Getting Around Los Angeles: Guide to Public Transportation

Los Angeles Metro in the station

 Mark Williamson / Getty Images

More than 10 million people live in Los Angeles County, which, of course, results in a lot of cars on the road, the infamous smog, and legendary traffic. While many visitors still rent cars or rely on ride-share services, a fairly comprehensive public transportation system of buses and trains does exist. 

Learning how to navigate the Metro system can save money, time, and headaches when exploring the sprawling county, 1,433 square miles of which are serviced by the Los Angeles County MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority). Here’s a crash course in ditching the car and joining the 383 million riders who used Metro in 2018.

How to Ride Metro Rail

Back in the 1920s, LA was connected by Pacific Electric Railway Company aka Red Cars. It was the largest electric railway system in the world. But it was dismantled as auto ownership became the dream and massive freeway systems were built. It wasn’t until 1990 that the subway, the blue line, returned to Southern California. And despite the common misconception that no one uses it, it’s the third-largest public transit system in the country by ridership. 

While buses go more places, they tend to be slower and used mostly by locals trying to get to work. The train system is currently comprised of four above-ground light rails and two underground subways, but it is constantly growing. In 2016, the Expo Line's Santa Monica extension and the Gold Line’s Azusa extension were completed. The Purple Line is currently under construction to add 9 new miles of track to eventually go from downtown to Westwood. The first stage from Koreatown’s Western Station to Wilshire/La Cienaga is expected to open in 2023.

Fares: The Metro's base fare is $1.75. Metro has transitioned from tickets to TAP cards for all trains. Each passenger needs their own card. All fares must be loaded onto your TAP and then tapped on the box at each station to validate. The reusable card costs $2 in machines or on buses. The card must be tapped for each train or bus that you board. Five TAP cards can be purchased in one transaction but cards have to be reloaded separately.

Metro trains and buses in the same direction within two-and-a-half hour windows are now included in the base fare as long as you use TAP and tap the final transfer within that window. TAP connects most of the county bus lines, city-specific buses, and shuttle options including LADOT, Santa Monica Big Blue Bus, LAX buses, Santa Clarita Transit, Long Beach Transit, and even the historic Angels Flight funicular.

Reduced rates are available to seniors, students, and disabled riders. Two children under age 5 may travel free with each fare-paying adult on bus or rail. These groups may also apply online for a free TAP card.

Different types of passes: Options include the Metro Day Pass ($7), 7-Day Pass ($25), and the 30-Day Pass ($100). Day passes are really only worth it if you plan to take four or more legs with more than two hours between them.

How to pay: As stated above, riders must have a TAP card to ride. As not all stations have TAP vending machines, it's best to order it online ahead of time. Refill your card at the machines with a credit card or online. Some stations do not have turnstiles but make sure you tap the card for every ride. Otherwise you could face up to a $250 fine.

Hours of operation: Most lines operate from before 5 a.m. to midnight or later on weekdays, with service until 2 a.m. on weekends. Trains run as often as every five minutes during peak times. But late-night rides can leave you waiting at stops for 20 or 30 minutes. Some are not in the safest of neighborhoods and the stops are on the street level and are open-air so be aware of your surroundings.

Routes: There are currently 93 stations on six lines, covering 98 miles. The Blue Line takes passengers between downtown and Long Beach. The Red Line goes from North Hollywood to Union Station, where you can connect to Amtrak long-distance trains. The Purple Green Line travels between Wilshire/Western and Union Station. The Gold Line goes from East LA through Pasadena to Azusa. The Expo Line deposits riders at stops from downtown to about a block from the beach in Santa Monica.

Accessibility concerns: Certified service animals are allowed on Metro. For more information on this topic, check here.

How to Ride Metro Bus

The bus system is mighty thanks to 2,308 buses, 13,978 stops, and 1,479 square miles of service area. 

Fares: Metro's base fare is $1.75. You can pay cash when you board, but you'll need exact fare as bus operators don't carry change. You can also buy and add up to $20 to a reusable TAP card. Reduced rates are available to seniors, students, and disabled riders. Two children under age 5 may travel for free with each fare-paying adult. 

Travel routes: There are bus routes that give access to almost the entirety of the city. There are some specialty routes like the Dodger Stadium Express. You can board D.S.E. at Union Station or at four South Bay stations (Slauson, Manchester, Harbor Freeway, or Rosecrans). Arrive early as buses and stations get quite overloaded near game time. The Metro also has two extended fast-track busways: Orange (Chatsworth to North Hollywood) and Silver (San Pedro to El Monte).

Other Public Transportation Options

Metro Bike Share: The 1,000-bike-strong rental program is available in downtown, the port of LA, mid-city, and on the Westside. Riders must be 16 or older and bikes must be returned to one of the 100 stations around the city. Single ride fares are $1.75 for 30 minutes of use and you pay by TAP. Rides longer than 30 minutes incur extra fees. Passes are available for 24 hours of access, 30 days, and 365 days. Reduced fares are available for the same groups as on other Metro services. 

LAX FlyAway: It offers cost-effective round-trip transportation to LAX from five spots around the city (Hollywood, Long Beach, Union Station, Van Nuys, and Westwood). Some pick up/drop-off locations are on streets while others like Van Nuys have full stations with cheaper long-term parking lots than found at the airport. The service is offered seven days a week, but the times and amount of shuttles per day varies depending on the line. For example, Hollywood buses depart every hour between 5:15 a.m. and 9:15 p.m. However Van Nuys has all-day service, with buses sometimes coming as often as every 15 minutes.

One-way fares are between $8 and $10 and can only be purchased with credit cards. No reservations needed. Two children 5 and under can ride for free with each paying adult.

Metrolink: These are long-distance commuter trains. They connect the city with outlying areas like Orange County, Antelope Valley, Ventura County, San Bernardino, Riverside and the Inland Empire via seven lines. The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, much of which has an ocean view, is also part of this system and takes visitors all the way down the coast from Ventura to downtown San Diego.

Taxis and Ride-sharing Apps: Several taxi companies operate in LA, but usually have to be called when needed unless you're at LAX. A better, cheaper option is a rideshare service like Uber or Lyft. They can pick up at LAX in designated zones on the departures level. 

Electric Scooters/Bikes: The app-rentable bike and scooter invasion has hit LA street corners much to the discontent of businesses and homeowners. They are more prevalent in tourist-heavy areas and beach towns like Santa Monica, Hollywood, and Venice, but can even be found in the San Fernando Valley now. Companies include Lime and Bird.

Tips for Getting Around LA

  • If you want get somewhere via subway or bus, the Metro Trip Planner will be your best friend and should be your first stop to figure out routes, stations/stops, and travel times.
  • There are Park & Ride lots available for most lines. Some lots charge for parking and some have free spaces. A good rule of thumb? Read all parking lot and street signs very carefully. This is a good practice in general even if you rent a car. Most Angelenos have a story about getting a ticket because they misunderstood the posted regulations.
  • As some public transportation methods, especially buses, are on street level, they're affected by heavy traffic and construction. Some sections have bus lanes at certain times, dedicated busways, or signal priority.
  • Remember that LA has three periods of heavy congestion daily—morning (6 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.), lunch, and after work. And the concept of reverse commute is not applicable in most parts of the city.
  • The Metro is a museum in motion as many of the stations have site-specific art installations. There are regularly scheduled art tours and occasional live performances.
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