On Friday, May 20, Los Angeles realized its manifest destiny by reconnecting downtown to the Pacific Ocean (more or less) with railway tracks. The opening of the Expo Line extension marks the first time in 63 years that Angelenos have been able to ride a train to the beach.
Metro is celebrating the historic occasion by offering free rides on the Expo Line all weekend, and I took them up on that offer on Friday.
Was the occasion really all that historic? You can already go from downtown to the beach on the Big Blue Bus Rapid 10, owned and operated by the city of Santa Monica. That ride will take between one and two hours, depending on the time and which direction you're going. And it'll cost $2.50 — 75 cents more than the Expo Line. You can also take Metro's 704 from Union Station to the beach, which supposedly takes about an hour and a half.
So the Expo Line, at 50 minutes, is quite a bit faster. But the real difference is that it's a train. How much difference does that make? How much difference should it make?
About 11:15 a.m.
I leave my home in Echo Park and ride my bike downhill to the Metro station at Seventh and Flower. I've always disliked this station because (a) it's sort of hidden, with very little signage at street level; and (b) there's no bike parking, only a couple of bike racks.
"This train is now departing for Santa Monica," we hear over the loudspeaker. I half-expected some applause, but the mood here is unceremonious, almost sleepy. When the train pulls out of the downtown station, the car I'm in still has some empty seats.
The train ambles through downtown at a pace that feels only slightly faster than the trolley at the Grove. One big problem with the Expo Line is that it stops at traffic lights, making it little more than a glorified bus. On my ride, we stop for at least four lights before we even make it to the Western station.
(For what it's worth, there's a Change.org petition demanding the entire Expo Line start using signal preemption to avoid stopping at red lights, which is what the new Westside section uses.)
The train pulls into the Vermont station, near USC. There are not one, not two, but three stops at my alma mater USC, despite the fact that one can easily get you to the campus on foot in 10 minutes. This is the other major reason the Expo Line is kind of slow — too many stations. And since there are only two tracks, it's impossible to have an express train.
We stop at the Farmdale station, near Dorsey High School. I don't see a single person get on or off.
Once we hit La Cienaga, the train starts to really move. Now the people boarding the train have that giddy, excited look in their eyes. Cameras are out. Parents are pointing excitedly to their bored children.
We cross the 405 freeway and the car is packed — well, not Tokyo packed, but for a Los Angeles train, it's pretty full. Metro employees waiting at stations in yellow vests look concerned.
Drivers are pointing out the window and taking photos of us, as if they've never even seen a train before.
We're two blocks from our last stop, Fourth Street in downtown Santa Monica, when the train stops and ... just sits there. We're waiting for the previous train to finish unloading and loading its passengers. Apparently there's only one working track going in and out of the station, at least for now. So we sit and wait for a good five minutes.
After 57 minutes, the train pulls into its final station. Santa Monica!
Unfortunately, there's only one entrance and exit. So there's a crush to get off the platform.
And there's a long, Disneyland-size line to get back on the train heading east.
Apparently driving to the beach is still quite popular.
Nearly two hours after leaving my doorstep, my feet touch saltwater. (My trip would likely be less than an hour and a half on a normal Expo Line day – a 15-minute bike ride to the downtown station, waiting for the train, and a 15-minute walk from downtown Santa Monica to the ocean.) It would have taken about 45 minutes to drive here from my house. And it likely would have been an hour and a half by bus.
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The day still feels historic — or at least historic-ish.
This will be remembered as the year that the breadth of L.A.'s transit network expanded exponentially — 40 additional miles, from Santa Monica to Azusa. But its relative utility remains limited. If you don't live close to the train and can afford a car, you probably aren't gonna take the train very much.
Building a light-rail network was always going to be for the future. People's habits will change slowly. The people who move here will consider living near a rail stop. Parking lots will be torn down. The city will start to grow around its rail lines.
I still wish the Expo Line wasn't so goddamn slow. And would it have killed them to put one last stop right by the sand?