How to Ride Transit in Los Angeles

1. What is the transit?

The main transit system serving Los Angeles is Metro, which is the one we usually use in these guides. It encompasses a rail system and a vast bus network that covers most of the city and a lot of the suburbs around Los Angeles County.

Crucially, however, there are a lot of other, smaller transit systems around the county, with almost every prominent municipality having its own small bus network. These are meant to serve more local transit needs that aren’t met by the regional system. There are far too many to list here, but fortunately you don’t really need to know them all. All of them are covered in the same travel planning tools and even accept the same transit card as Metro (which we’ll cover below). Nevertheless, a couple of these smaller systems worth mentioning are DASH, a system of neighborhood shuttles run by the City of Los Angeles (particularly in Downtown LA); Big Blue Bus around Santa Monica; Long Beach Transit in Long Beach and surrounding communities; and Foothill Transit in the San Gabriel Valley.

Also, if you’re in Union Station (the big train/bus station near Downtown), it’s worth knowing the difference between Metro and Metrolink, which is a commuter rail system with lines going out to the more far-flung parts of the region, like San Bernardino, Riverside, Lancaster, and Orange County. Metrolink uses big trains, more akin to Amtrak, and doesn’t accept transit passes or transit cards; instead, you have to buy tickets from machines at each station (although if you do ride Metrolink, you can use your ticket to transfer to just about any local transit system it connects to, including Metro).

2. How do I plan my trip?

There’s a lot of trip planners out there, but there’s two in particular we prefer using. Google Maps is good for planning ahead (just click the train icon when looking up directions), and has pretty solid info on all the various transit agencies in the Los Angeles area. However, given how frequently schedules have been changing during the pandemic, you should double check the schedules on the websites for the transit agencies themselves to make sure that the trip Google Maps spits out is actually feasible. Sometimes, you’ll find that there’s no good way to get within walking distance of your destination, but you can often at least get relatively close and then resort to an Uber or Lyft (or Metro Micro, if you’re lucky enough to be in one of their zones) for the rest of the way, to save yourself a lot of money.

And make sure to plan out your return trip too! Transit service is much more limited in the evening and on the weekend, so you need to make sure you can get home, too.

Another good trip planner is the Transit app, which you can use to plan ahead, though we prefer using it for real-time arrival info while actually out and about. It has a very clean interface and the “Go” function is really good at giving you step-by-step instructions during your trip, while broadcasting the location of your bus or train while you’re on it for the benefit of others using the app. Metro has even adopted it as its official trip planning app. Note that while smaller transit agencies are included in Transit, they don’t always provide real-time arrival info, and sometimes even Metro real-time info won’t show up. Times in gray are the scheduled times, while colored ones are synced up with the actual location of the bus/train.

Transit also has a handy feature where you can “favorite” certain routes, which means Transit will notify you if any issues arise with those routes (maintenance, station closures, delays, etc.). These are also posted on Metro’s Alerts and Advisories page and the Metro Rider Alerts twitter feed.

3. How do I pay for my ride?

You want to get yourself a TAP card. It’s a fare card that you add money to, then use each time you ride transit. Per its name, you “tap” it on fare readers (the blue circles that say “TAP” on them) at the entrances to train stations and at the front door of buses (although it’s not really a tap, it’s more holding it over the circle for a few seconds before you hear the beep). There’s two kinds of fare product you can load onto a TAP card: “Stored value” or a transit pass. Stored value is just an amount of money you put on the card which is drawn from each time you use it. A transit pass covers an unlimited number of trips for a certain duration of time (usually a day, a week, or a month) for a specific transit agency.

A transit pass offers the benefit of not having to keep track of how much money you have on your card (at least until the pass expires). But bear in mind that a transit pass only works for one specific transit agency, whereas stored value can be used on any of the local transit systems in Los Angeles County. What you decide to get depends on your habits. If you use transit only sporadically, just putting some stored value on the card makes the most sense. If you use one particular system regularly, you might consider a monthly pass. You can also put both on the same card; in fact, this is what I do: I have a monthly pass for Metro, but I also put a little stored value on the card in case I need to use one of the other transit agencies.

A new TAP card costs $2, and the easiest place to buy or reload one is from a TAP card machine at a Metro Rail station. You can also order one from the website, or buy one from one of many stores or community centers (a list of vendors is on the website). Or you can even download the TAP app and use your phone instead of the plastic card. Metro’s one-way fare is $1.75, and you can transfer to another Metro line for free within two hours.

4. I thought the Metro was free?

Only Metro’s buses are free, and that’s probably just a temporary condition. During the pandemic, Metro forced bus passengers to board through the back door and stopped collecting fares on its buses, making the bus service de-facto free of charge. Now, Metro buses allow you to board any door and you’re not required to pay when you get on.

Remember that this is only for the buses. Even throughout the pandemic, the Metro rail system has required a TAP card to pass through the turnstiles, although I never saw any sign of fare enforcement during the pandemic (and you will see a lot of people pretty flagrantly dodging the turnstiles). It seems like Metro just isn’t interested in enforcing fares at the moment–but that could change at any time. My advice is to have a TAP card on hand, just in case.

This info only pertains to Metro, however. Some of the smaller transit agencies have gone back to normal operating practices, including collecting fares and having passengers board through the front door.

5. What’s with all the letters (colors)?

Until recently, most of the Metro rail lines were named after colors: Red, Purple, Blue, Green, and Gold, with a couple of express bus lines called the Orange and Silver Lines. The one exception was the Expo Line, because by that point Metro was running out of basic colors to use.

But Metro is still building new rail lines, so they decided that it would make more sense in the long term to rename all their rail lines (and the two express bus lines) after letters, like they do on the New York subway. So right now we’re in a weird transition phase where the letter names are the official names, but everyone still uses the color names when giving directions. When announcing the train, Metro will use both names, with the color name in parenthesis; for example, the “B (Red) Line.”

6. Where do the train lines go?

  • The B (Red)/D (Purple) are the only two subway lines. They overlap from Union Station through Downtown to Wilshire/Vermont in Koreatown, where they split apart. The B (Red) goes up to Hollywood and then under the hills to North Hollywood out in the Valley. The D (Purple) only goes a couple more stops down Wilshire, ending at Wilshire/Western, although in a few years it’ll be extended further down Wilshire.
  • The A (Blue)/E (Expo) lines overlap in Downtown, starting from the 7th/Metro station (where riders can transfer to the B/D lines) before heading south and splitting apart. The A (Blue) line goes all the way south to Long Beach, while the E (Expo) line goes past USC and Expo Park before veering west and traveling all the way out to Santa Monica.
  • The L (Gold) line has been split up into two parts. The more heavily traveled part starts at Union Station and then follows an old railroad line up through the Arroyo Seco pass to Pasadena, where it then turns east and travels along the foothill region of the San Gabriel Valley all the way to Azusa.
  • The second part of the L (Gold) line used to go from Union Station to Little Tokyo and then to East LA, but the Little Tokyo station is being rebuilt underground in preparation for a new subway tunnel that will connect the L with the A/E lines. So in the meantime, you have to take a shuttle bus from Union Station to Little Tokyo and Pico/Aliso, the next stop on the line, where the train picks back up for the rest of the way to East LA.
  • The J (Silver) is an express bus line that travels mostly along bus lanes on the freeway, going from El Monte to Union Station, then taking surface streets through Downtown before getting on the 110 and heading south to Harbor Gateway, with some buses continuing south all the way to San Pedro. One thing to note is that it costs an extra 75 cents over almost any other Metro service, making a one-way fare $2.50 instead of the usual $1.75.
  • The C (Green) line is the only rail line that doesn’t serve Downtown. Instead, it travels mostly in the median of the 105 freeway between Norwalk and El Segundo, with transfers to the A and J lines. It skirts the southern edge of LAX, with a shuttle bus connecting the Aviation/LAX station to the terminals.
  • The G (Orange) line is an express bus line that has its own road through the San Fernando Valley, going from the B line station in North Hollywood west through Van Nuys and Reseda, then turning north on Canoga and ending in Chatsworth.

7. How do I prepare for my ride?

Wear comfortable walking shoes, because you are inevitably going to have to walk a lot when you take transit. Face masks are still mandatory on transit. Make sure you have your TAP card or, if you don’t have a TAP card, bring exact change for the bus. And though not necessary, a water bottle and a cell phone charger are really good to have on hand, as well as something to keep you occupied, like a book or your phone. You’ll see regular commuters often have a bag or backpack with everything they need for their day.

Use the bathroom before you leave, because you won’t find restrooms anywhere on the Metro system except Union Station.

8. How do I tell which train/bus to board?

Buses and trains display their final destination on the front and side of the vehicle. For buses, this will usually be the town or neighborhood the bus route ends in, while for trains it’ll usually be the last stop on the line—which is why it’s good to know what the last stop in the direction you’re heading is. At train stations, signs above the platform will indicate the final destination of the trains stopping on that side of the platform. On the Red/Purple Lines, there will be monitors announcing the train line and destination, which is useful given that the lines overlap a lot.

At a bus stop, try to arrive at the stop at least 5 minutes before the bus is supposed to arrive (checking the Transit app is a good way to avoid missing your bus) and wait somewhere away from the curb but where the driver can clearly see you.

A typical Metro bus stop sign, with a municipal stop sign below it

9. Where do I sit?

First, always wait for passengers to get off the train or bus before boarding. Nothing is more annoying than someone trying to shove their way on while you’re trying to get off. This isn’t the New York Subway, there’s no rush; the drivers here are actually pretty considerate and will wait for everyone to get off and on before closing the doors.

Once you’re on board, the basic rule is to move away from the doors. On a bus, this means moving towards the back, and on a train, this means moving towards the center of the train car (between two sets of doors). The seats closest to the doors are generally reserved for seniors or people with disabilities; you can sit there if no other seat is available, but if an elderly person or a pregnant woman boards, you’d better offer that seat up right away.

Before the pandemic, the common rule was to not take up more than one seat, so that as many people could sit down as possible; i.e., don’t put your bag on the seat next to you. However, social distancing has kind of thrown this custom up in the air, and it’s unclear what the new courtesy will be as people return to transit. So for now, if sitting next to someone is your only option, my advice is to ask a rider if it’s okay if you can sit next to them (or just stand and wait for a seat to become available, if you can).

If you do have to stand, just try to stand in such a way that you don’t block the aisles and doors. On a crowded bus, this can be nearly impossible, so just be ready to move out of the way of people getting off.

10. How do I exit at the right stop?

Metro trains stop at all stations, so all you need to do is wait for your stop and walk out the door when you get to yours. There should be announcements for each stop, but occasionally these will break down or the computer will get confused and display them in the wrong order. So if you’re unfamiliar with the train you’re on, you can check the line maps above the seats (note that some trains are used on multiple lines, like the Blue/Expo and Red/Purple, so don’t freak out if you see the “wrong” line map) and count how many stops you have left. Each station also has signs indicating which stop it is mounted along the sides of the station, which you should be able to see from inside the train.

On a bus, you just want to pay attention to the announcements (or if they’re not working, check your location on your phone and pay attention to your surroundings). Metro buses announce stops in pairs; for example, “The next stop is ______, followed by ______.” Your bus will either have red “STOP” buttons mounted on the poles or yellow cords above the windows for you to pull. Before your stop, just push the button or pull the cord. You’ll hear a ding followed by a “stop requested” announcement, and the words “STOP REQUESTED” will start flashing on the digital sign ahead of you and will keep flashing until the bus reaches the next stop. Always exit through the back door.

Unless you’re on a really crowded bus or train, you usually don’t need to get up from your seat until the vehicle comes to a stop. The doors are open long enough for you to safely maneuver to the doors and exit, so keep that in mind to avoid stumbling when the driver hits the brakes. Just be sure you have everything with you when you get up from your seat.

11. What else should I know?

Basically, just act in a way that won’t bother other riders. Don’t make a mess, don’t smoke, keep your conversations fairly quiet, etc. I don’t care who you are, your taste in music sucks and no one wants to hear it: plug in some headphones or earbuds and keep it to yourself.

Speaking of which, even if you’re not listening to music, headphones and earbuds are actually one of the best tools to avoid a persistent issue on transit. At some point, you’ll probably encounter someone who’s either drunk or mentally unwell who randomly yells or grumbles aloud or catcalls or just generally wants to make everyone else far too aware of their grievances. The best practice is just to ignore them and sit away from them, because engaging (or even acknowledging) will make you the target of their ramblings. Try to sit near people acting normally; there’s safety in numbers. Put in those earbuds, stare out the window or at your phone, don’t make eye contact, and just wait for it to pass.

And yes, Los Angeles’ exorbitantly high housing costs and lackluster social service infrastructure mean that there are a lot of homeless people who ride the transit system, particularly the trains. But generally, they’re just looking for a place to sleep and want to be left alone, so unless they have mental issues (see above) they won’t be much of a nuisance to you.

Tips for female passengers

In the sections above we listed a few ways to avoid confrontational passengers and it only makes sense to touch upon something more distasteful. The best word of advice I could give is to travel with a friend, but if you’re traveling alone it’s best to follow the same tips as above and keep to yourself. Pop in your ear buds, wear some sunglasses, and keep vigilant. If a drunk passenger or another person starts to talk to you or approach you, do not engage with them. If they’re being persistent, then move towards the end of the platform where you will find other people. If you are already on a train car, move away from anyone who is making you uncomfortable and switch cars when you arrive at a stop. (Don’t be afraid of missing the train, you’ll usually have time to swap cars). In any uncomfortable situation it would be best to just put some distance between anyone or anything that is unpleasant. Keep in mind emergency buttons on the train or the platform will only direct you to an operator or the train driver, I cannot stress enough that you will be safer with other people.

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