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Series 11 of Entourage, circa 2015...

- Vince and the Boys catch the bus across town to meet with Ari.
- Johnny Drama gets busted for not having a ticket to ride the streetcar, resulting in a hilarious chase.
- They sell the Maserati, buy a lifetime supply of transit tickets and spend the difference on blow.
- At the end of the episode, the boys take home a throng of smoking hot ladies, on the subway.

That's the kind of PR transit needs.

Aaron M. Renn

It's well known that Los Angeles is the most dense urbanized area in the country. Even suburban areas in LA are built to much higher densities than say a Midwest or Southern sprawlburg. Parts of the city of Los Angeles are very dense.

Los Angeles has long had an extensive and well-patronized bus system. My understanding is that it is either the largest or second largest in the country in terms of ridership. So LA already has extensive transit usage on an absolute level. It is not perceived as such because for too many people, transit=rail.

Still, with its densities, it seems to me that LA would be a place where rail transit makes sense. But aren't most of the proposed lines merely surface light rail?

I'm also curious to know if you've read Jonathan E. D. Richmond's "The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles". Given your background, I thought you might find the paper's approach interesting, even if you don't agree with the conclusions:


Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

Aaron.  It's not hard to critique LA's rail planning if you presume more or less current levels of development, as Richmond did and as Ryan Snyder did in his work for the BRU last year.  But if you see LA as a city with a lot of blank space and potential to densify dramatically, in humane and livable ways, then rail makes sense.  I have no problem with the Wilshire corridor rail line but agree that in many other parts of LA, rapid bus investments can continue to grow the market.  


That's a good point about the power of the stereotype of Los Angeles as a car city. If we can make a serious investment in transit here that changes the way large numbers of people behave (and how outsiders perceive that behavior) it will be quite an inspiration.

When you cut through the stereotype and look at the reality on the ground, there are already lots of people riding transit in LA. About 11% of workers go to work on transit in the city, and that doesn't even count the legions of students, the retired, children, and the unemployed.

In the neighborhoods with the best transit, like Koreatown, you can already do a lot without a car very conveniently.


The thing is... LA really wasn't built around cars. The structure of the core city mostly developed in the 1920s, and thus predated the modern sprawlburb. It's mostly built on a grid, with commercial boulevards rather than blank-walled arterials, and the boulevards generally have four travel lanes. The dense western part of LA isn't even particularly well served by freeways, and the rush hour traffic there is horrible. And on the larger scale, I think LA has pretty much reached the point where it just doesn't make make sense to expand outwards, mostly because there's only a limited number of hours in the day, which limits the length of the feasible commute. An increasing proportion of the growth in the region will be infill, and that will make the traffic that much worse, and the subway that much more competitive.

Nick V

Los Angeles wasn't built by the car - it had the biggest trolley system (light rail) in the world before it was destroyed and finally taken out...it was over 1000 miles. That is why fixed rail transit will work again here in Los Angeles. But thanks for a great article about Los Angeles and the innovation that is taking place.

Carter R

This article was a treat to read, Jarrett!

I think it's also important to note that the reality of ever-increasing gas prices will be a huge driver of people onto transit, and people into denser and more walkable neighborhoods. Which is to say, LA won't densify merely because it can, but because rational people will have to and want to. Hopefully, all of this will positively reinforce everything that Angelenos and Villaraigosa are doing right now.

My one big concern is that the core of Los Angeles is so park-poor (I'm afraid almost to say irrevocably) that denser more urban living will dramatically suffer, unless there is a concerted (and expensive) effort to reclaim already built urban land. Parking lots would be a great place to start.

Footnote: it's worth clarifying that LA's gross open space is among the best in the country because of big swaths like the Santa Monica Mountains and Griffith Park, but it is one of the worst in the country in terms of the percentage of the population .5 miles from a park - especially so in low-income neighborhoods.

Jake Wegmann


Very nice post. (And I'm glad to be on Human Transit for my first time.) I had some similar thoughts as I was wandering around LA (mostly on foot and transit) a few days ago.

I think that another underappreciated consequence of the gridded commercial street structure that you note for LA is that there is actually an enormous amount of street-fronting retail space -- far more than in Sunbelt cities that developed later, where much more of the retail is contained in big box formats. So in many, many parts of LA there is already a street-oriented shopfront vibe. In some places it is extremely vibrant, such as along Cesar Chavez in Boyle Heights. Areas like that wouldn't be out of place in, say, Queens. In other places, the storefronts are interrupted by mini-malls or parking lots, but the basic bones of urbanism are in place. Some sensitive parking policies (i.e. not demanding too much of it), some added transit, some streetscaping, some nicely executed infill development, and voila! Many of the old 1920s strips can come back to life as pedestrian-oriented shopping streets. The same could not be said of, say, much of Phoenix.

One final thought regarding your closing point about film depictions of 21st century LA: have you seen "500 Days of Summer?" In a casual, low-key way, it shows the main characters walking and bussing around Los Angeles, admiring beautiful old buildings, and doing all of the things that are typically shown in movies set in old East Coast cities. Clearly someone was involved in making that movie who actually has a real feeling for Los Angeles the actual place, as opposed to Los Angeles the repository of shopworn cliches. ("Crash," anyone?!)



That's a good point about the power of the stereotype of Los Angeles as a car city. If we can make a serious investment in transit here that changes the way large numbers of people behave (and how outsiders perceive that behavior) it will be quite an inspiration.

Over the past 30 years Los Angeles has invested massively in transit, especially rail transit, but according to the Census Bureau transit's market share of commutes in Los Angeles has been flat at about 7%.

Mixner Spotter

Go away, Watson.


@ Watson

I'm citing the city figures and you're citing the county figures.

My own research has confirmed that, unfortunately, the LA City share of transit ridership to work has been basically flat since 1980, despite the re-creation of a basic passenger rail system (but remember, this excludes everyone who isn't a worker, who we know much less about).

I still think it's worth pressing ahead. Transit is a system. Each additional line makes all the other lines more useful. The "massive" investment we've made in transit pales in comparison to the amount LA County has contributed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 (about $30 billion according to the National Priorities Project).

We don't have a system that goes all over the city/county/region yet (Metrolink lacks frequent service), we need to densify, and we still need to build a culture that is more supportive of transit.

Alon Levy

I still think that, beyond quibbles about specific lines, the current plan is too hub-and-spoke for LA. It's too bad, because a Mexico City-style net would not have that high an extra cost: for example, the western edge of the system could be done elevated over Sepulveda and at-grade on the 405.


My own research has confirmed that, unfortunately, the LA City share of transit ridership to work has been basically flat since 1980, despite the re-creation of a basic passenger rail system

Yes. Same as with transit's share of commutes in LA county. So the "build it and they will come" hypothesis seems to be false.

I still think it's worth pressing ahead. Transit is a system. Each additional line makes all the other lines more useful.

But that hasn't increased transit's market share up to now, so I'm not sure why we should assume it is likely to do so in the future. Network effects from new lines can increase ridership on existing lines, but the new lines are likely to have lower ridership than existing ones.


@ Alon

It only looks hub-and-spoke because as a political concession, we have to build the suburban Gold line extensions. So by virtue of geography, Downtown LA end up being in the middle... But if you look at "center of gravity" for the future LA transit system, it will likely be a triangle: Westwood station (Wilshire + 405 lines); LAX station (Green + Crenshaw + 405 lines); Metrocenter (Wilshire, Red, Expo, Gold, Blue lines).

And within that triangle, you have a matrix: east-west: Wilshire, Santa Monica, Expo, Green; north-south: 405, Crenshaw, Blue


Watson: what would LA's transit market share have looked like in the absence of rail extensions? I actually don't have any idea of the answer to that, but I'd like to see some hard data that points one way or the other, perhaps by comparison to other metropolitan areas. As for network effects, the marginal utility of each new line starts to decline as you start saturating the market. I think LA is still quite far from that point, and there are at least a few lines that have not yet been built not for lack of demand but because of various politics, most notably the Wilshire line, but I think Vermont and the 405 corridor can both support fairly successful heavy rail lines as well.


Watson: what would LA's transit market share have looked like in the absence of rail extensions?

Who knows? Depends on what would have been done instead. Maybe if the tens of billions of dollars that have been spent on rail transit over the past 30 years had instead been spent to improve and expand bus services, transit's market share would have grown. In any case, my point is that actual, long-term, real-world experience in Los Angeles does not exactly lend credibility to the proposition that further expansion of its rail transit system will induce a significant shift from driving to transit.

Alon Levy

but the new lines are likely to have lower ridership than existing ones.

Says who?


Nice post. And to your last point, it's already happening:



Says who?

Kahn and Baum-Snow, for example:

Table 3 demonstrates that the number of additional commuters served on the margin decreased with new rail transit construction. That is, rail transit infrastructure in 1970 served a larger commuter population per percentage of land area covered than subsequent expansions ... We find evidence of decreasing marginal returns to new rail investments for every city that had rail transit expansions in more than one decade except Portland and perhaps Atlanta.
Justin N

Mayor Villaraigosa's current push for transit funding, along with Metro's Measure R, are truly inspiring developments in transit advocacy, and a lot of people in the local blogosphere are justifiably excited about 30/10. However, the Los Angeles metro region is quite a bit bigger than the City of LA, and the signs from the suburbs are not nearly as encouraging. Metrolink, the anemic commuter rail service that currently links the 5-county region, is working on their second round of devastating cuts. Foothill Transit, the bus provider for the San Gabriel Valley, is talking about double-digit route cuts- something like (IIRC) 12-14 routes are slated to be eliminated. Riverside's RTA and San Bernardino County's Omnitrans are both proposing their second round of cuts. Orange County's OCTA is "hoping" that new state funding will stave off further cuts, but they've already slashed a lot of their service, including all 24-hour service. In the meantime, new freeways and widenings are underway throughout the 'burbs, fuelled by ARRA funds. It's great to see LA's attitude changing, but they need to start talking to their neighbours, too.


The 1970's is approximately when light rail became the preferred mode of transit expansion instead of heavy rail, resulting in cheaper (but less effective) lines that attracted less ridership. The other problem with just looking at transit market share in LA is that there has been considerable investment in roads continuing until at least the 90s, and the rail system has been fairly slow to develop to a useful level, and the census data might be too old to show those changes (the North Hollywood extension only opened in 2000, and the Metro Rapid program started sometime around then as well). The other side of freeway construction is that new freeways induce more traffic on local streets, which degrades the quality of bus service, making the bus increasing unattractive, until you get to the current point when something like 75% of bus passengers in LA don't have a driver's license, implying that they have no choice but to take the bus, while the corresponding statistic for rail is something like 40% (I'm quoting these numbers from memory, and wouldn't be surprised if they were off).
Anyway, if you want to do rail to bus comparisons, you can compare the Blue Line to the Harbor Transitway, or to whatever RTD bus line from LA to Long Beach the Blue Line replaced.


@ Watson

"[B]ut that hasn't increased transit's market share up to now"

Like I said above, it isn't known with certainty just from the Census figures, which only deal with workers and ignore everyone else.

For example, I have been a student for most of the last several years and ridden transit hundreds, if not thousands of times in LA. The Census has never picked any of that up because the question is only about WORKERS, which are a subset of EVERYONE.


Like I said above, it isn't known with certainty just from the Census figures, which only deal with workers and ignore everyone else.

I was referring to market share of commutes. Since transit is generally at its most competitive with cars for commuting trips (because transit services tend to be most frequent, and roads most congested, during peak commuting hours), if transit has not increased its share of commutes it does not seem likely to have increased its share of total trips either. If you have data on market shares of total trips I would be interested to see it.

Jose Wong

Some other readers have already pointed this out, but Los Angeles was built mostly for streetcars, not automobiles. In many areas of the city, you'll find strange curvy intersections that are not perpendicular. If you've ever wondered why, it has nothing to do with the topography of the immediate location; rather the streets were built that way so that streetcars could make the turns more easily.

And if you've ever wondered why the city would build boulevards such as San Vicente and Huntington Drive with such a vast island of emptiness in the middle, it was not to create parks or leisure space, it was because there were originally streetcar tracks and stations in the center of the roadways in the past.

Also, traveling by rail in Los Angeles has already taken hold in the media, some people just haven't noticed. In the movie "Collateral", L.A.'s Blue Line does play a major role in the plot. The opening credits of Jimmy Kimmel Live feature footage of the Red Line subway. And even the Janet Jackson video "All For You" presents us with an animated simulation of what it may be like to one day ride that "subway to the sea".


If any form of transportation could be said to have had a major role in the plot of Collateral it's....the automobile. The bulk of the movie consists of a long taxi ride during which Jamie Foxx drives Tom Cruise to various locations around LA. The light rail appears only briefly at the end as the setting of the final shootout.

There have been hundreds of movies and TV shows set in LA, but I can't think of many scenes in which characters have been depicted using mass transit. Almost every time a character is shown traveling around the city, he's in a car. If buses and trains appear at all, they're usually just in the background. And on the rare occasions when a character is shown actually using buses or trains, he or she is usually poor, which isn't exactly an enticement to middle-class audiences.

John Bailo

"...Los Angeles is a vast constellation of dense places"

A constellation, yes. But like in one of those Carl Sagan metaphors, if West Hollywood were the size of a grapefruit, downtown would be 10 football fields away.

LA will greatly benefit from transit, but only if they are proposing, it finally recognizes the beneficial low density lifestyle and wonderful sprawl that make this city so popular.

In fact, transit is great because it allows people to spread out even more...maybe some day, LA will be just an edge city along a Linear City built between San Diego and Vancouver with high speed rail lines running east to Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver and Butte...


I agree with Justin - there are two Los Angeleses. Half of them lives in the world that Watson thinks of - the outer valleys, the South Bay, and the Gateway Cities, which have only bus and some commuter train service, with a mishmash of transit operators (woe to the person who lives in, say, Cerritos, with Long Beach, OCTA, Norwalk, MTA, and Cerritos on Wheels entering the city) to contend with, vs. the central city, where you transit market share is in double digits in places like Pico Union, Westwood, and Downtown.


Wow. Paris in Cali. Great Street Boulevards & the Transit Metropolis.

Geez...When can I move there?


Great post, thanks for this fresh perspective!


As far as films go--Who Framed Roger Rabbit? :)

One thing that I think affects public perceptions of transit in LA is that for many people who don't live there, "LA" refers to everything from Santa Ana to Grapevine, from San Bernadino to Simi Valley. In other words, the greater metropolitan area. All of the plaudits in the post which apply to the City of Los Angeles, and to various areas adjacent, definitely do NOT apply to Orange County and numerous other suburban communities which surround the city, and which were built post WWII and are heavily auto-centric. In OC, of course, the political consensus is highly hostile to transit. And of course, the #1 tourist destination in the LA area is right in the middle of Orange County, right next to the I-5 freeway, and featuring what is reportedly the world's largest parking garage.


It's like saying New York City is just Manhattan and Brooklyn, and ignoring the millions of people that live on Long Island, the sprawl of the Connecticut suburbs, or the small commuter towns in the Raritan Valley and Hudson Valley. I often consider Riverside and San Bernardino County our New Jersey - distribution centers and chemical plants, pockets of wealth (Temecula, Palm Springs) mixed in with poverty and decrepit communities, and an area with little to no media identity of its own.


Props to dr Watson for politely and provocatively making sure this doesn't become a forum for mutual admiration where wild claims go unchecked. Viva evidence based claims.

Fallopia Simms

Actually let's not start sucking "Dr. Watson"s dick just yet. Where Watson fails is by using standard commuter ridership to and from a designated and recognized workplace. IOW a place of work where one receives a paycheck and taxes are taken out of that check and where the SS# of that check is actually the borne identity of the beholder. LA has the largest undocumented population of any city over 1 million in the country. It makes no sense to sit around counting employment #'s when a significant part of the city lives and works literally in the shadows. Until we get stats that actually include our significant undocumented population that make up a SIGNIFICANT share of transit ridership in LA then citing workforce/commute #s is basically just pissing in the wind.
I'll go with my own empirical research and that says that the buses are full almost always standing room only during rush especially the Rapids in the unofficial urban core. The trains are full notably the Blue and the Red wherein which the Blue is almost always filled to the brim.
I'd also say that relying on film and television to extract a piece of the real world and reveal it to us is like relying on I Love Lucy to give us a genuine representation of life in the 1950's for an interracial couple. With that said it's been admitted by Watson that film does repeatedly show transit in LA even if it's the constantly shot Metro Orange Local in the background. When someone is walking down a street in The Bronx and an el train is shown in the background that is a subliminal reinforcement to the viewer that transit is a recognized entity in that particular setting. By the same token cars are shown constantly in film in LA but so is the bus system which is a huge part of LA street culture, only if you live in Chino or Laguna would you not know that. In addition Metro Rail has shown up and been featured in "Brothers", "Hancock" and "2012" just to name a few.
There are definitely two types of people living in Los Angeles circa 2010:
Those that are carcentric Angelenos who drive just about everywhere even when there exists good transit alternatives and are desperately out of touch with what is happening on the ground as far as transit and street culture in LA.
And those of us who may even have a car but who take transit regularly who see the ever evolving LA landscape, who see the explosion of bike/transit/pedestrian culture in LA. Who fight for better bike infrastructure, better pedestrian amenities and who don't see LA existing from Riverside to El Segundo just as you wouldn't consider NYC to exist from Poughkeepsie out to Islip. We work locally, live as close to work as possible and entertain locally or do any of the above within transit's reasonable reach.

Scott Mercer

"Viva evidence based claims."

Except, as Fallopia points out, his evidence is not complete. In addition to not counting undocumented workers, those numbers also do not trips that are not "commutes," that is, home to work or work to home. What about going to the grocery store? Taking a joyride on the weekend? Going to the movies in Hollywood on the Red Line. And hey, what about THE MASSIVE NUMBERS OF TOURISTS going to Hollywood or Universal City on a daily basis? Those people also get undercounted.


Late to the party, but I wanted to throw another hypothetical response at Watson, based on an earlier comment someone made about people mistakenly thinking transit=rail.

I'd argue that for it to really become an embedded part of the cultural landscape, transit DOES has to equate to rail. NYC would not be what it is without the subway running the show; same with Chicago and the (comparatively awful) el. There's a real psychic border between riding a train and riding a bus. I live in NYC and I'll take the subway over a bus even if it adds 30 minutes to a trip. The buses are loud, uncomfortable, jerky, and very difficult to use effectively if you don't already know where to get off, as they rarely announce stops. (Bus crowds are also "rougher," as the only reason to take the bus for the most part is if you live or commute to an area that is not served by the subway, i.e. much more likely to be poor.)

So to Watson: I think there's every reason to expect transit usage to take off in LA with a legitimately useful rail system. The middle class loves trains. Nobody likes the bus.

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