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. 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.


  2. @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.


  3. 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).


  4. 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.


  5. 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.


  6. 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.


  7. 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.


  8. @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.


  9. @ 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%


  10. 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.