Fun with maps: Does L.A.’s size skew perceptions of transit usage?

Yesterday morning, Twitter user @LACityNerd posted a link to a map that, I think, tells a pretty interesting story about perceptions of Los Angeles, particularly regarding public transit. Here’s the map:

Image via

The notion that Los Angeles has a love affair with the car and that Angelenos don’t ride transit is a well-worn cliché. Certainly, there’s a cultural component to this perception that is rooted in L.A.’s ascendance in the 1950s and 60s, which was broadcast to the world by Hollywood.

But I’ve always suspected there was an underlying — and under-appreciated — geographical component to the perception that few Angelenos ride public transit. After all, the city of Los Angeles is big. Apparently you could fit seven-plus good-sized cities in just one L.A.

On top of that, Los Angeles’ borders include urban and high density communities, as well as very suburban and rural ones where transit service is harder to provide and less often used. That’s in contrast to other, typically older cities, where suburban communities are often in entirely different cities.

For instance, San Francisco has rightfully earned the reputation as a pretty great city for public transit. Around 30 percent of its residents take transit to work, compared to about 11 percent for the city of L.A.

But San Fran is also rather small — roughly 1/10 the land area of the city of Los Angeles. I would bet that if you punched a San Francisco–sized hole out of Los Angeles that included, say, downtown and its surrounding communities, you’d find similarly high rates of transit ridership.

For reference, a 2011 survey of downtown L.A. residents revealed that 40 percent take public transportation to work. Not too shabby.

On the other hand, because San Francisco’s borders only include the more dense, transit-rich parts of the Peninsula, its rates of transit usage aren’t averaged against the more suburban cities that surround it — like those in Marin and San Mateo Counties — where transit usage is unsurprisingly lower.

So my question to Source readers is this: Do you think L.A.’s geography affects perceptions of transit ridership? And, what other factors play into how people perceive transit ridership in Los Angeles?

24 replies

  1. There’s do doubt that L.A.’s sprawl and enormous geographic size affects public transportation ridership. It just takes so long to get anywhere, especially on buses. I like buses and I accept that buses are a vital part of the transportation system; but if you have to ride farther than 5-7 miles on a bus, your commute sucks. Rail is a much more tolerable way to travel. Rail is Cosmopolitan, buses are Third World. Harsh, but true.

  2. The map is not to scale, i just tried placing Manhattan over los angeles in photoshop and it reaches from WeHo to Manhattan Beach, and they are from the same ratio!

  3. Simple, just break Los Angeles county into 5 counties then you can show a map roughly the size of Frisco.

  4. The reason I don’t ride it more is that I really don’t like buses all that much. I got spoiled on my trips to London (and it’s outskirts) because the rail lines, both Underground and Overground, took me to within a few blocks of the destinations I needed. Here in L.A. the system isn’t large enough yet. I was telling a family member yesterday that if there was a Metro rail line that came within a few blocks of my work you know I’d be using that to get there. Or even close enough that I’d only have to ride the bus a few blocks. Also at the moment the Metro rail lines only go to three destinations of any intrest to me.

    Metro has a further problem in that some cities/people are fighting it tooth and nail so it’s taking forever to expand the system.

  5. I do think there are skewed perceptions but it should not negate the importance of expanding and improving mass transit across the region. We should expect transit access across all of LA as an end goal. I don’t think that is at all unreasonable especially since other metropolitan areas like NY and Chicago for example already do that. They have commuter or urban rail access in almost all of their neighborhoods and suburbs. So for those saying that LA should not expect transit everywhere then you are essentially saying that LA does not deserve something that many other cities have had for decades or longer transit wise. And LA needs to focus on separate-from-traffic transit because that is the best way to increase ridership in a region like ours.

  6. i have definitely seen that in vancouver, bc. while vancouver itself has very high rates of ridership, the neighboring suburbs of burnaby, surrey and new westminster aren’t ever part of the equation.

  7. Actually, the density of the city of Los Angeles (now about 7,500 people per square mile) is quite similar to the city of Oakland, which is about 7,000 per square mile (excluding “water area”). Oakland in many ways can be thought of as a “1/10 scale model” of Los Angeles. San Francisco is more than twice as dense as Los Angeles, San Jose is about 1/3 less dense than Los Angeles (around 5,000 people per square mile).

    I’m convinced that LA transit gets a bad rap in part because it’s so little used by local elites. In New York, the subway on the Upper East Side is the busiest in the city. In San Francisco, the buses from Pacific Heights to the Financial District are jammed. But LA’s elites have tended to live in relatively remote, hilly neighborhoods with necessarily limited transit service. So they say “nobody” uses transit–i.e. “none of the people I consider peers or friends.” Perthaps this will change as more affluent people move into Downtown and more urban neighborhoods of the city.

    I do think the large size of Los Angeles also contributes to confusing expectations. Nobody in the Bay Area would expect topnotch transit over the area of the city of Los Angeles (450 square miles). The city of New York is pretty large, but people understand the distinction between Manhattan and other boroughs, expecially suburban Staten Island. But it seems like some Angelenos do expect that service all over the city. The inevitable absence of it then “proves” that “transit can’t work in Los Angeles.”

    The real part of this is that Los Angeles’ employment is more dispersed than New York’s or San Francisco’s, so the system has to be developed to serve multiple destinations.

  8. To compare the service area of LA Metro (the Municipal service areas as well) to San Francisco is absurd.

    You would need to compare the services of BART, SF Muni, AC Transit, CALTRAIN and SamTrams and in their service areas to come close to useful data.

    Also why does everyone use San Francisco as a comparison metric.

    I think using the San Jose/Silicon Valley/Santa Clara County (The VTA Service area) as its land use is much more like LA County than the older more dense SF, Oakland area.

    Also, lets not forget about the work of Jarrett Walker from the Human Transit site. He alwasys makes the point the wide streets and highly grid street pattern (that was built for cars) make transit potential density easier in LA than many eastern US Cites (and certainly SF) it is just a matter of finding the right formula of budget, services levels and rail/bus service

  9. From Wikipedia:

    The mainland portion of Tokyo lies northwest of Tokyo Bay and measures about 90 km east to west and 25 km north to south.

    Los Angeles:
    The city extends for 44 miles (71 km) longitudinally and for 29 miles (47 km) latitudinally.

  10. Um, “I Want To Drive…” why make excuses? If you want to drive, do it. I lived in West LA and used transit. It’s totally doable, but not at the pace of West LA life. People expect everything instantly over there. It’s a different world.

    I’m hoping that with rail (which, of COURSE, will have local connector service to the stations… something Metro always implements with each rail line opening, and I don’t know why you expect it to be different this time), some folks will learn the value of slowing down and letting life happen. But even if they don’t, at least UCLA students, people working living-wage jobs cleaning hotel rooms in Santa Monica, and other transit-using denizens of West Los Angeles will have an easier, faster ride.

  11. Very true, we have a lot more in common with sprawling cities like London or Paris then we do with New York or San Francisco. I’d love to see the next phase of Metro rail projects (after 30/10) focus on infill corridors in the central city like Santa Monica/Sunset/Cesar Chavez, Beverly, Venice, La Brea, Vermont, Western, Alvarado, etc.

  12. The use of Manhattan and leaving out the other boroughs is misleading. NYC, with all five boroughs fills up most of that map and the public transit in NYC is better, and cheaper ($2.25 unlimited transfers). Sorry, but NYC wins on public transit over anywhere I have heard of or visited including LA.

  13. Thanks for this piece; it is something that I have always argued, that Los Angeles is really not that different from other cities in that its dense sections are well served by transit and ridership in this areas is on par with other cities.

    What I think we will see in the coming years is the densification of employment in the transit-rich areas. Looking back 40 years from now Los Angeles will look a lot like other cities, with dense cores where most people work.

  14. MTA, don’t trick people again. How many people take public transportation in WLA? How big is WLA? WLA has one of the best public transportation (next to downtown LA), and not many people take public transportation. Why? There are few good bus systems in WLA. After people get out those good buses, people still have to struggle to get around in WLA. MTA’s solution, building two railroad without even considering improving local connection. How are people going to get around once they leave station? Same problem happen again. People have difficulty taking public transportation in WLA today. After railroads are built, people will have same difficulty traveling within WLA after railroads are built. Now people are blaming on the size of LA county. Many people in WLA would love to take public transportation within WLA, but how. You either struggle with lousy bus service or drive to bus stations. After rails are built, people will drive to rail stations. Nothing changes. Other parts are in worst situation. Why? People kept using stupid excuse to skew the excuse for providing terrible public transportation

    • I want to drive,

      I’m sorry you find getting around the Westside on transit so difficult. I live close to Pico and Bundy and find the combo of Big Blue Bus and Metro to be a good way to get around. Big Blue Bus is also thinking ahead about how to improve connections to Expo Phase I and II, so I think you’re concerns about bus-rail connections are somewhat premature — although I agree it’s very important to get it right.

      Thanks for reading and commenting,

      Carter Rubin
      Writer, The Source

  15. The post makes a good point.

    Three factors (of many, probably) that I think affect perceptions of transit ridership in LA:
    – little 24-hour service means it’s not a ‘real’ city
    – because LA is so spread out, the PERCENTAGE of vehicles on the streets that are mass transit vehicles (buses) is lower than in denser cities (with the obvious exception of Downtown).
    – because LA is so spread out, and buses have to serve it, buses appear to be emptier for longer periods of time than in denser cities. This gives the perception that few people ride them.

  16. Of course geography affects perceptions of transit ridership. Bus routes are designed to service the general public, and to be accessible to as many people as possible. If I could possibly walk, ride a bike, or drive to my destination faster than the bus could take me there running its route, then I would. People use mass transit only if it works in their favor. Whether it be because its your only way to get around, its cheaper, or more convenient. There is always a necessary incentive for people to use a service. Instead of changing how mass transit is perceived, show the incentive for using the service. That is how you increase ridership…

  17. Very good point! When people like to compare superior transit cities to Los Angeles, it never quite makes sense. Of course we can learn from cities like Paris and London, but your graphic shows a very succinct point. Los Angeles is a big place.

    So the real question is how does metro efficiently use the limited resources to cover a vast area? BRU types want buses everywhere which is not cost effective whilst a majority of voters want rail. I hope there is some logical mix that can make sense an try to provide quality service county wide.

  18. Great Article and map. Keep them coming, the country will soon realize that public transit in Los Angeles is on pace to be ANOTHER fantastic aspect of this wonderful city. Go LA!