Home International Subways In Los Angeles, a subway system grows

In Los Angeles, a subway system grows

by Benjamin Kabak

The LA subway system is set for a massive expansion. (Map via The New York Times)

For decades, New York City has been the transit capital of the U.S.A. We enjoy an expansive 468-station, 722-mile subway system that runs 24 hours a day and stretches across five boroughs. Transit’s daily ridership is higher than the combined total from every other subway system in the country, and without the subways, New York City as it is today would simply not be a viable geographic urban hub.

But over the last four decades, as the region has struggled to maintain its vast infrastructure, expansion plans have fallen by the wayside. Since the opening of the Chrystie St. Connection in 1968, the city hasn’t built out its system. A modest expansion along Archer Ave. and the completion of the 63rd St. tunnel were the major projects during the 1980s and 1990s. Today, at a cost of nearly $7 billion, the MTA is adding one stop to the 7 line and three along the Upper East Side’s stretch of Second Ave. It isn’t, by any means, impressive.

Three thousand miles away, on the coast known more for its cars than its trains, the City of Angels is working toward its own subway system. Los Angeles is planning to spend $40 billions on a 28-mile expansion of its rail transit system. The city will build an 8.6-mile extension of the Purple Line through Koreatown, an 11-mile addition to the Gold Line, an 8.5-mile light-rail route from LAX and another light rail route from Santa Monica to Culver City Adam Nagourney in The Times today takes a look at this reimagining of the Los Angeles transitscape:

Taken together, these developments have emboldened mass transit enthusiasts here and lent credibility to what has become something of a legacy project for Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa, who ran for office pledging to build a transit system that would upend long-established commuting habits and ease what has long been a bane of life in Los Angeles.

“This put to rest all this talk of, ‘Will we ever build a subway?’ ” Mr. Villaraigosa said, somewhat triumphantly, in an interview. “This is a big deal. People have been talking about it for years. And they were making fun of me: ‘Where is the subway?!’ ”

Los Angeles once had a large, intricate and thriving public transportation system, with so-called Yellow Car trolleys that ran on downtown streets and a vast network of Red Cars, operated by the Pacific Electric Railroad, that ran throughout the region. This was dismantled amid the city’s fervent embrace of the automobile (encouraged, in no small part, by oil interests in Los Angeles that realized the economic potential of the car).

But with a vote by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority’s board last month to approve the Purple Line expansion, there is a consensus that these projects are going to be built, even among those who describe them as a waste of money in a region that will never embrace mass transit. The projects are being financed by a half-cent sales tax surcharge approved by Los Angeles voters two years ago and expected to raise $40 billion over the next 30 years.

Yet, in LA, as the pipe dream of the Subway to the Sea inches closer to reality, residents, planners and politicians are still questioning the wisdom behind the spending. For Mayor Villaraigosa, the $40 billion appears as a traditional bond issue. Since the city plans to add distance and capacity, they can bond against future anticipated fare revenue, but even then, many wonder if Los Angeles can become a city of the subway.

One mass transit consultant from the Bay Area has labeled the plan in no uncertain terms. “They have been pushing rail expansion for decades now,” Tom Rubin said, “and it has not had much of an impact in terms of increasing transit ridership. The big problem is that these are very, very expensive, and we wind up spending so much money on building these rail lines that there is not enough to operate bus service. So we wind up cutting back on bus operations and then raising fares, which drives the riders away.”

Rubin highlights the same capital-vs.-operations battle being fought in New York, but he seems to ignore that adding distance to rail makes pushing for it as a viable modality more appealing. If the subway goes where people need it to go, they will leave their cars behind. If, as promised, a 50-minute drive becomes a 25-minute subway ride, driving becomes a waste of time.

“The science of public transit is not too complicated,” Robert Cervero, director of Berkeley’s Transportation Center, said to The Times. “It comes down to how time-competitive transit is with the private car. If it takes two to three times longer to get from Point A to Point B by transit, the vast majority of folks will drive. If it’s faster going by bus or train, then most will forsake their car and ride transit.” (Jonathan Hiskes at Grist disputes this simplification.)

Ultimately, Los Angeles won’t move ahead of New York anytime soon, but the Land of Freeways is moving forward. On the East Coast, we’re stuck in neutral. Saddled with debt, unable to issue bonds appropriately and faced with crushing costs, our 106-year-old subway system expands outward slowly, if at all.

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John November 30, 2010 - 3:05 pm

I rode the LA subway last summer, and was fairly impressed, for what it was. If they can expand it to even more key destinations, I think it will catch on eventually. Dodger Stadium would be a big one, but its location up on a hill makes that difficult.

Edward November 30, 2010 - 3:14 pm

Agreed. It’s a very clean, easy-to-use system. My only complaint is that the stations are spaced too far apart in some areas. In North Hollywood, the stations are over one mile apart, a bit of a hike unless you drive and park near a station. Trains are pretty clean and well lit, as are the stations. Another drawback: no transfers between train/bus/light rail unless you have an unlimited pass.

Angelinos will have no choice but to start using trains (which a lot of them do now, btw) if they don’t want to get stuck in traffic, which, as bad as it is, ain’t got nothing on NYC traffic jams.

John November 30, 2010 - 3:16 pm

Actually getting the subway and light rail to Santa Monica will help, since that area is probably more mass transit-friendly (and the main commercial/business areas more compact along certain streets and avenues) than other sections of the city.

Douglas John Bowen November 30, 2010 - 3:20 pm

Grass-Is-Greener Department: While LA’s efforts and progress are laudable, let’s be careful calling the whole thing a “subway” system. Most of it is, in fact, a light rail transit system. LRT is a useful and good thing, but it is NOT a subway system in the classic New York sense, especially in terms of capacity.

And while progress in growing New York’s subway system is maddeningly slow, the system IS growing. That wasn’t always the case (in significant terms, at the very least) in recent decades past.

Left unaddressed in all this is the need for NEW YORK to grow LRT, as a useful feeder/distributor handling the “gap” between subway capacity and bus flexibility, whether in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or even (yes, indeed) Staten Island. For once, New Jersey has shown the way (HBLRT). New York should take note.

Edward November 30, 2010 - 3:26 pm

True, but LA, with half the population of NYC and a much more decentralized business district (actually, many business districts spread out over a large area) does not need the ultra-high capacity rail that NYC requires. Apples and oranges here. Still, I would consider the Red Line a “true” subway as it runs totally underground with heavy rail cars very similar to the Wash, DC subway. Every time I ride the Red Line it reminds me of NYC (except it’s much cleaner).

What impresses me is that LA, a financially strapped city in a financially strapped state, can still raise $40 bn to expand its not-insignificant rail system.

Douglas John Bowen November 30, 2010 - 3:35 pm

Concur with your “apples and oranges” metaphor; hence, the related note suggesting New York could use a little more “LA” application — of light rail transit and/or streetcars. As you rightly note, we have the ultra-high capacity rail. We need the slightly less capacity distributor/feeders, and BRT just can’t do the job for long or for ever.

Also concur that the Red Line is a true subway–but again, that’s a small percentage of the system.

Also concur that LA’s efforts are impressive and (to repeat) laudable.

John November 30, 2010 - 5:11 pm

While you’re right that much of it is above ground LRT, at least it has its own right-of-way, at least from my memory. So it doesn’t compete with car traffic at all. That’s one advantage it has over some LRT systems.

Aaron November 30, 2010 - 6:39 pm

1) The Red and Purple Lines are a heavy rail, 100% underground subway not dissimilar from Boston’s red line.

2) The Green line is LRT but 100% grade separated.

3) The Gold Line is LRT but mostly grade separated, with a controversial exception on the way out of LA to the northeast, where a substantial amount of speed is lost along Marmion Way.

4) The Blue Line is LRT and often grade-seperated, with the exception of the first couple miles out of LA as well as through Long Beach. Much of it is on an old freight ROW and it’s not like Boston, where they have to fight traffic; the train very clearly gets priority but there is definitely some buyer’s remorse about the first couple miles south of Metro Center, where accidents can still be common.

Boris November 30, 2010 - 5:29 pm

Thank you, Benjamin, as always, for your posts, I read them on most days. I read this article as I sat on the SBS in traffic induced by the SAS 🙂

I wonder, in LA, as on the SAS, what can cost so much money? The SAS has so few workers actually working, at least above ground, and that holds true on the East-Side Access project as well. The machinery is presumably bought outright…

Where are the breakdowns of the actual costs, does anyone know? I mean this for LA as well. Europeans build massive projects at around 1/4 the cost…sometimes 1/10th! I imagine endless corruption…

John November 30, 2010 - 5:43 pm

I would also be curious (and fascinated) to see a detailed breakdown of all the expenses when all is said and done. And not just “tunnel boring: $1 billion” – actual breakdown of how many people got paid, how much each, how much equipment was purchased, for how much, etc.

Christopher November 30, 2010 - 6:59 pm

I wonder if a few things don’t help Europe and Asia. One is that labor negotiations are country wide. If a labor group negotiates a certain pay raise it applies across the board to that segment. We lose in this in that labor friendly states pay poor than than all those so-called “right-to-work” states that get by paying less than market rates (and stealing industries from other states — cf. the textiles industry move to the South). I think another that saves costs is nationalization of other fixed costs like healthcare and pensions. Our fractured system again jacks up the costs. Basically these costs are not added into the cost of each project as they are already accounted for at the national level. (It hurts our private industry too, of course. But we see maybe most prominently in public projects.)

Alon Levy December 1, 2010 - 12:51 am

LA actually has some of the highest construction costs in the world; it only looks good because New York is so much worse. The pricetag for the Wilshire Subway is about $450 million per km, which would rank 4th or 5th in the world if New York didn’t exist; abroad, projects with such a pricetag or even slightly less are usually considered boondoggles.

Don’t get me wrong, the Wilshire Subway is a good idea. Just like on SAS, high ridership should partly cancel out the high construction costs. The problem is most of the other lines LA is building, such as the Foothills Extension, are not only expensive for the technology but also low-ridership and exurban.

Boris November 30, 2010 - 8:28 pm

[exact breakdown of budget] I agree with John, and it would be very easy to produce. Are they hiding it from us? I would guess it would have to include lines for “mafia payoff” and/or “vendor kickbacks”

[higher wages/healthcare coverage] these alter matters by percentage points, I would think, not orders of magnitude.

Shouldn’t the finances be completely transparent? Hello, MTA?

Justin Samuels November 30, 2010 - 9:53 pm

The MTA had to pay the utility companies to relocate their utilities and that alone has got to be extremely expensive. The tunnel boring equipment, plus the equipment used to mine stations, must be expensive as well.

ant6n December 1, 2010 - 7:00 am

presumably they buy the tbm’s – what happens with them after they’re used?
It’d be cool if the MTA could just own a couple of tbm’s and people who can operate them, and just continually dig tunnels somewhere (for example once the #7 extension is done, why not just continue boring under the Hudson?)

Tim December 1, 2010 - 1:54 pm

This is not a subway system as commonly understood. It is really a hybrid of a commuter rail line and subway.

The NYC subway system has stops every 8 or 9 of blocks; by comparison, the L.A. subway will have up to two miles between stations. In that way, it has more in common with the Long Island Railroad than it does the NYC subway system.

Like the L.A.’s freeway system, their subway system is NOT designed for the person living in the city. It is designed for the commuter who takes the train into Union Station and then catches the “subway” to a job center: either downtown, mid-wilshire, westwood etc. But with gaps of up to two miles between stations, the subway leaves many local residents to either the bus system or their private automobiles.

Alon Levy December 1, 2010 - 5:58 pm

The NYC Subway system has one of the shortest interstations in the world. The LA Red Line’s average interstation is very long, but if you exclude the tunnel under the Santa Monica Mountains, which is as relevant as the underwater tunnels in New York, then the interstation drops to the high end (about 1 mile) for large subway systems.

Tim December 1, 2010 - 1:59 pm

^^^ In fact, their are many Long Island Railroad stations that are closer together than some of the Los Angeles subway stations.

Alon Levy December 1, 2010 - 7:40 pm

There are many S-Bahn commuter stations that are closer together than some of the Moscow Metro stations. That doesn’t actually make the Moscow Metro not a subway.

Scott Mercer December 1, 2010 - 2:19 pm


I call B.S. The “subway system” in Los Angeles is very much designed for the person living in the city, as well as commuters and a usually forgotten segment, tourists. I lived in downtown Los Angeles and used it every day. I did not take it to a “suburb.” I would ride it to Chinatown, or East L.A., or Hollywood, or Little Tokyo. Funny to think that “I took the subway down to Chinatown for dinner” is a sentence one could hear just as legitmately in Los Angeles or New York.

Personally, I feel all these semantic discussions about what is a “true subway” and what is not are pointless. Look, it’s a train, you buy a ticket or pass and you take it to another location far away. What’s the fracking difference?

Is there any substantive difference in taking a long ride on the New York Subway system from, say Morningside Heights to Coney Island (let’s say during August) and taking a long trip from Hollywood to Long Beach on the Los Angeles Metrorail? I say: No.
In both cases, you are traveling 20 some miles. In both cases, you are going to “the beach.” In both cases, you travel from one “city” to another (even though technically you have never left New York City). In Los Angeles, you take trains that go underground and on the surface or elevated. In New York, you take trains that go underground in Manhattan, and on the surface or elevated in Brooklyn. In both cases, you have to switch trains at least once.

Which users are commuters? Which are city dwellers on an excursion? Which are tourists? The answer is, both cities have both types of users, probably in equivalent ratios. Los Angeles is a city. Its downtown is no loner abandoned. 10 years ago 10,000 people lived there. Now, 45,000 people live there. It’s a “real city” now, just like New York. So get used to it.

Matt December 1, 2010 - 2:24 pm

Tim, there is only one or two instances where the LA subway has a spread of two plus miles. One is under the Santa Monica Mountains between Hollywood and Universal City, which of course makes sense. On the proposed extension west, there will be a two mile gap between Western and La Brea. However, the neighborhood in between is largely single family homes and a few smaller apartment buildings and is in a historic zone, so they cannot increase density in the future. Most subway stations in LA are around a mile apart, although in some dense areas (Downtown, Wilshire Center, Hollywood) they are closer.

Bob L December 1, 2010 - 6:59 pm

The $40,000,000,000.00 is not exclusively for rail transit only, it is also used for bus service and improving freeways, like I-405 HOV lane and some interchanges.

Angelino December 2, 2010 - 1:05 am

Just an Angelino chiming in to give credit for some of the more intelligent, informed, and civil discussions seen in a long time from a “comments” section. Rock on NYC dudes. :]

Someone December 21, 2012 - 4:11 pm

What it needs is to tear down its freeways and build new metro lines in its place.

Someone December 21, 2012 - 4:12 pm

And it’s four stations on the SAS. 63rd St-Lexington Ave counts as a station, too.

Someone December 21, 2012 - 4:14 pm

After the 7 line is completed, the MTA will find some other line to work on (the Nostrand Ave line, the New Lots Ave Line or the Archer Ave subway)


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