Sunday, June 19, 2016

4 glaring gaps in the Los Angeles County Metro's bus network

About 9 months ago, I singled out 5 lines that I thought Metro should prioritize as part of its short-term list of rail and bus rapid transit project. When looking again at a Metro system map the other day, I was reminded that even with the rail expansion I desire, the backbone of public transit in LA will remain the Metro and municipal bus networks (which offer a crucial "first mile-last mile" connection for rail transit users). The map showed me the extensiveness of the bus system but also revealed deficiencies on some crucial transportation corridors. The following list presents the five most glaring of these "gaps".

1. Valley to Basin (Especially on the Westside)

After losing a morning (or afternoon) appointment on the "other side of the hill" due to bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 405, valley residents frequently start petitions like this one demanding that Metro construct the long-awaited rail (or light-rail) line through the Sepulveda Pass. While I bemoan the prolonged timetable of the Sepulveda Pass rail connection, I find the inadequacy of bus connections between the Valley and the LA basin to be equally disconcerting. The Rapid 734 bus that runs along Sepulveda down from Sylmar and over the Sepulveda only goes as far south as the Sepulveda Expo station on the basin side. This forces those traveling further south to not merely change buses but switch to the Culver City Bus system's rapid 6 line (with a different fare structure) if traveling down to Culver City or the airport. Furthermore, the Sepulveda rapid 734 and local 234 are the only two bus lines that traverse Sepulveda Pass (aside from a peak-only express bus service between Arleta and Westwood): those who need to get between any two destinations not on Sepulveda, say from the corner Bundy and Santa Monica to the corner of Van Nuys and Oxnard (where the Van Nuys Civic Center is located) have to change twice. This routing ignores the fact that, as a "chokepoint," the Sepulveda Pass "funnels" traffic from multiple major activity hubs on both sides of the hill, few of which border Sepulveda. Ideally, bus lines from Bundy, Van Nuys, and Reseda might converge at Sepulveda and travel over the pass from there.
The situation is even worse for bus service over the Cahuenga Pass. Metro's "156" and 222 Locals, the only buses that cross the pass, both terminate south of the pass in Hollywood (the former at Santa Monica and Highland and the latter at Hollywood and Highland), rather than continuing to, say, La Brea or Vine and Rossmore (close to the heart of the Wilshire Corridor). Fortunately, the Red Line (which interfaces at Hollywood/Highland with the La Brea and Fairfax rapid and local busses) provides reliable service under the pass (from the basin to Universal City--and points beyond), though it does not help one if he or she needs to get to locations within the pass, like the Ford Theater or the famed Joe's Falafel. Sigh.

2. Culver City/Palms to Wilshire Corridor and West Hollywood
Home to some of the Los Angeles area's most cutting-edge art galleries and trendiest restaurants (including the infamous Father's Office), Downtown Culver City is as much of a regional destination on the weekends as during the week (when the Sony studios and light industrial district along Ballona Creek draw in thousands of employee commuters from across the region). A steady flow of Bobo traffic between here and the Beverly Hills segment of the Wilshire Corridor (which houses a considerable bulk of Los Angeles' financial and medical office space and is a magnet for well-heeled tourists)--three miles to the north-- is highly predictable, and can be confirmed, in part, by the daily traffic pile-ups on Robertson Blvd (which is the most direct arterial link between these two areas, given that the Beverlywood and Cheviot Hills residential neighborhoods to the west denies another north-south arterial link before Motor) starting just south of the Pico. Adding to the potential demand for public transit along the corridor is the Culver City Expo Line station, which provides residents of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood an alternative (for getting to University Park or Santa Monica) to the 10 freeway, so long as they can avoid the station's crowded parking lot. Despite this, Metro currently runs only hourly local service on Robertson Blvd, and only during the week. Supplementary Big Blue Bus service along this arterial was cut as part of service realignments implemented in connection with the Expo phase II opening.

3. Hollywood/Mid-Wilshire area to LAX
Driving through the Baldwin Hills on La Cienaga or La Brea at 4pm on a weekday is a hellish experience, not far behind that of the Sepulveda Pass. Like the Santa Monica Mountains, the Baldwin Hills create a chokepoint on an important corridor: all traffic between the airport and its surrounding jobs centers, and the tourist hotspot of Hollywood and (entertainment and financial) jobs centers of Mid-Wilshire, Beverly Hills and Fairfax gets funneled onto one of two arterials. To an even greater extent than the Sepulveda Pass Corridor, the Baldwin Hills thoroughfares lack bus connections that provide a viable alternative to aggressive driving. The 705 Rapid and 105 Local Busses, which service La Cienaga through the basin, both swerve eastward to Vernon Ave (by way of Rodeo Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.) at the foot of the Baldwin Hills, leaving only the 217 local (which joins La Cienaga from Fairfax north of Jefferson) to traverse the transmontane portion of La Cienaga (and only on weekdays) . Once over the hill, the 217 does not veer southwest (onto La Tijera) towards the LAX City Bus Center, as logic would dictate, but heads one mile west (on Centinela) to the Fox Hills Mall, ultimately ending at the Howard Hughes Center: technically, you can change from the 217 to the 102 at the junction of La Cienaga to continue the journey but the latter route has such low frequencies as to not even consitute a real option. On La Brea, the 212 and 312 routes offer a direct path of service from Hollywood to Inglewood, but stay a good two-and-a-half miles east of the LAX terminals (since La Brea Avenue itself keeps this distance from the airport). The Flyaway bus service provides a nonstop connection to the Airport terminals from the heart of Hollywood, but is inconvenient for travelers originating from intermediate points and costs a hefty 10 dollars per ride.

4. Central Los Angeles to the Far Westside (i.e. West of the 405)

This link would seem obvious to anyone who knows about Los Angeles' "linear downtown" (along Wilshire and Santa Monica Blvds.). After all, the apartment section of Brentwood south of Wilshire is as much of a bedroom community for UCLA (to the east) as Palms is. Tourists who start off their day in Hollywood gravitate towards Santa Monica Pier or the Venice beachfront like cells engaged in osmosis, while Santa Monica's software designers and chefs drift en masse , nightly, back to their Beverly Hills mansions, Silver Lake apartments or Downtown restaurants. Sadly, traveling by bus to the coast along either Santa Monica or Wilshire from points west of Sepulveda often requires a transfer on weekdays, not merely between busses but between the LA County Metro and Santa Monica Big Blue Bus systems (since half of the rapid 704 and 720 buses --and virtually all of the local 4 and 20 buses--that travel these arterials, end at Westwood or Sepulveda): unlike with transfers from one Metro bus to another (which are included in Metro's regular fare), an intersystem transfer requires either the purchase of a paper transfer (when starting on Big Blue Bus) or adding a special municipal transfer fee to one's TAP card (when coming from Metro).  Moreover, such manuevers are necessary for those traveling to Santa Monica on Olympic Blvd from any point west of Century City (where the Metro 728 rapid, that services the arterial from Downtown, ends and the Big Blue Bus 5 takes over). Traveling east from the coastal area on Pico Blvd., the number 7 and Rapid 7 Big Blue Bus routes get one as far as the Rimpau Transit Center or Wilshire/Western metro station (thus offering access to West LA and Pico-Robertson), but require transferring to the Metro bus or rail system to get all the way Downtown. The completion of the Expo Line has eased the connection from Santa Monica to Downtown (and to areas along the 10 Freeway), but runs a good distance south of the "heart" of the Wilshire Corridor.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Expo Phase II Opening

*This article was originally slated for publication last Sunday but got delayed by more pressing obligations. I apologize if any language appears outdated. 
Last Saturday, I rode the Expo Line Phase II Extension to Santa Monica, lured by the offer of free rides for the opening weekend.

As I waited for the train at Palms Station, I felt an urge to pinch myself. Could I really be waiting for a train at Palms and National, within only two miles of my old synagogue and childhood school? Less than a mile downhill from the homes in Beverlywood I visited for playdates? 

Since I visited Tokyo -and rode on many of the city's extensive and efficient commuter rail networks-, the summer before I entered fifth grade, I had dreamed of rail tracks criscrossing Los Angeles (one of the hypothetical lines I envisioned followed the Expo Line, actually). And now, here I was?

So what did I think?

Firstly, the trains were crowded. The first train I took, from Palms to Bergamot Station around 5 pm, was standing room only-with limited space. The second, which I rode from Bergamot Station to Downtown Santa Monica at around 6-offered hardly enough room to stand straight. In my recollection, the latter train had to have been one of the most crowded I have ridden in the United States, outside of New York.

And the "queue" for those getting back on the train in Downtown Santa Monica was a gargantuan cluster.

Not only were the trains packed but the crowds riding them were pleasantly diverse. This being the Westside, you had more upper middle-class types, whose gestures and comments indicated this was there first time ever using public transit in LA, than on your typical Metro bus or subway. And yet they had to share close quarters with restaurant workers, domestic maids and families from South Central heading to the beach. In a city where the elites traditionally clustered within gated communities in remote hillside canyons, this intermingling was truly revolutionary.

As for the drawbacks....

The trains moved more slowly than I expected on the stretch from Palms Station to the 405. The at-grade crossings at Overland, Westwood and Military seemed to be responsible for slowing the train down here (as well as, possibly, back up from the Westwood and Sepulveda stations). With slow-downs in the at-grade sections along Flower Street and Colorado already piling on time, the train can't afford yet another delay like this (and remain competitive)>

Furthermore, when the crossing gates at 26th street (or "Bergamot") station (from which I boarded my return train back Culver City) failed to go up after trains departed. Only after two consecutive Los Angeles-bound trains had passed by (without the gate going up), did I manage to dash across the platform through the emergency gates (looking both ways for oncoming traffic). Not only did the crossing gates hold up passengers getting between platforms but northbound traffic on 26th street. If these crossing gates prove to be a nuisance for the driving classes, then Metro could find itself faced with a backlash (at a time when it needs voter support).

While on the subject of 26th street station..., the sub-par walking environment in the station vicinity was another bummer. The stoplight at Olympic and 26th offered no pedestrian walk-signal in one cycle (presumably to allow a smooth flow of left-turn traffic from 26th street southbound). How are people supposed to get to the station from the office complexes to the north if they can't cross Olympic!

Finally, except for Downtown Santa Monica station, 26th street station (not withstanding the walking infrastructure) and, perhaps, Bundy Station, the station locations seemed to be a bit off. Santa Monica's 17th street station is just a few blocks too far south of the Santa Monica commercial corridor and is separated by the 10 freeway (and five blocks to the south) from Santa Monica College (which, somehow, still makes it in the name). The Sepulveda and Westwood Stations are both close to but spatially disconnected from (one by a freeway and busy arterial, the other by a stretch of single-family homes) the Sawtelle retail area and Westside Pavillion mall. As I have mentioned before, transit planners would ideally plan routes around development rather than confining them to a given right-of-way and the location of these Expo Stations provides a good case in point.

All in all, its exciting to see trains running again through the Westside (and lots of people riding them). The question is whether it can evolve from a symbol into a catalyst for changing the Westside's transportation landscape.

Update: I rode the Expo Line again the following Thursday afternoon to go from my office in downtown to a dentist's appointment. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the train was quite full, west of Culver City, despite it being an hour or two ahead of the rush hour peak. Unfortunately, the state-of-the-art automated announcer malfunctioned.