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Essay About Metro Rail Los Angeles

I wish this were a happy column about the advance of California public transit.

I wish I could report that my own life is better now that I ride the brand-new Metro Expo Line extension to work in Santa Monica. And I wish I could validate all the triumphant talk of the great metropolis of Los Angeles becoming a fabulous train town again, with the restoration of a vital rail link between its city center and the Pacific.

But I’m a rail commuter in Southern California now, so I no longer have time for fairy tales.

Or much of anything else.

Perhaps I expected too much. For four long years, I’ve commuted between the San Gabriel Valley and Santa Monica—always at least an hour each way, often 90 minutes or more—while dreaming of the day when the Expo Line would extend to downtown Santa Monica and my commute, and with it my life, would change for the better.

That day arrived two weeks ago, and immediately my dreams were dashed. I had been ready for the hiccups and kinks of a new line, and I had been warned that the trains would be slower and crowded until Metro could add enough cars and drivers for full service.

But I was unprepared for just how slow—and painful—a commute via light rail could be.

On my first day—the fourth day of service on the new line—I dropped off my two younger boys at preschool and drove five minutes to a Gold Line station in Pasadena, parked, and walked three minutes to the train. I was happy and eager for the new routine.

Then I waited 20 minutes for a train to arrive—the wait is supposed to be less than 10 minutes at that hour. And the train moved slowly—it took more than 40 minutes to reach Union Station downtown (the train schedule says it should take 30).

There I had to switch to the subway to go three stops to pick up the new Expo Line. But the switch was mismanaged by a Metro staffer who inexplicably packed two subway cars with people—while refusing to let anyone onto two relatively empty cars. That train left, stranding hundreds of us for another 10 minutes before another subway arrived and we were allowed to board.

The switch to the new Expo Line at the Metro Center station for the third leg of my trip was smooth. But the Expo Line was painfully slow. Metro had advertised a 48-minute ride, but it took more than an hour. The track runs down the middle of streets—and the train stops for traffic lights at some intersections. In Santa Monica, after a six-block walk, I arrived at work two and a half hours after I had reached the Pasadena station—25 miles away. In that same time, I could have flown to Las Vegas, played the airport slots, and flown home, jackpot in hand.

The return trip was even more frustrating. I waited another 20 minutes to board and depart on a train from the downtown Santa Monica station. Once on board, a fellow passenger started screaming how much Jesus loved me (even as I wondered if the transit gods had forsaken me).

I opened my laptop, something I can’t do in my car, and got some work done with the aid of my office’s mobile hotspot. Yes, it’s BYO wifi. My attempt to conduct a phone interview failed (the train was too loud). And after about 45 minutes of typing with my computer on my legs while sitting on one of the train’s hard plastic chairs, my back started to hurt.

As I boarded the Gold Line, I had been in transit for nearly two hours. I needed to go to the bathroom, but no such luck. Metro trains, not exactly designed with multi-hour voyages in mind, don’t have bathrooms. And I couldn’t work on the Gold Line—the two-car train was so full it had no open seats.

I had allowed myself two and a half hours to return to Pasadena, grab my car and pick up the boys at preschool by 5:45 p.m. It wasn’t enough. Metro’s very affordable $1.75 fare—less than a buck an hour!—had become a $31.75 trip, with the $30 preschool fine for late pickup. I had spent nearly five hours commuting—and just four and a half hours at work. Yes, our car culture isn’t sustainable—but neither is public transit like this.

There were things I liked about the ride. I loved the walks on either end. The city looks beautiful from the various bridges along the new Expo route. And I liked the fact that I bumped into three people I know.

But the ride was simply too slow, and the experience too rough, to be comfortable. I did the same commute two more days—and things were smoother and faster, but the round trip still took me four hours. And all that time on the train took a physical toll—I felt sore at night.

I also felt frustrated—at California’s underwhelming ambition. Over and over in this state, from our famously frugal governor to our tax-phobic voters, we tend to choose the cheaper, easier path rather than the better, arguably necessary, one. For this vital east-west axis, Metro and local governments didn’t have to create a relatively cheap and slow light-rail line that stops at traffic lights. They could have built a proper subway-style line to whisk people efficiently over greater distances. That would have better served their cities, and attracted more riders (There were 12,000 Expo Line rides on the seven new stations my first day—as many people as board the New York subway every three minutes). But that would have cost a lot more money, and it would have been nearly impossible to get political support and funding.

Complaining about such things is politically incorrect these days. Dogmatic transit cheerleaders responded to my disappointed first-ride tweets with taunts that I should live closer to work, which seems an odd rallying cry for people championing public transit investments, and a fairly elitist one too when you consider the cost of living anywhere near Santa Monica.

I’m not giving up on rail altogether. As more train cars are added, waits for trains should shorten and riding should become a little more comfortable. But I’ll continue complaining until officials speed up the Expo Line—for starters, by adding technology that will change traffic lights so that trains don’t have to stop and by closing redundant stations (USC has three stations very close together).

And, now that I’m experiencing the need for improvements firsthand, I’m very glad that Metro is planning a November ballot measure that would raise sales taxes to cover $120 billion in transportation projects, including all kinds of expansions and upgrades of train and bus lines.

When I drove to work one day later last week, the commute was still miserable—two-and-a-half hours round-trip. But that was much faster than it had been on Metro. And my body felt fresher and I got to listen to the radio.

Which is better—car or rail? Both are awful, just in different ways. I console myself in knowing that now at least I can pick my poison.

On the occasion of Union Station’s 75th anniversary, Metro created a special commemorative publication, Union Station: 75 Years in the Heart of LA, featuring eight written and five photographic essays that celebrate the station by authors John C. Arroyo, William D. Estrada, Stephen Fried, Rafer Guzman, David Kipen, Marisela Norte, D. J. Waldie, and Alissa Walker. The book is on sale now at the online Metro Store. All essays will also be posted on The Source in the coming weeks. The series was edited by Linda Theung, an editor and writer based in Los Angeles.

Union Station: Los Angeles’ Enduring Symbol of Civic Optimism
by John C. Arroyo

I grew up in unincorporated East Los Angeles, a few minutes east of Union Station and the Los Angeles River. I recall the Rapid Transit District—the predecessor of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro)—and their white buses wrapped in 1970s retro-inspired red, orange, and yellow stripes. I remember taking the No. 68 bus from the corner of Gage Avenue and Brooklyn Avenue (present-day Avenida César E. Chávez) into downtown and exiting at Alameda Street, near the grand entrance to Union Station. I was in constant awe of the building and the city surrounding it.

My mother, a native Angeleno, appreciated local history and culture and instilled the same kind of fervor in me. I remember going to El Pueblo de Los Ángeles Historical Monument to light candles at La Placita or to eat carnitas tacos with fresh, handmade tortillas at La Luz del Día, and then crossing the street to marvel at Union Station’s painted ceilings and large, ornate chandeliers. My mother always mentioned how she liked the beautiful leather seats inside the grand waiting room. Later, when I was in my 20s, I trained to be an official Union Station docent to guide the Los Angeles Conservancy’s monthly tour of the station. I found out that the leather seats were custom built by the Angelus Furniture Company, a now-defunct, but previously legendary and independent local furniture shop located in East Los Angeles. Coincidentally, the company also supplied much of the furniture in my childhood home.

Union Station’s original brown leather seating from Angelus Furniture Company, the now-defunct, but previously legendary local furniture shop located in East Los Angeles.

One thing that always struck me about my visits to Union Station was how quiet it was. As a child during the 1980s I vividly remember seeing pigeons flying around the station (especially in the former Ticket Concourse). Whenever my family took the bus from Union Station to Bakersfield, transferring to the Amtrak San Joaquin line to visit family in California’s Central Valley, the trains were nearly empty.

At the time I was too young to understand Union Station’s untapped potential, which changed after I embarked on a career in urban planning and design. In many ways my decision to be an urban planner allowed me to understand the forces that promote—and impede—successful public spaces. With time and subsequent experience I put my technical charts and graphs aside and learned how to interpret the relationship between physical form, social experience, and culture firsthand. I learned to read the city.

If Griffith Park is Los Angeles’ playground, then Union Station is the city’s living room. By virtue of its site and existence, the station plays the role of public stage, chronicling the everyday experiences of a diverse cross section of visitors and locals from all walks of life.

I have heard at the station in the wee hours of the morning, waiting for a FlyAway bus to LAX, maintenance workers sharing stories about how some of the public artworks in Patsaouras Bus Plaza remind them of their respective homelands. I have witnessed how Union Station facilitates personal interactions in the middle of the day, when strangers ask me how to transfer to the Metro Gold Line, so they may visit their new grandson at a local hospital. I have seen this late at night, while walking past entire families waiting in front of the station looking for a place to relax, celebrate, and share the excitement of a hometown win on their way back from Dodger Stadium.

La Sombra del Arroyo by the East Los Streetscapers, installed at Union Station’s Patsaouras Bus Plaza in 1996. The tile mosaic artwork is part of Metro’s extensive art program.

Some of my fondest memories of Union Station stem from the initial impressions—and expressions—I would witness while my tour group assembled on Saturday mornings. A few were tourists visiting the station for the first time. They either excitedly tried to visualize their favorite scenes from famous films that featured the building or expressed their collective wonder at why such a grand structure was so underused. Others were local residents looking to reflect on a bygone era in Los Angeles: they shared stories about adventures in train travel across the country during the 1950s, moving to Los Angeles from the Midwest many decades ago, falling in love, or their first job as a Harvey Girl at the now-closed Fred Harvey restaurant. What became clear, tour after tour, was that the crowd was unified by a common thread: Union Station meant something to everyone.

Perhaps this phenomenon is reflective of romanticized depictions of train travel. In the United States, train construction and travel proliferated in the nineteenth century, a time when the country itself was rapidly expanding. Long before airplanes became de rigueur for travel, train stations had already long embodied a position of glamour and romance. And we still feel the vestiges of this nostalgia today.

At the turn of the twentieth century, major railroads prioritized utility over design. When train travel grew more popular, train-station design across the United States became more sophisticated. City leaders realized that their stations also served as a public relations tool to showcase the city’s prosperity. In a short period of time, train stations came to be viewed as defining symbols as well as important civic spaces—sites that embodied the social, political, and cultural aspirations of a community. The building of state-of-the-art, centrally located union stations soon became important undertakings for many cities.

In Los Angeles, the now legendary father-son architectural team of John and Donald Parkinson envisioned Union Station as a microcosm of the city—equal parts civic space and centerpiece for Los Angeles’ regional transportation hub. The building, after a few decades of underuse, is now beginning to represent a Los Angeles that is weaning off its diet of automobile dependence. Public transit use is on the rise, as is bike commuting. Even a noticeable walking culture in areas previously characterized by a lack of pedestrian activity has been emerging lately.

It’s exciting to see Union Station arrive at this juncture at such a critical moment in the city’s history. The embrace of the space, however, is not limited to those who make use of its resources as a hub where all trains and buses meet. Indeed, Union Station finds itself as a site of piqued public interest, as recent special cultural events—such as live performances and concerts hosted by Metro and the Station to Station event mounted by artist Doug Aitken—have brought Union Station to life.

Dancers at Union Station performing Stephan Koplowitz: Red Line Time in April 2013. The fleeting dance performances took place at Metro Rail stations as part of a conference on urbanism and modernism at Metro. Photo by Natalie Metzger.

Questions remain, however: What does Union Station mean to residents of and visitors to Los Angeles now? What will Union Station mean to them in the future?

Stakeholders in Union Station—from city residents to local businesses—have been asking these questions and devising answers. Metro is in the midst of a master planning process, whose purpose is to celebrate the unique history of the site, improve the passenger experience at the station, create a destination for travelers both within and beyond Los Angeles, and prepare for the high-speed rail that is expected to link the entire state. These goals ultimately aim to achieve physical, social, and cultural connectivity at a site that symbolizes different things for different people.

The year 2014 will be the first time Union Station has experienced an overhaul of this magnitude since its construction in 1939. This important moment presents an opportunity for Union Station to position itself as an exemplar of twenty-first century civic space. The future of Union Station will respond to the new Los Angeles and reflect on the city’s consideration of and experiments with new models for urban change and growth. This vision hopes to redefine both how people use Union Station on multiple levels, as well as how people navigate Los Angeles. Indeed, plans for the future of Union Station appear to balance long-range redevelopment opportunities with productive, community-building environments.

For instance, I imagine the underused historic spaces to be transformed into thriving centers of civic life. The former Fred Harvey restaurant, for example, could become a go-to spot for revelers after a night out, while the Old Ticket Concourse could be used as a part-time concert venue. The North and South Patios and surface-level parking lots might be transformed into popular picnic spots, great for people watching, where Angelenos can linger and enjoy the benefits of the city’s Mediterranean climate. These are only a few imaginings that seem to be slowly becoming reality.

LA Picante salsa band performance in former Fred Harvey restaurant space in January 2014, part of the Metro Presents series of arts and cultural programs at Union Station.

Metro has long promoted artwork and other cultural pursuits as part of a broader strategy to enrich the transit environment. The agency encourages a broad range of creative activities—all with the goal of establishing Union Station as a major civic, cultural, as well as transit asset. Recently, the agency created a series of arts and cultural performance programs, Metro Art Presents, as a way to creatively engage transit patrons, attract new riders, and enhance an otherwise routine transit experience. In the future, Los Angeles’ artistic community can continue the course charted by Metro and implement projects that engage Union Station patrons with arts and culture in both temporary and permanent settings. The truest mark of the success of Union Station lies not only in its ability to be an efficient regional transportation hub, but also to be an accessible destination of social and cultural interaction for both local residents and visiting travelers alike.

Los Angeles’ attitudes and behaviors about urban culture are undoubtedly changing, and Union Station is well positioned to address transit and public space needs in 2014 and beyond. Other responses—such as the recent opening of nearby Grand Park, revitalization of the L.A. River, and better use of the Los Angeles State Historic Park—reflect investment in generating and reactivating civic and public spaces. Union Station is a key component of this broader “city-making” movement. All great cities have infrastructure that connects our meaningful places, which allow us to connect to one another. The continuing evolution of Union Station—an enduring symbol of Los Angeles—will be an exciting thing to watch.

John C. Arroyo is an urban planner and researcher interested in the sociocultural dimensions of civic space, as expressed through equity, immigration, art, and material culture. Arroyo is currently working on his doctorate in urban planning and design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Related stories:
Essay by Alissa Walker
Essay by William D. Estrada
Essay by David Kipen
Essay by Marisela Norte
Essay by Stephen Fried

View from Union Station East Portal of the mural City of Dreams/River of History, Richard Wyatt in collaboration with May Sun, Artists. The artwork also includes an aquarium, “river bench” and paver inserts.

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