*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 I apologize if any language appears outdated.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.