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Getting Ready for Expo

Expo/Western. From the Expo Construction Authority.

Seeing as the Exposition Line has been delayed yet further by technical problems at the Washington/Flower intersection, I thought I’d take a minute this week to talk about how Metro should focus their service in the South Mid City/Culver City area to take advantage of the new light rail service. 

In the next two months, Los Angeles will gain perhaps the most significant piece of transportation infrastructure built in the city since the Red Line. The Exposition Line, even in its truncated Phase 1 form, could truly revolutionize the way hundreds of thousands of Angelinos get from downtown to the West Side.

Initial ridership estimates for Phase 1 are in the 40,000-range. Based on the size of the market, and the demographics of the area, I believe Expo will blow this projection out of the water. With the right measures, Expo could improve upon the already very impressive performance of the Blue Line – projected to carry 15,000 riders when it was built, the Blue Line is now by most measures the busiest light rail line in the country, carrying 80,000 riders per day.  These additional steps to ensure the success of the line, and the fullest possible use of this investment, are simple and would not take much effort to implement. See what you think.

Connecting the Culver City Station with major job centers

1. Target Specific Destinations with Bus Service Changes & Add Phase 2 Shuttle

While the Expo Line will get riders from downtown to Culver City in Phase 1, many key destinations are just beyond this terminus. Effective integration of the 733 bus line on Venice and the north-south bus lines on La Brea and La Cienega will ensure that riders have access to both the Venice area and areas of Wilshire and the Miracle Mile. The Expo Line also presents a great opportunity to modify service on the admittedly lightly used express routes from mid-city to other areas of LA County. Metro already plans to reroute the 534 bus line to the Culver City terminus of Expo, and have the 439 bus stop at the La Cienega Station. Service could also be modified on the 439 to serve the Westfield Mall and other popular destinations in southern Culver City. A huge amount of office space exists in suburban-type 4-5 story buildings along Slauson Avenue and the surrounding area, perhaps a more targeted approach by Metro buses could attract riders who commute to these buildings from downtown or other areas the Expo Line serves. The 534 line could be rerouted to directly serve downtown Santa Monica, although this change may run afoul of service agreements between Metro and Big Blue Bus.

In addition, I believe a very effective strategy for increasing the utility of the phase 1 line is running a shuttle along the approximate route of phase two with limited stops to simulate future rail service. It could follow Venice south to Overland Avenue, cut up to Pico then turn on Bundy to meet Olympic, then finally turn on Cloverfield to meet Colorado. This shuttle could increase ridership and eliminate the numerous transfers and indirect routing of other current bus options from Downtown Culver City to Santa Monica. A big part of the appeal of the Exposition Line is the “air line” (meaning most direct path) it takes between Downtown LA and Santa Monica. Forgoing this more direct routing to get passangers of phase 1 to Santa Monica would significantly increase the utility of the line.

One other instance where direct, convenient bus service is unavailable is from Downtown Culver City and the Venice/Robertson Station to Century City. Thousands upon thousands of people work in Century City, and the addition of an express AM/PM peak express line from the Culver City station would be beneficial. Even with traffic congestion, this route would only take about 10-15 minutes with no stops, thus would provide by far the fastest travel time from Downtown LA to Century City. This stopgap measure would be great until the Westside Subway Extension opens to Century City (and on Avenue of the Stars/Constellation, mind you).

2. Change Metro’s Fare System to Avoid Penalizing Rail Users

I have already extensively discussed Metro’s pressing Fare System Problems. The opening of the Exposition Line will greatly exacerbate these problems. Passangers who need to get to Union Station from Culver City will not only be inconvenienced by needing to transfer to the Red/Purple Lines, but also will have to pay a second $1.50 fare at 7th and Metro Center. Even more preposterously, passengers going from Culver City to Long Beach or anywhere south of Pico on the Blue Line will be required to step off the platform at Pico, pay and additional fare and return to the spot at which they alighted their Expo Line train just to avoid falling afoul of Metro’s fare inspectors. The one-vehicle one-fare policy really will not work in a rail system with multiple transfers expected (let alone the gridded bus system, which is even worse).

A quick and dirty solution would be raising the fare on rail lines to $2.00 and eliminating rail transfers. One $2.00 purchase would entitle a rider to two hours of unlimited access to the Metro Rail and Metro Liner System. Incidentally, this would also solve the issue of the Metro Silver Line’s poor ridership – a terrible fare structure (that’s Foothill Transit’s fault, anyway). Single use TAP cards would constitute fare media, eliminating opportunities for theft and abuse, which were the reasons Metro cancelled bus transfers back in the 1990’s.

With a bit of planning and a lot of political will, Exposition Phase 1 will be an invaluable addition to mobility in Los Angeles. The clock is ticking – every day that Metro Operations tests trains is one day closer to opening. With a solid new fare structure for Metro Rail and Metro Liner along with targeting employment zones with special bus service for Phase 1, Expo will be a roaring success.


Rail Transit in Los Angeles – A Map

I did a map like this for San Francisco a while back. Take a look and see what you think. I only included Central/West Los Angeles.

Main features include a Downtown LA Bus Tunnel, new Busways along Venice, Slauson, Sunset, and the Mission Subdivision, a subway/elevated extension down Vermont Avenue, extension of the Crenshaw Line to Santa Monica/La Brea, and the inclusion of a Heavy Rail West Hollywood Line. Finally, on this map I suggest that the Westside Subway Extension should go all the way to Downtown Santa Monica and the ocean.


Exposition/Farmdale: More Headaches

The Proposed Farmdale Station, from

Today I return again to a discussion of the oft-maligned Exposition Line under construction in Los Angeles. Most of the first phase of the project from Downtown Los Angeles to Culver City is ready to go. When I last checked the progress of the line in early May, tracks were laid and catenary poles were installed. Still, one grade crossing out of thirty nine must be approved by the California Public Utilities Commission and the elevated structure for the Venice/Robertson station is not yet complete. The biggest issue is this lone grade crossing, Exposition Boulevard and Farmdale Avenue.

The Exposition Line has always been plagued with intense community opposition, or so it appears. As a grounding statement for this discussion it is important to note that the opposition to the Exposition Line has been a tiny group of people who enjoy close news coverage because of cultural biases against transit in the United States. The worries of few (very, very few) are inhibiting the progress of a billion dollar transit project to connect Downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica and relieve the horribly congested 10 freeway and are costing taxpayers millions of dollars due to construction delays. Those are the ground rules of this post, so to speak.

Phase One of the Exposition Line passes by two major schools (Dorsey and Foshay), a large private university (USC) and a community college (LATTC) on its route to Culver City. The line is at grade adjacent to all of these educational institutions with unrelated traffic-based grade separations near USC and LATTC. The major issue with the Exposition/Farmdale crossing is its position right next to Dorsey High School. Fix Expo, a group that claims to be in the best interest of residents in South Los Angeles, is crying foul over this at grade crossing, alleging that trains will run over multitudes of high school kids. They have gone as far to put pictures of light rail crashes (with cars and trucks, not pedestrians, mind you) outside community meeting places and overwhelmed rational thinkers at recent California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) meetings regarding the crossing. CPUC rejected Metro’s original proposal for a simple four quadrant guarded grade crossing at Farmdale, largely because of the advocacy of this Fix Expo group. Metro is now proposing a station stop at Exposition/Farmdale so that trains passing through the intersection would be moving very slowly.

First of all, Metro should not even be taking the Fix Expo group seriously enough to appease them with their station proposal. The original plan for a plain at grade crossing was entirely reasonable. Farmdale is not a high traffic street by any measure. Grade separations per Metro’s Light Rail Grade Separation Policy, adopted before the construction of the Gold Line in 2003, dictated that intersections with Venice, La Cienega, La Brea and Figuroa be grade separated due to traffic concerns, but other busy streets such as Western and Crenshaw to be left at grade. If Western and Crenshaw don’t get grade separations it is outrageous for Metro to delay Expo Line Phase 1 by 18 months minimum, and spend 30-40 million dollars on a station that is bound to be lightly used and will greatly slow travel time from Santa Monica to Downtown Los Angeles. All around, even the station compromise for Exposition/Farmdale is unacceptable to me.

Unfortunately, the CPUC has derided my first choice and at the moment the options for Exposition/Farmdale are station or full grade separation. Between these two, the station option is clearly the less potent poison. Again, the argument for full grade separation is that trains will run over high school kids. Well Fix Expo, don’t cars already run over a much, much, much higher number of high school kids every year? How do you feel about Dorsey Students crossing La Brea Avenue near their school with it’s six lanes? If Metro is required to grade separate its train line in front of Dorsey High School, why don’t you lobby LADOT to grade separate every single pedestrian crossing around the high school, or in all of South Los Angeles? Obviously I’m taking this argument a little beyond its original bounds, but really? Light Rail Vehicles are run by professional operators, do not make unpredictable moves because they operate on a fixed guideway and, per CPUC regulation, must frequently sound a loud horn when crossing streets at grade.

Sadly transit in the United States has been maligned as dangerous, especially the recent resurgence of at grade rail transit like the Exposition Line. People accept as a fact of life that automobile passengers and pedestrians are going to be killed in events we even call “accidents”. Using the word accident implies that the event was inevitable and also implies a lack of responsibility. That is how deep car culture is ingrained in the United States.

The logical and comprehensive argument against Fix Expo I just presented leaves only one conclusion: Fix Expo has ulterior motives. Indeed Fix Expo blazes the same trail as several other advocacy groups who tried very hard to prevent the Exposition Line from being built in the first place. Fix Expo’s scare tactics and delay inducing behavior is costing taxpayers one million dollars per month for every month the Expo Line stays dormant. Perhaps they hope to destroy the current resurgence in popularity for transit in Los Angeles. Beyond that, I cannot imagine why this group wants to stop the Expo Line. It is a well designed, modern light rail transit line which will connect communities in Jefferson Park, University Park and Leimert Park to Culver City and Downtown Los Angeles. Metro is building the line with closely spaced stations to serve all the communities along the route and grade separation structures are being used at all intersection where vehicular and pedestrian traffic justifies the (huge) expense. For what it is (see this post), the Exposition Line is a good, even great, transit project.

Hopefully Expo will open to at least Culver City by the time I graduate at USC (May 2013). Personally, I’d enjoy high quality rail transit two blocks from my apartment. At the current pace, I have my doubts.

Westside Subway Phase 3 and Beyond

Part 3 of 3 on the Los Angeles Westside Subway Extension

After discussing phases 1 and 2, the only two segments of the Westside Subway Extension that currently have an opening date, the only further topic of debate are sections of the extension not covered under Measure R funding. These two major portions of the line, shown in dashes on my map, are the Wilshire Subway past Westwood/VA Hospital and the West Hollywood Subway. Of these two possible extensions to the Measure R funded Westside Subway Extension, the Santa Monica Extension of the Wilshire Subway is the most cost effective and would attract the highest number of riders.

The West Hollywood Subway (Pink Line on map) fills a large gap in Los Angeles’ rail network, but ridership projections leave something to be desired. Santa Monica/Fairfax and Santa Monica/La Brea are projected to attract less than 1,200 riders per day, a pitiful amount for a heavy rail subway station. Unless density increases substantially along the Santa Monica Boulevard and San Vincente Boulevard corridors in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, this subway project should not be a priority for transit investment.

On the other hand, the current plan to terminate the Westside Subway Extension at Westwood/VA Hospital is not wise and an extension past this terminus should be a priority. The Exposition Line light rail phase 2 will closely parallel the Wilshire Subway alignment south of 26th Avenue. Duplicate rail transit lines are not necessary, but the lack of a connection between the Westside Subway Extension and the Exposition Line is a missed opportunity. Although ridership estimates show that the Santa Monica extension is cost effective, a short extension from the Westwood/VA Hospital station to a Olympic/Bundy interchange station with the Exposition Line would eliminate the need for three miles of duplicate transit service to Downtown Santa Monica. Riders could instead make a relatively painless transfer to light rail, which, with closer spaced stations, would in fact serve the dense Santa Monica Downtown core more effectively than a single subway station.

Such an alignment would be ideal for a future extension of the Westside Subway. All of this analysis leaves out the possibility of dedicated bus lanes on Wilshire Boulevard West of the Westwood/VA Hospital station which would be an even more cost effective way to get riders from Westwood to Santa Monica quickly. In the end, Los Angeles needs to prioritize its limited transit dollars on projects more effective than subway heavy rail transit in lower density areas like West Hollywood and central Santa Monica. A short extension to meet up with the Exposition Line or dedicated bus lanes would be an adequate replacement for a true “Subway to the Sea”, as this transit project has sometimes been called. In the end transit expansion is about serving the most riders with the lowest cost, not building expensive grade separated transit where the demand doesn’t exist for it.

On the Exposition Line

The Los Angeles to Santa Monica  Exposition Line light rail project is years behind schedule and over one hundred million dollars over budget. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is building the line as a gigantic compromise. In this manner, a light rail line on the Exposition rail right of way is unique in the history of Los Angeles’ modern endeavor to build rail transit.

The late 1960’s and early 1970’s were an interesting time for American transit. Lydon B. Johnson’s great society program bestowed large amounts of federal funds upon infrastructure projects, especially to a brand new Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA). Nearly all large metropolitan areas in the United States began to design large heavy rail systems with sleek new trains and suburban auto-oriented lines. The first of these systems was San Francisco’s BART, followed closely by Washington’s Metro and Atlanta’s MARTA. The Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD) drew up plans for a BART-like system in Los Angeles.

Every Metro Rail line in Los Angeles follows (roughly) a line planned forty years ago by SCRTD. The Metro Blue Line follows the South Central/Long Beach Line, the Metro Red and Orange Lines follow the San Fernando Valley Line and the Metro Gold Line follows the Eastside and Pasadena Lines.

The Exposition Line is the lone modern deviation from SCRTD’s plan. In the SCRTD plan, Santa Monica is served by a Wilshire Boulevard subway line all the way to fourth street, near the beach. As noted in my posts on the Westside Subway Extension, funding and political issues stopped the Wilshire Boulevard subway at Western Avenue and even its imminent extension will only reach Westwood under Measure R. This is where the Exposition Line comes in. Although its route is far south from major destinations, the Exposition Line is the only short term solution to east-west rail transit to Santa Monica.

Estimated ridership for the line is very high for light rail, around 50,000 per day for phase 1 and 80,000 per day for the completed line, so every decision made is critical for the future heavy use of the line.

All of this background information indirectly addresses the reasons that the Exposition Line is so delayed and over budget. The Expo Line’s (relatively) new conception and status as a compromise to a subway line mean that community support has been lacking. The Exposition Line phase 1 passes by the University of Southern California, Dorsey High School and Foshay Learning Center. All three institutions opposed the line, demanding tunnels in front of their campuses to mitigate train traffic and noise. Concerns at Dorsey High School in particular have caused a one year delay. The school demanded a grade separation at Farmdale Avenue and Exposition Boulevard, fearing that students would be hit by trains. This claim is silly considering the numerous schools already near the Metro Blue and Gold Lines. When Expo Line planners refused a grade separation on cost grounds, Dorsey High School used its influence to demand a station at Farmdale Avenue. This station will be the least used on the entire line and will further slow the already hour long journey from Santa Monica to Downtown Los Angeles.

Construction issues with the connection between the Metro Blue Line and the Exposition Line at Flower Street and Washington Boulevard have further increased delays on the project.

Beyond the delay and cost overruns, I question the use of the Metro Blue Line tracks from Washington/Flower to 7th Street/Metro Center. The combined number of riders after phase 2 of the Exposition Line opens will be over 160,000 per day many of whom will ride on this segment of track. Currently, 7th Street/Metro Center is the terminus for light rail trains, meaning that it is operationally limited to around 20 trains per hour. The Metro Blue Line already runs 12 trains per hour during rush hour. In the future, the line from Flower/Washington to 7th Street/Metro Center will be haplessly inundated with traffic and will limit  train frequency on the rest of the Exposition and Blue Lines.

The trouble with the Exposition Line would have been entirely avoided if transit was more of a priority for government in the United States. The six or eight billion dollars for a full Westside Subway Extension would be money better spent than the two billion spent on the Exposition Line. If light rail has to be the solution, a new line in Downtown Los Angeles is a necessity to cater for future growth in ridership and train frequency.

Los Angeles Westside Subway Extension Phase 2

Part two of three on the Los Angeles Westside Subway Extension

Beverly Hills is a city known for its wealth and celebrities, but is also a city with a very dense core. Phase 2 of the Westside Subway Extension will bring two stations and about two miles of tunnels under Beverly Hills, serving its commercial and office centers along Wilshire Boulevard. This second phase will also include a station at Century City, the third largest employment center in Los Angeles County.

Unlike phase 1, many details need to be worked out on the precise placement of stations and the alignment of the tunnels.  The first station of phase 2, Wilshire/La Cienega is very close to a potential junction with a line to the North Hollywood station along San Vincente and Santa Monica Boulevards. Alternatives four and five of the current study (see this metro presentation) include this line. The West Hollywood line is unfunded under Measure R and will only attract significant patronage at its terminus, Hollywood/Highland. The four other stations on the line are predicted to draw less than 2000 daily riders each. For these two reasons, the West Hollywood line is very unlikely to be build in the near future. However, to future proof the Westside Subway Extension, the location of the Wilshire/La Cienega station must be the further east of two alternative locations currently under consideration. A station on the east side of the intersection of Wilshire and La Cienega would permit a normal island platform configuration instead of a stacked configuration (think Wilshire/Vermont). The tunnel bellmouths and connection structure could then be located about 1000 feet west of the island platform station, plenty of space for the underground grade separation necessary for the junction.

Metro’s study is considering several alternatives for the Century City station, both for the station’s location and the alignment of the tunnels on either side of the station. Century City is essentially a square development with office high rises on the east side, a large upscale shopping center to the northwest and housing to the south. Santa Monica Boulevard borders the area to the north, and Olympic Boulevard to the south, with Constellation Boulevard running right through the middle. Avenue of the Stars is the north-south arterial through the middle of the development. The two station locations under consideration are Santa Monica and Avenue of the Stars and Constellation Boulevard and Avenue of the Stars. The optimal location for the station is plainly the latter. Santa Monica Boulevard in the area of Century City is nearly a freeway with eight traffic lanes, making it a pedestrian’s nightmare. This hostile environment plus cutting the catchment area of the station in half due to the neighboring Los Angeles Country Club makes the Constellation/Avenue of the Stars location much more preferable. The only downside for this station location is increased construction disruption and slightly increased cost. Both of these negatives hardly outweigh the advantages of a pedestrian friendly station that lies in the center of a major employment center instead of outside it.

If all goes to plan, an admittedly unlikely situation, Phase 2 to Century City should open in 2026 and  cost around 2.1 billion dollars.

Los Angeles Westside Subway Extension Phase 1

Part one of  three on the Westside Subway Extension.

The Westside Subway Extension in Los Angeles is the holy grail of transit expansion. Envisioned since the Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD) began planning a heavy rail system for Los Angeles in the 1960’s, a Wilshire Boulevard subway’s only parallel in America is New York’s ill fated (but currently under construction) Second Avenue Subway. Politics, money and even racism have posponed serious discussion on a Wilshire subway for over twenty years. In this post, I will cover some of the history of this project and also the alignment and design of the currently designated phase one, which runs from Wilshire/Western to Wilshire/Fairfax.

As seen on my map, the portion of the line between Crenshaw and La Brea travels along a medium density office/retail portion of Wilshire. Right behind Wilshire are single occupancy homes in Hancock Park, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the City of Los Angeles. Large transit projects through rich areas tend to exacerbate fears of poorer people entering a neighborhood and committing crime. While this notion is statistically untrue, and simply silly (right now someone in East Los Angeles can take the 720 bus to get to the same area), community support for the Westside Subway Extension has been limited in this area.

Past completion of the Wilshire subway was easily possible without this fear the residents of Hancock Park harbored. After a methane gas explosion under a Ross store at 3rd street and Fairfax Avenue (five blocks north of the future Wilshire/Fairfax station) in 1980, Representative Henry Waxman banned federal funding for subway tunneling through the Fairfax neighborhood, effectively ending hopes for a Westside subway. Waxman cited safety concerns, but fears of crime in Hancock Park were more than likely to have been central to the ban. The current Red and Purple Line subways reflect the intention to continue down Wilshire with the short stub from Wilshire/Vermont to Wilshire/Western, while also continuing through Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley as an alternative to the banned Westside route. Without Waxman’s ban, it is likely there would be a currently operating subway line to the Westside.

In the last ten years, Waxman’s ban has been repealed and work has begun again on this crucial transit line. With the passage of Measure R, the Wilshire subway is funded to Westwood at either a UCLA or VA Hospital terminus. Planning has been ongoing for several years and the alignment has been narrowed to five alternatives, two of which are covered with Measure R funding. Deviations from Wilshire Boulevard do not exist in any of the five alignments for this portion of the line, so construction could begin very soon, especially if the design-build method is used.

Being that much of the line run through detached home filled Hancock Park, ridership estimates for the two stations (not including Crenshaw) is about 10000 riders. Granted, this number does not include the large number of riders who currently transfer to the 720 and 920 buses at Wilshire/Western, so initially ridership will most likely be much higher. On the current schedule, this two (or three) station extension will open in 2019 and cost 1.3 billion dollars, contingent upon the construction of the Crenshaw Station.

The Crenshaw Station is the sole matter of contention on this segment of the Westside Extension. First of all, a possible future extension of the Crenshaw Corridor light rail line would interface the Westside subway at Wilshire/La Brea, eliminating the Crenshaw Station’s importance for transfers. Second, the Crenshaw Station area is within half a mile of the existing Wilshire/Western station. Finally, the density in the surrounding area is the lowest density around any planned subway station all the way out to Westwood. With so many things going against it, the Crenshaw Station seems like a poor use of the 200-300 million of construction funds it would use up. The ideal solution for the Crenshaw Station would to build the station box during Phase 1, but wait to complete the station until future density or ridership potential justified it. A large transit oriented development (TOD)  in the future could be incorporated into the station as funds permit. With a station box already installed, conversion to a full service station is quick and relatively inexpensive, especially compared to constructing a subway station from scratch on an active line.

Current trends in transit funding such as the FasTracks program in Denver show that sales tax revenues can drop sharply without much notice. The cost and benefit from the Crenshaw Station simply do not justify its construction at present, although a station box is a must.