April 25, 2004

Why doesn’t Los Angeles have much of a metro?

Patrick Crozier | Rail Economics | Railways - USA

Los Angeles (I was surprised to discover) does have a metro. But at 270,000 passengers a day it’s pretty insignificant in comparison to Tokyo’s 5m, Moscow’s 9m or even London’s 2.5m.

The real surprise is that in terms of total population and population density (the things I think are the biggest single determiners of whether a railway is viable or not) Los Angeles is remarkably similar to both New York and London.

All down to the evil machinations of General Motors? [In the 1940s (?) GM bought up LA’s trams, ripped up the tracks and replaced them with buses.] Personally, I don’t much buy this argument. If a Los Angeles metro or tram system had been such a good idea someone would simply have relaid the tracks.

No, I think something else is going on here. Two possibilities: one, that subways are, in fact, a really bad idea and London and New York are simply victims of their own history; two, something else is going on. Are LA’s roads significantly wider than in other places, perhaps?

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Off the top of my head, I'd say that the main reason LA is 'behind' those other cities in subway service is because it was built in the era of the car. There wasn't a time when LA needed high mobility that there wasn't automobiles. And now they're behind the curve, and trying to get back on track. I'd also wonder if the income distribution vs. population density isn't somewhat reversed from other cities (i.e. there aren't as many high density rich residences). That's just stuff off the top of my head, tho.

I think this quote from the site linked is kinda funny tho:

"It's no wonder that more and more people are fed up with driving as they leave their cars in the garage and are riding trains in Los Angeles once again."

They must mean figuratively, because it looks like that metro system, like the one in DC, is geared more towards getting people to drive to the stations. Just a pet peeve of mine (that I've talked about before).

Posted by Highway on April 26, 2004

The current LA subway is pretty new--ground was broken only in the mid-80s and the first segment opened only in the mid-90s.

I'll point out that I think the figures are really misleading--New York City proper has 8 million people on 321 mi^2 of land and the NYC subway does not extend beyond NYC proper. The population density drops very quickly once you leave.

I believe Los Angeles County's population density is much more uniform. The subway goes from one corner to the middle, the light rail lines extend to near other edges of Los Angeles County.

Posted by Sam on April 26, 2004

I have been to LA and it does have very wide roads.

One thought occurs to me. Is LA geologically suited for a subway?

If the ground is too soft, or if it's in an earthquake zone (or both perhaps - Tokyo is in an earthquake zone and yet has a subway), then might it be possible that maintenance will just be too expensive to make the project worthwhile?

Posted by Andy Wood on April 26, 2004

I second Highway on why LA is not rail supportive. Cities that boomed in the era of road building and subsidies are extremely difficult to serve with rail. It explains the diff. between European and North American/Australian cities quite well and the stark contrast between say, the downtowns of NYC, Chicago or Montreal and their respective suburbs which developed during entirely different eras.

Posted by Jay on April 26, 2004

Patrick,
I agree there were lots of other things going on when GM et al. were closing down most of the US tram lines. Cars got cheaper and better and people got richer.
Nonetheless, it doesn't seem a fair comparison between the viability of operating an existing rail infrastructure and building a new one.
It looks like it was a pretty good step toward LA's reputation as a car dependent city.

In saying all this, I think the rail network is now picking up business quite a lot faster there than other US cities. So maybe now it is becoming viable to start rebuilding that infrastructure.

Posted by neil on April 27, 2004

LA's population density is rather low for a city, an the road system is very extensive (albeit hopelessly clogged). Along with that low density, though, there is a very distributed population with very distributed destinations. A hub-and-spoke model may work, but you'd lose so much time that driving would take over as the fastest mode of transportation. As far as I know, LA does not have a lot of reclaimed land, like San Francisco does, which is what made the 1989 earthquake particularly destructive.

Posted by Matthew :) on April 28, 2004

Damn, Patrick, have you never seen Speed? ;-)

Posted by john b on April 28, 2004

The New York City subway system is wonderful. Navigating the city is so easy by train (almost as easy and cost efficient as by bicycle). It's also far more efficient a mode of transportation than automobiles and the trains unlike the roads in NYC are paid for by those who use them not by tax payers.

Posted by Thadeaus on May 1, 2004

Last I recall the NYC subway was not self-supporting by fares--but it does have the highest percentage in the US. The only people who are paying for the roads who are not using them are those who helicopter in all their food and goods.

Come on, can't we have a balanced discussion?

We can strengthen the discussion of density and subways: New York City's subways are concentrated in Manhattan, with a population of 1.5 million and an area of 22 miles^2, about 2.7 times the density of NYC as a whole, roughly 68 thousand people per square mile.

I just got back from Los Angeles and I made a point to ride the subway once. They made the same mistake as Washington DC and San Francisco, the crush capacity of the cars is probably less than half that of NYC subway cars. However, even 4PM on Friday, at least out by the northern end of the Red line, the cars didn't even have all the seats filled. Someday, they may want the extra capacity and then what...

Posted by Sam on May 1, 2004

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