LA: Scale and transportation

Meeting the organisers of Hollywood Hackday, talking open data with Hack for LA and an insight into the sheer scale of public transportation complexity in the US.

Published on 27th June 2015 by Jonathan Ginn

It’s 1am back in Britain and I’m wide awake, glued to the plane window, staring out at the vast expanse of the United States. I think it might be somewhere in the mid-west, but I honestly don’t know – my experience so far of the US is solely from above, staring at the endless greenery and the perfect square fields.

Rivers snake their way through valleys and ridge lines jut their way up through the landscape. At points, there is no visible human civilisation for hundreds of miles.

This was probably the first moment I started to realise the sheer scale of the United States.


I recognise Los Angeles from the movies I’ve seen. Landing at LAX, I recognised it from Heat. I recall the orange-blue hues of the sunset skies from Drive. I’ve already gawped at Nakatomi Plaza from Die Hard.

Los Angeles is staggering. Flying in, you get a sense of the size, but nothing can prepare you until you’re on the ground. The mountain range dominates the horizon on all sides in-land, looming in the distance.

I think in part, the feeling of size is down to all travel being overground. In London, you’re likely to travel mostly everywhere by tube, distorting the sense of scale of each area and distance between tube stations. In LA, you travel from A to B and see it every step of the way.


Hollywood hacking

On our first morning in LA, Chris and I ventured out to Venice for a breakfast at Flake, a ‘cheap and cheerful neighbourhood bacon hut’. A pretty accurate description – tasty bagels were on the menu and tasty bagels were had. It was lovely to get a sense of the local culture – and Flake was packed.

We were there to meet with Rahim, one of the organisers of Hollywood Hackday, to get a feel for how they organise and run events in the area. The scale of hack events is so much larger than the UK, with hundreds attending. We also discussed the culture of Los Angeles compared to ‘The Valley’, as Rahim travels to Cupertino every month.

We wandered on to Intelligentsia, one of the best coffee places I’ve seen yet, to meet Vyki from Compiler run Hack for LA and work closely with the LA Mayor’s Office and city planning teams to open up data, run hack events, and encourage citizen activity in shaping the future of the region.

LA was recently voted #1 in the US City Open Data Census. Vyki is at the heart of opening up data in the region, building relationships and running events. There is a huge scale to the work here – with a base of over 500 volunteers to call on and 2,000 involved members, it’s clear that the volume and density of people in the area contributes to a lot of people getting involved with open data projects.

Public transport in LA

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 15.56.21At Base, we of course have a key interest and involvement in improving public transport experiences, and we’re always interested to see how different areas work for public transport.

Public transport in Los Angeles is near non-existent. In two days travelling, I’ve seen fewer than 4 buses in Santa Monica, Venice, and Beverly Hills. Rahim described it as a perception issue – in LA, the perception is that only poor people get the bus. Everyone else buys a car.

And it shows – LA is a true gridlock city. Everyone travels by car, and cars are everywhere. Travelling from Venice to Beverly Hills (a modest 10 miles) takes 40-50 minutes, bumper to bumper.

The issue isn’t just perception – today, Los Angeles is made up of 87 cities, all crammed together. Each of these 87 cities is more of a borough than what us Brits would consider a city, and ‘Los Angeles’ is more of a county area.

As Vyki told me, each of the 87 cities has their own municipal facilities, policies, and most importantly – their own control of public transport.

As public transport in the US is controlled by each city, this limits the areas and routes available. Getting from one side of LA to another is difficult, frustrating, and can’t be done on a single fare, smartcard, or any other system. Routes enter other cities but not by far.

This means data for public transport is fragmented and makes using tech to improve the transportation in the region a real challenge, as Vyki has found.

Vyki lives what she preaches, living in downtown LA and walking wherever she can, but for the overwhelming majority of Los Angeles residents their only option is owning a car. The true American dream, offering fun and freedom – but more often than not via a traffic jam.

Published on 27th June 2015

Developer Evangelist

Jonathan Ginn