Design Glitches Add Precious Minutes to Expo Trip

Josh Stephens on
Jul 24, 2012

LOS ANGELES -- Many of the young urban planners in Los Angeles live exactly where you'd expect them to live: the dense, colorful, decidedly urban neighborhoods in and around downtown Los Angeles. They ride bikes and take trains and, in many ways, live the life that they are trying to design. 

Then there's me. I live on the Westside. So the Expo Line light rail (see july 2012 feature story "New Light Rail Opens Up World of TOD Possibilities"), currently running from downtown to Culver City and, eventually, to Santa Monica -- is as close to a godsend as I'll see in my lifetime. (I'm not holding my breath for the subway.)

While you just need to look at a map to see that the line, in whole, serves us Westsiders nicely, I can't help but lament that Metro overlooked some important details. It's important to remember that the speed of a transit line doesn't depend only on how fast the rolling stock moves but rather on the speed, ease, and comfort of the entire trip, door to door.

Put together, Expo suffers some annoyances that could turn off discretionary riders and slow down everyone: 

  • Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne has already excoriated the "aggressively banal" aesthetics of Expo's stations; I can scarcely improve on his assessment. The platforms and their canopies are flimsy, spare, and forgettable. The "weaving" metaphor is both untrue (South LA and the Westside are not quite a big, happy, multicultural families), and it's incomprehensible in the design. You should watch out anytime architecture is based on a metaphor—and an untrue one, at that. 
  • Though Metro's otherwise convenient parking structure at the La Cienega/Jefferson station sits on a major corner, it has only one driveway. And it allows drivers to exit in only one direction: eastward. The problem is, anyone who's going to be parking there will naturally be heading anywhere but east, meaning that everyone has to do a confusing, and perilous, three-point turn on to side streets. 
  • The La Cienega platform hovers tantalizingly at eye-level with the parking structure's third floor. Yet, the absence of a bridge (albeit an expensive one) means that commuters have to go down a set of stairs, cross a driveway, and climb up more stairs before they can catch the train (and their breath). 
  • Inexplicably, some of Expo's ticket machines are not located on the platforms--or even in the same zip codes. Metro placed them at street-level for elevated stations and some of the machines for at-grade stations are across the street. Since Metro's light rail trains run on an honor system, latecomers have every incentive to jump the turnstile, as it were, if they're in even the slightest hurry.
  • The ideal rail platform is no platform at all. In many European cities, you just step off the train where it stops. Maybe you have a bit of a curb to designate the stop and make egress easier. On the Expo Line, even the at-grade stations present a gauntlet for riders. For instance, the Pico Bl. platform funnels riders off the train in the wrong direction, backwards into wall of an adjacent building -- without any wayfinding to help riders to likely destination: the heavily trafficked Staples Center/Convention Center complex two blocks away. In fact, it's set up so that if you want to get to Figueroa Bl., you basically have to cross and re-cross the tracks and then jaywalk across Flower St.
  • Finally, Metro has populated the Expo Line with what seems to be its most decrepit pieces of rolling stock. I don't think that Westsiders necessarily need rail cars straight out of the wrapper. But dingy, banged up, graffitti'd cars don't exactly complement an otherwise pristine line. 

So if you park on the top floor of the La Cienega garage, fumble with your cash, and get turned around at Pico, you're going to be out of luck if you expect to arrive in time to see Andrew Bynum dominate some fool at the opening tipoff. 

These complaints may be trifles for any given passenger, but, collectively, they are nontrivial in a business that operates on thin margins and in volumes on the order of 16,000 riders per day (and counting). Compared to driving, a 10-minute savings might attract a slew of discretionary riders, whereas a 5-minute savings might not. On a potentially transformative project that cost almost $1 billion, these are all solvable problems that would have made a promising piece of infrastructure that much more useful. 

I'll gladly ride Expo when I can. But my Eastside friends know that they can still expect me to be late to the next downtown urban planning happy hour. I may need a few minutes to find parking.