I asked a transit expert to compare the two cities. Here is the response.
TAR: LA and SF are two of the worst, overall, in the U.S. If you look at
the rankings, LA is almost always the absolutely worst.
However, as a practical matter, it comes down to particular commutes in each
Transit is different in LA. To a large extent, the only place where transit
can really be competitive is peak-hour commutes to the central business
district — and LA has, by far, the smallest CBD relative to urbanized area
population in the U.S., if not the world. Also, believe it or not, greater
LA is, by far, the densest urbanized area in the U.S. and is almost dead
last in freeway center-line miles and total road miles per capita (I win a
lot of bar bets on these two). But, much of LA has a very good grid system
of arterial streets and LA-DOT is world-class, particularly on traffic
signal progressions and the like.
So, in a strange way, commuting is better in LA than in SF. Because we
don’t have a single huge downtown that a whole lot of people are trying to
get to, there is a much better work/live balance, and people have shorter
commutes to the distributive downtowns and other disbursed work locations.
Also, Greater LA is one of the poorest regions in the nation; we’ve just
about kicked out the last of the middle class and the good middle class
jobs, so we have some very rich and a lot of very, very poor – even more so
than in SF, which is saying something. So, the bus system is very highly
utilized, frequently with the highest average load factor in the industry
(fighting New York City and Honolulu for that “honor”).
But, while SF started with a very good – but very old – rail system, which
was then added to by BART, starting fifty years ago, LA lost the last of
what was the finest rail system in the nation in 1961 – and then tried for
years to get something going. Finally, in 1980, the rail proponents passed
a one-half cent sales tax to begin building rail – which was supposed to
provide eleven rail lines all over the County. Thirty-seven years later,
and three more half-cent sales taxes (Los Angeles County Metropolitan
Transportation Authority gets over $3.5 BILLION a year in sales tax revenues
that no one outside the County has any say over) – and we have about half
of that rail system built.
Unfortunately, this has come at the expense of the bus system, which has
suffered through multiple fare increases (when the median bus rider
HOUSEHOLD income is $15,000, trying to afford even one thirty-day pass at
$100 is a rather large segment of income) and reductions in service, so
total ridership has been going steadily down – even after $16 billion spent
on building new rail lines (and that’s just for the ones that have been
If you want more detail, here’s a link to something I prepared about fifteen
The only thing that has really changed since this was written is that two
more rail lines have been finished and went into service, another half-cent
sales tax was passed, even more rail lines have been started – and
ridership has continued to drop.
Sad, isn’t it?