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04.27.2012
LA's Transit Dreams Coming True?
On the tracks of Los Angeles' new Expo Line.
Courtesy METRO

At his State of the City address last week, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made a surprise pledge to extend Measure R, the half-cent sales tax that is funneling an estimated $40 billion into transportation projects over the next 30 years. When the measure passed with a two-thirds majority in 2008, it represented a turning point for the city:  Angelenos not only wanted better transit, they were willing to pay for it. Extending the tax, Villaraigosa claimed, would complete planned transit projects in half the time. “We will measure traffic relief in years, not generations,” he said.

Believe it or not, Los Angeles is on its way to becoming a world-class transit city again, and there is a pivotal new light rail line opening this weekend to prove it.

On Saturday, April 28, the Expo Line will lead the city into a new transit era. This 8.6 mile route from downtown to Culver City will not only serve a traffic-weary swath of the city, but it will give Angelenos the rail line that will metaphorically make the city whole again—traveling the width of the LA basin to reach Santa Monica as early as 2015.

And unlike some recent additions to the system, like the Gold Line Eastside Extension, it will be likely heavily used: Metro expects 27,000 boardings per day. When the line is complete to Santa Monica, ridership could be as high as 67,000 per day.

Route map for LA's Expo Line.
Courtesy METRO
 

Designed by Los Angeles-based Parsons, with support from Gruen Associates and Miyamoto International, the Expo Line has been in the works basically since Southern Pacific offered the right-of-way for sale in 1988. Yet the completion of the $940 million project was delayed by over a year, particularly by community groups concerned with at-grade crossings. It’s a shame since the stations which are the most effective (and attractive) are those that are on street level, not hovering above the busier streets on concrete pylons.

Unlike the themed stations on the Gold or Red Lines, the Expo Line has a unified design. “This is a contemporary project,” said Jorge J. Pardo, Metro’s director of creative services, who oversees both station design and public art. He says the line-wide design is better for the customer, who needs to see the stations as landmarks. “There’s a reason this design can continue all the way to 4th and Colorado,” he said, the intersection in Santa Monica where the line will terminate.

 
The geometric pattern of the platform sunscreens(left). The expo Line paralleling Exposition Boulevard (right).
Courtesy METRO; Alissa Walker
 

The stations are elegant yet unassuming. Perforated metal sunshades undulate over simple steel tubing painted in a cool blue, which on most days is exactly the color of the LA sky. On the platforms, the canopies cast constantly changing shade patterns. Yet besides the digitized waves traced in the air, the infrastructure almost seems to disappear, allowing the framed views into the adjacent neighborhoods to become the visual focus of the stations.

Roland Genick, lead designer for architecture and urban design at Parsons, said he hopes that the design for the line is somewhat subconscious for riders. “I think with a system that people use on a daily basis it is very important that there are bits of interest and surprises that one discovers over time, leading to a more layered understanding and appreciation.” One clever detail: historical illustrations and quotes in the platform pavers about the surrounding areas and the former rail line that traveled the right-of-way.

The Expo Line platform.
Alissa Walker
 

The neighborhoods are reflected in the public art program. Instead of scattering art in various mediums—sculptures, for example, can be expensive-bordering-on-futile to maintain—each station’s public art is found in a series of standardized panels that appear as archways onto the platforms, or horizontally, almost like a filmstrip, running along the station’s perimeter.

“If we’re having an art program, let’s let artists do what they do best,” said Pardo, who encouraged each artist to use a different medium and different craft, like the hand-carved, hand-glazed porcelain vignettes of the Ballona Creek by Daniel González. The art is also produced locally: 11 of the 12 artists practice in Los Angeles County.

As a ride, the Expo Line delivers visual punch as you sail down the tracks: the gorgeous new “front yard” garden of the Natural History Museum, USC’s stately towers, rusted-out Exposition Boulevard auto-body shops, expansive views of the Baldwin Hills, and into Culver City’s bubbling downtown (for now the line terminates at La Cienega and Jefferson). Neighborhoods along the way have already been preparing for the line’s arrival, with transit-oriented developments dotting the route all the way to Santa Monica. The line could pave the way high quality urban development that could become a model for the city and the region.

The shortcomings of the line are more operational quirks. While the rest of Metro’s lines are named after colors, this line retains its Expo Line moniker (likely to appease the Exposition Construction Authority), which doesn’t scream world-class transit system to me. It should be called the Aqua Line—after all, it goes to the sea.

The train cars also put us at the back of the pack. Unlike the shiny silver Breda cars of the Gold Line, the Expo Line uses the boring, boxy white cars that are also found on the Blue Line because they share the same track for two stations. Come on Los Angeles: we need the same iconic, good-looking cars on all our tracks.

As the quibbling over another route, the Purple Line, demonstrates—the “Subway to the Sea,” as it is called, is now estimated not to reach Westwood until at least 2025, and that’s a big maybe—one thing has become clear: Angelenos can’t wait for subways to network our neighborhoods. We need more light rail routes, more dedicated busways, and more bike paths and we need them now. The Expo Line has proved to the city that we not only deserve world-class transit, we can demand it.

Alissa Walker