Get L.A. Moving

By Sean Carroll | June 7, 2010 12:59 pm

Here’s a local issue that reflects a very common set of problems: the Los Angeles subway system. Such as it is. Namely, embarrassingly inadequate. Our aspirations to be considered a world-class city on the level of New York, Paris, Tokyo or London are severely restricted by the difficulties people face in getting around without a car. Or with a car, for that matter, given the traffic.

But there’s no reason it has to be like this. At any given moment, some concerned group of citizens will be agitating to improve the situation. Right now such a group is Get L.A. Moving. They’ve put together an amazing proposal for a serious subway network that would utterly transform the city, while respecting the natural contours of the existing urban environment. Click for bigger versions.

LA subway proposal

Looking at a map like this is a bittersweet experience — comparing what could be to what is. Of course it would be very expensive; they estimate about $35 billion, which doesn’t sound so crazy when spread over a number of years. Times are tough — but that’s exactly the reason why pie-in-the-sky plans like this should be taken seriously right now. There’s no better way to stimulate the economy than to pour massive amounts of money into legitimate infrastructure projects; you create jobs, but you also create value that lasts for many decades to come. Not to mention decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels, which hopefully doesn’t need to be justified.

Also — how cool would it be to have one of these babies crawling along underneath Sunset Boulevard?


In the back of my mind, the real obstacle to building a subway system in a mature city was that you couldn’t really imagine shutting down long stretches of busy streets for months or years at a time. But you don’t have to; modern tunnel-boring technology does it all underground.

Some will object that LA just isn’t dense enough to support a subway system; our attractions are spread out rather than localized to squares. That’s an utterly backwards attitude; build the subway, the density will come. With nice weather 340+ days a year, this is the perfect city in the world to have a mass transit system connecting a bunch of pedestrian-friendly outdoor plazas.

Of course, then everyone would want to come live here. So maybe it wouldn’t be ideal. But it would still be a good idea for the economy and the environment; so I’m willing to sacrifice.

  • TB2

    Can’t argue that the giant subterranean boring machine isn’t impressive, but it would be cheaper and easier to install sleek pillars for monorail beams. Above ground and easier to rescue from, in times of shifting earth. And very futuristic, plus better to sightsee out of. Just start extending a certain line from Anaheim.

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention Get L.A. Moving | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine --

  • db

    > you create jobs

    Yes, but you also destroy as many or more where you take the money/resources from to fund it.

    That’s not to say that subways aren’t great, but creating jobs is no argument for building them.

  • Ellipsis

    Tunnels are expensive, but earthquake-safe (or rather increased earthquake safety factor) tunnels are _really_ expensive.

  • Non-Believer

    I’m not from LA. But I think public metro rails are necessary in all large and mid size cities. It should be on the “to do” list for at least 50 cities in the US. That and more inter city rails.

    I like monorail idea too, TB2. I think its more cheerful to be able to watch the world go buy. But I am surprised that its less expensive. I would think you would need more access/land/right away etc. Those things have to cause more legal and bureaucratic delays and costs. I don’t really know. Of course the cool tunnel borer is expensive…

  • Rob

    I moved to SoCal from NY in 1995 and was appalled at the lack of public transportation. I miss it terribly and prefer it to driving unreservedly. But public transportation isn’t part of the fabric of society here. It’s all about the cars. Unless and until citizens can be persuaded or coerced (higher gasoline prices?) into using it, it doesn’t make sense to build it.

  • Matt T

    @ dB
    I don’t think that referencing a 19th century economist is going to make your argument any more compelling. On top of creating temporary govt jobs to oversee the construction of the subway system, and on top of the money that will be poured into the PRIVATE sector to construct the subway, you’ll also permanently employ a large number of people to operate and maintain the subway.
    Private industry is good for many things: public works ain’t one of them. Name one time that a private firm has improved mass transit for a whole city.

  • Tod R. Lauer

    Hmmm… as rich as the map is, it does highlight the low density of the lines. Pasadena just has a single spine going along Colorado, with a long way between stops. To make this really work there has to be a serious supporting network of local trolleys, park&rides, etc. to feed into it…

  • Emily Lakdawalla

    In my previous life, before I was a space blogger, I worked at an environmental consulting firm here in L.A. that specialized in writing the environmental documentation required for public transit projects. There’s a lot of debate about whether these things should be surface rail or subways. Usually cities do subways despite their increased cost because they require less private property to be condemned and because it is safer for pedestrians. But the California Department of Transportation already owns lots of disused freight rail right of ways (like the Exposition line in west L.A.), which means they don’t need to eat into expensive property. And the sediments in the L.A. basin have lots of hydrocarbons, which means whenever you dig a tunnel it tends to accumulate nasty stuff like hydrogen sulfide gas. So then you have to vent that gas, and wherever the vent pops out at the surface creates a potential negative health impact. For these reasons Caltrans tends to want to do things as surface rail, but then you get tons of NIMBY opposition. It’s a real mess.

  • addison

    Thanks Sean. Living in LA and loving every aspect of the city other than the Haze and poor infastructure, I wish I had more to add but being someone who strongly believes robust public transit as an essential pillar to any metro or large city’s infrastructure. It is good to know others feel the same way and are advocating their beliefs makes me feel good that this city might actually grow out of the Smog Ages and help be the catalyst to spark the same across the US, especially after Chinas recently announced and extremely enviable rail system.

  • Tacoma

    Dream on Sean. Ain’t going to happen in LA.

    Technologically, it would be a fantastic challenge, but which is entirely doable. The money will be so huge, even money printer Greenspan will have trouble. But the show stopper is – culture. Add politics and you have an impossible dream.

  • Timon of Athens

    “Of course, then everyone would want to come live here.”

    Guffaw! That’s even funnier than the line about LA’s “attractions”.

    *What* attractions?!

  • Jim Harrison

    Money spent on infrastructure improvements like a serious subway system for LA wouldn’t reduce investment in other productive uses because such funds would otherwise be used to fuel speculative financial deals–at present, American business is not interested in building things or providing services if it can help it for the obvious reason that the returns to capital are vastly greater in finance. The goals of businessmen and the goals of rational public policy just aren’t the same. It makes sense for the dominant business interests to act to increase their share of wealth even if the best route to this goal requires that the total wealth of the nation be reduced, which is exactly what is happening. If the object of the game were really to increase the productive capacity of the whole society, we would obviously be spending on capital improvements.

  • Martin

    What are those people doing with one of the LHC detectors? Oh wait…

  • Nameless

    There is a lot of money and lobbying power OPPOSED to any expansion of subways in LA. And that’s why it is not going to happen in a capitalist-friendly country like the United States.

    Green line is a perfect example. It is a bizarre subway line that essentially runs from nowhere to nowhere. If it were extended 2 miles west, it would reach LAX. If it were extended 2 miles east, it would connect with Metrolink railway lines. It would be possible to arrive to LAX, take the subway, transfer to the train, and be in Disneyland within 1 hour after arrival or in San Diego within 2 hours.

    So why is it built in such a peculiar way? The answer is that long-term parking businesses at LAX, fearful of losing money because no one would use them if the subway line were properly designed, lobbied and bribed till the plans for the last section were axed.

  • Phillip Helbig

    It sounds like an urban legend, but wasn’t the LA public-transportation system bought by a tyre company 60 or 70 years ago and then shut down?

    Aahhh, the wonder of search engines. Here’s the straight dope:

  • Larry Wasserman

    Jobs created by the public sector are like virtual particles: very temporary and not
    substantial. And creating jobs in the public sector takes jobs from
    the private sector. As Bastiat warned about public spending, the visible benefits
    are easy to see. The invisible costs are …. well … invisible.

    Larry Wasserman

  • db

    @Matt T

    Yes, no one denies that a lot of jobs are created. But a lot of other jobs are ALSO destroyed elsewhere. Look at the analogous situation on a desert island with Alice anb Bob shipwrecked and trying to survive. Alice has a knife and uses it to carve up coconuts. Bob, having no knife, idly looks on. Not good. So I take the knife from Alice, give it to Bob and tell him to carve me a limestone sculpture. Hooray, one job created!

    Bastiat’s What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen may be the most clear and insightful writing on the subject ever. What does it matter that he was an economist or from the 19th century?

  • hanmeng

    Although I’m also personally a fan of public transportation, it needs lots of tax dollars to survive. There aren’t a lot of those around in California these days.

  • Ubi Dubium

    “…build the subway, the density will come.”
    Except that then LA would have to be able to accomodate that density in other ways. I’m particularly concerned about the water supply, which I understand to be only just barely sufficient now. A huge influx of people into the area would mean coming up with new water sources to match. Not so simple.

  • Mantis

    Sean: “Times are tough — but that’s exactly the reason why pie-in-the-sky plans like this should be taken seriously right now. There’s no better way to stimulate the economy than to pour massive amounts of money into legitimate infrastructure projects; you create jobs…”

    And where do you plan to take those massive amounts of money from?

    Also creating taxpayer funded jobs is banal, the only problem is again, who’s taxes do you plan to rise?

    If you really think this subway project is such a great idea why not start/join a fund rising initiative, if you can convince every single of the 4.5 million LA citizens to donate $7800 you will have your $35 billion and the work can commence.

  • Jim Harrison

    Spending money on useful public works simply does not reduce private investment when the private sector is not doing any damned investing. One of the obvious reasons we’ve suffered through a series of speculative bubbles is because the people with surplus money haven’t found any better thing to do with their wealth than to bet it on currencies, hedge funds, and derivatives. Which is one of the best reasons to redistribute wealth to people who will actually do something useful with it.

    The Chamber-of-Commerce riff against public spending–“Yes, no one denies that a lot of jobs are created. But a lot of other jobs are ALSO destroyed elsewhere.”–is simply and demonstrably wrong.

  • Jonathan

    I think the argument that Los Angelinos love their cars too much to embrace public transit is a bunch of BS. I grew up here and yes, I do love my car and I do love driving…but I most definitely don’t love traffic, smog, looking for parking, or the amount of miles and maintenance I have to put into my car due to all the driving. For the longest time, didn’t even know that we had viable public transit options.

    I spent the past five years in Tokyo…and was amazed that such a densely populated city could function so well, and that it was founded on the basis that public transit was the norm…efficient, clean, reliable, and cheaper than driving and parking.

    After I came back, I wanted to see if things had improved here…and yes, we do have Public Transportation! I actually take public transit quite a bit here in LA now (Metro Buses, Metro Rail, and MetroLink) aside from lack of frequency and lack of early or late hour availability; I think it’s quite good (as long as you plan early).

    Working on access points and time availability will greatly improve Los Angelinos interest in mass transit…though as Sean points out…maybe we don’t want too many people crowding our awesome city!

  • db

    @Jim Harrison

    Bets on currencies, hedge funds and derivatives _are_ investments. Meaning that in the end resources get put to use in attempts to increase future production. Bets on speculative bubbles are investments, but bad investments that don’t lead to increased future production. Then the investors lose their money. This tends to discourage bad investments. Unless, of course, someone takes money from sensible investors to bail out the reckless ones.

  • spyder

    I grew up in LaLa land back before GM, ARCO, Getty, and Firestone conspired to destroy the public transit trolley system. Yes, there were less people, but the ability to ride from the beach in Playa del Rey to downtown Hollywood (the doctors and dentist), made life feel vibrant and adventurous. Then came the cars, and it took more than an hour to drive from the beach to the other end of the valley along Sepulveda, and nearly two hours to make the transit to the new opened Disneyland along Century and Whittier. Next they built the Interstates, and are still building the Interstates, and you could make the trips in half the time. But that encouraged more and more people, which resulted in it taking the same amount of time as the original roads.

    Emily’s ideas are the most reasonable approach. Trains used to run all over the Greater LA area/region, particularly to assist with the development of the aerospace industry and NASA’s space program. Beginning to reconnect the tracks with commuter trains would be much more reasonable than delving into the substrate of LA, filled as it is with faults, fissures, tars, gases, etc.

  • matt

    I’m all in favor . LA is one of the most polluted cities in the US (Ozone, short term PM2.5, year-round PM2.5, pick one) and personal transportation does make a difference. There are always gonna be the ones against it, the are still people against tv or rock music. I say if there’s not a good, big, and obvious reason against it (I didn’t read any above) it should be done.

  • erik

    Couldn’t agree more, Sean. Compared to other cites, public transportation in LA is simply pathetic. The notion that it’s too expensive is simply short-sighted, as efficient public transportation has enormous economic and environmental returns. And the argument against it from the standpoint of earthquakes is refuted by places like Tokyo and Kyoto, just to name a couple. Getting around those cities is MUCH easier, convenient and safer than getting around LA, even as a foreign speaker.

  • Jim Harrison

    Though it shouldn’t, I’m amazed how otherwise rational people can buy into goofball just-so stories about economics such as db’s absurd desert island parable. On the desert island we actually inhabit, the issue doesn’t involve idling Alice to employ Bob because and Bob and many others are currently sitting around on their butts even though there is no shortage of knives. Unemployed workers and other factors of production are sheer waste. (Note that for us non-ideologues, circumstances dictate policy. Thus when government spending really does compete with productive private spending, rational people are in favor of running surpluses as Clinton did during the boom years.)

    Improvements in finance can lead to increases in productive capacity and have in the past, for example when nascent European capitalism made it possible to organize long-distance trade through novel financial instruments. That’s not what’s happening now, th0ugh. I believe in was Volcker who suggested that the last good idea the banking industry had was the ATM. What we obviously need and aren’t getting from private business is the real investment in equipment, training, and knowledge that will allow us to produce more in the future.

    db’s arguments are both ahistorical and extremely abstract, which is why they prove too much. For example, if db had been around to argue DeWitt Clinton out of building the Erie Canal, Philadelphia would still be the largest city on the East coast.

  • Belizean

    Expanding the subway system in L.A. is beyond insane.

    The solution is to privatize the freeways and turn them into toll roads.

    Just as I don’t expect to pay Watts prices to live in Beverly Hills, I shouldn’t expect to pay the same to be on the freeways during rush hour (currently nothing) as I would at 2 am.

    The toll road profits would then fund additional road expansion.

  • The AstroDyke

    Thank you Sean, for a lovely 5 min in my office staring at the map, tracing out metro lines, and dreaming of journeys I’d take through a different LA.

    Speaking of which, did you ever get around to buying a $20 Einstein-would-ride-this bike, leaving it at the Allen Station, and commuting by Gold Line?

  • BabyCham


    Because there’s *so* much room for additional road expansion in Los Angeles. Let’s tear down more homes, parks and other spaces for humans so we can temporarily and imperceptibly speed up traffic. Let’s face it: Los Angeles is a mess because it bet all its money on the car culture which simply can’t be sustained in a region of many many millions of humans. The freeways were meant to be a fast alternative to surface streets and if you’ve driven on an L.A. freeway recently you will realize that in less than 50 years they have completely failed to live up to their promise. New York City’s subway system has been around for twice as long and manages to function in the way it was originally intended despite the massive increase in population since its inception.

  • manny

    I hate to say it, but it won’t happen in LA. They run a proto-socialist, redistribution of wealth state and they are broke. CA was broke before the current bubble burst which is a little fact that no one wishes to admit.

    The current subway was supposed to take 5-10 years to complete and it took more than 30 years to finish because of the failed policies employed by the CA state legislature and an endless cadre of environmental groups suing the state 90 times a year and the state allowing every single suit to go to trial. (yes, you do have to ask the state for permission to sue. Most states allow one maybe two and tell the repeat version of the same suit to go eff themselves as they should)
    Oh and by the way, the Red Line wasn’t ever even REALLY finished as it was mapped out. (thank you Congressman Waxman…douche…)

    I’d love it, but I don’t think it’ll ever happen.

  • Mantis

    Jim Harrison: “Improvements in finance can lead to increases in productive capacity and have in the past, for example when nascent European capitalism made it possible to organize long-distance trade through novel financial instruments.”

    Long distance trade predates capitalism and it’s financial instruments by thousands of years.

  • Jim Harrison

    Mantis is certainly correct and I flubbed my statement, but I was trying to make the point that improvements in the technology of finance can have a positive effect on facilitating the growth of trade and did so during the Middle Ages. The invention of money by the Lydians a couple of thousand years earlier also had an upside even if the stuff is the root of all evil…

  • Belizean


    There’s plenty of room for road expansion. After the freeways are converted to toll ways, widen them by buying up adjacent properties. Just about any LA property owner would jump at the chance to cash out (and perhaps leave the sinking ship that is CA).

    But the main effect of converting to toll roads is a significant reduction in congestion. If you’ve driven our freeways on holidays observed by a small minority of businesses (e.g. President’s Day), you’ve experienced the amazingly beneficial effect of taking a mere ~10% of cars off the roads during rush hour.

    I’ve taken a subway during rush hour, and I’ve crawled along in my car.
    Sorry, but I think that most people would find the subway an unacceptable reduction in their standard of living. Moroever, the subway will never be door-to-door.

    The car culture can work well, but it requires a politico-economic system that does a reasonably efficient job of allocating resources.

  • Joel C

    The GetLAMoving map is a great dream. Several of us in the pro-rail community created similar maps around the same time. Unfortunately, Damien never accepted the actual economics of his subway proposal, and since that time, his focus on subways has lead him to becoming one of the region’s leading opponents of light rail. Fortunately, Metro is taking a more pragmatic approach and building subways where they will actually be useful (and not a waste of money).

  • Jerome

    Ok, i see a people giving the Bastiat critique, but the qualifier Sean added, jobs WORTH doing, save him from the critique. All Bastiat said that the jobs argument by itself is not enough, but if it was to create long lasting value Bastiat would agree with Sean.

  • Rich

    Wow, there’s a lot of negativity on this site. I don’t understand the endless LA bashing. It’s got a lot of problems, but look at how far things have come in just 20 years: The Blue Line from Long Beach to Downtown; the Red Line from Downtown to North Hollywood; the short Purple Line extension down Wilshire, which is well set to receive federal funds in addition to a local tax increase that County voters passed in 2008; the Gold Lines to Pasadena and East Los Angeles; the Orange Line BRT from North Hollywood to Warner Center/Woodland Hills (with an under-construction extension to connect it to the Metrolink station in Chatsworth); the under-construction Expo Line from Downtown to Culver City (with an extension to the ocean by 2015), and a network of well-used articulated Rapid buses that get signal priority at intersections. The Gold Line extension to Azusa will break ground in July. Again, this all has been constructed since the Blue Line opened in 1990.

    This is all notwithstanding the 30/10 initiative which has been in the news lately, which has VERY good chances of passage in the Senate/House transportation bills, that will speed up construction of 12 major transit projects including linking the Green Line to LAX and Torrance; the Crenshaw Corridor North/South project to link LAX to the Expo Line via Crenshaw; a 405 transit corridor project; the Downtown Connector; a future East LA to Whittier extension of the Gold Line; as well as the all-important subway extension to Westwood along Wilshire Boulevard.

    Check out Metro’s site for the info on the initiative:

    More people are moving into the central core of the city, and those people have no qualms about using the bus, or hopping on the train. These trains and buses are PACKED every day.

    I agree, there’s still a very big cultural disconnect for people living on the Westside and the Valley for taking transit, which I expect will start changing drastically once the Expo Line opens. However, that’s not the only part of Los Angeles, and most people in Central LA love transit.

    Some people will just take any opportunity to bash Los Angeles as much as possible. Despite all its problems, I just hope people can take a more realistic view of the situation.

  • Dan W.

    Sunset Blvd. west of Fairfax is a lesser transit corridor and there is no chance of subway construction on the Sunset Strip west of Fairfax, nor should there be. Transit ridership is WAY too light west of Fairfax.

    If there is subway construction in that area, it will be, and should be, on Santa Monica Blvd. instead.

    Check Metro’s community meetings and presentations for the Westside Subway Extension Project to see researched stations at SantaMonica/LaBrea, SantaMonica/Fairfax, SantaMonica/SanVicente and the Beverly Center area.

  • Scott Mercer

    The amount of negativity, ignorance and trasmitting of urban legends in these comments is nothing short of STAGGERING. I will try to knock down that I which I feel should be knocked down. I have lived in Los Angeles for 20 years and have followed the ongoing, twisted saga of mass transit in the country for about that same period of time.

    1) MYTH: Los Angeles is a car culture. They are too in love with their cars for any mass transit or rail to exist.
    ANSWER: Myth/meme perpetrated by lazy reportage. Los Angeles was built by rail. It wouldn’t exist without it. Even its “less dense” structure was able to exist because of the Pacific Electric Railway and the LA Railway streetcar system. Plus, there are so many people, even if a mere 10% of County residents use mass transit (probable in a large city with a massive underclass) that’s 1.2 million people. Certainly enough riders to justify a large mass transit operation.

    2) MYTH: General Motors, General Tire and Firestone bought the LA mass transit system and ripped it out.
    ANSWER: Some truth to this, but the whole truth is a lot more nuanced. The real blame has to be spread around among the citizenry and the politicians that pander to them. In truth, it was the Los Angeles County government (who had taken the lines over from private entities) that ripped out the remaining streetcar and train lines in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, to little public protest. All the politcos and civic boosters promoted the idea that the freeway system would make the streetcars obsolete and unnecessary. 2010 has got a question: how’d that work out for ya? Not so good? So bad that you had to rebuild the mass transit, starting in 1985? Buses alone didn’t cut the mustard? I see. Well then. End result: freeways were necessary, but were not a panacea. Mass transit was ALSO required. This is what GM owned for a period of time. They never owned the more famous “Red Cars.”

    3) MYTH: This idea is too grandiose. It will never happen.
    ANSWER: It has happened, it is happening, and it will happen. Since 1990, we in LA County have built the Metrorail system of two subway lines and three light rail lines, totaling about 90 miles of track. Already, that’s longer than the systems in Baltimore, Cleveland, Miami, Atlanta, and even the legacy systems in Boston and Philadelphia. In fact, currently it is the fifth largest rail-based mass transit system in the US. And, actually, getting bigger with construction going on RIGHT NOW of one new light rail line and an extension of another existing light rail line. Within two years, it will be number four in the USA, behind NYC, Chicago, Washington and the Bay Area, and within 10 years will probably pass the Bay Area and Washington D.C. to land at number 3. With the “30/10” plan currently being proposed, it will pass Chicago to be number TWO in the USA. Wouldn’t call that skimpy exactly. It’s not a perfect plan and won’t cover everything (once again the San Fernando Valley gets the shaft), but it’s millions of times better than what LA County had before: nothing other than buses.

    4) MYTH: This idea is insane. Los Angeles is not dense enough for subways.
    ANSWER: First of all, on that map, only a few of the proposed lines are subways. Most of them are at-grade or elevated light rail. And secondly, L.A. actually IS as dense as parts of New York City or Chicago, but not everywhere, only in certain areas. It is those areas where subway and light rail should be and is going to be constructed. This does not include ALL the lines on the proposal map above, but it does include many of them.

    That’s about all I have time for…oh yeah, monorails are very bad. Cheap, they fall down in earthquakes, could be orphan technology. Subway tunnels are safer in earthquakes. Subways are more expensive, but you get what you pay for. Quality doesn’t cost, it pays.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


See More

Collapse bottom bar