It’s Cheap and Easy to Get Around Los Angeles by Transit

You can take the extended Expo line to Santa Monica, just a couple blocks from the beach. Photo: Steven Vance
You can take the extended Expo line to Santa Monica, just a couple blocks from the beach. Photo: Steven Vance

I got home last night from a four day leisure trip in Los Angeles with a friend who was visiting the United States for the second time. He chose the City of Angels as the place for us to meet before his conference in another state. And he wanted to rent a car for the entire trip.

I convinced him that Los Angeles has sufficient transit, including bike-share and ride-hailing, so that renting a car wouldn’t be necessary and would actually be a bad idea.

(This post is a mix of a travelogue and discussion about the differences between transit in Los Angeles and Chicago.)

There are two transit options from Los Angeles International Airport. While neither is as good as having the 24-hour Blue Line to and from O’Hare airport, or Orange Line service Midway, LAX has the “Flyaway” service, which uses relatively comfortable coach buses with free Wi-Fi and power outlets. One issue is that these are low capacity buses and seats are first come, first served. A majority of the trip is spent in express lanes on the freeway but there’s some traffic downtown when the express lanes end.

The other option is to take a free shuttle bus to the nearest rail station on the Green Line, after which you have to transfer to the Blue Line to get to downtown. This route, however, takes more than an hour and a half – far too long to be convenient to the city center.

I chose to stay at a hotel two blocks from the MacArthur Park station where the Red and Purple Lines stop, and a block from major bus routes, increasing our options to move in all directions. The Red Line goes to Hollywood in the west while the Purple Line goes to Koreatown in the west; both lines head east to downtown and Union Station.

Our hotel near the McArthur Park green space had good transit access. Image: Google Maps
Our hotel near the McArthur Park green space had good transit access. Image: Google Maps

To get to Griffith Park and the Griffith Observatory, it was easy to take the Red Line to the Vermont/Santa Monica Blvd. station and then take a DASH bus, operated by the city’s transportation department, to the top of the hill for 50 cents extra.

A day pass to ride all Metro transit routes is $7. The pass cannot be used on DASH routes. I recommend buying a TAP card as soon as you can. It works the same as Ventra but it doesn’t require you to spend $5 on the card itself, like the CTA does (the CTA refunds the $5 as transit credit if you register it). The TAP, on the other hand, costs only $1. A single fare is $1.75, cheaper than the current $2 Pace bus fare, $2.25 CTA bus fare, and $2.50 ‘L’ fare, rates that kicked in on January 8.

Add some cash to your TAP card as “stored value” so that you can easily board DASH routes and routes from other operators. You can have an active day pass in use simultaneously: transit routes that can use the pass will accept that and not your stored value. Since the day pass is only $7, choosing it is really a no-brainer. And rail routes operate until 2:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, so you don’t have to end your evening early, and there are also late-night bus routes.

Some of the bus routes in Los Angeles have bus-only lanes. In fact, L.A. has nearly nine times as many miles of bus lanes as Chicago.

After hiking in the park we took a bus to Little Tokyo to have some sushi and bibimbap – at the same restaurant. When in Little Tokyo you have to walk through the pedestrian street. It’s really a privately owned outdoor mall, but it’s popular, just like real pedestrian streets in Asia and Europe.

After buying some sweet rolls we walked a few blocks east to Angel City Brewery, which has a beacon that welcomes you into the Arts District, née warehouse district. After getting a beer here we wanted to try one of the downtown bars.

My knees were sore from hiking downhill so I didn’t want to walk for 23 minutes to the bar. Lo and behold, a bike-share station was across from the brewery. The service is operated by L.A. Metro and funded by motorists paying tolls on the same express lanes the Flyaway bus uses. And it has a pay-per-ride option that worked perfectly for us in this situation. We quickly decided that we weren’t going to need a day pass on the bikes because of our plans for the next day.

Photos from Los Angeles
View of downtown Los Angeles from the Griffith Observatory, which you can hike up to or take a DASH bus. Photo: Steven Vance

A swipe of the credit card withdrew $3.50 per person and after a brisk bike ride across town we arrived at the Pershing Square docking station in about eight minutes. That’s the best time-dollar ratio that Los Angeles transportation systems had to offer at that moment!

While it was convenient to pay for a single ride at that moment, I think the price should be cheaper to encourage more use of the system. Dockless bike-share systems typically charge only $1 for a 30-minute ride, while docked systems like D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare charge $2. The L.A. Metro bike-share has the same feature of offering unlimited number of 30 minute rides for pass holders as Chicago’s Divvy network. Metro charges pass holders $1.75 for each additional 30 minutes and $3.50, again, for single rides that last longer than 30 minutes.

And instead of using credit cards all the time, it should be possible to deduct the single-ride fee from a TAP card’s stored value; there’s already an integration between TAP and the bike share, something that Ventra may have eventually offer.

People who live in Los Angeles can use their TAP cards as their member card the same way Divvy users in Chicago have a key fob. However, in my situation, it would have been nice to agree to the terms and conditions once for my TAP card and then tap it next to the bike I wanted to pay per use.

The second day we went to the Getty Center, which is not an easy trip by transit. We spent a fair amount of time on the 720 Rapid bus route; it makes fewer stops than the #20 but both use bus lanes on parts of Wilshire Blvd.

One thing that the 720 doesn’t have is all-door boarding. Allowing riders to hop on at any door would significantly diminish the time spent at bus stops. The CTA is trying this out at the Belmont Blue Line station, albeit in a non-standard and hard-to-replicate way.

A second bus, leaving from Westwood, will drop visitors off at the free tram that that takes you up the hill to the Getty Center.

As we were walking across the road from the bus stop to the tram station, we could see that the Getty doesn’t charge enough for parking: motorists were lined up on the road in both directions waiting to get into the parking lot. And this was at 2 p.m. to get to a museum that closes at 5 p.m.

We headed back into town after visiting the Getty and walked from the 720 bus on Wilshire to a happening strip mall in Koreatown on 6th St. and Alexandria Ave. This strip mall was really something else: It had free valet service, which allows for parking cars in the aisles, increasing the lot’s capacity. This was common in neighboring strip malls and ones I saw in Boyle Heights in East L.A.

Photos from Los Angeles
Cars are parked in the aisle of this strip mall with the Korean restaurant where I ate; the green hue is from accent lighting. Photo: Steven Vance

There was a hiccup getting home via transit after eating. Instead of walking a few blocks to the Purple Line station to head back to the hotel one stop away, we walked around the corner to catch the #81 bus route. Every transit app I use said it was coming in six minutes. They were all wrong. After waiting six minutes, we started walking. Then, two blocks later the bus was pulling up behind us and we jumped on and jumped off a block from our hotel – one block closer than the Purple Line could have taken us.

Pedestrian infrastructure in LA is a bit different than in Chicago. Los Angeles has many more all-way crossings than Chicago, but they also have far more beg buttons. And I noticed that people there don’t cross the street without a walk signal, even if that means they’re waiting for a second light cycle because no one pushed the beg button. What I really like at their intersections are the super wide crosswalk markings (they look about three times wider than Chicago’s), which puts the stop bar, and cars, further back from the intersection.

L.A. Metro’s bike share system allows people to pay per ride, so you don’t have to commit to paying for a day pass. Photo: LA Metro
L.A. Metro’s bike share system allows people to pay per ride, so you don’t have to commit to paying for a day pass. Photo: LA Metro

One thing you might have noticed from this travelogue is that we spent a lot of time in transit. We did, but I think the alternatives would have been worse:

  • If we rented a car we would have spent a lot of money on the rental price, gas, and parking, not to mention all of the risks involved, like getting into a crash and getting a citation. Then there’s the unproductive time looking for parking and all of the pollutants we would have contributed to the already smoggy air.
  • Taking car services everywhere. Los Angeles is a huge place and this would have been just as expensive as the first bad alternative. I took a car service once because I needed to get to Highland Park to the hotel so I could arrive to meet my friend when he arrived.

The total cost of traveling per person included $21 for three 1-day passes, a $3.50 trip by bike, and a roundtrip on the Flyaway for $9.75 each – or about $44. (On the fourth day I was by myself and I bought a day pass to ride the bike share.)

On buses and trains you can look out the window, and chat and enjoy each other’s company without the stress of driving. It’s enjoyable, cheap, and preferable to use Los Angeles transit to get around the city for a four day trip.

  • Kevin Ngo

    I had a similar experience in LA as you did. It was definitely a challenge to traverse LA by transit compared to Chicago and New York due to the sprawl but I think renting a car would have been much worst. The traffic was so bad when I was there.

    Not sure if you got a chance to ride the Expo Line. The train was very nice but I did have a few complaints. There were times where the train was stopped to let cars cross. Apparently some cities in LA County prioritized car traffic. It was infuriating to be in a train but to have to wait for cars to pass. Totally insane!

  • The Expo line has to wait for cars at some of the grade crossings in the city of L.A. near Exposition Park/USC/Coliseum, but after it turns west I don’t think we ever had to wait for another grade crossing.

  • I don’t think it was a challenge to traverse L.A. by transit, but it took longer because of the traffic and the long distances between places.

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    I feel like the attractions the typical tourist wishes to visit in Chicago are in a fairly compact area. In LA it seems much more spread out.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    In Tokyo, just about all of the major tourist attractions are on the JR Yamanote Line, which circles the central city — very handy.

  • planetshwoop

    Does the LA Metro still allow open boarding with fare validation happening by spot-checking?

    That seems like such a warmer approach than having big ugly fare gates before you can get in. (I know there’s plenty of debate about effectiveness, but still.) It’s just a way to make it work much better for customers.

  • Kevin Ngo

    I should clarify, I stayed with family in Buena Park in Orange County. So my transit experience was a little different.

    Metronlink was a good commuter railroad system however I was really surprised that the amount of trains was so low. I remember there being like 10 trains in each direction everyday.

    OCTA had pretty good frequency for a suburban bus network. However, Orange County just has so much sprawl. I find that it would be easier to live without a car in many Chicago railroad suburbs because of greater walkeability.

    I wonder what it would be like to live car-free in LA. I imagine it would be easier than being a tourist. I don’t think locals would attempt to traverse the entirety of the county on a regular basis. I think if I lived there I would just accept that there would probably be a lot of places that I would not go to often due to the place not being easily accessible without a car. Luckily in Chicago, the places where I can’t reach easily by transit or biking are not typically places that I need to go to anyway.

  • Deni

    I was out there just about a year ago and the Metro stops seem to have all gone to barrier access now, have to TAP to get through. I had heard several years ago they had to do it to get security money from Homeland Security (like that somehow makes a transit system safer) but I don’t know for sure if that’s true.

  • Deni

    The surface lines downtown are frustrating with how they crawl those last blocks after they were so speedy getting to downtown.

    One thing that will be a big improvement is when the regional connector tunnel opens downtown, will let you take the Blue Line all the way from Long Beach in to downtown and Union Station without having to transfer to the Red/Purple.

  • They have turnstiles at some locations, including all subway stations, but not at all stations. The Gold Line station at Union Station doesn’t have turnstiles.

    I had my fare checked once during the trip, even though I was traveling between two stations with turnstiles.

  • “I imagine it would be easier than being a tourist. I don’t think locals would attempt to traverse the entirety of the county on a regular basis.”

    Yeah – my friend and I traveled 30 miles by bus on a single day.

  • Absolutely. The only ones that I can think of that aren’t on the L are in Hyde Park (Oriental and Smart museums, and the University of Chicago campus in general).

    Do tourists come and visit our forest preserves?

  • The biggest problem I ran into was that on Tuesday my flight was at 6 p.m. so I still had about seven hours to explore the city. I had luggage with nowhere to store it. Lockers were removed from Amtrak stations after 9/11, but are prominent in every German train station (there are probably lockers in a lot of other European train stations).

    I used a trick with Amtrak ticket buying and refunding to be able to pay $5 to use their luggage storage for passengers so that I could leave my bag there for five hours.

  • Urbanist Chic

    Maybe clarify that there are only two transit options to get to downtown. The Big Blue Bus is a great option to get to and from LAX from the West Side.

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    I doubt it. The Botanical Garden I assume gets a fair amount of tourists.

  • Walt Arrrrr

    Glad you enjoyed your trip to L.A. As much as I gripe about reductions in service, I must admit it is still a bargain to travel car-free around L.A.

    I think we might outshine Chicago with bus lanes because of the 18-mile Orange Line was built as a cheaper bus-only busway than a rail line. Also counted are the freeway bus lanes that are used by HOV and toll drivers. Except for a few blocks in DTLA, the 720 is the only bus route that has significant bus-only lanes on surface streets. But that is supposed to change. Eventually.

  • Richard

    The $7 day pass isn’t that great a deal. LA allows free transfers for 2 hours on the normal $1.75 single trip, so you have to really take a lot of trips to make use of the day pass.(after 4 2 hours windows the day pass starts to pay off, but not many people take that many trips in a day)

  • Carter O’Brien

    How does this comparison extend to standard rush hour commuting? I haven’t been in LA since 1994, I can’t visualize much from that trip.

  • Richard

    Really depends on where you live and where you job is. Some trips are super easy via transit, others are pretty difficult.

    Same with cars, some trips are pretty easy and are in areas with abundant free parking. Others are extremely congested and parking costs a ton.

    Traffic is much much worse than in 1994.

  • Richard

    That is really the problem with LA. The sites tourists want to see are spread all over the place, often with 25-45 miles in between. Car travel is rough even on off hours when traffic isnt that bad. There isn’t a transit mode in the world that is going to bridge those distances quickly.

    I’ve been to Chicago a few times, and outside the airport and a conference center in the extreme suburbs; I probably never got more than 3-4 miles outside the loop. I could have walked everywhere.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “There isn’t a transit mode in the world that is going to bridge those distances quickly.” Paging Elon Musk — invent that Hyperloop ASAP!

  • Courtney

    I’m really glad you had an easy experience. I think it takes some work to have a transit-friendly trip. I went out there for a concert and I used Lyft to get around. The person I was staying with drove a Prius so I did feel slightly better about riding with her but yeah.

    I agree transit allows you to sit and see the sights but I couldn’t justify spending 1.5-2 hours on transit just to GET to my destination.
    A big reason why I waited some time to visit L.A. was due to this perception transit was just non-existent. I look forward to giving transit a try on my next trip.

  • Anne A

    Good to know. I’ve made transit-only visits to many cities and definitely found some easier than others. I haven’t checked out L.A. yet but have some friends I’d like to visit there. This info is helpful.

  • Jeff Bragg

    Just for kicks, I did a test to see how long it would take to get from my home town of Redondo Beach, to something popular… Disneyland. Using only rail. 3:22 each way. Why? Because LA has an approach where all things end up in Downtown. Green Line, Blue Line, Red Line, Then Metrolink OC line. Round trip $38.50

  • MaxUtil

    If you include buses, it’s down to 1:33 and $1.75
    The rail system is heavily downtown focused. But there’s a lot of transit that isn’t.

  • Vooch

    Flyaway bus to LAX is a winner.

    I just spent 2 week vacation in Newport Beach only using car 3 times – 1 trader joe‘s run & 1 fashion island run & 1 Black tie party ; otherwise we used bikes for everything else, shopping, sightseeing, dining.

    The first few days were kinda weird waking up, horrified we didn’t have a CAR !!!!!.

    After the 3rd day we reaiized we were chillest tourists in SoCal. It was heavenly to not use a car in SoCal.

    My wife even referred to any trip requiring a car as ‚visiting the moloch‘

  • (BCT to) Green Line to 460 Disneyland Bus at Norwalk. A little more than 1.75 due to BCT and the zone fare on the 460 bus, but, yup, about 90 minutes.

  • However the air quality is better than the 1980s.

  • Which is why the Day Pass will soon not be available for sale at the bus farebox, only at TVMs.

  • Lots and lots of Municipal operators (plus those of the adjacent counties) in addition to Metro’s trains and buses make things weird in Southern California.

    Think CTA and Pace, but with a different agency for each of the suburban counties.

  • All the subway and elevated/freeway rail stations have or are getting turnstiles. There are at-grade stations where turnstiles cannot fit due to original design and fire regulations. The system will remain PoP for the forseeable future.

  • $900 beater SOVs must have priority over million-dollar, Light Rail trains with up to 600 people on board, it is written in the Bible!

  • Neil.C

    LA’s transit has some serious gaps, its only really pretty good if you are in the central basin area. South shore cities like Redondo aren’t well served.

  • Neil.C

    FYI its a bit inconvenient but there are private lockers near LAX:

    9-11 ruined everything :/

  • Neil.C

    I think the caveat to taking transit in LA is that to maximize its effectiveness you pretty much have to stay in the LA basin. There are a few gaps but generally service is pretty good in that area. There are a lot of toursity things that are transit accessible, most surprisingly to me Beverly Hills…

    Btw, when I did the Getty Center I took the Expo to Sepulveda then an uber pool up to the center, it was like $4 to do that and was like 10-15 mins vs 30 for the bus. Probably faster than the 720 to that culver route (why doesn’t Cali consolidate muni bus services like I believe the MTA did in the NYC area years ago)

  • what_eva

    Were you leaving the area of your hotel so that you couldn’t leave your bags there?

  • jodo

    Can’t wait for LA to have dockless bikeshare everywhere. I visited LA over the winter holiday and went to Long Beach from Chinatown one day. I bikeshared from the edge of Chinatown to Downtown for $3.50. The train ride from DTLA to Long Beach was $1.75. Granted the $1.75 train fare is extremely cheap but the $3.50 bikeshare fare is too high and discourages tourist and spot users. Dockless bikeshare will come on the scene sooner or later and that $3.50 price point will not compete.

  • Santa Monica has dockless bike share from Social Bicycles (now called Jump), the country’s first dockless bike share company – before dockless was even a word.

    They charge 11.6 cents per minute, which is actually a pretty convenient way to rent a bicycle. That adds up to $7 per hour. This set up means you aren’t rushing to find a dock before 30 minutes expires and get “docked” with another fee for just a 5 minute overage.

  • I’d say my friend and I were pretty chill tourists, too, riding the bus and subways.

  • Chicago is similar, actually!

    We have two airports and it can take 90 minutes for people who live on the far north side of Chicago to get to O’Hare airport, and the same amount of time to get to Midway airport, even though O’Hare is significantly closer.

  • When you are talking to a friend, as well as looking out the window of a bus or light rail train, because you love cities so much, time flies.

  • The day pass is a great deal because you don’t have to spend any time deciding how many single trips you can take before you feel you ripped yourself in *not* buying the day pass.

    If it was $10, like it is in Chicago, then I would have spent more time considering the value of it.

  • Absolutely. I think the Orange Line, and the Silver Line, count as BRT. And Chicago has only things that are near-BRT.

    L.A. has ~8-9x as many miles of bus lanes as Chicago.

  • I stayed with a friend on the last night.

  • I saw that and thought I would rather lug my bags with me than deal with that service.

  • I think the longest single-direction distance we traveled by transit was ~16 miles and that was to the Getty Center and to Santa Monica pier.

  • Richard

    Well that isn’t TOO bad.

    But if you stay longer and you want to check out the Huntington Library, the Sriacha Factory, San Pedro Sunken City etc. the distances can start to really add up.

    And that doesn’t even include Disneyland. I get a lot of questions from people who want to visit LA and are looking for a central location where they can get to Disney, 6flags, Venice, Pasadena, and Hollywood. Nothing is close to everything.

  • Neil.C

    Wish it was like Japan here where we could just simply stow our bags away right by a major train station.

  • Vooch

    dude – you rock


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