A forecast of insultingly high gas prices, paired with a buoyant burst of car-free optimism (including an ambitious bike-share program just announced by the city), make the timing perfect for L.A.'s newest rail line to debut. Starting April 28, the Expo Line will travel the eight miles from downtown to La Cienega and Jefferson in less than 30 minutes, relieving some commuters from the daily migraine that is the 10 freeway, and creating access to a corridor of transit-adjacent food and culture. After months (and months) of delays, it turns out the Expo Line was worth the wait.
It's possible that some people -- up to 27,000 people a day, Metro says -- will ride our new Expo Line for transportation: to run errands, to go to work or school. But our transit lines are also urban theme-park rides, rolling us into different corners of the city for $1.50 per trip.As the Gold Line did for L.A.'s Eastside, the Expo Line offers a fresh look at familiar landmarks and an introduction to some underappreciated neighborhoods. During a recent preview ride, as the train rumbled out of the downtown tunnel from the Seventh and Figueroa station and veered southwest toward USC, I was breathless with anticipation -- even if you know the streets, you're not sure exactly what to expect from this perspective. I was charmed, for example, by a perfectly framed shot of the Felix Chevrolet sign, even though I'd seen it a million times from the 110. As the train glided onto the center of Exposition Boulevard, where it follows a 135-year-old rail line that had sat unused since 1989, the scene is almost small-town America: Craftsman houses shuffled together with industrial warehouses, Baldwin Hills rising foggy and verdant in the distance. By the time we'd pulled into the Crenshaw station, I'd nearly forgotten that we were in L.A. All along the line, the shimmering canopies ripple like waves above the stations, almost as if they're beckoning riders to follow them to the ocean. Large public art pieces made from materials like glass and ceramic, installed above the station signage, add pops of color and texture to the mostly blue infrastructure. Underfoot are panels chronicling the history of the dismantled parts of our transit system with illustrations and historical quotes, like this bummer: "There were no speeches or fanfare when the last train pulled out." You can step on that one as you board the train headed west. April 28 with its weekend of free fares is not the only grand opening for the Expo Line. Two additional stations, Culver City and Farmdale, will open this summer, likely in July. And ground-breaking for the Expo Line's second phase, the one that travels from Culver City to Santa Monica, has already occurred; it could open as early as 2015, making it the first passenger rail to reach Santa Monica since the middle of last century. How does the Expo Line stack up? We rate various aspects on a scale of one train car (might as well drive) to four train cars (sell your car). STATION DESIGN Don't look for the Red Line's film-reel walls of Hollywood and Vine or the faux-pagoda architecture of the Gold Line's Chinatown station. The Expo Line features a streamlined, line-wide station design of iridescent, perforated metal canopies supported by steel tubing painted the blue of the L.A. sky. The efficient design by Gruen Associates, Parsons and Miyamoto International feels classy in the at-grade stations, but the elevated stations, where the platforms arch over the street atop massive pylons, just feel like freeway overpasses. Seriously, we can't get anything better than concrete? However, the blah stations have a bonus: stunning views of the city. TRAINS No big innovations here, unfortunately. Because the Expo Line shares the same track as the Blue Line for two stations, it also shares its trains: boring, boxy white cars with the bad pin-striping job from 1972. More cars are planned to be purchased by 2014; let's hope the line will choose the sexy silver Breda cars that you see on the Gold Line -- or something better. BIKE FRIENDLINESS The Expo Line's big winners? Cyclists. Almost six miles of bike lanes have been painted along the Expo Line route in the past year and a half, creating an extremely pleasant east-west byway. Plus the Expo Line, like all Metro lines, has dedicated areas in train cars for bikes, with plenty of bike parking, including enclosed bike lockers available for rent. From the La Cienega station to the Culver City station, and on through Phase II, bikers win even bigger, where an actual bike path, not just a bike lane, is proposed to run alongside the train. And both Culver City stations offer great connectivity to the Ballona Creek Bike Path, which takes you to Venice. PUBLIC ART Each stop is imbued with personality thanks to Metro's public art program, which picked 10 artists, one for each station, to produce a series of panels in each one's chosen medium. All but one of the artists work in Los Angeles County, and most of the art seems to reference the visuals found in nearby blocks. The resulting place-appropriate art really works. Jessica Polzin McCoy's ceramic mosaic works at the Vermont station evoke the rambling Victorians of West Adams, while Daniel González tells the history of Ballona Creek at the La Cienega station in hand-glazed porcelain. CULTURAL DIVERSIONS Using the Expo Line as a cultural corridor is a no-brainer in Culver City, where you'll have easy access to art galleries and institutions like the Museum of Jurassic Technology. But the biggest potential to engage is at Exposition Park, where two stations dot its northern boundary. Here, you'll be able to easily knit Expo Park's many museums into a quick trip from downtown, which is great news for the Natural History Museum's massive campus revamp and, soon, the retired space shuttle Endeavor, which will arrive in the fall. FOOD There's a phenomenon in transit circles called the "Langer's Effect": the boom in business that came to the pastrami purveyor when the Red Line station opened nearby. Spots like Mercado la Paloma, Earlez Grille, Kobbler King and Mel's Fish Shack are sure to see extra mouths to feed, while the Expo Line will be a boon to Culver City's already thriving restaurant scene. Don't use the La Cienega station if you're hungry: The See's Candies factory is a chocolate turtle's toss away and three days a week its peanut brittle production blankets the block with a gooey come-hither aroma. NIGHTLIFE Until Metro starts running all of its trains past last call, the Expo Line isn't going to be the ride of choice for serious club kids. But a last ride just after midnight might be late enough for moderate alcoholics who want to drink stiff stouts at Father's Office without cabbing it back east. Further east, the Expo Line will provide a DUI-free option for concerts and other events at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum and the Shrine. But we'll deduct one train car because we expect pukey USC students to use the Expo Line as their own personal barhopping service: the Fake ID Express. Alissa Walker blogs at Gelatobaby.com. Follow her on Twitter at @gelatobaby and for more arts news like us on Facebook or follow us at @LAWeeklyArts.