LRT Today: Los Angeles’s suburban light rail system

 In the wake of city council’s decision to continue to build-out Toronto’s LRT plans — and since Mayor Rob Ford continues to mistakenly call any LRT project a streetcar line — Spacing will profile a handful of LRT projects from around the world that will give readers a  little better understanding of this transit option.

Consider an auto-obsessed city – a place where people love their cars as much as they hate the traffic –  embarking on the biggest expansion of its mass transit system in decades, an effort to change the way people navigate its sprawling and clogged streets and freeways.

That’s the reality in Los Angeles, where, since 1990, the city has witnessed a renaissance in public transit, with the inauguration of four rapid light rail transit lines, one underground metro route, and a heritage waterfront tram.

Starting from scratch just over two decades ago, LA wound up with over 60 miles of track,  53 LRT stations, and 172 LRV train cars, in addition to 16 miles of subway –  an over $6 billion investment.

To date, Los Angeles’s colourful light rail lines constitute the third busiest LRT system in the United States by ridership, with 160,464 average weekday boardings. LA County Metro’s Blue Line is the second largest light rail line by ridership in the United States with an average weekday ridership of 90,109.

As Spacing’s John Lorinc pointed out a few weeks ago, LA’s conversion to light rail offers a transit lesson for Toronto.

Los Angeles County’s Metro Rail LRT routes run in a mix of environments, including on city streets, segregated from neighbouring roads, and in the median of freeways. Whether at-grade street, at-grade ROW, elevated, and underground, all trains are governed by colour light signals.

On average, service operates every 5-10 minutes during the peak period and 10-15 minutes on weekends, reaching top speeds of 65 mph and traversing over a dozen municipalities from Los Angeles to Long Beach, Compton to Culver City.  Each line runs approximately 30 to 60 minutes end-to-end.

The system’s many suburban stations are unmanned, and include at least two ticket machines, wayfinding displays, and bench seating. Many suburban stations also have free or reserved parking available and some have bike storage available.

LA County’s Metro Rail has a rolling stock consists of the following articulated light rail vehicles: Siemens P2000 LRVs, AnsaldoBreda P2550 LRVs, and Nippon Sharyo P865 LRVs.

Transit revenue is provided in part by two half cent sales taxes that contribute over a billion dollars, while State and Federal grants combined account for a billion. Other resources include bonds and fare box revenue.

Long term sustainable funding has permitted countless rail extensions and additional routes, the most recent of which, LA Metro’s Expo Line, is near completion, currently being test-driven.

Interurban rail is one of the most viable ways to connect suburban and exurban parcels to city centres. It is equitable, affordable, and flexible. With similar problems of gridlock and sprawl, significant regional competition, and income diversity, Toronto could find inspiration in Los Angeles’s transit successes.


Photo by Benjamin Page



  1. What a great system LA has. Pity the individual who trys to spin this to be like what is on offer in TO.

  2. It’s interesting that you chose to discuss the Los Angeles LRT line, because it is actually one of the most controversial transit projects I’ve read about.

    What this article fails to mention is that the federal funds used to build these primarily suburban LRT lines (which services a mostly white, middle to upper-class demographic) were used at the expense of inner-city bus riders (generally black and hispanics on the lower end of the economic spectrum, so-called “captive riders”) to help pay for the LRT construction.

    A major court case was pursued as many of LA’s bus riders called the LRT’s inequitable and discriminatory because federal funds were being disproportionately used to pay for suburban LRT’s while bus riders saw no noticeable improvement in their transit services.

    So yes, LA’s introduction of LRT’s was revolutionary for an autocentric city, but the story is far more sinister than just a city changing it’s bad transport ways.

  3. Again with the apples and oranges. You are not looking at how LRT’s are to be implemented in Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke. We are grid locked. You don’t intentionally devise a strategy that will negatively impact all surface traffic, that will make the situation worse by 10 to 40% and say that you are providing a solution for the future with room to grow. That is misinformation and intentionally misleading. TTC has already acknowledged that dedicated raised railbeds are going to contribute to congestion but they can’t or won’t respond with a plan to mitigate even knowing the impact. Intentionally making a bad situation worse is to my mind criminal.

  4. Every local rail infrastructure project has its vicious, twisted local politics.  But from an engineering and experiential standpoint, there really are lessons here for Toronto.  Every city councillor (and online commenter) should be strapped to a chair and made to watch that Gold Line video before talking further about on the street ROW, off the street ROW, underground tunnels, signal timing, station spacing, etc. It certainly covers a wide range of conditions, some of which (if the TTC pays attention and does it correctly) could apply very closely to Eglinton/Finch/SRT.  

    Why Toronto politicians continue to blather in a vacuum, reinventing the wheel every time, is beyond me.  Bunch of ostriches, especially the fat ones.

  5. Patrick —

    You are looking at this post for *you* want to read. The feature is about other examples of LRT. But in the time lapse video, the LRT that is being used is almost exactly the way it will be used on Eglinton. Its in a suburban context, in the middle of a big road. It goes underground when it gets closer to the city.

    Sadly, your logic is also out of whack. Part of taking road space away from cars is to encourage drivers to opt for transit. Using your logic, the city should just widen the roads of Sheppard or Eglinton. But every piece of traffic management analysis shows that taking away road space rarely impacts local congestion — cars have so many other options to take (compared to transit). But if you build more car capacity you get more cars until the space is “filled up” again.

    You also are assuming that traffic patterns will stay the same. They won’t, and it almost everyone sane person’s traffic modelling, car dependency will decrease as gas prices get costlier. You are already seeing that happen in the US in big auto-centric cities (Houston, LA, Boston) where driving is going down and transit ridership is on the upswing that is specifically tied to gas prices.

    You may want a subway on Sheppard but there is no option to pay for it at the moment. You complain that these LRT TOday posts aree giving you apple and oranges to compare; in reality you’re instead fighting to compare apples to make-believe oranges.

  6. First of all, these posts are getting much more useful now that they are providing more context and showing more in the way of relevant examples.

    The time-lapse video was actually derived from this 25-minute video.  I point this out because the original, while much more tedious, is also much more useful:

    – You can actually see some of the details of how the line was designed and how it operates.
    – You can get a better idea of the travel time and travel speed.

    While watching, keep in mind that
    – even the original appears to be recorded at double speed (watch the speed of people crossing the road, for example.)
    – sections of footage are cropped when the LRT is stopped at a station or at a red light — this is not apparent when viewing the time-lapse version.

    I was impressed when seeing the time-lapse version.  I’m less than impressed by the actual (double-speed) version, especially the stop service times and the level of “transit priority” at signals.  And this is on roads that don’t appear to be particularly busy (i.e., they don’t need as much time for left turns or major side streets).

  7. A comparison of existing transit in LA, Toronto, and Montréal from an Angeleno:

  8. @Mathew… If you are going to sit there and make asinine observations how people should leave their cars at home and that Scarborough is a suburb and that everything is wide open spaces then you don’t live here and are in no position to judge. The last time I checked we were part of the City we have impossible congestion most of the day. If I hear one more person from the core say that we can’t afford to bury transit when you have a plethora of transit choices sometimes all three within walking distance that Scarborough taxpayers helped pay for and continue to bear our share of the maintenance costs we deserve a bit more respect than you are giving. If it is alright to bury the Cross Town from Black Creek to Laird then it should be alright to bury the eastern end of the line to Kennedy when funding becomes available. There are other funding options rather than waiting for the Senior levels of government to come through. The City just has to have the intestinal fortitude to make the hard decisions and engage the taxpayer in an adult conversation.

  9. Council keeps bringing up lrt success stories from around the world, Dallas, Calgary, and now Los Angeles. And they are great stories.

    However there is a big deception here if you look at Toronto’s LRT design plans compared to those of LA, and Calgary.  LRT’s in these cities have what engineers call ‘exclusive right of way’ for MOST IF NOT ALL its travel route. Meaning it is a truly rapid transit system.

    If you look at Toronto’s design plan, its a hybrid of St. Clair Right of Way and the these other LRT’s from Calgary, Edmonton, LA, Dallas. Meaning car still is supreme in Toronto, Transit users get given the finger again.

    You cant compare toronto’s proposed LRT with LA, Calgary. The future riders are not getting a good of service as riders in other cities.  Either design these lrt’s like they are designed in Spacing reference cities or build subways.

    I really have a issues with Toronto’s proposed speeds, and signal designs for lrt, once again its not like LA, Calgary, Edmonton, Dallas.

  10. To reiterate my comments again, 22km/hr in places like Finch, Eglinton East, Sheppard East for a price tag in the Billions is truly a SHAME.  

    The Surface section of Eglinton West between the western tunnel portal and the airport achieved a design speed of 28km/hr, MUCH BETTER.  

    I think citizens need to be educated of what is happening here, so when these lines are built out they are getting a truly rapid transit system. One that draws jobs and development because of its convenience and speed.

    I feel transit city AS IS is just a over priced high capacity bus.

    There is no reason these proposed lines should not be fully integrated into our subway system and be just as effective, for 1/3 the price of subway. Just like in LA, DALLAS, CALGARY, EDMONTON.

  11. Good post and even better discussion it has sparked – but unfortunately some myths are persistent.

    Did you know that large portions of New York’s and London’s famed “subway” systems are actually above ground? They only run in tunnels where density warrants it. The problem with framing the Toronto question of burying the eastern portion of Eglinton as above-ground vs. tunnel is that it you’ve left out a gigantic chunk of the equation. It’s actually above-ground + Finch LRT + Sheppard East LRT + Scarborough LRT extension vs. tunnel.

    Re: congestion. It’s a real problem that this keeps cropping up as in the transit discussion. Good transit should exist to improve mobility options (simply put, make more destinations accessible to more people), not to improve the commute time of motorists. Transit cannot effectively reduce congestion because in our current system local roads (ie, all roads and highways in the city except the 400-series) are funded by property taxes, which do not increase the more people drive. So we have an all-you-can eat buffet where the cost is hidden and dispersed and; we should not be surprised that we run out of food at dinner.  The only way to reduce congestion is to charge a price for driving in congested areas at congested times high enough to discourage unnecessary trips.

    Re: speed. I’m tired of people bringing up the 401 as if surface transit or even subways should act as major trunk long-distance routes. No, that’s GO Transit’s job and amid all this hubbub nobody is taking the time to hold Metrolinx’s feet to the fire about all-day both direction GO service. We have the trains, we have much of the track access; get on with it already. Scarborough has six GO stations and could have more.

    The benefits of LRT lie in its cost-effectiveness and its capacity. I’m surprised this doesn’t get more attention because the buses on many of the transit city corridors are already overflowing at rush hour. Furthermore, we’ll be able to carry 200-300 people per operator by running LRTs compared to max 70 per bus; no matter how you slice the numbers, it’s obvious that operator salaries make up the bulk of any transit system’s operating expenses: between 70 and 75% in the TTC’s case. I’m not making that up: scroll to page 33 and look at the table from this report

  12. Since Patrick directed his comments at me I’ll respond:

    “If you are going to sit there and make asinine observations how people should leave their cars at home and that Scarborough is a suburb and that everything is wide open spaces then you don’t live here and are in no position to judge.”
    — The goal of transit is to get more people to leave their cars at home and opt for transit. That’s the entire M.O. of any transit authority.
    — I spent 23 years living in North York and Scarborough. I’m very much in a position to ‘judge’. In urban terms, Scarborough’s arterial roads are wide spaces.

    “If I hear one more person from the core say that we can’t afford to bury transit when you have a plethora of transit choices sometimes all three within walking distance that Scarborough taxpayers helped pay for and continue to bear our share of the maintenance costs we deserve a bit more respect than you are giving.”
    — Tunneled transit is not about respect, its about money. Any transit planner will tell you that you only go below ground when there is no other choice. Scarborough residents need much more reliable transit and they will receive that with the modified Transit City plan.

    “If it is alright to bury the Cross Town from Black Creek to Laird then it should be alright to bury the eastern end of the line to Kennedy when funding becomes available.”
    — I disagree. Eglinton between Black Creek to Laird is about 50% less in width than at Eglinton and Don Mills, Eglinton & Vic Park, Eglinton & Warden, etc… It will cost up to 10-times the amount to keep tunneling than if it doesn’t come aboveground at Laird. There is no financial or ridership justification to keep tunneling.

    “There are other funding options rather than waiting for the Senior levels of government to come through. The City just has to have the intestinal fortitude to make the hard decisions and engage the taxpayer in an adult conversation.”
    — You’re correct but we seem to have a brother duo in the mayors office with the intelligence of toddlers when it comes to transit. And if you want to consider other funding models I guess you’ll happy to have your property taxes go up double digits, pay highway tolls, pay premium parking prices, buy lottery tickets, plays slots at Woodbine, etc…? Development charges can only cover about 25% of the cost of an extended Sheppard subway unless you clear-cut every bungalow 1km in either direction of Sheppard and build the densest community in Toronto?

  13. slllloooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwwww!!!!!!!!!!!   I’ll stick with my car, or better yet bike, rathen then sit in a dam lrt while Rob Ford turns left at an advanced left signal.   

    The Gold Line in LA averages 35km/hr. That is faster then the Bloor Danforth Subway actually which gets about 30km/hr.

    22 km/hr is toooo slowwwwww for Billions of Dollars. Signalling stop spacing needs work if you want this is to be a really cool LRT.

    I mean we do have computers, and software that control traffic lights. Lets say thru automobile traffic is given 60 seconds of green time. There is no reason a train should sit there with lets say 100 passengers while Rob Ford turns left. Trains with 5 min headway should have no problem going thru a intersection, neither should it generate horrible amounts of automotive traffic everyone is terrified about

    Im really supprised pro lrt people are not aware or pushing this issue. It all seems to be about capacity. What about level of service for billion dollar investment?

    I mean pro lrt’s all keep bringing up wonderful FAST lrt’s around the world. 

    TORONTO, you’re not getting a fast LRT. 

    Higher Capacity   YES

    More Reliable      YES

    Revitalized Streets  YES

    Speed               NO NO NO, bit faster then your bus   😉

    Just saying!!!!!!

  14. Why isn’t anyone talking about just having the LRT dip under some if not all intersections? It wouldn’t be as expensive as having the entire thing underground… but if we did it for enough intersections it might drastically increase the speed for a reasonable cost increase.

  15. Los Angeles’ light rail system is pitifully inadequate. In a metropolitan area of 17.6 million people LA’s rail system (the small subway + the light rail) carries around 350,000 people a day. Almost everyone drives. The problem with Los Angeles light rail is that the lines have a low capacity (much lower than the capacity of the freeways), and there are not enough lines (there is no line along I-405 for example), and it is not all that fast, and the bus system it connects to is poor. If more than a trivial fraction of the population of LA used the light rail system it would become extremely overcrowded. A city the size of Los Angeles desperately needs a large number of subways (not light rail), and high frequency commuter rail (the current infrequent Metrolink is a joke). Given the severe traffic problems on the 401 and other roads in Toronto, Toronto needs subways so that people can bypass the congestion when travelling between suburbs in the north of the city. Light rail is simply not adequate in cities of Toronto’s size because its capacity is 1/4 that of subways and 1/2 that of Highway 401.

  16. @Patrick Sherman

    “TTC has already acknowledged that dedicated raised railbeds are going to contribute to congestion but they can’t or won’t respond with a plan to mitigate even knowing the impact. Intentionally making a bad situation worse is to my mind criminal.”

    As Matthew Blackett has said, the TTC’s goal is to get more people to abandon the car and take transit. That’s just good business sense from the perspective of the transit agency, plain and simple.

    The needs of motorists should not be a deciding factor on transit policy decisions. What’s best for transit isn’t necessarily good for cars, and there are very few examples in which both groups benefit simultaneously and cost-effectively (exception: if the TTC needs to grade-separate to buy itself more capacity, but that’s not what’s needed on Sheppard, Eglinton, or Finch).

    Not saying that motorists should be bulldozed entirely for transit. The city should definitely mitigate the increase in auto-congestion resulting in surface transit, but mitigate only to what’s reasonably practical. Hence, spend a bit extra to widen the roads for a minimum of two car lanes/direction on all LRT routes, but don’t spend $billions more just appease motorists’ concerns over on-street transit medians.


    “Speed NO NO NO, bit faster then your bus”

    The YUS south of Bloor travels at the same speed as surface LRT of the same station spacing. Just saying.

    If you really want to speed underground transit, you gotta omit stations. But that just makes more people walk farther, negating time savings altogether. For example, Ford’s Eglinton subway plan would cause people at Pharmacy to take 4 minutes longer to reach Kennedy Station than the surface LRT that includes Pharmacy. And that’s even assuming that Ford’s Eglinton subway travels at 34 km/hr, versus 22 km/hr for surface LRT.

  17. Agreed with the comments calling for a deeper and more honest discussion about ROWs, signal priority, and especially speed.

    This very useful LRT Today series would benefit from a separate expert post on LRT speeds in order to debunk some of the myths out there and dive into a frank discussion on what we can realistically expect from the Toronto LRT speeds over the considerable distances they will cover. At the very least the “It’s barely faster than a bus and almost as expensive as a subway!” chestnut needs to be cracked open.

    A few casual, non-expert observations about speed based on the posts and comments thus far:

    LRT speeds are not meant to be competitive with automobiles on open highways and commuter routes; surely they are better compared to car speeds in a mix of urban conditions. LRTs do not replace the speed and convenience of a private car on the road, they offer a viable transit alternative which encourages people to leave their cars in the driveway or on the dealer’s lot.

    The Los Angeles average speeds described above are definitely at the upper end of the range for LRT systems. So are Calgary’s. But lots of successful LRT systems operate at much slower average speeds, though many are in smaller, denser cities. You can make sacrifices for the sake of speed—limiting turns, stop spacing, true signal priority– but is there a will and overall benefit to do it on these routes? How much emphasis should be put on speed and trip times to get the greatest social benefit and bang for buck on the project?

    Even with true signal priority, the design speeds of LRTs can practically be affected by a variety of factors, some of which are beyond control: operator and pedestrian behavior, stop times, traffic density at intersections, higher than anticipated ridership (which in turn makes LRTs victims of their own success). If Toronto ends up with slower than anticipated speeds on its LRT routes and the public is completely unprepared for this, imagine the I-told-you-so outcry and harm this will do to an already deeply damaged discourse.


    not a GO service that covers the GTA averaging 70km/hr, but LOCAL RAPID 416 TTC rapid transit intermeshed with the current subway system. I wish transit city had a established design speed criteria for RAPID TRANSIT eg, 30km/hr on its routes.

    GO transit has no place in this discussion, GO transit is a much faster, less frequent, LONG HAUL SYSTEM.  Im talking if I have to go to school, office, doctor, store. LOCAL RAPID TRANSIT AT 30km/hr.

    30km/hr is not much to ask for. If you cant get it up to 30 km/hr then for all intensive purposes Rob Ford is right: its  TRAM, STREETCAR, BUS.

    ITS NOT A LRT.   These transit city routes are LONG, meant to serve people at extreme edges of SPRAWLED OUT AREAs.   

    FINCH 22km/hr, really?   get a life.   Only thing you releave is over crowding on buses. You want mid rise development? you want to make finch accessible for development? from other parts of city? Lets speed it up to 30km/hr

    The former borough’s are not cute little villages with a tram that spins around the block. They are FAR, not far enough for 70km/hr unfrequent GO service, but far enough to get subway speeds, convenience and frequency.

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