Transport options in LA without a car--cabs, Uber or what?
April 27, 2016 10:54 AM   Subscribe

Later this year my daughter (by then 18 yo) and I will be visiting Los Angeles, probably staying somewhere round Santa Monica. We want to do some of the touristy things and will be going on at least the tour to the Hollywood sign. However, hiring a car is not an option. I gather the public transport options aren't great either. That leaves cabs, Uber and Lyft. Given my constraints (see below), convince me which I should use.

We are Australian so our experience with taxis and suchlike in the US is very limited. However, my slight past experience with NY and DC cabs hasn't been entirely wonderful. I'm not crazy about Uber's business model for all sorts of reasons but I use it here in Doha because the local taxi service isn't great (and is just as exploitative of its drivers). Is Lyft any better, in terms of service or of not screwing its drivers? Also, I get the impression that you need to have a US mobile phone number to use Lyft.
BTW, where I said above that we would be visiting the Hollywood sign, I meant only that we would need a cab or whatever to get to the pickup point for the tour, since I doubt that most of the organised tours would pick up from Santa Monica.
Cost is a consideration of course but I'm prepared to spend, within reason, for a clean reliable service.
posted by Logophiliac to Travel & Transportation around Los Angeles, CA (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If you specifically plan to see lots of tourist sights, have you looked into "hop on hop off" tour buses? I know they go to Santa Monica, I was always seeing them on Pico when I used to live there.
posted by town of cats at 11:20 AM on April 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I was in LA a couple months ago and had a very good experience using Lyft as my main method of transportation. I downloaded it the day before I left and got $5 off each of my first 10 rides, which made many of them $5-6 even for a drive I would expect to be $20+ in a cab.

I'm not sure how the working conditions are for Lyft drivers vs Uber vs LA cabs, but I do like that Lyft encourages riders to tip through the app (Uber doesn't). I don't think what drivers get paid through those services nets them a living wage, so having an easy way for people to tip seems like a big plus.

Not sure about the international number - that said, they seem to mostly rely on texting and only call if they're at your pick up and don't see you walking over. Maybe a US google voice number or something similar would work?
posted by snaw at 11:34 AM on April 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Uber and Lyft are awesome in LA. I have used Uber a lot there and it has always been extremely smooth and very affordable.
posted by Slinga at 11:58 AM on April 27, 2016

Most hotels will have a relationship with a town car company. Uber or Lyft will be cheaper, but the town car will pick you up reliably from a place and take you to another place, and have bottled water in the back.

(That said, there's a bus that will actually take you all the way along Santa Monica Boulevard to Vermont Avenue, which I imagine will be near a pickup point - but it's a long time to spend in a bus, and LA transport can get hot, although if you're used to Doha and Australia that is probably not such an issue. Car-owning Los Angelenos speak with fear and horror about their buses, but never actually take them. All human life is certainly there - or rather, all human life that for whatever reason is in Los Angeles without a car.)

My aged and curmudgeonly advice would probably be to plan not to go into the interior more than you need to, and try to chain plans in the interior together. Depending on how long you're there, Santa Monica and Venice are connected by a nice beachside walk and contain many good and touristy things, and the 534 route runs from the Getty Villa to the north (culture!) to Culver City (food! Proto-Hollywood! Wolfram and Hart!) through Santa Monica. I understand that cycle routes are a lot better than they used to be, also, but that sounds like a phrase to trap the unwary.
posted by running order squabble fest at 11:59 AM on April 27, 2016

We want to do some of the touristy things and will be going on at least the tour to the Hollywood sign.

I'm confused about why you're hoping to stay near Santa Monica if literally the only plan you have for the trip is to see the Hollywood sign, which is clear across town in the hills above Hollywood.

Your best bet if you're shy about cabs and Uber and such would be to stay in an AirBnB or small hotel in Los Feliz, in close proximity to the trailhead for the hike up to the sign. The closer to the corner of Fern Dell and Los Feliz Blvd, the better, but even from one of the major hotels in Hollywood you'd have a short and cheap cab or Uber ride rather than an hour's schlep on ugly freeways.

That part of town is also MUCH better connected to public transit, in general, with its own Metro line that also runs to Downtown and Universal Studios. (It's also possible to transfer lines to places like Old Town Pasadena, Koreatown, and Culver City.) Hollywood is fairly walkable, if you were thinking of doing things like the Chinese Theater and the Hollywood & Highland shopping complex. West Hollywood and Silverlake are also only a short cab/Uber ride away.

Santa Monica has a good bus system that serves the West Side and beach areas fairly well, but unless you're treating this trip as a beach vacation with one quick side trip to see the Hollywood sign, it's poorly connected to the stuff you actually want to do on your trip.

Re taxis in general, Uber and Lyft are much better value than taxis, and can be summoned in moments from any of the more urban/populated parts of town (from deep suburbia it might take 5-10 minutes).
posted by Sara C. at 12:33 PM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Cabs are a pain in the ass in Los Angeles (it's not like NYC where you can just hail them on the street). I'd plan to use Uber and Lyft, both of which are way more convenient in LA than taxis. (Unfortunately; I'd rather use a standard cab, but we're just not set up for them other than when leaving a hotel, or the airport.)
posted by Countess Sandwich at 1:10 PM on April 27, 2016

The Expo Line extension to Santa Monica is scheduled to open on May 20, 2016. It will connect to several light rail lines and the LA Metro (subway.)

I've ridden the subway in LA and it's perfectly fine. Never ridden a bus.
posted by Automocar at 1:12 PM on April 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

How about hiring a driver?
posted by brujita at 1:18 PM on April 27, 2016

In general, cabs in LA are not good (worse than NYC certainly, especially the LA yellow cabs) and are limited by their relatively small local areas of operation too.
I would recommend sticking to a combination of public transport and Lyft/Uber (especially to fill in "last mile" gaps in public transport coverage) . The LA Metro subway rail is generally quite good though doesn't go as many places as one would like (but fine for a tourist!) - but finally they're opening the stop in Santa Monica!! The buses are fine in quality but treat their scheduled times as highly unreliable. Also in off-peak periods, their frequency is not good. Lyft generally has a nicer reputation that Uber. For Lyft's US phone number requirement, buy a US sim card or a cheap <$50 pay as you go Android smartphone on arrival if possible. I think you might able to register with a free Google Voice US number as well but am not sure if that works with their texting notifications.
posted by Bwithh at 1:22 PM on April 27, 2016

Taxis in LA are ridiculously expensive. Depending on where you stay, public transit can be quite good. Downtown, West Hollywood, Burbank, Glendale, they all have light rail/metro/buses and the like. Even Santa Monica and Culver City now have good connections through the Expo Line. It won't hurt to get a tap card when you arrive and take buses and such when you can. A taxi from LAX to the base of the Santa Monica Mountains (where the Hollywood sign lives) can easily set you back $80, for instance.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 1:51 PM on April 27, 2016

I live in San Francisco where we have both Uber and Lyft. I find Lyft to be much better as a passenger, and the drivers seem to like it a lot more.
posted by radioamy at 3:21 PM on April 27, 2016

We got our hotel to hire us a car with driver in exactly that situation. From Santa Monica across to Hollywood it was around $200, but the driver gave us a bit of a tour of Hollywood too and there were four of us splitting the cost so it worked out to within our budget.
posted by lollusc at 4:26 PM on April 27, 2016

I stayed in Santa Monica for three days and only used public transport to get around. The road system is generally a grid and there is a fast train line going through the middle of LA. There are buses running up and down every second block, so you only have to walk a block or so for any connection.

It really isn't difficult to navigate around. Given all the negativity about the public transport system in LA I was very pleasantly surprised. A bit of planning was necessary, but after a couple of days I relaxed and stopped stressing about getting about because it really isn't difficult (outside of rush hour, which I never experienced). It was $2 to get from the airport to where I was staying in Santa Monica and took about 45 minutes on a bus that hardly stopped at all. A taxi wouldn't have been much faster.
Using public transport in LA does have some issues, not unlike any other North American city, but it is not the nightmare I had been led to expect.
There is no unified ticket system, but that's hardly unusual.
LA is absolutely enormous, so regardless of your transportyou need decide on a particular geographical area for each day (or some that are on the way), as you would in any large city.
I met some people at the skating bout who were driving back to Redondo beach, a journey that would take them longer than it took me to get to Santa Monica on the buses with one change. It would take them over an hour in a car on the freeways
Their activity for the day was driving across LA, watching the skating and then driving home. To be fair, I do that in the UK, but it involves going to another city!

In no particular order, I visited Watts Towers, LACMA, the vegan all you can eat Ethiopian restaurants in Fairfax, Runyon Canyon, Hollywood Boulevard and The Doll Factory to watch some banked track roller derby. I also spent time on the beach, the skate park and looking at the fairground on the pier.

I can dig out the links I used and a couple of Ask threads that were helpful if you like.
posted by asok at 4:40 PM on April 27, 2016

You can also use Flywheel in Los Angeles, which allows you to summon cabs from your phone (like Uber/Lyft, but without the "let's ignore the law" aspect of those companies). I've used it a few times in the past (I've never used Uber or Lyft on principle, so I can't compare).

In central Los Angeles, public transportation is much more viable -- there's a subway system and buses connect to that, so it's definitely there. It's no Tokyo or London, but serviceable.

On the Westside (Santa Monica, Venice, etc) you're mostly limited to buses or car hire (cab or Uber/Lyft).
posted by thefoxgod at 4:47 PM on April 27, 2016

Re the bus system, I'd say that if you are an old hand at city buses in major world cities, you'll be fine. If you have never taken a bus before or only in the context of a largeish town or something, you will not be fine.

Bus drivers here generally are personable enough, which is a help.
posted by Sara C. at 5:02 PM on April 27, 2016

The Big Blue Bus system is based in Santa Monica and is a very good bus system.
Seconding the Expo light rail line mentioned above, it will take you to downtown LA and beyond, with line transfers.
Uber works well here.
There's also the FlyAway bus for getting into and out of LAX airport.
posted by Goblin Barbarian at 5:37 PM on April 27, 2016

Um, just to make sure you know-- you can't actually get to the Hollywood sign. You can drive through Griffith Park and be about .5 mile from it, or hike up in Griffith Park and get about 1000 yards from its front or 45 yards from the back (figure 2-3 hours for the round trip hike, with a lot of elevation gain). But it's not possible to touch it or get nearer to it than that.
posted by holyrood at 6:16 PM on April 27, 2016

You can get quite close via the hike, and close enough for fun photo-ops by driving. You will not be able to touch the sign or pose for pictures leaning against it or sitting on top of it or anything. Just adjust your expectations of "going to the Hollywood sign", and you'll be fine. This is part of why I recommend the hike. It's a nice hike, and it feels like a very "L.A." thing to do. It also takes enough time that you feel like you accomplished a thing. I've also had a number of celebrity encounters at the cafe near the trailhead, which is always a thing Los Angeles visitors want to make happen.

If you're not up for driving randomly through hilly residential areas or an easy hike lubricated by iced coffee, you can get good views of the sign anywhere in Los Feliz, or from the coin-op binoculars in the parking lot of Griffith Observatory. (Which is also a fun L.A. thing to check out while you're in the area.)
posted by Sara C. at 6:30 PM on April 27, 2016

I'm a car-owning Angeleno (admittedly, a reluctant one) and I take buses two or three times a week through Santa Monica. Both the buses and the trains are generally fine (having the train to downtown will be amazing!!!) The main arterial lines are not difficult to use or figure out although the number of different bus systems is tricky. The Blue Buses, the ones from Santa Monica's own system, are cheaper and generally more comfortable, but the Rapid Metro lines are fine within about five-eight miles. Not that there's anything wrong with the rest of the line, but LA's rush hour traffic is terrible and taking an hour bus trip just to get to Beverly Hills is not the best use of vacation time.

That said, I do use Uber sometimes because the cab frequency when I have needed it has been terrible. I grew up in DC and I am nostalgic about DC's cabs, that's how bad my experiences have been. Uber and Lyft are not the best options in an ideal world, but using them or a town car to smooth awkward connections or longer distances will make your trip much, much better than relying on the buses and cabs alone.

If you get an idea of more specific destinations- like museums, art installations, restaurants, or events- we could give you a better idea of what to expect and when to use alternatives to public transit. I hope you enjoy your visit!
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:34 PM on April 27, 2016

Thanks all, some great info here. This trip is actually a birthday present for the girl, so mainly her choice. That's why Santa Monica (or the general area)--she wants to hang out on Venice Beach. The Hollywood sign isn't the limits of our proposed adventures (does anyone know anything about the Museum of Death?), and I actually did know that you can't get right to it. Automocar: thanks for the link about the Metro: I will definitely give it a shot. I love metros. And yes, I may well be back with more questions about LA.
Once again, thanks to all.
posted by Logophiliac at 3:05 AM on April 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is slightly outside the remit of your question, but The Museum of Jurassic Technology. Which is in Culver City, not a huge reach from Santa Monica/Venice, and is a twofer, because it's very close to another LA institution, an In-n-Out burger joint.

In fact, pragmatically, I'd recommend grouping your holiday, depending on length, into days. "Do Hollywood" (including the sign) in one day (there is genuinely not that much in Hollywood proper so don't worry too much about time). Culver City and surrounds in another. LACMA, the La Brea tar pits and the Miracle Mile in another. Enjoying LA is basically all about optimising travel time, IMHO, so if there's something your daughter wants to do especially, I'd look around for things near it that can be clumped.
posted by running order squabble fest at 6:55 AM on April 29, 2016

(Although I guess I am not an 18yo woman, so may be looking at Hollywood through a jaundiced lens. It's not very NPR, I guess I am saying.)
posted by running order squabble fest at 6:58 AM on April 29, 2016

Belated thanks to running order squabble fest, particularly for the suggestion about the In-N-Out Burger joint. One of the other things she wants (heaven help me) is to eat lots of US-centric junk food. I already knew about the Museum of Jurasic Technology and we will be going there if I can swing it.
posted by Logophiliac at 11:56 PM on May 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

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