A Challenge to Autopia
It’s Friday night, and my friends are having a party. It takes about 20 minutes to drive to their house, but I have recently moved to Los Angeles, and don’t have a car or much disposable income to pay for Ubers. So I opt for the L.A. Metro. I jump on a subway for half an hour and then, after misunderstanding the signage at a transfer stop, miss my bus. I wait for fifteen minutes. When the next bus pulls up at last, I fall into the stained seat. The blasting AC tries to combat the funny smell, and I’m snuggling into a scarf that I brought along for that very purpose. When I finally arrive at the party, I’m sure that I will be taking an Uber home. The whole journey was very affordable at $3.50. But it took me well over an hour.
Public transportation in Los Angeles is inefficient and unpleasant to use, and thus avoided by most who can afford to drive. In fact, people from out of town often don’t know that the city now has a fairly large transit network — comprising six rail lines with 101.5 miles of tracks and 122 bus lines serving 1,469 square miles, with a total of over 13,000 stations.1“Facts at a Glance,” L.A. Metro, updated November 2020. In many countries, the transit system is the center of urban life. In Tokyo, major hubs such as the downtown Tokyo Station are also malls, where travelers can browse the shops, pick up a tasty treat, or even get a glass of sake during their commute.2See the Tokyo Station website Tokyo Station City. In Moscow, many stations are magnificent examples of grandiose Soviet architecture, decorated with sculptures, paintings, and mosaics; an underground tour can be more impressive than an exploration of buildings on the surface.3“Everything You Should Know About Moscow Metro – From Tickets to Tour Recommendations,” Miss Tourist. In Amsterdam, the Centraal Station is a logistical marvel combining a public plaza with shops and transportation on several levels, all organized with a clear navigation system; you can quickly find your way from train to bus or tram, while grabbing a cup of coffee on the way. In Bogotá, the rapid bus system allows for quick and comfortable travel through well-designed stations and dedicated bus lanes, and it became a swift success after opening in 2000; it now connects 138 stations and conducts 69 percent of all trips through the city.4See the documentary Urbanized, directed by Gary Hustwit (2011), and the website for TransMilenio, the Bogotá system. Even here in the U.S., New Yorkers ride public transportation ubiquitously, and people of completely different classes and social statuses find places next to each other every day on crowded subway cars. As the photographer Andre Wagner puts it, “The New York City subway is this great equalizer.”5Joanna Nikas, “An Ode to Acts of Kindness on the New York City Subway,” New York Times, September 16, 2017.
For most citizens in such cities, public transportation is the primary method of getting around, and the systems thus become places where people of different walks of life come together. Los Angeles, in contrast, is an “autopia,” as Reyner Banham famously called it. I, personally, usually prefer subways as cheap and reliable transportation options (and I can catch up with some of my other tasks on the go). Moreover, as a designer, I have wondered how we might improve L.A.’s public transportation from the point of view of regular riders. Accordingly, I tried to find out how deep the problems go.
Based on the L.A. Metro On-Board Survey of Fall 2019, 57 percent of L.A. bus users and 38 percent of L.A. subway users live below the poverty line.6“On-Board Survey Results + Trend Report Fall ’19,” L.A. Metro, conducted October-November 2019. Estimated ridership as of 2019 stood at around 370.5 million annually. 7“Interactive Estimated Ridership Stats,” L.A. Metro. For comparison, in the same year, public transportation in Berlin — a city with a population four times smaller than that of greater L.A. — carried well over a billion riders.8“2019 Statistical Data,” BVG, December 31, 2019. (I have drawn on data from 2019 as the pandemic upended the use of public transportation, and data from 2020 to the present might not reflect general situations.) Driving is by definition a privilege, and so, in Los Angeles, a system that in other cities acts as an equalizer only further reinforces income inequality, marginalizing already struggling communities. This in turn worsens the image of the L.A. Metro in the eyes of users.
Online reviews tell the story: “L.A. Metro is expensive, dirty and never on time.” “The stations are very dirty.” “The buses and trains were not clean, nor did they seem safe at all.”9“Metro Rail Reviews,” Tripadvisor. Such negative perceptions of the L.A. transit system are especially prevalent among those who do not commonly ride it. One might be tempted to dismiss such reviewers as uninformed. But, unfortunately, such skepticism can be self-reinforcing in a kind of “broken windows theory” — the worse things seem in the general public view, the worse they are likely to get in reality.
These perceptions, however, do not reflect the full picture. The crime rate on the L.A. Metro in 2019 was around 3.9 crimes per million riders, which is relatively small.10Dave Sotero, “Crime down on Metro system over past five years,” L.A. Metro (February 14, 2020). The NY transit system reported 2.4 crimes per million riders in the same year, and Chicago had 10.5 in 2018.11“Transit/Bus Crime Reports,” NYPD, Archive 2019; Joe Mahr and Mary Wisniewski, “Serious crime has doubled on Chicago’s ‘L’ system, despite the CTA adding thousands of security cameras,” Chicago Tribune, September 19, 2019. The Chicago Sun-Times actually calls the L.A. Metro “a model” for the Chicago transit system in regard to their crime-prevention methods.12Editorial Board, “Running crime out of town on a rail: Chicago must curb violence on the CTA,” Chicago Sun-Times, February 25, 2020. Moreover, the very same L.A. Metro On-Board survey shows that around 85 percent of respondents felt safe at the station and on their train or bus, while 86 percent of subway users and 79 percent of bus users say that their preferred mode of transit is usually on time (within 5 minutes). These numbers are far from perfect, but definitely do not correspond to the idea of L.A. transit being completely unsafe and unreliable. Finally, the L.A. Metro costs $1.75 per trip. This is inexpensive compared to $2.75 in New York, €3.00 ($3.54) in Berlin and from 170 to 320 yen ($1.55 to $2.91) in Tokyo.
False negative perceptions, however, are not the only thing holding the L.A. transit system back. The long duration of crosstown travel, the wait for connections, and the “last-mile” problem of getting from a station or bus stop to one’s destination are all common issues that riders complain about. I wholeheartedly wanted to use the L.A. Metro regularly myself. But ultimately I bought a car — solely because of travel times. An informal poll of my friends, all of whom are non-native Angelenos, showed that the majority have had the same experience; they barely use public transportation, even though many used such systems regularly in their home cities. One friend told me that instead of taking a direct bus home at night, she used to bike the same route, as she wasn’t comfortable with the long waits. Another explained how the long walks to and from the metro make it unreasonable for him to take the train; driving is twice as fast.
These are two issues the L.A. Metro can work on: improving the actual network to provide quicker service across significant distances, and improving the perception of the metro in the public mind. Bogotá’s rapid bus system could be an interesting case study here, as it managed to noticeably shorten travel times as well as to burnish its public image. In just 20 years, TransMilenio became the most important mode of transportation in the city. This system makes use of the existing highway network and was much cheaper and quicker to construct than a subway line. Los Angeles already has two rapid bus lanes that are reminiscent of those in Bogotá: the G and J lines. Increasing the number of such routes might be a key to success. Indeed, some of this is already happening. The L.A. Metro adds new routes, stops, and modalities every year: in June 2021, for example, they launched Metro Micro — mini-bus rideshares to and from designated points, at a fare of just one dollar.13Madalyn Amato, “Need a ride? Metro Micro offers $1 rideshares across L.A.,” Los Angeles Times, June 30, 2021. A proclivity towards public transportation is also seen among design professionals — new projects often deliberately incorporate fewer parking spaces, in part because they assume a wider usage of the L.A. Metro, and in part because they hope to encourage such usage. New developments constantly sprung up around subway stations, slowly converting them into local centers. Seeing these tendencies makes me optimistic, and I hope that I can live to see a pedestrian-friendly Los Angeles.
- “Facts at a Glance,” L.A. Metro, updated November 2020.
- See the Tokyo Station website Tokyo Station City.
- “Everything You Should Know About Moscow Metro – From Tickets to Tour Recommendations,” Miss Tourist.
- See the documentary Urbanized, directed by Gary Hustwit (2011), and the website for TransMilenio, the Bogotá system.
- Joanna Nikas, “An Ode to Acts of Kindness on the New York City Subway,” New York Times, September 16, 2017.
- “On-Board Survey Results + Trend Report Fall ’19,” L.A. Metro, conducted October-November 2019.
- “Interactive Estimated Ridership Stats,” L.A. Metro.
- “2019 Statistical Data,” BVG, December 31, 2019.
- “Metro Rail Reviews,” Tripadvisor.
- Dave Sotero, “Crime down on Metro system over past five years,” L.A. Metro February 14, 2020.
- “Transit/Bus Crime Reports,” NYPD, Archive 2019; Joe Mahr and Mary Wisniewski, “Serious crime has doubled on Chicago’s ‘L’ system, despite the CTA adding thousands of security cameras,” Chicago Tribune, September 19, 2019.
- Editorial Board, “Running crime out of town on a rail: Chicago must curb violence on the CTA,” Chicago Sun-Times, February 25, 2020.
- Madalyn Amato, “Need a ride? Metro Micro offers $1 rideshares across L.A.,” Los Angeles Times, June 30, 2021.