Los Angeles has the best transit access in the nation? Survey says yes!

L.A.'s transit coverage. All that dark blue? Transit access.

L.A.'s transit coverage. All that dark blue? Transit access. Click for interactive map.

A study from the Brookings Institute (PDF here) reveals that Angelenos without a car have the best access to public transportation in the nation – even beating out the New York City metropolitan area. We mentioned the report last week in Thursday’s Transportation Headlines post, since then stories have popped up in the major media outlets, here’s some choice headlines and quotes:

Car-loving L.A. may actually be a public-transit paradise (L.A. Times):

The car-loving L.A region -– whose public transit system is often treated like Rodney Dangerfield — ranked second to Honolulu as offering transit-dependent residents the best access to buses and trains, according to a report by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. 

Los Angeles Public Transit Access Top Among Major Metropolitan Areas, Besting Even New York (Huffington Post):

Adie Tomer, the author of the report, said he wasn’t surprised by the findings, despite “that classic archetype L.A. residents have to deal with all the time — that L.A. is the capital of car culture.”

“The reality is, it’s also really good transit culture too when it comes to the ability to get on a bus,” Tomer said. 

Mapping The Urban Places Where No Transit Goes (Fast Company):

Some regions are worse than others. In the Atlanta area, for example, there are 37,634 people without access to a car or nearby public transportation, and only 68.5% of the population is covered by public transportation services. But in the Los Angeles area, 99.1% of residents have access to public transportation (though judging by the city’s clogged highways, it seems that not enough people take advantage of it). 


Of course, the report is not without its critics. The Huffington Post notes that the Bus Riders Union (BRU) disagree with the findings, claiming that car-free Angelenos may have access to buses but that service changes have created lines that don’t meet their needs. The BRU also cites recent fare increases as a reason to doubt L.A.’s transit accessibility.

We’d like note a few things:

Metro allocates bus service where it’s needed the most. There are 53 routes on our 15-minute map that provide that provide frequent service in addition to accessibility. It’s important to remember that service levels are not arbitrarily determined but based on ridership data and community input that Metro’s planners take into consideration when developing service.

Metro Base Fare Comparison

Metro has some of the cheapest fares in the nation.

Additionally, Metro has only raised fares three times in the last 16 years and our fares remain some of the lowest in the country despite the reach of the system. Check out these fare comparison charts from a post we made last year (at the time of the last fare increase). At $1.50 Metro’s base fare is the lowest among seven of the top transit agencies that use a flat rate. Last year, a Metro day pass cost $6 and was more affordable than day passes in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Atlanta. This summer’s day pass price drop to $5 makes Metro cheaper than Chicago ($5.75) and ties us with Portland (whose day pass rises to $5 in September).

The Brookings study brought up another interesting data point: despite L.A.’s transit accessibility, only 36% of non-vehicle households get to work in 90 minutes or less. Sounds pretty bad, right?

Well, consider this: in Los Angeles only 24% of households with vehicles get to work in 90 minutes or less. That number goes up to 29% nationwide. So it turns out transit dependent commuters in L.A. actually have better commutes than drivers.

What do you think? Does the Brookings report show that transit in L.A. isn’t as bad as it’s conventionally assumed to be, or do you feel there’s something missing from the study?

26 replies

  1. @Mospeada

    “I just don’t see $0.10 per mile as the likely out come of switching to distance based fares in LA”

    Of course not, but you have to start somewhere before moving onto fares that makes more sense.

    Like I said before, it doesn’t always have to remain $0.10/mi with a $1.50 cap forever; that can be changed with a simple software upgrade later when everyone has gotten used to the distance based fare concept.

    In the business world or the public transit world, it’s all about selling the idea so that it works. In a government funded agency like Metro, that means convincing local politicians.

    But no politician in their right mind would want to be for something that is marketed as “pay more for longer distances.” It’d be a political disaster for low income transit riders who have to travel long distances. Woops, there goes the re-election bid for that councilmember!

    But, if you market it as “pay less for shorter distances with a cap of $1.50,” it’d be a politicians’ ticket to re-election by providing low income riders to pay less for shorter distances with no one ever paying more than $1.50 as it is now.

    Keep it running like that for five years or so. Then raise the fares to $0.50/mi with $5.00 cap (or even no cap) or something with a simple software upgrade. By then people would’ve gotten used to the concept of “pay more for longer rides” and it won’t be as outrageous as raising the pay-per-ride flat fare across the board to everyone.

    You want to change the current flat rate system to distance fares, it takes steps. Introducing the concept with $0.10/mi with $1.50 cap is just the start; it’s not the goal. Later on, if the need arises, raising the fares to X cents per mile with $Y cap (or even no cap) can be easily implemented with a software upgrade.

  2. @ Y Fukuzawa

    People still use Scooters and Bicycles in Asia and Europe if im not mistaken. Isn’t it a good thing as a society for people to be moving different in different modes anyway. If the bus drivers were to go on strike people would still have options on how to get around.

    Also it was recently reported that the number of cars owned in the world passed the 1 billion number mark where the most growth took place in China a country by many standards said to have better public transit than what can be found in most of America. I guess not all transit is price conscious.


    To all the distance based fare advocates the main benefit to distance based fares is a more equitable way to get longer distance patrons to pay more and ensure the system relies on as little public subsidies as possible. This is not say it should not be sought after with all the cuts from state and federal funding transit systems need to be more self sufficient.

    But the rhetoric that suggest distance based fares makes trips cheaper for short distance patrons is a red herring. The reason distance base fares are cheap in Hong Kong, Singapore and to a lesser extent Tokyo has more to do with density than it does with the fare system. The higher the density that exist around a transit line, be it bus or rail, the more potential customers, the more demand for transit, the higher demand with supply more or less set means a lower price of costumers. Hong Kong used this strategy to great effect in building its system. http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2010/12/14/hong-kongs-expanding-metro-a-model-of-development-funded-transit/

  3. @Bob

    “Moreover, depending on what per-mile automobile cost you use…(AAA’s current cost is 54.1 cents per mile)…”

    We don’t live in just a car vs public transit world. People have other alternatives like buying a more fuel efficient hybrid vehicle, bicycling, learning how to ride a motorcycle, moped or scooter.

    Case in point: my commute is 7 miles. What are my choices? The car or public transit?

    Neither, I use a 125 cc scooter that averages anywhere from 70-80 MPG depending on how I ride it. At current fuel prices, it only costs me less than $3.50 to fill up the tank every week for my 7 mi commute to work. This is much cheaper than a Metro day pass. Even if fuel prices double to $7/gal such as in Europe, I’ll still pay less than half of a Metro weekly pass.

    I can go when I want to go when I want so I don’t have to waste time waiting for the bus. I can get around anywhere within the short 10 mi radius without using the bus which rips me off $3.00 one way for my short 7 mi commute to work.

    Now, why would I want to take a bus for a short 7 mi commute if there’s a much cheaper alternative called the scooter? Or even the bicycle? Why should I waste $3.00 on two buses for 7 miles one-way when I can pay almost the same amount to fill up my scooter A WEEK and I don’t have to waste time waiting for the bus to show up?

    You see, that is why Metro fails on their over-reliance and over-faith in the flat rate scheme whose fares are based compared against AAA (car). If it gets uneconomical to take the car, people aren’t going to get onto buses, they’ll just buy a scooter.

    And guess what? It’s already happening:

  4. @ IT Guy in Irvine

    I just don’t see $0.10 per mile as the likely out come of switching to distance based fares in LA. Even Singapore which has one of the more elaborate distance based fare systems still has a base fare of $0.71 Singapore dollars and I don’t think they have day caps like London.

    The most likely outcome of switching to distance based fares in LA would look like
    $1.50 base fare with some incremental zone or distance based fare added based on how far you go. If you add free transfers the base fare goes up. If you remove bulk discounts like Monthly, Weekly, and Day Passes the base fare would come down.

    Im highly skeptical that the number of new riders and revenue gained for charging $0.10 per mile will offset revenue lost from existing customers who used to pay $1.50 for the same short distances.

  5. @Bob Thomas

    The flaw in your logic is the black and white approach that Angelinos either have the car or public transit for all distances, so Metro makes the assumption of comparing transit against cars; hence the AAA comparison.

    To open your eyes a bit more, there are a lot more choices than just the car and bus.

    I can buy a $80 bike at Costco which costs me nothing and makes me healthier.

    I can buy a cheap Shenke scooter for under $1000 which will get me 80-100 MPG in which the cost of maintaining a scooter is much cheaper than maintaining a car.

    I can buy a Harley Davidson or a Kawaski Sports bike which even then gets 40-60 MPGs which are much more fuel efficient than most cars out there. Again, cost to maintain a motorcycle is much cheaper than a car.

    All of these “compete” with buses too, so it makes no sense at all for buses to use a AAA comparison as a defining factor to justify their fare prices.

    If you just look around a bit more, you can easily see what Angelinos are doing these days; more and more people are riding motorcycles and scooters. More of them are riding bicycles.

    All of these are sucking away at bus ridership. Why? Because from these people’s perspective, paying a rip-off price for buses for such short distances and wasting time waiting for them, they might as well just invest in a scooter, hop right on and get going at a fuel efficiency rate of 80-100 MPG (that less than 5 cents a mile)!

  6. Nate Silver of NYTimes’ 538 blog had a really good analysis of a previous Brookings Institute study that said that Modesto and Tucson had transit systems better than NYC’s.

    The conclusion here that transit riders tend to have shorter commutes seems to suffer a similar fallacy because it doesn’t take into account whether those commutes are along similar routes. Two hours in a car may get you from one side of L.A. County to another, but not anywhere as far in a Metro bus or even rail.

    The fact is that most people do what makes sense for them, which is a combination of speed, cost, and convenience. Just pointing out that transit is highly accessible and that transit trips are shorter than car trips does not equal the conclusion that L.A. is a “transit paradise.” It just further highlights the shortcomings of the study.


  7. @Mospeada

    1) Alternatively, Metro can also encourage cash value TAP by promoting a “pay cheaper for shorter rides” concept using TAP, while cash fare riders still pay a flat rate of $1.50.

    2) Getting off the bus with a tap-out process is not difficult nor does it take extra time. People go out from that exit, there’s nothing slowing down the process of tapping out as one steps off the bus.

    Besides, while people are disembarking, there are people getting on the bus at the same time. The time it takes to get people on the bus by tapping in is the same as the time people get off the bus via tapping out.

    3) A closed loop tap-in/tap-out system on the bus also enables Metro to collect real transit data to further improve their bus system. It will benefit Metro to see where they need to add more frequencies, where to focus the coordination of transfer points, and see where the major stops are where limited and express routes makes sense.

    4) Distance fares can be read both ways “pay more for longer rides” as well as “pay less for shorter rides.” But saying “paying more for longer rides” isn’t a great way to sell this from a marketing perspective. Instead, you market it from “pay less for shorter rides” perspective. It sounds better. It’s like why everyone sells at prices marked $2.99; it sounds much more cheaper than $3.00 even if it’s one cent difference.

    After you do that, get people used to the tap-in/tap-out distance based fare concept, changing the fares to from $0.10/mi with $1.50 cap to $X/mi with $Y cap is just a simple software upgrade. You have to market it as beneficial for TAP riders first (pay only $0.10/mi and pay no more than $1.50) before implementing a fare rate that makes more sense (we need to raise fares, but it’ll only be $0.50/mi and pay no more than $5.00 now). That’s much more fair than saying “screw you all, we’re charging everyone $5.00 now, deal with it.”

    The flexibility to change fares on a distance based model is more dynamic; when a fare increase is needed, riders are more willing to accept it as a fair price on each individual transit riders’ needs.

    In contrast, when jacking up fares across the board on a flat rate model, it just pisses everyone off to seek alternate methods of travel.

  8. To IT Guy in Irvine:
    Maybe your scenario doesn’t make sense … unless you add in what it costs to park at Point C in your scenario (and also possibly Point A). Moreover, depending on what per-mile automobile cost you use, even a 10 mile round trip adds up to more than the $5 Day Pass (AAA’s current cost is 54.1 cents per mile, according to Metro, which equates to $5.41). Finally, if you’re going to propose a fare that includes free transfers, then that fare is going to have to be higher for everyone, including those people who ride just one bus or train. The bottom line is still the bottom line.

  9. RE: the claim that people riding the bus have a better commute than people who drive:

    Yes, in terms of time, it appears that more bus riders than drivers get to work in under 90 minutes.

    BUT, they are probably also going a much shorter distance. 90 minutes to go, say, 10 or 15 miles on the bus vs. 90 minutes to go maybe 30 in a car. If the people who rode the bus drove, their commute would be shorter. If the people who drive rode the bus, their commute would be longer.

    This does not make the bus faster than a car.

  10. @IT in Guy in Irvine

    1) London encouraged smart card transit by overcharging non oyster card owners. Metro could do the same if they can increase the TAP card outlets.

    2) Im not sure if you ever exited a crowded bus but it takes time to move through a crowd of people. Adding tapping out will probably complicate that procedure and will slow disembarking, cash fares aside.

    3) Aside from Metro Rail, Liner and Express. Metro’s Rapid Bus Lines are a good candidate to implement distance based fares. They have a wider stop spacing, and with bus only lanes, off vehicle payment at marked Rapid stations like those on Wilshire people I think would willingly hand over extra fare for the signal priority and faster ride. Keep the flat fares for the slow moving local lines.

    4) I also don’t get where people think distance fares makes transit cheaper for short distance users. All transit operators in cities with a relatively high cost of living that have distance based fares charge more for distance with a base fare that is comparable to price like ours. The ones that are cheaper are usually in cities with a lower cost of living or cities with extremely high densities like Hong Kong.


  11. Digging into this further, another point is that transit coverage is only half the issue. The other half is job accessibility as pointed out here:


    Los Angeles ranks 24th out of 100 in the “combined access” rating. Not bad, way better than Chicago at 46th. But it should strive to be in the top 20 like other ‘transit paradises’ (NY is 13th, SF is 16th, DC is 17th and Fresno is…5th! Who knew?).

  12. @Mospeada

    Tokyo and London did away with distance fares on buses only after they built a network of rail systems from the revenue earned from distance based bus fares.

    We are nowhere near the rail network of Tokyo and London; we have neither a network of subways or overground rail system that contemplates the existing bus network.

    Disembarking passengers slowing down the bus system is a moot point; tap-out upon disembarking takes less than a half second.

    Besides, we already have passengers taking up lot of time paying for their fares with multitude of coins and wrinkly one dollar bills. In this day and age, the flat rate fare system actually slows down the process because of this because there’s no incentive for anyone to use cash value added TAP.

    These can be easily done away with a simple tap-in/tap-out system on buses using TAP on a distance fare.

  13. @ IT in Guy in Irivne

    1) Flat fare make more sense for buses than they do for rail. Bus riders on the local lines typically travel shorter distance than they do on express and rail lines so a single fare can be tailored around those travel patterns. Flat fares also speeds up bus boarding since you could implement all door boarding with TAP readers at each door and have passengers only TAP to board the bus and quickly disembark when they need to. Distance fares on Local buses will only slow them down since you’d have lines waiting to get and off busy buses creating two choke points which is one of the reason why Tokyo and London did away with distance fares on their urban bus lines.

    2) Metro Rail, Liner, and Rapids with bus only lanes are different and should be priced by distance since the off vehicle payment does not slow passenger loadings and passengers on those lines typically travel farther.

    3) All cities that have excellent public transportation system usually have excellent pedestrian and bicycle amenities as well. So those short distance riders have many options to get from point A to point B. In my opinion unless your elderly, disabled, or a child I don’t see anything wrong with expecting people to walk 1/2 mile to 1 mile or biking from 2 to 3 miles if they don’t want to pay “high” flat fare buses. During my time in the Bay Area I happily walked a mile or two to get where I wanted to go.

    One thing that does bug me is the transfer penalty. I do believe Metro should reinstate transfers either in the fare itself or as a small extra fare buying a full fare again to complete a trip seems kinda of stupid.

  14. Regarding the pricing, I also agree that Metro should switch to a higher base fare of $2 and allow for unlimited transfers for a given time period. Since Metro has a grid system that facilitates transfers, this makes sense. Most people hate transferring but as the Human Transit blog points out, it actually increases the accessibility of your system.

  15. @Bob

    Tell me what is wrong with this picture:

    A person has to travel from home at Point A to work at Point C, by transferring to another Metro Bus at a major intersection Point B. Total distance is only 5 miles.

    For 5 miles, how much does this person have to pay on current Metro fares? Or will he just drive, bike, or scoot?

    Not everyone lives in the suburbs that has a sweet deal of paying only $1.50 for a 20 mi ride to Downtown.

    There are just as many Angelinos who live in apartments within the city who have jobs within a 10 mi radius.

    Many of these people often have to make transfers to another bus, even though the distance they ride is far less than those that live out in the suburbs.

    Pricing is definitely an issue.

  16. To Whitman Lam: there are many areas that Metro can improve but price is not one of them. Two thoughts:
    1. A $5 Day Pass is the max that anyone should pay. If you buy a 30-day pass, the per-day cost is $2.50. Metro (and other agencies) offer the Rider Relief Program (http://www.metro.net/projects/rider_relief/) for low-income people and other governmental agencies provide lower-cost fares, as well.
    2. By whatever standard you use, even $5 is incredibly cost-effective transportation, considering the true cost of operating an automobile (which, of course, is much more than the gasoline you put in the tank).

    Whenever I hear people say they cannot afford Metro fares, the issues aren’t affordability; they’re basic budgeting knowledge.

  17. Metro can only promote this with a GIANT asterisk, this surgery says my median bus frequency is 5 minutes but the bus route runs at 45 minute headways (60 on weekends) which reduces access to transit for most. People on my street watch the bus go by because they stick to their cars. Im sure the low median is because of the high frequency route 20 minutes away, but this the problem. Lumping the stats together.

    Not to mention this doesn’t evening take into account early morning and late night service, which is horrendous and on the routes that are OWL, very unappealing especially when compared to MUNI OWL routes up north.

    Our rail system is growing and becoming amazing, but the bus system needs improvements. Giving better access to the rail system. Taking the worry of missing the bus, and making 45 minute headways a thing of the past. I know it takes money, but the system can’t serve more people without addressing the needs and concerns that come from exiting the car “lifestyle”

  18. This study makes sense only on the basis of where bus lines are located, but largely ignores the less than tangible aspects like the usefulness, quality, and efficiency of said services. And even in terms of the time taken, if our transit were truly stellar, we would have transit commute times be much less than car commute times. Measuring the percentage of 90 minutes or less commutes between transit users and car users does not really point to the issue properly because it does not address a direct comparison between two equivalent trips taken on either transit or car which in most cases the car still wins in terms of time taken.

    What LA lacks is a useful backbone traffic-free system, despite all the bus lines which a great number of them only run every 30 minutes or more. The presence of a transit line alone does not dictate whether it is a good public transit service. What determines that is how much or little it is subject to traffic, how close it is to points of interest, centers of activity, residential areas, or employment centers, how it connects to other lines, how frequently it runs, and the price. LA is still lacking greatly in all of those aspects.

    This study should in no way be a reassurance to anyone that transit in LA overall is useful in the way it is in many other cities and should not downplay the much, much, needed transit improvements and new transit lines that are needed to make LA transit friendly.

  19. Where are you getting this “24% of households with vehicles get to work in 90 minutes or less” numbers from? The Census Bureau clearly states that the average commute time is 28.3 minutes.

  20. Five bucks for a Day Pass is not very cheap to the average working Angeleno. You need to look at the fare price in relation to the median income of the population.

    Los Angeles is a relatively low wage city, compared to New York, Boston, or San Francisco. $5 here, would be comparable to spending $8 or $9 for a ticket over there.

  21. Just having most residents within 3/4 mile to a bus or train stop does NOT make the transit system better than all the others. There is more factors to consider.

    I live in the San Gabriel Valley, and if LA metro area had a larger train system then I would be able to travel directly to West LA (for example) on one train (however, with the Regional Connector, that would be almost possible, just need the Eastside Gold Line extended).

    Currently, though, I would have to (and had) take exactly 4 buses. One to get to El Monte Station, one to get to Downtown, one to get to West LA, and a final one to get from that major bus line to my destination (minus this one if my destination is walking distance from a Downtown-West LA bus line).

    LA have a problem, because we have light-rail where subways should be, and we have commuter rail where light-rail should be. For example in my opinion there should be a subway line to Santa Monica, Pasadena, Whittier, and Long Beach. Also there should be light-rail going to places like Pomona, Sylmar, Fullerton, Chatsworth. Anything beyond those cities should be Commuter Rail, with less stops needed because it will now only really be needed for leaving the LA urban/suburban area.

  22. We may lower fares but the fares in the other systems get you more bang for your buck. The SF muni charges a $2 fare that gets you 90 minutes of unlimited transit usage so one could make transfers without getting penalized to get to their destination. In LA if you have to make 1 transfer your fare goes up to $3.00 because you have to pay again for boarding another bus or rail line, not exactly cheap.

  23. I would ask the folks who did the study to interview anyone that moved to LA from Manhattan in New York City how convenient our public transit system really is.

    • Dairenn,

      The Brookings study didn’t just look at central Los Angeles or Manhattan in New York City… the study focused on the larger metropolitan areas.

      Fred Camino
      Contributor, The Source