My boyfriend, Brian, is a unique dude in many wonderful (read: weird) ways. Just one example: He is a Los Angeles resident who takes public transit to work every day. RIGHT?
With Brian, the commute math works, time-wise. His particular route, the traffic is so egregious, that a train ride turns out to be about equivalent to driving. “Competitively convenient,” as I call it. (An aside: I would even take a 50% increase in my commute time if I could do it via transit, because I could read and space off. I would actually love to see some studies on this.)
But the math that shocked me? The unlimited pass for the LA Metro Rail is such a bad deal! Brian informed me that a one-month pass was $100. I honestly didn’t believe it at first. For a city with such congestion problems, incentivizing people to get unlimited and take transit as much as possible should be a priority.
So we did some back-of-the-envelope math (technically, back-of-the-coaster-at-the-bar-where-we-were-having-happy-hour math). Each one-way on the LA Metro is $1.75. To make the unlimited pass worth it, Brian would need to take 58 trips. But that number was kind of hard to conceptualize, so we put it terms of his work calendar. Ok, so: That’s to and from work every day plus at least one round trip on every single weekend day, with just one day in the month where you didn’t ride. That’s just to make it worth the tradeoff. You’d have to ride even more to get any “bonus rides.”
I tried to recollect: Were New York and Chicago this bad of a deal, too? Was I just carless and careless? I did some research and, turns out, LA’s unlimited pass is indeed the worst deal of the nine largest transit systems:
Quick note: You may have noticed this list excludes D.C., where fares are based on distance traveled (versus one universal fare regardless of where you enter and exit), so was harder to compare to all the others. I’m sure there’s a way to make them mathematically comparable. But, eh, my priorities are elsewhere tbh.
What this calendar view viz tells me is that, unless I’m a truly dedicated user of L.A. Metro Rail (or if I’m doing an LA Times-sanctioned Red Line Bar Crawl), an unlimited pass almost never makes sense. Whereas in cities like San Francisco, Boston, and Atlanta, even people who solely use it for commuting get some freebies. Bah!
I, just a casual transit user, have no business buying an unlimited pass. But even for dedicated commuters like Brian? He’s not getting any bonus rides from this deal. So the economics results in Brian simply buying single-ride passes – only when he needs it – and not having any incentive to take the train in other circumstances.
Alas, deep down, I love the LA Metro. It gets me to the beach, and to the amazing food spots downtown, and to Universal CityWalk Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville. So to redeem my beloved train network, I went on a search for other ways to assert its quality.
Turns out, LA has one of the cheapest single-ride fares. Huzzah! Which is why, mathematically, its unlimited pass looks like such a bad deal. (Theoretically, Garcetti could just increase the single-ride price, making the unlimited look like a better deal, thereby gaming my metric system. But I don’t think the Mayor’s Office is combing through itsdatadana.com for policy inspiration.)
It also turns out that the sheer length of the LA system is pretty good. We’re a sprawling city, planned and extended with the car-based aesthetic of the mid-20th century. Aw, LA Metro, little buddy, you’re doing your best. Even if you’re not taking home the gold, I’m glad you’re in the race.
BONUS: I’ve mentioned bars thrice in this post. Let’s make it four (frice?). I think the title of this LA Magazine article sums it up: “A Local Hero Has Mapped Every Bar Within Walking Distance of the Metro.” A salute to you, sir.