Thursday, June 11, 2009

Find Your Way Around LA - A Guide For Public Transit Newbies in Los Angeles

Note: parts of this page has been updated due to recent changes in bus routes and new fares. Where ever possible, the original version of the text has a been retained with corresponding changes noted. Newly added info are in red. Last updated on April 20, 2012.

Are you a transit chicken? If you live in Los Angeles and never used our transit system, you don't know what you are missing. For one thing, the myth that no one takes public transit in LA is just that... a myth. The Orange line (that's the Rapid bus line in the Valley) boards over 650,000 passengers per month and LA County has the 2nd highest number of people in the US who use public transit as the primary means of getting around (after NYC).

I decided to write this guide because I found that there is actually nothing like it on the web. When I started taking public transit 2 years ago (after almost 20 years of living in LA), I had to learn everything the hard way. But once I figure it out, I found myself repeating the same things over and over whenever another transit chicken takes the plunge and decides to give it a try. So I wrote down some Q&A type responses and turned it into this guide - a quick primer on how to use public transit in LA if you have never tried it.

The first thing and the most basic thing to remember: $1.25 $1.50 for Metro bus or rail (or 75 cent $1.00 if using Big Blue Bus or Culver City Bus) per boarding. If you are making more than 1 round trip in one day, you should consider buying a Day Pass. The Metro Day Pass is $5 and works on both Metro buses and trains. The Big Blue Bus Day Pass is only $4! Unfortunately, Day Pass can only be used on the agency that issued it so Metro Day Pass cannot be used on Big Blue Bus, and vice versa.

Level 1 - Newbies: Learn the Metro Rapid Lines (and the LA Street Grid)

For novice transit users in LA (especially those living in Mid City and Westside), you should focus your attention on learning the system exclusively on the Metro Rapid buses. These are the red (or dark blue for R3 and R7) buses that only make limited stops and takes you places where you want to go (major intersections and landmarks like malls/shopping centers). The slower orange buses also cost $1.25 $1.50 but you want to avoid that as much as possible if the red (or dark blue) buses can take you there. The thing to remember about the Rapid bus is that they pretty much stay in sync with LA's street grid. So basically, you need to learn what road and what blvd goes where and which way they go (i.e. north-south, east-west etc) and what order they appear if you are headed in one direction or the other. What I mean is that if you are headed south from Westwood to LAX (for example) on Sepulveda Blvd, you will hit (1) Wilshire, (2) Santa Monica, (3) Olympic, (4) Pico, (5) National, (6) Venice, (7) Washington, (8) Jefferson, (9) Manchester, (10) Century... in that order.

All these Rapid bus numbers start with a "7", which is a prefix denoting that it is a Rapid. They generally have a corresponding "slow train" version (the orange bus). For example, the 704 bus runs on Santa Monica Blvd from Downtown LA to Downtown Santa Monica. It is one of the most popular bus line in the city. It stops only at major intersections. There is a #4 orange bus that runs on pretty much the same route that stops on every block.

There are three exceptions to the Rapid route system. Two of the Rapid bus lines are served by Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus: R3 on Lincoln Blvd and R7 on Pico Blvd and they are dark blue (as oppose to baby blue). A third, R6 on Sepulveda Blvd is operated by Culver City Bus (dark green/silver). This is a legacy of the "turf war" battle from another era which I'll try to explain later. The good news here is that Big Blue Bus and Culver City Bus are cheaper (only 75 cents! $1.00) and like the red buses, R3, R6, and R7 have their own "slow train" version, namely, BBB#3 and BBB#7 that stops on every block. The same for Culver city Bus R6 and CC#6.

The bottom line - you just need to memorize which Rapid bus lines goes on which street... The main ones:


  • 750 - Ventura
  • 704 - Santa Monica
  • 720 -Wilshire
  • 728 - Olympic
  • 730/R7 - Pico
  • 733 - Venice

  • North-South
  • R3 - Lincoln
  • R6 - Sepulveda (UCLA to LAX)
  • 761 - Sepulveda (Pacoima to UCLA)
  • 705 - LaCienega
  • 780 - Fairfax
  • 710 - Crenshaw
  • 740 - Hawthorne
  • 757 - Western
  • 754 - Vermont

  • Image cutesy of Wikipedia, without which, western civilization will be erased without a trace. (note, this map is slightly outdated but no one updated Wikipedia so I'm not going to either)

    Level 2 - Grasshopper: Learn the Metro Rail System

    Once you have master the Rapid bus system, it is time to move on to taking the trains. LA's Metro system is still a work in progress so one thing you'll notice is that it doesn't go where you want to go... No direct airport connection; no San Fernando Valley to Westside line; no Pasadena to Glendale line; no Southbay to Westside line. Knowing this limitation is key... If you live in Santa Monica and want to go to the Lakers game at Staples Center, you are better off driving... at least for now until the Purple line reaches you in around 2030 (no, really, that's when it is estimated to get there!) However, if you live in Pasadena or Hollywood, I declare jihad on you if you are silly enough to drive to a Lakers game (or USC football game once the Expo line opens in 2010 2011 April 2012).

    The second thing to remember about LA's Metro system is that we are new at this... despite operation since the late 1980s and having the 3rd highest passenger count of any rail system in the US (that part is mind boggling if you think about it), MTA is still relatively inexperienced at running a rail system. This is reflected in part by our shortsighted and illogical train line color naming scheme. In major cities around the world, metro systems lines are typically named after a combination of letters and numbers (i.e. New York City) or the destination (i.e. Tokyo or London). The colors on the map is usually only a secondary visual device, not the primary identifier of metro lines. For example, the NYC "F" train is the "orange line" on the NYC subway map but everyone knows F train goes to Queens. And there are actually 4 other trains that runs on the "orange line" with different destinations and service mode (express, local, late night etc). In LA, we did it all wrong so the color is also the primary identifier. This is ok for now... but in the future when the Downtown Connector is completed, and trains start running from Pasadena to Long Beach or Santa Monica to East LA, it's going to be chaos. So ok, enough of a rant... back to the lesson.

    It's pretty straight forward:

    The main transfer stations are 7th/Flower Metro Center (Red/Purple/Blue/Expo) and Union Station (Red/Purple/Gold Foothill/Gold Eastside). The lines are as follow:
    • Red line: Downtown LA to North Hollywood - connect to Orange line bus to the Valley [should really be called the "Hollywood line"]
    • Purple line: Downtown LA to Koreatown (Wilshire/Western) - connect to 720 or 920 Rapid bus to the Westside (extension to Westwood should begin construction in 2013) [should really be called the "Wilshire line"]
    • Gold line Foothill: Downtown LA to Sierra Madre (extension to Azusa under construction) [should really be called the "Pasadena/Foothill line"]
    • Gold line Eastside: Downtown LA to East LA/Montebello (extension to Whittier under consideration) [will be combined with Expo line once the Downtown Connector is completed]
    • Expo line: Downtown LA to Culver City (opening in June 2010 2011 April 2012, extension to Santa Monica schedule to open in 2014 2015)
    • Blue line: Downtown LA to Long Beach [should really be called "Long Beach line"]
    • Green line: Norwalk to Redondo Beach (free bus connection to LAX at Aviation station) [should really be called "Norwalk line"]
    A quirk in the LA metro system is that none only some of the stations, mainly the ones for Red and Purple line subways, are gated. Random fare checks do happen (you need to show the Transit Police your ticket stub if they ask - Jack Bauer got busted on 24 once for not having a ticket... I suppose it is slightly more realistic than Keanu Reeves figuring out how to jump a bus over a gap in the 105 freeway).

    Metro also operates a special BRT (bus rapid transit) line in the Valley that works like a train but is actually buses on a grade separated road away from other cars. The Orange line was originally going to be an extension of the Red line subway running at surface, but the NIMBYs in the Valley kill it. It works just like Metro's rail lines with "stations" instead of bus stops. It's not as nice as a train but it is a huge improvement over buses on regular street. The success of the Orange line has lead Metro to contemplate offering introduce something very similar on the El Monte Bus Way and Harbor Transit Way. These are the bus lane in the middle of 10 and 110 freeways. The proposed Silver line BRT will now connects El Monte Bus terminal with Artesia Blvd Bus terminal via the Bus Ways and Transit Way with connections at both Union Station and 7th/Fig Metro Center subway stops.

    Level 3 - The Matrix: Mastering LA's Byzantine Bus System

    MTA or Metro is the largest transit operator in LA County, but it is not the only one. Many cities have their own municipal bus lines. The most familiar ones are probably:

    Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus (it's blue) and Culver City Bus (it's green).

    There are three other pretty big "muni" bus lines: Torrance Bus (white with red stripe but changing to green and gold); Foothill Transit (white with blue stripe); and Montebello Bus (white with blue and pink stripes). Further afield, there is also Long Beach Transit (red and gold), Glendale Bee line (white with gold letters), Beach Cities Transit (seems to change color every month...) and Gardena Bus Lines (white with green and yellow stripes).The City of Los Angeles also operates its own bus service: DASH local shuttle and long distance Commuter Express (white and dark blue).The point being... there are lots of different bus operators in LA County.

    The reason why we have "muni" and Metro bus lines dates back to an ancient time (like 1920s to 1950s) when LA was crisscrossed by surface trams. The Pacific Railway and the "Red Cars" ran trams from Downtown LA to all kinds of places. They setup depots and terminals throughout the city. Those terminals still exists... but they are now bus terminals. When the trams finally went away (Google "GM and Firestone Los Angeles tram conspiracy" if you want the learn more of this tragic chapter in LA's history) cities in LA County started their own bus services to fill the void. As a result, they established their respective "turf" and their "protected terminals". Metro bus dare not venture into these protected "turfs" without starting a full on gang war (yes, transit agencies are like gangs, they take their turf seriously).

    In order to fully master LA's bus system, you need to know these "turf" and their related bus terminals because depending on what part of the city you are in, you are more than likely have to rely on the "muni" to provide local service rather than Metro.

    Bus Line - Turf - Terminal
    • Big Blue Bus - Santa Monica,Westwood, Century City, pretty much everything west of Robertson Blvd - Rimpau Terminal (mid city), Downtown Santa Monica Transit Plaza, and LAX Bus Terminal
    • Culver City Bus - Culver City, Palms, Mar Vista, - West LA Transit Center (on Fairfax and Washington), Fox Hills Mall Transit Center, and LAX Bus Terminal
    • Torrance Bus - Torrance, Gardena, Redondo, Inglewood, most of Southbay - Del Amo Transit Center
    • Foothill Transit - cities in San Gabriel Valley and western portion of San Bernardino County
    • Montebello Bus - Montebello, Whittier, Norwalk
    • Long Beach Transit - Long Beach, Lakewood, - Long Beach Transit Plaza

    So what does this really mean? The most practical example is the bus ride from Downtown to Santa Monica. You can take the 720 and it will run on Wilshire all the way... no problem. However, let say you went to dinner in Koreatown and now need to go back to your place say... off Pico near Westside Pavillian. You will need to take the Metro 730 to Rimpau terminal and change to Big Blue Bus's #7 or Rapid 7 to finish your trip. Ditto 728 and BBB5 on Olympic. Why is this so? Because Big Blue Bus will go nuts if Metro tried to steal its routes on the Westside on Pico and Olympic. It's an unfortunate reality that we'll just have to deal with and navigate around.

    So the bottom line is this: if you are going from Downtown LA, Mid City or Koreatown to West LA or Santa Monica, you have to transfer at either Rimpau or Westwood Blvd (unless you are taking Rapid 720 or 704, which goes all the way through). Similarly, if you want to go to Culver City from points east or north, you will most likely need to transfer at Fairfax/Washington bus terminal.

    Now that we get that out of the way, there is one more intimidating aspect of using the bus in LA that newbies find impossible to comprehend. What does the Metro bus numbers mean?

    • 1-99: Local bus service to/from Downtown Los Angeles and other areas. The route numbering begins at Route 2 (Sunset Boulevard, a route leading west from downtown) and proceeds counterclockwise around Downtown Los Angeles, ending at route 96 (Riverside Drive.)
    • 100-199: East-west service, not serving Downtown Los Angeles.
    • 200-299: North-south service, not serving Downtown Los Angeles.
    • 300-399: Limited-stop versions of traditional local routes, which make fewer stops and generally operate during peak times. Most limited-stop routes are designated by placing a 3 before a main route number (example: the limited-stop version of route 2 is route 302). Most limited-stop (300-series) routes have been replaced by Metro Rapid routes.
    • 400-599: Express (all or part of the service runs on freeways)
    • 600-699: Shuttle and special event services.
    • 700-799: Rapid
    • 900-999: Rapid Express (the "Rapid of Rapids", even fewer stops than the 700 buses)
    The long an short of this migraine inducing numbering scheme is this:
    • The first digit tells you what kind of service (Local, Express, Rapid etc) and the general direction (Downtown, East-West, North-South)
    • The last 2 or 3 digits tells you what neighborhoods it goes through (not exact but close enough)
    Think of the LA area (excluding the Valley) as a long rectangle... with Sunset Blvd on top and Lincoln Blvd/PCH on the left, Alameda St on the right, and Artesia Blvd on the bottom. Downtown LA will be located at the top right corner of this rectangle.

    For east-west buses, the lower the last two digit (i.e. #2, #4, #20, 704, 720 etc), the closer the route runs near the top (north) of the rectangle. The higher the last two digit (#33, 130 etc.), the closer it runs near the bottom (south) of the rectangle.

    Now if you go back to to Level 1 where I mention the main Rapid bus line numbers, notice how 704 is Santa Monica (northern most), follow by 720 Wilshire (middle), 730 on Pico (lower middle), and 733 on Venice (south). Bus 130 is the southern most east-west line operated by Metro. Bus 150 and above denotes east-west service in the Valley (the area outside the imaginary rectangle) and the pattern is reversed - 150/750 is the southern most east-west line (Ventura Blvd) in the Valley; higher numbers operate on more northern streets.

    For north-south buses, the lower the last two digit, the closer the route runs near right (east) of the rectangle. Higher numbers are further to the left (west).And as is the case of east-west buses, the pattern is somewhat reversed in the Valley.

    Level 4 - Jedi Master: Use The Force

    If you have managed to learn the first 3 steps, you are probably in the top 10% of people in LA in terms of transit proficiency. There is nothing more I can teach you really... you just need to keep using the system and learn on your own. You may be wondering... what about Metrolink? Well, that is our regional commuter train system (not to be confused with Metro, which is our local transit agency) and I actually have never used it since I live and work in LA. Metrolink takes you to some really far out places out in the suburbs like Ventura County, Orange County, and Inland Empire. Since I have never used it, I can't give you any tips about how to approach it if you are a newbie... but once you get to Union Station, everything I mentioned in Level 1~3 applies. And also, your Metrolink ticket entitles you to one free boarding on Metro rail and buses... so you can hop on the Red, Purple, or Gold line or connecting buses without having to buy another ticket.

    Another recent development in LA's transit scene is the FlyAway bus that connects Downtown, Westwood, Van Nuys, or Irvine with LAX. This is the most convenient way to get to LAX and the bus drops you right off at the Terminals.

    Go ahead transit chickens... take that first step towards independence.

    Links to some transit agency websites if you want more info on specific bus routes:
    Big Blue Bus
    Culver City Bus
    FlyAway LAX


    calwatch said...

    It's a good start - although the fare structure is complicated, with its mix of day passes, TAP cards, and interagency vs. local transfers.

    There are a few good resources though - the Metro Trip Planner, despite its clunky interface, is surprisingly useful, and the "12 Minute Map", while not perfect (it should really be called the "5 buses every hour map" since it conflates Rapid and local routes along a corridor, giving a false impression of the amount of service actually provided), is useful for determining where one can go during the day without wasting too much time waiting around.

    Blinkie said...

    Excellent post. Regarding Metrolink, it can be very useful for filling in one of the gaps you mentioned in the rail system: the Glendale/Burbank area. I used Metrolink to commute from Burbank for years.

    Also notable is the LAX Flyaway, which is a pricey but direct way to get between Union Station and the LAX/El Segundo area. Currently I live in Pasadena and work in El Segundo, and the Flyaway is a life saver.

    fatpinkchicken said...

    This is great but yeah. A detailed breakdown of the fare structure would really add to that. Explaining how the various passes work is always the one thing people want to know and even I don't fully understand, and I've been riding transit forever.

    irwinc said...

    Thanks for the feedback. I decided not to go into passes, TAP card, and special fares because this is meant to be a guide for newbies. If you start talking about transfers and zone charges, you are going to lose them before they take the plunge. Perhaps I will do a 2nd "intermediate" guide at some point to incorporate the fare structures.

    The Flyaway Bus suggestion is good... I may incorporate it if I decide to update this page. It could be a good "gateway drug" to people who have never taken the bus before.

    skim said...

    I can't seem to visualize LA area as a "long rectangle". Would you mind posting a picture of what you're describing?

    lachic said...

    Actually, the metro systems in Berlin and M√ľnchen (and probably the rest of Germany) are gateless. Your ticket needs to be validated (stamped) in a machine on the platform just before boarding. Plainclothes ticket-checkers are on about 10%-20% of the trains, and give you a big fine (payable on the spot) if you don't have a validated ticket. The amount of the fine and percentage of trains with checkers is set such that it's statistically cheaper to just buy a ticket every time you board instead of trying to cheat.

    Erynne said...

    Heyas! I didn't see any way to get a hold of you on your blog, but I wanted to know about a comment you posted on the MetroRider forum...if you're a UCLA student, but not living in student housing, are you still able to take the free UCLA shuttle from the campus housing with an ID?

    Anonymous said...

    Great guide, Irwin!

    I wanted to let you know that HopStop has now added Los Angeles to our service so you can use our site or mobile apps to get transit and walking directions in LA. :)

    You can check it out here:

    And you can access it from mobile here:

    Community Manager

    Steve Crowe said...

    It's comforting to know that, as a visitor, I'm no more clueless about your transit system than most locals.

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