This blog, The Pedestrian is an online guide to living in Los Angeles without a car.
So, you've decided to try being a pedestrian in LA.
Congratulations! Making that choice is arguably the hardest step.
The first thing you need to know about voluntarily giving up car ownership in LA is that a lot of people you know will probably think you’re insane. Don’t let it bring you down. Remember, as a rebel without a car, you’re locking horns with decades of vehicle ownership culture that most Angelenos seldom scrutinize. Some people will say that you’re making an irresponsible choice. (“How will you get to work or buy for food?!”) Others may call your lifestyle naive and idealistic. But when you start showing up for work gatherings or parties early - thanks to skipping the traffic by walking or Metro-ing - and once you’ve got some quotable metrics to illustrate how much money you’re saving each month, believe me, you’ll have the last laugh.
Now, assuming you’re still gung-ho about leading a car-less existence here, it’s time to look at exactly what transit options the City of Los Angeles offers to residents without wheels. (We’ll also cover what’s not offered.) This transit "menu" will give you a realistic and graspable idea of how you might find yourself getting to various destinations around LA.
What could be more elemental and essential to pedestrians than a safe space in which to walk?
Sidewalks are not necessarily a given in American cities. Many of our urban areas were consciously designed for driving: Austin, Columbus, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Phoenix are notable examples. LA is different. While the main arteries of LA are freeways, most of the residential streets themselves are highly walkable. In fact, the amount of sidewalk here surpasses the LA's total street mileage. There are currently more than 10,000 miles of sidewalk here for your walking pleasure, compared to 6,500 total miles of centerline streets.
You can count on finding most of this sidewalk in grid-shaped neighborhoods, business districts, and around parks and public green spaces. However, the wealthier enclaves such as the Hollywood hills and Pacific Palisades are tough for walking. The thing about sidewalks is that unlike communities which mostly consist of gated mansions, sidewalks are inherently egalitarian. My advice: stick to where you're welcomed.
Weird as it might sound, a lot of people, within and without, have ]no idea that there’s a functioning subway here. But the LA Metro is one of this city’s best kept secrets.
The system is comprised of six rail lines that serve a total area of 105 miles, starting as early as 4:10 AM and running well after midnight, with later service on Saturdays and Sundays. Most of the time, the trains are punctual and clean. Downtown, Hollywood, LAX, Pasadena, Culver City, and Compton are among the areas one can access by riding the Metro. The system’s newest line, the Expo Line, allows you to travel from the middle of Downtown to the beach at Santa Monica in less than an hour. Take it from me: you will rarely ever get that lucky driving that route, especially during the weekend.
So how much does it cost? The good news is that the LA Metro is not like San Francisco’s BART, which charges riders based on their origin point and destination. Taking the LA Metro costs a flat $1.75 for each ride. Weekly passes go for $25 and month passes are a cool $100. For local pedestrians, I recommend investing a pass. Not only do those passes give you unlimited Metro access, but they also work on the local buses, which we’ll get into after this section.
For years, the LA Metro uses an honor system for tickets and passes. Meaning, you could enter the station and board a train without paying your fare. The city has begun to transition away from this and install access gates, but some stations will allow you to enter without a valid fare. Don't do it. If a roaming ticket inspector catches you, you’ll be subject to a $250 fine and 48 hours of community service. And as a seasoned LA Metro rider, I can attest that the ticket inspectors are out there, and they’re tough. In fact, I watched a delinquent rider get busted on the Red Line two nights ago. You do not want to be that guy.
Where the subway ends, the bus offers salvation. This is especially true in LA, which way too vast to be fully serviced by the current subway system. But the buses, which are also operated by LA Metro, come pretty damn close to filling the gaps between the subway lines.
A single bus ride is $1.75, just like the subway. If you have a Metro pass, it will get you onto any bus except for a specialized Express route, which will cost $2.50. Wherever your destination may be, there’s probably a bus that can get you there. That said, taking the bus in LA is an experience that will vary greatly, depending on where you board, where you’re going, and how bad the traffic is. Unlike the train, the buses here are vulnerable to auto congestion, and are often late. This alone makes transferring from one bus to another a dubious prospect that I recommend avoiding altogether. It also means that apps such as Google Transit are not very useful for timing your trip, as the buses will often run behind or ahead of schedule, and you'll miss your connection.
Of course, this is the case with many cities, and just as LA is no exception, the bus is best treated like most city buses: a necessary and serviceable resource that you should nonetheless skip taking whenever possible.
The towns and suburbs that surround LA seem to go on forever. (Seriously, try driving through one: you’ll feel the vastness of the universe.) You can access many of these communities by taking the Metrolink commuter rail.
Metrolink offers seven regional lines, all of which depart from Union Station. There are 59 stations within the system and the most far-flung destination is Fontana, a whopping 50 miles from Downtown LA. Delays are a rarity and the trains usually run within the parameters of their schedule. You won’t find leather-bound berths or a gourmet snack cart on board, but the trains are pleasingly maintained: even the train car bathrooms, usually a testament to humanity’s penchant for evil, are sufficiently clean here.
You can purchase Metrolink tickets from machines at Union Station, or by using Metrolink's new app. However, conductors can't sell you a ticket, so don't board any train without one. If you get caught, only the milk of human kindness will spare you from a fine. And rather ominously, Metrolink doesn't disclose the specific dollar value of this fine on their website, so you're best off being a law-abiding rider.
Uber and Lyft are as controversial as they are convenient. Their reliance upon independent contractors and their apparent disregard for industry regulation have prompted several European cities to ban them from operating locally. A handful of American cities, such as Portland, Oregon, have made similar efforts.
But in LA, app-based ride share providers are allowed to operate with free reign. Between Uber and Lyft, there thousands of drivers operating here. For now, regardless of how you might feel about ethical behavior here - particularly Uber's surge-pricing practices - these companies offer an essential resource for LA residents who don't own vehicles. That said, there's a disturbing reason why Uber and Lyft haven't completely squashed the local taxicab industry, and that's what we'll cover last...
Like most major cities, LA has taxis that have been trawling the streets for decades. But you wouldn't know it unless you spend a lot of time in the one area of LA that's more or less forsaken by Uber and Lyft. That area is South LA, and it's the one place where taxicabs are still doing swift business.
All I'll offer here is that Uber, Lyft, and other companies that belong to the user-generated "sharing economy" have been battling constant accusations that their business model allows contractors to discriminate against customers in ways that would be criminal for a regular business. Now, remember that the majority of South LA residents are not white, and consider the implication here. There may not be enough hard evidence to make a legal case that ride share companies refuse to serve Americans of color, but decades of US history - not to mention, the climate of this year's presidential election - suggest that this is the case. Thus, the taxi industry is still necessary for LA pedestrians, especially those who don't have the luxury of white privilege. This bleak reality is a reminder that for all the progress LA has made as a metro area, there's still a long way to go.
Now that you know what you'll have to work with, as an LA pedestrian, it's time for you to get out here...