing. It would help if Foothill Transit signed up to use NexTrip like Metro recently did, so then I could at least walk away from the bus stop and do something else in the meantime instead of being glued to the curb anxiously awaiting the bus that never comes. Their customer service hotline can’t always tell me what happened to the bus or last two buses that were supposed to arrive either. Spending hours per week having to wait at the bus stop like this is driving me nuts, and is actually more stressful than the 2.5 hour commute I used to make from Azusa to UCLA on transit. Metro’s bus service seems way more reliable and frequent in comparison. I just wish I could afford to live in Metro’s service area.

  24. Send your children to school on the Metro. It saves the environment, time and money. Rethink the carpool. The bus is fun, interesting, and relaxing. It takes only a little bit longer and there is no return trip home sitting in traffic. Metro is timely and efficient!

  25. Hell to the YES its easier to get around! I’ve only been here since 2007 and due to insane parking tickets and gas prices, i ditched the car and have been TAP-ing around every since flawlessly. I live in Hollywood, work in Westwood and i sometimes take improv classes in the Valley and South Pas, I also volunteer and creat art downtown – ALL without a car. So simple, I save money on NOT having to pay car insurance (HALLELUJAH!!) and NOT paying for parking and of course, no parking tickets.

    So I have to say, its a peace of cake getting ’round thanks to google maps public transit app and the TAP card. Just had to shout it out, i’m sick of people looking like i told them i’ve the most unconceivable concept when I say “no, I don’t have a car, yes I live in LA”. Its not impossible in fact its less stress and more money in my pocket.

    🙂

  26. I’d say definitely better. I live in North O.C. and work in Downtown L.A. I have nearly round-the-clock Amtrak/Metrolink service from where I live and get around fine on the Metro system in L.A. I frequently use the system to go from Downtown to East L.A., Pasadena, Echo Park, Hollywood, Wilshire etc. Much better than when it was all bus !

    For the first time, I’d dare to say I see a “transit culture” developing in L.A. ! It’s mostly the under 30 crowd, but also for those of us “young for our age.” The willingness to ride the Metro is one of the biggest differences between my younger and older friends.

    The best thing Metro can do, besides extending rail lines, is to make the primary (Top 15-20) bus lines more like rail lines with better night and weekend frequencies. The “15 Minute Map” is the direction we should be going.