Link: Does LA have a transit edge over NYC?


When it comes to the City of Angels, New Yorkers possess quite the superiority complex. Ours is a more vibrant, worldly, cultural and cosmopolitan city with a true downtown and less soul-crushing traffic than that other place on the West Coast. And forget the subways. Californians don’t even know Los Angeles has a subway!

OK, OK. Maybe that’s a bit too Center-of-the-Universe for our tastes, but still. The LA Metro, with its 350,000 daily riders, pales in comparison with New York’s century-old system. Now, with an ambitious expansion plan underway, more attention being paid to public transit in LA than ever before in the city’s history and a dedicated publicly-supported funding stream, East Coasters are left wondering if New York could learn a lesson from LA.

Earlier this week, Dana Rubinstein at Capital New York penned such a piece, and it’s worth the read for the thought-provoking aspect alone. “Of all big cities in the country, L.A. is making probably the most substantial public transportation investment,” Joshua Schank of the D.C.-based Eno Center for Transportation said to Rubinstein. “In terms of an expansion, it’s unprecedented. What they’re doing out there is incredible.”

An excerpt:

What they’re doing is building, with money they raised themselves. In 2008, the same year New York’s congestion pricing scheme died in Albany, Los Angeles voters approved Measure R, a half-cent sales tax that over the next three decades is expected to garner $40 billion for transportation. It’s the third such transit-dedicated, voter-approved sales tax passed there since 1980. Those three taxes comprise the bulk of the agency’s funding. In April of 2011, that agency’s budget included money for, “about a dozen rail lines that are either under construction or being planned,” according to the L.A. Times.

New York’s M.T.A. is expanding, too, in some targeted ways, but it’s also chronically short of money and so lacking in political support that it’s near impossible to imagine New Yorkers willingly going to a voting booth to support it with new taxes. Joe Lhota, the authority’s relatively new chairman, regularly says as much, and has made improving the M.T.A.’s reputation and shoring up its political support one of his explicit goals.

Rubinstein also explores the why of it all. She is not kind to New York’s leadership:

For one, L.A.’s political leadership is arguably focused on transit in a way that New York’s politicians aren’t, really.

Andrew Cuomo seems to view public transportation more than anything as a potential liability to be mitigated, going back a while before he actually became governor; the legislature uses the M.T.A. alternately as a whipping post and a piggy bank; Michael Bloomberg has given up on proposing enlightened transit-funding schemes that go to Albany to die; Bloomberg’s would-be successors, so far, have focused on the easy stuff. “Bloomberg’s talked about congestion pricing and then it kind of fell off the radar when it died,” said Schank.

Related: L.A.’s transportation people invest relatively heavily in P.R. “Our metro does a great job with marketing,” said Lisa Schweitzer, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy. “They have terrific advertisers and cute graphics and the whole shebang.”

From my casual eye, L.A.’s Metro has taken the failures of its East Coast compatriots to heart and has applied a few lessons to build a better organization that enjoys community support. In New York, the MTA is so entrenched in the minds of the public that it likely can’t overcome its image issues.

So has L.A. surpassed New York? They still have around 5 million daily passengers, 16 subway lines and nearly 40 stops to go. But with money flowing freely and construction progressing, perhaps the Great Freeway State can shed some of its car-centric image and teach us all a lesson about embracing transit construction in areas that sorely need it.

27 Responses to โ€œLink: Does LA have a transit edge over NYC?โ€

  1. Larry Littlefield says:

    LA can invest in new lines in part because it doesn’t have old ones. While the lifespan varies between subway cars, stations, and signal/communication/power systems, think of the average life before normal replacement is required as 50 years. The NYC subway, with a few small exceptions, was built from 1904 to 1956 (Rockaway line).

    By 1956 the IRT was falling apart. Money raised in a bond issue “for the Second Avenue Subway” was used for the start of the second generation replacement. NYC has varied between doing ongoing normal replacement, and not doing ongoing normal replacement due to debts and retroactive pension deals (leading to deterioration), ever since.

    LA may have passed a sales tax increase, but NYC’s MTA already has a host of dedicated taxes, with some of that money going to the capital plan, but much of it sucked into the past.

  2. Ed says:

    I visited Los Angeles last year, and I found it easier to get around without a car than in New York. Granted, though I covered a good deal of the city, for all I know the transportation situation in the poorer parts of eastern LA county is horrible, with busses always showing up late and breaking down all the time. But there are sizeable mass transit black holes in the five boroughs.

    Essentially, the difference is the busses. The Los Angeles transportation agency runs a mixture of express and local busses on clearly marked routes. The normal route is straight down some avenue right across the county, and the bus map forms sort of a dense grid. So once you figure this out, you can plot your route sort of cartesian style, taking a bus down one avenue say to the west, getting off, then catching another bus down another avenue to the north, and with one or two changes you reach your destination. The subway part, which is quite nice, supplements this.

    The busses move quickly, and manage not to stop every two blocks but its feasible to walk a few blocks to your destination (East Coast stereotypes about LA are really outdated) from just about every stop. If you want to see a real contrast with how busses are operated, stop in San Francisco after going to LA.

    Basically the reason New Yorkers do a double take if you give the opinion that LA has a better mass transit system, is that the New York bus system is so bad that people don’t count it as part of the mass transit system. To New Yorkers, “mass transit” means the subway. The subway part of the LA system obvious covers less ground than the New York part, though it somehow manages to get to the airport.

    Its also forgotten that in about a third of the area covered by the five boroughs, you really need a car to get around, and this is precisely the part of the city where housing costs are somewhat reasonable.

    • Larry Littlefield says:

      The buses move in Chicago also.

    • AG says:

      Ed – that is strange… I had some ppl visiting from LA last month… the 1 who was here for the first time was amazed at the transit system here.

    • AG says:

      Ed – I’m confused by a couple of things… to say that ppl only equate trains with mass transit in the NY area is a little overboard. To say the LA bus service is superior… I’m not sure by what measure. It can’t be by usage percentage of the population. There are a little over 1 million bus riders daily on the Los Angeles County bus system. The NYC bus system alone is well north of 2 million users per day. If you compare city to city – the per capita the # would be about the same. When you consider that the LA bus system is for the entire county of LA which covers an area more than 12x the size of the 5 boroughs and has 1 million more ppl – the ratio is vastly in favor of the 5 boroughs. Then when you take into account that Westchester has its own very useful Bee-Line bus system – likewise New Jersey – etc… and that ppl use express buses to commute from the Poconos (and South Jersey) into Manhattan – I think it’s more than fair to say that buses are very important to NYC proper and the metro area as a whole.

  3. Peter says:

    I’m impressed with LA’s ambitions to expand transit, but it’s never going to be a rail-centric city in the same way NYC for reasons of geography and density: LA developed according to the automobile. It’s sprawling and low-density. Millions of New Yorkers live within walking distance of a subway station. To bring an equivalent number of Angelenos within that proximity would require a ridiculously vast and unaffordable network: I’m sure it would need to be a lot larger than NYC’s system.

    What LA should be doing — any maybe they are — is upzoning around the subway lines and encouraging higher densities and a return to the urban core, to the extent such a thing even exists at all there.

    • Ed says:

      LA didn’t develop “according to the automobile”. It developed with a strong network of streetcar lines, which the bus network which replaced it sort of mimics. The destruction of the LA streetcar system is something that should be well known to transit advocates, but evidently isn’t.

      “Los Angeles” covers a huge area, especially if you think in terms of LA County and not LA city (the municipal borders of the city look like ink that someone spilled on the southwestern part of the county). Large parts of the city are the typical ultrazoned lawn-and-mall suburban landscape, but you get this within the New York City borders too. There are also relatively densely populated areas scattered around that are perfectly walkable. While not nearly as densely populated as New York, density in the LA area is increasingly. Queens comes closest to having a LA style pattern of urbanization from among the parts of the NY metro area.

      Particular if you compare metro area to metro area -NYC and surrounding counties in NY state plus northern New Jersey to Los Angeles County- New York is not necessarily that more urbanized. The size of the land areas are comparable and New York has twice the population so there is more density. But the big difference of course is the existence of Manhattan and northern Brooklyn within the New York metro areas. Remove Manhattan and northern Brooklyn and the three million people who live there and the two metro areas are pretty comparable in terms of geographic size, density, and population with Los Angeles now definitively having the better mass transit network. Of course there is nothing quite like Manhattan and northern Brooklyn in the entire United States.

      • AG says:

        Ed – I’m sorry but some of what you said doesn’t equate. Queens is about 120 sq miles and has a population of 2.4 mil. Los Angeles (city) is 420 sq. miles with a population of 3.8 mil. Queens is much more dense.
        Also comparing metro area to metro area – the 3 busiest suburban commuter lines serve the area. Toronto actually would rank #2 on the continent. Chicago – San Fran – and even Boston (yes really) have busier commuter lines than Los Angeles/Orange/San Bernadino counties.

  4. Eric F says:

    The MTA is in fact undertaking three expansions simultaneously with an aggregate capital cost well in excess of $10 billion: East Side Access the blog’s eponymous subway line and the 7 extension, not to mention the Fulton Center addition. That is a metric ton of money. Sorry, but given the directional money flows on operations and these capital projects, the MTA is not a “piggy bank”.

    • Alex C says:

      I think the piggy bank is a reference to Albany constantly taking a couple of hundred million dollars from the MTA as “emergency” funding to throw into the general budget.

  5. lawhawk says:

    The biggest difference isn’t the size of the respective systems or the ridership (both of which favor the NYC subways), but that the LA city government has a say in how the system is funded and operated.

    The MTA is not answerable to the Mayor or City Council in NYC. It’s a political entity that relies on Albany for its guidance and funding. It’s not home rule.

    So, a member of the legislature from Buffalo, Rochester, or the middle of Oneida County can override the spending priorities in New York City because they aren’t getting mass transit dollars they think they should.

    LA can dedicate taxes and know that the money is going to those purposes. The MTA has to rely on the whims of the legislators who will give and take away funding sources, and force the agency to fight for every dollar, even though NYC is the financial engine that makes the state budget work and the subways are the lifeline to that end. Clearly dedicated funding has to be a priority for the NYC delegation going forward.

    • You could argue that dedicated control for NYC should be a priority. That’s not going to happen though unfortunately.

      • Alex C says:

        That, and if the subway and NYC bus routes got under NYC control, they’d still be ravaged by the car-crazy politicians who don’t take the subway and the loudest-yelling car advocates. As you pointed out, the media doesn’t exactly call the fight fairly when discussing issues of cars, pedestrians, bikers, and transit. Cars and their drivers always get the fluffy coverage while pedestrians, bikers and transit get thrown under the bus.

      • SEAN says:


        Two more things to consider when comparing NYC & L.A. on transit…

        1. In adition to service opperated by the county, there are transit lines opperated by other suburban cities such as Long Beach, Passadina & Santa Monica. Some of these systems such as Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus are in them selves quite large.

        2. L. A. & it’s nearby cities are installing smartcard readers on busses & train platforms or have already done so. This card is known as “Transit Access Pass” or TAP. Not every city has it yet, but they all will have it soon.

        As an interesting sidebar, the fishbowl busses used in the film “Speed,” came from Santa Monica’s BBB.

    • Boris says:

      “The MTA is not answerable to the Mayor or City Council in NYC.”

      Are you suggesting Hudson Yards and the 7 extension are not answerable to NYC officials? When Bloomberg wants something, he gets it done. City council even engineered a financing plan for Hudson Yards that is tax increment financing in everything but the name (actual TIF would’ve required state approval, which it wasn’t about to give).

      He who pays the piper calls the tune. The easiest way for the city to get more control over the MTA is to provide for a larger part of its budget, which it has shown an ability to do.

  6. Tsuyoshi says:

    Los Angeles is certainly moving faster, in a positive direction. But New York transit service and walkability is an order of magnitude better already, and is still slowly improving.

    There are a lot of seemingly small improvements (new subway connections, and bus stop consolidation a la SBS, to name a couple) being made in New York that have greater implications than many people realize. It’s easy to get pessimistic that the huge changes we want aren’t happening faster, but they are happening.

    It’s a bit like comparing the economies and standards of living of China and the United States. China’s is rapidly growing and improving, but nobody would say that China is anywhere near the US.

    And by the way, I think we would be pleasantly surprised if a new transit tax was actually on the ballot. On transportation, our elected officials are almost completely out of touch with the voters.

  7. Al D says:

    The biggest difference is in governance and politics. The LA system is, well, controlled by LA, but the B36 bus line is influenced from as far away as Buffalo!

  8. Again, what’s in a (headline) word? “AN edge,” absolutely, LA has shown it means business, and kudos to the City of Angels. But “THE edge” when all is taken into account? As others here have deftly noted from several angles, most assuredly not.

  9. alek says:

    Ben, on the MTA site they decided to keep the G to Church ave permentally and couple of service restorements

  10. AG says:

    Comparing the 2 transit systems is comparing apples and oranges. For one thing – Los Angeles and southern California have a severe traffic and air pollution problem – so they HAVE to be aggressive. Whether they can afford it is another story. That said – like any up and comer their activity seems grandiose… but it has a LONG way to go to catch up – let alone have an advantage. Check back in another 20 years when they have to start repairing and upgrading. Starting fresh always appears this way.

  11. Trey says:

    “…and nearly 40 stops to go.”


  12. AG says:

    As stated – it’s impossible to compare when LA is so late to the game. One thing I will say about LA that they got right faster than NYC is freight. The Alameda Corridor trench they planned in the 90’s was certainly ahead of what has been done here. The Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel can’t happen soon enough. I wonder what the status is now…? If that project had been done 80 years ago… then most of the harbor jobs would not have gone to New Jersey (it would probably be more even) and we wouldn’t have to suffer all the truck traffic we do now… which messes with the air and wears out the roads faster. I give LA kudos for forward thinking on their handling of rail freight… but not passenger (where they about 2 generations behind).

    • SEAN says:

      Wait a minute! have you ever been on I-710 in Long Beach? It’s almost all tractor trailers going to & from the docks where our chinese made crap comes in.

      • AG says:

        No – I’m not familiar with Long Beach itself… but I would assume that those trailers are for local consumption (not everything from China is “crap”)…. the Corridor is a connector from the ports to the rest of the national freight system…. That is the main (but not only) reason most of the port jobs switched to New Jersey…. no direct connection… 3 times in the past 100 years they tried to build a tunnel from Jersey to Brooklyn… but it has never happened. It wouldn’t eliminate trucks completely… but it would have reduced the amount going over the Hudson River crossings.

  13. Kevin says:


    The post doesn’t point out that in 2008, as Southern California struggled in economic quick sand, voters passed Measure R with over a 2/3 majority! It’s impressive how the public stood behind such an ambitious project and tax, and it speaks to the region’s leaders being willing to set aside differences and to unite behind an infrastructure that will serve LA as the population grows in the coming decades. The above pieces are useful references… Steve Erie’s point on LA’s “Bismarckian political will,” especially.

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