Why the Northridge Quake was a defining moment for transit

Text by India Mandelkern. This post originally appeared on Metro’s The Source on January 17, 2024.

Where were you during the Northridge Earthquake? If you lived here in the 90s, the moment is probably seared into your brain, a gut-stopping collective inflection point wedged in between the acquittal of the police officers that beat Rodney King and the murder trial of OJ Simpson.  

There’s a good chance that you were asleep. The 6.7 quake happened at 4:31 in the morning on the tail end of a three-day holiday weekend. The actual shaking lasted only 20 seconds or so. But in moments, everything changed.    

Angelenos woke up to toppled shelves, collapsed roofs, fires, burst pipes, and gas leaks. Over 90 hospitals had to be evacuated. Thousands lost their water and power … that is, if they were lucky. 25,000 homes were destroyed. More than 1,800 people were injured. Over 60 people died.

The I-10 Freeway shortly after the quake (Image via United States Geological Survey)

The earthquake had also mangled LA’s transportation system, leaving four major freeways severely damaged: 

  • I-5, the crucial north-south route connecting Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley with communities north of the San Gabriel Mountains. The Gavin Canyon Overpass split apart, cutting off a critical access point to Santa Clarita.  
  • SR-14, or the Antelope Valley Freeway, which links Los Angeles with Santa Clarita, Palmdale, and Lancaster. An overpass collapsed onto the freeway at the Newhall Pass, which connected I-5 to SR-14 (This had also happened after the Sylmar earthquake. 
  • SR-118, the Simi Valley Freeway, which connects Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The freeway sustained serious damage at the Gothic Avenue and Bull Creek bridges, making it unusable. 
  • I-10, the busiest freeway in the nation, which then carried 300,000+ people per day. It collapsed at the La Cienega Boulevard / Venice Boulevard and Washington Boulevard / Fairfax Ave bridges.

The I-10 Freeway after the quake (Image via United States Geological Survey)

The I-5 Freeway in the earthquake’s immediate aftermath (Image courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey)

The I-5 Freeway at Gavin Canyon (Image courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey)

The SR-14 Freeway after the quake (Image courtesy of SCVTV)

After the dust settled and the immediate aftershocks subsided, Angelenos had to ask themselves a huge, pressing question: How are we going to get around???  


Fear of the Big One has loomed over Los Angeles for a very long time. The Long Beach Earthquake of 1933 destroyed dozens of schools and killed 120 people. The Sylmar Earthquake of 1971 caused landslides, damaged hospitals, and toppled two major freeway interchanges. But the Northridge earthquake was the most destructive and costly. By a longshot. We had been lucky, some said, that the earthquake took place on a federal holiday. The following day, however, millions of people would have to get to work. 

With four major freeways suddenly missing in action, transit was cast in the spotlight. If people couldn’t move around, the economy would collapse. At the time, the Los Angeles Times claimed that the closure of the I-10 alone cost the local economy $1M a day.  

Buses, the most flexible components of the public transit system, were among the first responders. All but one of our bus lines ended up running the day of the quake. Within three days we shored up existing east-west routes (such as the 2, 4, 20-320, 439, and 454) to provide alternatives to the unusable I-10 and routed over 100 bus detours. We also launched five brand new bus lines –– the 634 (Westside Special), 640 (Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena), 641 (Burbank-Warner Center special Express), 642 (Burbank-East Pasadena Special Express, which was operated by Foothill Transit) and 644 (West Los Angeles Park and Ride, which we launched jointly with LADOT). This doesn’t include dozens of bus lines and detours managed by other municipal transportation agencies … 16 of them in all.

Greyhound loaned Metro some buses for emergency bus service (Image via Phillip Cegielski)

Another part of LA’s transportation infrastructure that wasn’t damaged? The rail lines! Metro Rail was still in its infancy –– the Blue Line was three years old, and the Red Line, then just a 1.8-mile segment from Union Station to MacArthur Park, hadn’t even turned one. Nevertheless, within a mere six hours of the quake, the Blue Line was running again, and the Red Line was running the next day. This was a big statement –– the very idea of building a subway in a seismically active zone had jangled cultural nerves (for Hollywood’s take, just watch Volcano (1997)). The earthquake proved that being underground was one of the safest places one could be. No trains were running when the shaking began (too early), but the reinforced oval tunnels held firm while the earth absorbed the shock. There actually were some workers in the tunnels that morning, building the Red Line extension to North Hollywood. But over 100 feet below sea level, they barely registered the shock.  

Of all the region’s transit agencies, Metrolink –– at that time a four-line commuter rail network that hadn’t yet hit its second birthday –– may have had the biggest cross to bear. Metrolink picked up the slack in the more remote and mountainous areas of Los Angeles County that didn’t have many alternative roads or detours –– in other words, the places where rail would become a lifeline. Within days, Metrolink had added extra cars to its Santa Clarita Valley Line (now known as the Antelope Valley Line), which then terminated in Santa Clarita. But the agency didn’t stop there. Helped by an emergency FEMA grant, Metrolink extended that rail line another 50 (!) miles using existing Southern Pacific freight tracks to reach stranded commuters in Palmdale and Lancaster. Metrolink also added emergency stops along its Moorpark Line (Now the Ventura County Line), extending it southwest to reach Camarillo.

Metrolink’s Northridge Station was one of six that was built with emergency FEMA funds (Image via Metrolink)

In sum, despite the considerable traffic and apocalyptic headlines, transit showed itself to be resilient.  

Headline in Los Angeles Times published January 18, 1994 — the day after the quake

When the earthquake struck, writers were quick to bring up transit as a glimmering silver lining. Perhaps the disaster would encourage people to discover transit’s benefits, and subsequently change their travel patterns. The writer and planner Sam Hall Kaplan, writing for the Los Angeles Times, wondered whether the quake could “wean us from building expensive, community-busting freeways and to make us use our surface routes more efficiently for a happy melding of public and private transportation.” The Los Angeles Times editorial board felt similarly. “If this experience gets enough people out of their autos and traveling to work by bus or rail, this quake may help put Los Angeles on its way to a more efficient, far less vulnerable 21st century transit system.”   

In reality, ridership gains were uneven. The Blue Line (now the A Line) actually saw ridership decline in the days following the disaster but bounced back to pre-quake levels by January 26. Meanwhile, Red Line (Now the B Line) ridership increased by 12.5%, thanks in part to the transfers at Union Station from the influx of new Metrolink riders.   

Metrolink’s ridership saw the most dramatic changes, jumping from about 6,000 daily boardings pre-quake to a record high of 31,376 in the week following the earthquake. Much of this was powered by the Santa Clarita Line, which saw its daily boardings leap from about 1000 to a high of 22,000 on January 25. This gradually tapered off –– by the end of June, Santa Clarita Line ridership had dropped to 4,000 boardings per day. Still, this was four times higher than before the quake.

Ridership on Metrolink’s Santa Clarita Line (now the Antelope Valley Line) boomed after the earthquake (Los Angeles Times, January 27, 1994)

After the earthquake, politicians and journalists prophesied that buses would be the “safety valves” for thousands of people affected by the freeway closures. This didn’t quite pan out. Bus ridership declined immediately following the quake but recovered to pre-quake levels after about a week. (Part of this had to do with the emergency school closures throughout the San Fernando Valley, which kept more people at home.) The east-west lines (as well as the emergency lines) saw modest increases in February and early March. But by and large, bus ridership didn’t hit the numbers that pundits expected. By the end of March, only two of our emergency bus lines were still running, one internal report explained, “due to less than anticipated increase in patronage.”  

Over the following months, the freeways were repaired.  

  • February 20, a detour was completed on SR-118, so both the former westbound lanes could accommodate both directions of traffic. The freeway was completely repaired that September.  
  • April 12, 1994, the I-10 reopened … two and a half months ahead of schedule. 
  • May 17-18, the I-5 mainline opened at Gavin Canyon.  
  • July 8, the Newhall Pass interchange partially reopened, restoring connections between the I-5 and SR-14. It was completed in 1995.   

As the freeways reopened, transit ridership dropped. In fact, the only transit line that retained riders over the long term was the Santa Clarita Line, albeit at a far lower level than its peak. Given the gusto with which Angelenos returned to driving, you have to wonder about the earthquake’s legacy for transit. Was it really a vote of confidence?  

I’d argue yes. Here’s why.  

First, it proved that transit is safe. Freeways buckled. Bridges collapsed. Rail lines, for the most part, emerged unscathed. And it left us with a lasting takeaway –– when you’re underground, swaying buildings and falling objects are non-issues. Even if many commuters eventually reverted to driving, the earthquake instilled confidence in our system.  

The earthquake got different agencies talking to one another. We already had committees in place to facilitate dialogue with other municipal bus agencies, and the earthquake prompted additional task forces to handle relief services and public outreach. This was felt among commuters too. Within days of the earthquake, we saw articles published full of tips and tricks for “quake-induced rookies” navigating the bus system for the first time. Many of us ultimately chose to drive instead, but the message was one of solidarity, that we were all in this together.  

It forced Angelenos to get scrappy, casting new ways of getting around into the spotlight. One local rideshare service saw calls jump from about sixfold in the days after the quake. And decades before the pandemic made remote work commonplace, the earthquake put telecommuting on the table (the governor even started an emergency telecommuting partnership that supplied information to businesses as well as equipment and software donated by 90s tech giants like IBM, Intel, and AT&T). While home interview surveys, conducted months after the earthquake, suggested that carpooling did not increase markedly, the earthquake fueled conversations about flexible work hours, and staggered commutes, and hybrid work. 

Last, the earthquake laid the groundwork for future transit improvements. I already mentioned the emergency extension of the Santa Clarita Line north to Palmdale and Lancaster. This was already in the works, but the earthquake expedited the project by 10 years! In 1994, we received a $19 million grant from the California Transportation Commission for building carpool lanes.

Yet more lastingly, I think, the earthquake is significant for the impact it didn’t have on transportation. In the reports that came out of the quake, officials reviewed the ridership data, looked in the mirror, and asked themselves the hard questions: Why were increases in bus ridership so much smaller than those on commuter trains? Why did bus service lose out whenever it competed with commuter rail? Why did so many people revert to driving? The answers laid the groundwork for future programs designed to make transit more attractive, such as employer-provided shuttles, green incentive programs, HOV and bus priority lanes.   

Today, on the 30-year anniversary of the quake, the shock has faded but the earthquake’s shadow is still on our minds. That’s why we have installed state-of-the-art early warning technology in all our bus and rail facilities that can give us up to 60 seconds notice before an earthquake. It’s why we have created an internal damage assessment team so we can proactively check the integrity of our buildings and tunnels without waiting for others to come to us. And it’s why we’ve developed emergency preparedness guides and stocked supplies to make sure our staff have everything they need in case they ever must report to work as disaster service workers. We’ll never know if or when the Big One is coming, but Northridge has taught us that the worst can be mitigated with innovation, teamwork, planning.

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