pros and cons of using Los Angeles public transit
I explored LA last week and used public transit to get around like I vowed to. Generally it served me well, but I can see why many people advise against using it, especially for tourists.
The first issue I encountered is that the LA metro system is confusing and difficult to use, even for someone who takes a lot of public transit. There are lots of different bus services that all masquerade as 'public transit' on Google Maps, but many of them are private services that don't fall under the LA Metro's umbrella. That meant that my 7-day metro pass didn't cover fares for some of the most convenient bus routes in the area, which came as a bit of an embarrassment the first few times I boarded unknowingly.
There's a clear difference in quality between the private and public buses. The private ones are typically pleasant and well-maintained, with clean interiors, functioning signs, and intercom to notify you about the route. In contrast, the public buses were uncomfortably loud, with dirty seats that rattled deafeningly. Many of the public buses didn't have working signs, so I had to constantly monitor our position on my phone to figure out when to request a stop. This is a nightmare for first-time riders, especially if they're experiencing phone issues or don't have one.
But perhaps the biggest sticking point to higher ridership on the LA metro is simply its transit times. Everywhere we went, taking public transit meant tripling the travel time in car (or worse). A lot of this can't be avoided: public buses must make lots of stops on major streets in order to serve a wide pool of riders, but the sheer magnitude of LA's sprawl and the lack of extensive access to the Metro subway (which actually was quite nice) meant that we were often forced on long walks only to end up on slow buses that never passed 30 mph.
In addition to just being plain slow, taking public metro buses is an extremely unpredictable way to get around. The projected arrival times of buses constantly change without warning, which means your bus scheduled to arrive on time could go from arriving 10 minutes early to 45 minutes late in a blink (trust me, I've seen it happen with my own eyes). This lack of dependability forced me to hail rideshares when I had appointments I couldn't be late for, like trains and museum reservations.
The last quibble I have is that LA (and many major American cities, even those with good public transit systems) has poor support for what is known as the 'last-mile connection' in transit lingo.
The "last-mile" or "first and last-mile" connection describes the beginning or end of an individual trip made primarily by public transportation. In many cases, people will walk to transit if it is close enough. However, on either end of a public transit trip, the origin or destination may be difficult or impossible to access by a short walk. This gap from public transit to destination is termed a last mile connection.
Intercity rail is a common example: a traveler reaches their local train station, but after getting off the train has no way to access the final destination. The traveler might have driven to the train station at the start, or perhaps they took a local bus or walked. The train carries them a long distance to another city where the final destination is too far to walk to from the station. Without some form of connection in the destination city, travelers become effectively stranded near the end. This example can be applied to any mode of transit.
My journeys with public transit usually began and ended with a long walk of up to two miles, often through some poor pedestrian-unfriendly neighborhoods in sweltering heat. Not only did this tire me out and add significant minutes to my travel time, but it also posed a significant safety hazard, especially when traveling at night. I'd love to see LA provide more support for travelers making this last-mile connection, like an extensive bike-share network.
I've written at length about the pain points of using public transit, but I'd be remiss not to touch upon some of the pros of using it. For starters, I got a lot of steps in, close to 20k every single day. While a lot of this is due to poor public transit access, the brisk walks did give me plenty of daily exercise. I would much rather spend an hour walking outside than sitting in LA traffic, provided the neighborhood isn't too shady. Walking around so much helped me see the city like a local, and when I wasn't in a rush I discovered so many gems like cute indie bookstores and family-run restaurants.
LA also has a metro system light years ahead of what we have in Atlanta. The trains in particular are quite clean and well-maintained, with monitors showing you which stops are coming up ahead. I generally felt pretty safe using public transit too—there were usually lots of other riders around which helps with security.
Finally, LA's metro system was pretty cheap to use. For both buses and trains you pay a flat fee no matter how far you go. You can also purchase an unlimited 1-day or 7-day pass. A 7-day pass usually goes for $25 (which is already pretty cheap), but it's 50% off until the end of the year, maybe as a part of some promotion intended to increase ridership. Whatever the reason, we benefited, since we only had to fork over $12.50 for week-long unlimited access to LA Metro buses and trains. At many of the places we visited, parking alone exceeded $12.50.
Postmortem: should I use public transit in LA?
I would recommend using public transit in LA, though with a healthy dose of realism and an awareness of its flaws. Using public transit efficiently takes lots of planning, but you can have a great time and see lots of things without a car, even in Los Angeles.
If you want to see things farther away from downtown that require a car, rent one for a few days and see all of them at once, like Huntington Library and Gardens in Pasadena or Malibu Beach to the north. For the rest of the days, try taking public transit! Organize places to visit together by geographic location and make sure to look up arrival times for buses and trains. Have fun exploring!