Today, for the first time since 1953, a train filled with passengers traveled from downtown Los Angeles to downtown Santa Monica. A preview ride for the city’s brand-new Expo Line extension allowed a few dozen transit employees, journalists, and politicians including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, to experience the ride which opens to the public on May 20.
I was among the lucky journalists who hopped the neon-yellow train marked “VIP” on this May grey morning. Although we didn’t stop at every station, each marked with the Expo Line’s rippling silver canopies, the trip felt extremely fast. At many times, as we sailed silently above the streets in spotless brand-new train cars, it almost felt more like a Los Angeles theme-park ride than basic transportation. Almost everyone I spoke with used the word “emotional” to describe this ride across the city, something that most of us thought we’d never see. I’ll admit that I, too, got a little choked up as the train wove through former warehouses, laced beneath the 405 Freeway, and pulled to a smooth stop just a few blocks from the beach.
Although the first half of the Expo Line opened in 2012 connecting downtown Los Angeles to Culver City about eight miles away, the second part of the 15.2-mile route is being touted as the game-changer. This route (and another extension to the city’s eastward-reaching Gold Line that opened in March) will allow Angelenos to travel on the city’s rail system from Santa Monica to Azusa—a distance of about 40 miles. That’s an impressive reach for any public transit system and especially for a nascent system like LA’s.
LA once had the largest rail network on the planet until the old streetcar system was dismantled in the 1950s and 1960s. (Read this story by Gizmodo’s own Matt Novak on why this happened.) The Expo Line represents one of those old right-of-ways that has been reappropriated for light-rail travel. This westerly route between downtown LA and the beach was part of the Santa Monica “Air Line” that traveled the same route until 1953, although freight was transported on the same route into the 1980s.
As you can see on some of the schedules and timetables from back in the day, the Air Line advertised travel times of a little over an hour from downtown LA to Santa Monica. Metro, LA’s transit authority, is saying right now that the Expo Line will take about 50 minutes to travel the route when it opens. This is a frustrating part of LA’s car-centric reality—although the train travels on a dedicated right-of-way and above some busy streets, at several places along the route the train makes crossings where it must be stopped for vehicular traffic. However, as several people explain in the video, travel times will improve as Metro is able to collect information that will allow it to optimize traffic flow.
Will Angelenos get out of their cars to ride the Expo Line? Many of the folks I spoke to today were enthusiastic transit boosters who pledged to ride the train to the beach. But LA still suffers from horrible “first mile-last mile” behavior, and the biggest question from many potential passengers I’ve heard are worries about where they might park their cars near the stations. This is where the freshly paved dedicated bike path that travels alongside the train, as well as new bike share systems in Santa Monica and downtown Los Angeles (coming this summer), might play an important role to help get people to and from the train.
Public transit detractors (and yes, there are still plenty) will point to a recent study that Metro ridership actually dipped last year and hasn’t actually removed that many cars from roads. The ambitious rate at which the city is laying down rail and beefing up bus service will certainly deliver the promised social and environmental benefits to the city, although it may be years (and an age of higher gas prices) before those investments start to reverse traffic data trends. At any rate, it’s clear LA’s playing the long game.
But to many Angelenos, it’s about more than that—it’s about having a cheaper, smarter, stress-free option to get to jobs and school and family. In addition to providing an alternative for soul-crushing rush-hour traffic on the city’s freeways, these new rail lines are psychologically knitting the city back together.