Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Transit in LA: Getting around LA without a Car

Los Angeles is known for being an autocentric city, but what happens if you decide not to rent a car? I did just that and I'm happy to report that the transit investments in Los Angeles have paid off and that having a car, while still convenient, is no longer mandatory. Transit in LA, at least for everywhere that I went, was a robust and accessible system that let me put more money to my trip instead of into the tank of a car (which is a lot because a gallon of gas is $4 to $6 right now in Los Angeles).

The map above is the full system map, with every bus and train listed. There really is a bus going everywhere, even if it's not very frequent. Within this network is another network of just those lines that run every 15 minutes or less. The dark red lines are for the "Metro Rapid" service, while the yellow lines are for "Metro Local", both of which are bus based services. The difference is that the "Metro Rapid" lines stop at fewer bus stops along the way, making them express buses.

Also visible on the map below are the heavy rail components of the system. The bright red, purple, and turquoise lines. These are traditional subways for the red and purple lines and modern light rail running on the surface for the turquoise line (which is actually the newly opened expo line that will one day reach Santa Monica). The slim green lines are buses that are operated by other municipal agencies, in this case the Big Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus and Rapid Service). In total, there are 44 additional transit agencies that are represented on their main system map.

After the break, we'll get into a nitty-gritty overview of the system and show off the newest pieces of my transit pass collection.

The bulk of transit in Los Angeles is based on bus service. Above, we have one of the "Metro Rapid" buses, which are usually articulated and always painted red to brand them as part of the faster, long distance service. Local buses, in contrast are always orange and tend to what we consider standard sized buses.

The buses are pretty new and much better than the buses I remember from a decade ago (which were hot, uncomfortable, and generally bad). Passengers are a mix of LA and there's also a "Transit TV" on board. It's a small screen towards the front of the bus which shows basic news information combined with some very basic trivia and lessons targeted towards English learners.

Los Angeles also has BRT branded buses that they refer to as "Metro Liners". On the map, these appear as the silver line and orange line on the standard map. BRT, or Bus Rapid Transit, is a less expensive alternative to light rail that is design to feel like rail as much as possible while using buses. There are pros and cons to using BRT as a solution, but BRT is less expensive than light rail and provides a higher level of service compared to express buses when done right. Above is an example of one of the orange line stations, while below is the silver line in action in front of the convention center.

For the rail component, Los Angeles has both heavy rail and light rail. The difference between the two is mainly capacity, speed, and the spacing of stations. The red and purple lines are heavy rail while the rest of the system is light rail. You can watch the history of the system being built over 20 years on the LA Metro website here. Overall, the trains are comfortable, air conditioned (like the buses), and easy to use.

Finally, on top of the Los Angeles Metro run buses and trains, most of the cities and even some organizations have regular buses and transit running. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation runs a system of buses called "Dash" buses. They cost $0.50 per ride and are smaller, older buses that run on compressed natural gas. The driver we spoke to said that they were getting new buses soon, but so far there were only a handful out on the streets. These buses serve as circulator buses in the downtown and neighboring areas.

Below are two final examples of transit in Los Angeles: The Burbank Bus and the Metro Link, which is commuter rail that serves the more distant commuting communities.

Finally, we have the transit pass for Los Angeles. The tap card is an RFID based transit pass that can do both stored value and time limited passes. Day passes can be purchased on the bus itself, but require you to have a card first. Otherwise, a 7 day pass is $20 and a 30 day pass is $75. The card itself is $2 (which I maintain is one of the cheapest souvenirs you can buy). For the Metro Link, it's still a paper ticket as seen at the end, but one really interesting thing is that Los Angeles still has old fashioned metal transit tokens. I can't imagine that these will be around much longer, so if you're in to exonumia snap up them now.

There you have it. Buses, more buses, bus rapid transit, light rail, heavy rail, circulator buses, and commuter rail. Los Angeles has come a long way in the past 20 years and it really is easy to get around with all of the different services layers on top of each other. I found that I didn't need a car while there and by going transit, I ended up spending $30 on transportation for 6 days instead of $200 for a rental (not including gas and parking). In my next post, I'll show you want I did with the extra $170 which also includes a tour of several skybars in Los Angeles.

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