Stop Bashing LA Public Transportation

Seriously. It’s time for people to come to their senses about public transportation in Los Angeles County. Everyone in LA complains about traffic, so much that it has been a recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live. Just today an opinion piece came out blasting the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) for being too slow. The article points to that icon of entrepreneurialism and technology Elon Musk, and implies that Musk’s recent proposal to develop a completely new system of high speed transport using tunnels below the ground as the answer! The article has this zinger of a paragraph:

“But the technology is not the most interesting part of Musk’s proposal. What’s so revolutionary, in comparison to Metro, is that his plan is built around the idea of getting people to their desired destinations. The map of the system shows stops at LAX, Long Beach Airport, USC, UCLA, Dodger Stadium, the Getty Center, Staples Center and the Convention Center, as well as stops in Sherman Oaks, Santa Monica, Culver City, Inglewood, Hawthorne, Lawndale, Torrance and Carson.”

Let’s pause right there and see how exactly Musk’s plan is built around the idea of getting people to their desired destinations. Below are two pictures. On the left you have Musk’s proposed tunnel system. On the right, you have the LA Metro bus and rail system map.

I count eight individual lines on Musk’s proposed system map. EIGHT! That’s only 11 times less than the actual number of cities in LA County, but, you know, whatever — the technology is so cool! I live in Pasadena; how will I get to my desired destination, if, let’s say, I desire to go to Warner Center? Heck, if anyone desires to go anywhere east of the 110 and north of the 405.

To help compare the two, I’ve overlaid (very poorly) Musk’s proposed tunnel system onto the Metro system map. The colored lines are Musk’s proposed routes. Everything else are the Metro bus and rail lines.

Seems to me like the Metro system map gets a hell of a lot more people to a hell of a lot more destinations. Does it go from your door to the door of where you want to go? Probably not. Does it get you close enough to walk, use bike share, or catch an uber or lyft? Most likely.

To paraphrase my favorite holiday movie Goodfellas:

“That’s what [people like Elon Musk and all his superfans] could never understand [about public transportation].”

People like Elon Musk think that they can create a highly profitable business model around providing comfortable, high-speed, door-to-door transportation options. That business model is reflected in the proposed system map Musk developed. Are you a wealthy person living in Santa Monica who needs to get to a private jet at the Long Beach airport? Hop on! It will cost you a pretty penny, but hey, you’re wealthy!

Public transportation doesn’t have that luxury, as I explained in a separate post. Because Civil Rights, and because Titles VI and IX, public transportation has to be available to any person regardless of a variety of factors. Meaning, it has to be affordable, serve a variety of areas, have a regular repeatable schedule, and connect to lots of different other transport modes. You know what that results in? A system that is slow and complex.

So that is why updating Metro’s service areas (aka “bus schedules”) requires a two-year study; because it’s complicated. Another favorite phrase of mine is “nothing worth doing is easy,” and that sure is the case when contemplating how to move hundreds of thousands of people around LA County without cars.

So please stop bashing LA Metro and public transportation in LA County. Can Metro be more efficient in how they plan, build, operate, and maintain public transportation in LA County? Sure? But that reminds me of the phrase, “when you point one finger, there’s three pointing right back at you.” We can all be more efficient in one or more things that we do. It’s no reason to bash everything we do. No, it’s reason to come together and identify some core values that we all believe in. If we all believe that LA traffic sucks, and we value the ability to move around, we need to realize three things:

  1. Traffic isn’t going away (outside of some cataclysmic/apocalyptic scenarios).
  2. A robust public transportation system is necessary for our success as a region.
  3. Private industry alone won’t “solve” traffic and won’t provide the same level of public transportation.

Please stop bashing LA Public Transit. Please start thinking about what you can do to make getting around in LA a little less painful.



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Sam Morrissey

Transport enthusiast — VP, Transportation at LA28 - Past VP of Urban Movement Labs — Past lecturer at @UCLA. These are my personal posts.