A Sunday on the Expo Line
It was Sunday April 4th at 12 noon. I was on my way back from LAMUN, the college Model United Nations conference (basically a "mock congress" but with UN committees) hosted by the UCLA Model United Nations Club, of which I am a member. It was the tail end of a work-filled weekend and I had the moderate hangover that only a mass gathering of college students lasting for three nights can induce. Since I had a few hours to kill until my night job began, I decided to ditch the direct 720 bus to Westwood and try out the Expo Line. From Downtown, I could ride the most recently-built (and hitherto unridden) line in the Metro Rail system to its Culver City terminus and then connect to a number 12 Big Blue Bus that would take me straight to UCLA. Being the transit geek that I am, I would not merely pass my time but savor it: unfortunately, the palate soured somewhat upon the first taste.
For one thing, the ride certainly did the job when it came to killing spare time. After having to wait ten minutes for the train to leave its hub (at Metro Center), my ride became bogged down in the sparse Sunday morning traffic waiting for traffic-lights, of all irony. Running most of the way at street grade-level, first along Flower St. and then Exposition Blvd., the Expo Line-like its counterpart, the Gold line- has not installed crossing gates at many intersections, leaving trains to the whim of the same traffic patterns that tie up automobiles. This comes on top of the fact that light rail vehicles run more slowly than conventional rapid transit (e.g. subway, rail) to begin with. The scheduled 25-minute ride took about 40 minutes, definitely slower than bus .
Another issue I had was the way Metro integrated the line with the landscape. Of course the median divider of Exposition was built to handle (heavy) rail: however, does that justify a light rail line along a street that (west of Exposition Park) lacks any commercial activity? (And that, indeed, falls conspicuously between the main arteries of Jefferson and MLK Blvds.?) More problematic is the preceding stretch along Flower, whose warehouses and storage marts give a drab bookend vibe south of Pico Station. Paralleling the freeway when it enters University Park, the train passes behind the Galen Center, out-of-sight of both USC and the Figueroa Corridor. Hey Metro! I know you had to adhere to a right-of-way agreement, but why not fight for a Figueroa or Grand Avenue route-any alternative to Flower.
Then, when I got off the train at Culver City, I found myself situated in a massive parking lot bounded by yet more uninviting, functionalist buildings (which could have comprised warehouses, the back-end of strip malls or a combination of the two). The GPS surely backs up Metro's claim of this station being in the proximity of Culver's "downtown" but there was nothing visual to back it up. The one sign that I encountered at the bottom of the platform pointed vaguely in the directions of "Venice" and "National." Winding my way across the lot and around a construction detour, I stepped out onto the narrow right-bank of the seven-lane torrent of automobiles that is Venice Blvd. The few imposing strip malls that stretched across the horizon gave little indication (without additional signage) that a center of dining and nightlife existed blocks away.
Metro does its best to bring us rail but doesn't understand that its as much of a psychological process as it is a physical. Marketing Metro Rail involves not merely radio and air-wave advertising but a visible if not bearing physical presence in the LA communities to which it extends. The more convenient the rail line is to commercial institutions, the more it will be used by commuters, all the better if it disrupts the existing traffic patterns so that it becomes easier for Angelenos to ride the Metro rather than to drive.
Fortunately, the Expo Line has not seemed to suffer the exact sorry fate of the Gold or Green Lines. I had trouble finding a seat in my car on my Sunday afternoon ride, an indication of how the Expo Line has been surprising critics by meeting ridership targets since it opened.
However, the comment section of the article I put in the hyperlink only underscores the complaints that I made: readers suggested greater "advertising from the freeway" and increased visibility for the line.
Personally, I can only wait for the day when LA planners will become bold enough or brave enough to construct something like this .