Carfree travel with kids: Taking the family around L.A. by transit

Taking light rail to the beach was a blast.
(Photos: Madi Carlson)

It’s easy to survive winter in the Pacific Northwest. Just escape to somewhere warm and sunny for one week in November and one week in February — or so I was instructed by a wise friend upon moving here.

It sounds like a lovely method, but until this winter I was never able to put it off.

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My father and brother both live in Los Angeles. I’ve long wanted to visit them in the the City of Autos (not an official nickname) without renting a car ever since I read this New York Times piece seven years ago. Prior to reading that I didn’t think a carfree visit to Los Angeles was within the realm of possibility. I love getting all around Portland without a car, and realize this is one of the best American cities in which to do so. Yet I find it easy to fall into the trap of thinking cars are essential in other cities — especially if we’re there for just a short visit sans bikes and sans family biking friends to lead us around.

But, as you can read all about below, it turns out it was much easier than I’d expected to get around L.A. without a car!

Let me first acknowledge it took us a while to get here: Three visits ago we rented a car, but stayed walking distance from one of our main planned destinations (La Brea Tar Pits). Two visits ago we rented a car and stayed in walkable Venice Beach, but still drove our rental car every day for various outside-of-Venice activities and family visits. And last winter we had a true transit-based carfree Los Angeles visit and it was magical!

This year the kids’ legs are that much longer and I was that much more prepared to get around by transit. While I hardly feel like an expert, I hope our experience will help inspire others to try travel to LA and other cities with transit systems sans car, too. And note: I’ve visited Los Angeles several times, but I’ve never lived there so I don’t have a huge advantage over any other visitor. Here are my tips and takeaways…

Stay close to transit
Staying in the same neighborhood as relatives is convenient, but staying in a walkable neighborhood along the same transit line can be even better. I chose Old Pasadena because it’s along the LA Metro light rail Gold Line, four stops away from my brother in Highland Park. I prefer rail to bus since trains tend to run more frequently, always stop at all the clearly-marked stops, and are immune to car traffic. But finding walkable neighborhoods a simple bus ride away from a frequent destination is also a winner for a transit-based vacation.

The TAP machines give change in coins (fun!), but paying online is very easy.

Easy transit payments
Being able to easily pay for train and bus trips makes things a lot smoother than needing to pay for tickets each trip, like I did last visit. I still had our Transit Access Pass (TAP) cards from last year (though I could have ordered fresh with 10-15 business days to wait) and used the website to add stored values to our three cards. Nearly all transit agencies in Los Angeles County — plus Metro Bike Share — use TAP so it was just as easy as using transit at home (we take the bus or MAX about once a month in Portland and I purchase tickets ahead of time on my smartphone with the TriMet Tickets app).


Apps for riding
I use Google maps transit directions for trip planning, even when I’m using my phone while out and about as it’s what I’m most comfortable with, but for this trip it didn’t warn me of rail closures and bus stops closed for construction. I downloaded the Go Metro app halfway through the trip, but didn’t use it enough to get used to it and find it easier than my familiar, if fallible, Google maps system. I also have the Transit app on my smart phone per the suggestion of car-free-traveler-extraordinaire Jessica Roberts, but again, practice makes perfect and I never use it so I didn’t find it helpful for advance notice of transit changes. I’d love to hear any of your transit app tips and recommendations in the comments below.

Looking at a screen and looking at the view: two ways to pass the time on the train.

Our five-day trip was punctuated by missteps each day, but it was still awesome. Here’s a day-by-day recap:

Day 1: The day our flight was canceled (Friday, December 14)
Leaving Portland our bus-to-Green-Line-to-Red-Line voyage to PDX was smooth, but upon check-in we learned our flight had just canceled. The next LAX flight with available seats wasn’t for seven hours, but as luck would have it there was a flight to Burbank at our original flight time with room for three more passengers. It was just a lucky break that I asked at the ticket counter about Burbank — my brother texted me earlier in the day curious if we were flying to LAX or Burbank which tipped me off that Burbank must also be close to Highland Park/Old Pasadena. It turns out it’s even closer, but flights cost more than to LAX so we’ve never flown there. However, this meant I needed to figure out transit from Burbank on the fly. I’m used to having lots of times to poke around online at home and I like to make detailed lists before going anywhere. However, I was extremely glad not to add seven hours to our travel day so I embraced the adventure. Since we had arrived to the airport two hours early, I had time to find and read the Hollywood Burbank Airport Buses & Trains page and learn about the free shuttle to a Metrolink station. Using the shuttle and the Metrolink regional train to Union Station was quicker, cheaper, and more comfortable than our original plan of taking the FlyAway Bus from LAX to Union Station. From there we grabbed the Gold Line to my brother’s house for dinner, sticking to our original plan and timing.

Day 2: Gold Line track closure (Saturday, December 15)
Taking light rail trains everywhere is great…until there are disruptions. The Gold Line tracks were closed for three stops’ worth and the incredibly long courtesy bus bypass helped me appreciate just how effective rail is. There wasn’t much car traffic and taking surface streets provided a pleasant change of scenery, but it took forever to get downtown.

Angel’s Flight for when transit is the destination, not only the mode of transportation.

We met my family (dad, brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew who all also took transit over) to explore very walkable Little Tokyo. After we tired out the young relatives we walked a short distance to meet up with car-free friends from San Francisco conveniently visiting LA at the same time. They were staying downtown and were able to get most places with short bus rides. Naturally, we had to ride a cable car together for a dose of SF in LA — the Angel’s Flight Railway funicular can be paid for (and is half the price) with TAP cards.

That, the Last Bookstore, and ice cream in black cones (rock on!) kept us out late enough that the Gold Line tracks were back open by the time we TAPped our way back to Old Pasadena, thank goodness.

I saw several people with their own e-scooters.

Day 3: The last-mile problem (Sunday, December 16)
Walking a few blocks to the light rail station, playgrounds, and lunch spots is a breeze, but when the destination is a mile away things get tricky. My kids can walk a mile, but we’re not big walkers since we usually have our bikes for going that distance. My niece’s Nutcracker performance was held in Pasadena, a bit more than a mile from our hotel, so we took a Pasadena Transit bus (which takes TAP, of course) to attend. For those 16 and older bike- and e-scooter share are perfect solutions for these sorts of trips, but Pasadena booted bike share after one year and e-scooter share isn’t there, either. I saw a lot of people biking around Pasadena, mostly on the sidewalk. I also saw several people all around LA with their own electric scooters.

Lots of Angelenos get around by transit plus bikes.

Day 3: Getting around with a pulled back muscle (Monday, December 17)
Carrying all our daytime stuff (snacks, water bottles, emergency Madlibs) in my messenger bag and sleeping on a hotel sofa bed left my back aching by the morning of day three. I recruited the kids to do all the carrying between their two backpacks so I fared well for our day of travel. Going forward I’ll stop being the only packhorse in the family as a preventative measure. Also, the kids (9 and 11) are able to carry more, walk more, and go longer between eating than I had given them credit for.

7th Street/Metro Center.

This day’s main excursion was a big one, to La Brea Tar Pits to meet our San Francisco friends. We took the Gold Line to the Purple Line to a bus while they took a bus. Our Purple Line train was stinky and their bus was stinky so we were both happy to be out in the [slightly-asphalt-scented] fresh air.

A few construction spots on Wilshire Blvd had made it difficult to find our bus stop upon exiting the Purple Line on the way over as well as getting back on the bus upon leaving. Another reason for me to familiarize myself with a real-time transit app before our next trip, though missing a bus while orienting ourselves wasn’t the end of the world.

Three different bike shares in Santa Monica!
Lovely walking paths at Union Station.

Day 4: Unable to TAP for bikes (Tuesday, December 18)
Beach day! The Expo Line is pretty new, very fast, and a great way to get to Santa Monica. We took the Gold Line to the Red Line to the Expo Line for a day of beach, boardwalk, and aquarium. To break up the travel a bit, we had lunch at Union Station. It’s a gorgeous station (or stations, plural, as you’ve probably seen it play a number of different train stations on the big and small screen) so it’s nice to break up travel by stopping at the Crepe Cafe in the Grand Waiting Room at the west end, watching the fish in the aquarium in the east lobby, or exploring the paths outside.

Protected bike lanes to the beach.

I’ve been to Santa Monica several times, though it’s been a while — our most recent visit included joining a Kidical Mass ride with Santa Monica Spoke five years ago (to which we traveled by rental car and borrowed a bike). Things have changed! We stepped off the train to see three (three!) different kinds of bike share bikes, several brands of e-scooter shares, and a protected bike lane connecting the train station to the beach. I was so excited I tried my TAP card on a Metro Bike, but it didn’t take (turns out I should have registered for bike share online ahead of time). I had entertained the idea of putting us all on bikes, then downgraded to an idea of two bikes and one e-scooter, then one bike/one e-scooter/one jogger, but in the end we walked the three short blocks to the Santa Monica Pier.

Sweltering at the bus stop.

Day 6: Stuck in traffic (Wednesday, December 19)
On our last day in LA as we met up with my dad and took the Gold Line to Highland Park and then the DASH bus to a park near my brother’s house that was a bit too far (and too up and over a hill) to walk. My father warned me the DASH bus doesn’t stick to much of a schedule and we had quite the wait stuck out in the relentless sun. There’s another thing I prefer about light rail over bus — there’s usually shade at the station. Heading back the other direction provided us some shade (but also a longer-than-expected wait) so that was a bit better.

Waiting for the FlyAway Bus with a gazillion other travelers.

I thought I had learned from our last visit to give extra time (a lot more than the suggestion to arrive 10 minutes before the scheduled departure time) for the FlyAway Bus, but we arrived only 20 minutes early for the 5:00 p.m. bus which would get us to LAX just 10 minutes shy of two hours before our flight. The previous (4:30 p.m.) bus was stuck in traffic and hadn’t even arrived yet, but it was sold out. In the end our bus left 25 minutes late and took 75 minutes (estimated travel time is 35 minutes) to get to the airport. We still had plenty of time, but next time I’ll really know better. Or maybe next time I’ll consider my dad’s helpful back-up-plan suggestion to take the Red Line to the Blue Line to the Green Line to a free shuttle to LAX. He cautioned the Blue Line is extremely slow to begin with, plus you have to travel a third of the way to Long Beach to do this. It’s nice to have access to a local with insider (and opinionated) knowledge of transit. He also coached me about sitting at the fronts or backs of various trains for easy transfers and station exits.

Tired on transit is better than frustrated in a car in my book.

It was a bit of a shame that our trip had no bicycling whatsoever, but walking and transit-taking are the next best thing.

What about you? Have you traveled solo or with kids and taken transit? Are you currently planning winter or spring break travel and will you be able to skip using a car for some or all of it?

Remember, we’re always looking for people to profile. Get in touch if it sounds like fun to you. I’d especially like to feature families of color so please get in touch or ask friends of color who bike with their kids if they’re interested in sharing their stories. And as always, feel free ask questions in the comments below or email me your story ideas and insights at madidotcom [at] gmail [dot] com.

— Madi Carlson, @familyride on Instagram and Twitter

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Madi Carlson

Madi Carlson

Madi Carlson (@familyride on Twitter) wrote our Family Biking column from February 2018 to November 2019. She's the author of Urban Cycling: How to Get to Work, Save Money, and Use Your Bike for City Living (Mountaineers Books). In her former home of Seattle, Madi was the Board President of Familybike Seattle, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting bicycling as a means for moving towards sustainable lifestyles and communities. She founded Critical Lass Seattle, an easy social group ride for new and experienced bicyclists who identify as women and was the Director of Seattle's Kidical Mass organization, a monthly ride for families. While she primarily bikes for transportation, Madi also likes racing cyclocross, all-women alleycats, and the Disaster Relief Trials. She has been profiled in the Associated Press, Outdoors NW magazine, CoolMom, and ParentMap, and she contributed to Everyday Bicycling by Elly Blue.

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Chris I
Chris I
5 years ago

Great timing for this post. My wife and I will be with our kids (2 and 3) in Pasadena this weekend, and a portion of the trip will be car-free. We were planning on taking the Gold + Expo down to the California Science Center, and possibly the red line over to Hollywood. We are flying out of Burbank to take advantage of Metrolink.

We don’t have TAP passes. Can they be purchased from TVMs at the Gold Line stations, or only online?

todd boulanger
todd boulanger
5 years ago

Aloha Madi, thanks for sharing your mini travelog…it was a nice mental break at my desk. (And good to see how far many urban pockets of LA have progressed with combo transit / bike & ped investments. (Things have come quite far in the last 3 to 4 years since I was just reviewing and commenting on these facilities for Bikestation.) Yes, too bad no bike rides. Just means you have to return sooner!

5 years ago

Nice piece. I was amazed at how good the transit is in LA connecting urban pockets by elevated rail. San Diego is doing it to. With stops near where people actually live and not just next to the highway. California is so far ahead of us with transit.

Greg Spencer
Greg Spencer
5 years ago
Reply to  Matt

LA is not far ahead of Portland in transit! LA’s made some great recent investments in light rail — about 30 year after Portland did. And LA voters approved a significant bond measure in 2016 to develop it further. But … as lame as you may think TriMet is, it’s used by more people/day than LA’s systems.

Bradley Bondy
Bradley Bondy
5 years ago
Reply to  Greg Spencer

LA’s rail has more than double the ridership of MAX, the system is a bit larger granted, but even on a per mile basis they beat us.

Really though, Vancouver BC is a more relevant comparison for us, they have a similar population and similarly sized rail network, yet their Skytrain system has 6 times the ridership of MAX, and their buses also have much higher ridership.

Lester Burnham
Lester Burnham
5 years ago

Good story. With our “leadership” here in PDX we’ll always be 100 years behind every place else.

Mike Quigley
Mike Quigley
5 years ago

One difference I’ve seen between Portland and cities like LA, Amsterdam, etc., is that Portland is always forming “working groups” and paying for studies that go nowhere, while others go ahead with what’s common sense.

Douglas Kelso
Douglas Kelso
5 years ago

The first time I visited LA, around fifteen tears ago, I was a little apprehensive about getting around because I hate driving, but I’d heard for years about how awful LA transit was. To my pleasant surprise, I found a great transit system that got me everywhere I wanted to go.

I’ve never needed to rent a car for LA trips. And the transit down there has just gotten better in recent years.

5 years ago

Go back to LA in a few years and you’ll be able to reach Beverly Hills and Westwood (UCLA) by subway, and LAX by people mover. There will be a one seat ride from Union Station to 7th St.–the Regional Connector. LA is hustling to get transit connections ready for the 2028 Olympics (“28 by 28”.

5 years ago

I recently started taking public transit to/from the airport due to a family member’s (in LA) illness and was pleasantly surprised. From Burbank Airport, you can take an Amtrak train or a Metrolink train to Union Station. Amtrak will allow you to show a Metrolink ticket to board (there are some restrictions). Also, with either an Amtrak or Metrolink ticket, it allows you to transfer to a Metro line within a certain time frame. You can purchase a future dated Metrolink/Amtrak ticket that can be used on that same day, even if the Metro part of your trip is prior to your Metrolink/Amtrak trip.

Phil Richman
5 years ago

I like using Spinlister when I go other places.