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A beginner's guide to Metro

Everything you need to know about TAP cards, subway lines, buses and more

Photograph: Jakob N. Layman

Some Angelenos don't realize that there's a subway rumbling underneath their feet—or maybe they just choose to ignore it. The truth is, you can navigate large parts of Los Angeles without ever stepping foot in a car thanks to Metro. 

People like to complain about LA's supposedly paltry public transit offerings almost as much as they fume about traffic. It's not perfect: Light rail service can be slow, most bus routes sit in the same rush hour traffic as cars and many of us are still miles from the nearest subway station. But LA's transit system should be a point of pride. Some of the Red Line stations are practically underground art galleries—so much so that Metro conducts year-round tours of the stops.

Whether you're visiting Los Angeles for the first time or fed up with your daily commute, use our beginner's guide to Metro to start your car-free adventure around the city.

Riding (and paying for) Metro

The first thing you'll need before boarding a train or a bus is a TAP card. Available at all Metro Rail stations with a $1 surcharge, these reusable cards can be filled with pre-set dollar amounts or day passes. A single ride, regardless of the destination, costs $1.75 and includes free transfers for up to two hours. Day passes start at $7 but are only worthwhile if you'll be taking four trips more than two hours apart. Very few bus stops have TAP vending machines, but you can buy a new card with a day pass on board (buses also accept exact change). Make sure to hold onto your card as it's accepted on all 26 county transit agencies. You can also order or refill a card on the TAP website.

When you're entering a train station or a bus, it's as simple as holding your TAP card against the marked terminals. Some light rail stations don't have turnstiles, but still make sure to tap—otherwise you could face up to a $250 fine. 

Most lines operate from before 5am to midnight or later on weekdays, with service until 2am on weekends. Trains run as often as every five minutes during peak times, though you could be stuck waiting for 20 minutes during late nights. Use Metro's Nextrip service to take out some of the arrival time guesswork.

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Heavy Rail (Subways)

There are only two subway lines in LA, one of which shares most of its stops with the other. Underground heavy rail is admittedly not our strong point—blame it on fault lines and politics.

Red Line

Metro’s original subway line starts at Union Station and stops near Downtown landmarks like Grand Park, the Music Center and Grand Central Market. It continues toward Hollywood, where it makes stop by the Pantages Theater, the Walk of Fame and Hollywood & Highland (where you can catch a shuttle to the Hollywood Bowl), before stopping across the street from Universal Studios and in North Hollywood by the NoHo Arts District.

Purple Line

This stub of a subway line shares the Red Line track until Wilshire/Vermont, where it forks and ends with two stops in Koreatown. Within the next decade or two, service will expand west to reach LACMA and UCLA.

Light Rail

These (mostly) above ground lines sometimes have dedicated rights-of-way or signal priority but often share the road with cars. They’re not as fast as underground subway lines, especially as they travel through residential neighborhoods. That said, they’re still an efficient, sometimes scenic car-free option.

Blue Line

The first line built, this runs from Downtown through South LA (including a stop near Watts Towers) before looping around Long Beach. It has two other unfortunate distinctions: crime and car-on-train wrecks.

Green Line

This line runs in the middle of the 105 freeway from Norwalk to the inland South Bay, including a stop that’s sort of close to LAX—you’ll have to transfer to a shuttle bus to get to the airport.

Gold Line

This light rail line departs East Los Angeles for Union Station, with notable stops at Mariachi Plaza and adjacent to Little Tokyo and the Arts District, before continuing north through Chinatown, Highland Park, South Pasadena and Pasadena, where the line has six stations. From there, it ventures deeper into the San Gabriel Valley, with stops between Arcadia and Azusa. Grab a window seat for fantastic views of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Expo Line

Metro’s newest light rail line runs from Downtown to Santa Monica, with notable stops at the Staples Center (a stop it shares with the Blue Line), USC, Exposition Park, Downtown Culver City and Downtown Santa Monica, where it notably arrives only blocks from the beach. The mostly at-grade line is a little slow, as it rarely has signal priority, but it's at least a headache-free alternative to driving.

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Metro Bus

There are two Metro Liner routes. These extra-long buses have dedicated lanes on the freeways and surface streets. Think of them like rail cars, just smaller and with less frequent service.

Orange Line

This Valley-serving route runs from the North Hollywood Red Line station to Warner Center, with an alternative spur to Chatsworth.

Silver Line

You’ll find these buses sharing the new toll lanes on the 10 freeway starting in El Monte, with stops at Union Station and Downtown, before turning south along the 110 freeway, with stops at USC and South LA before ending in the industrial Harbor Gateway.

In addition, Metro has a far-reaching bus system that is broken up into two main types: Local and Rapid. The orange local buses cover much of Los Angeles and its satellite cities. The red Rapid lines have fewer stops and more frequent service.

Other transit systems

Many other city-specific bus lines run in addition to Metro, among them Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus, LADOT’s Dash network and the San Gabriel Valley’s Foothill Transit. The good news? Your TAP card will work on those systems along with dozens of others.

For longer distances, there’s also the Metrolink commuter rail system. Most lines originate at Union Station and cover destinations as far out as San Bernardino, Lancaster, Orange County, East Ventura and Oceanside. Metrolink doesn't accept TAP cards, so you'll have to make sure to pick up a paper ticket at the station.

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Why does our public transit system suck?

Well, it doesn't. A ride on the Red Line between Hollywood and Downtown is almost always more efficient than driving on the 101. It’s cheaper than transit systems in any other metropolitan area of our size. And anecdotally, it smells less like urine than Chicago’s and New York’s trains (sorry guys).

Metro doesn’t go anywhere, though.

Most of LA’s major city centers—Downtown, Hollywood, Koreatown, Culver City, Long Beach, Pasadena and soon Santa Monica—are linked up by Metro service. We’ll admit, though, that Metro has a bit of a last mile problem; the stops are never quite where you wish they were, which for many riders means a hefty walk or connecting to a bus.

But nobody rides it!

It’s the third-largest public transit system in the country by ridership. The four light rail lines are the second largest by ridership in the country. The buses rank second in the country by ridership and size of fleet. People ride it.

I saw Collateral (decade-old spoilers)—there’s no way those trains are safe.

As you would on public transit in any major city, keep your wits about you—that includes not waving your phone around if you’re sitting or standing by the doors. 

Didn’t LA used to have an amazing transit system and then the evil automobile companies screwed it over?

The Pacific Electric Red Car system stretched all over Southern California until it was torn up by the evil auto companies—according to the plot of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The reality is more nuanced than that. Yes, the street car lines were bought out and eventually decommissioned, but they were also already in decline as LA spiraled into an automobile-driven sprawl. 99% Invisible has a great primer on the whole conspiracy.

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