Monday, January 18, 2010

Tunnel Visions: The Los Angeles County Metro Rail

Every once in a while, Acts of Minor Treason hops out of Toronto, lands in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and looks at different ways of getting around on two rails, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.

"Who needs a car in L.A.? We've got the best public transportation system in the world!"
- Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

There are few cities whose reputations precede them more than Los Angeles, California. The City of Angels has appeared center-stage in countless movies and TV shows over the years, to such a degree that an observant traveller can walk down a familiar street he or she's never visited before. It's a modern-day city of lights, a place where dreams are made and broken every hour of every day, the arbiter of hipness and the nexus of cool.

The stereotypical cool, in Los Angeles, involves four wheels. Four private wheels. Here, more than anywhere I've ever been, if you don't have a car you're nothing. There were times when the vast, rambling scale of the city and the empty sidewalks struck me as not merely indifferent to pedestrians, but actively hostile. It's no surprise that this city held out on serious public transportation projects for as long as it did. Nevertheless, I was still able to tool around the city riding the rails - thanks to the Los Angeles County Metro Rail, simultaneously a work-in-progress and the first truly modern transit system I've ever ridden. In the last twenty years, a span of time that has seen the Toronto Transit Commission extend the University-Spadina line one stop north to Downsview and build the five-station Sheppard line, the Los Angeles County Metro Rail has been built into its current five-line, seventy-station extent from absolutely nothing.

That really puts the Transit City project into perspective, no?

Nevertheless, whenever I rode Metro - which I did a lot during the eight days I spent in Los Angeles, since it was comfortable and familiar in a strange and sprawling city - I was a bit wistful about what could have been, if only people fifty years ago had been a bit more forward-looking. You see, the modern system is actually the second generation of rail transit in Los Angeles. All of this has happened before...

In the first half of the twentieth century, transit in Los Angeles and its surrounding cities was anchored by the Pacific Electric Railway "Red Car" interurban streetcar system. As in most other North American cities, ridership declined precipitously after the Second World War. By 1963, the rise of car culture and the Red Car's operating costs had driven streetcars from Los Angeles, and for the next twenty-seven years transit there was a bus-only proposition. It wasn't until 1990, with the opening of the Metro Blue Line, that the current age of Los Angeles transit began. Though there's still a way to go, from what I saw during my time there it seems like the second generation of Los Angeles transit will be a great improvement on the first - once it's had a chance to mature. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but wonder what things would have been like today if there'd been no three-decade gap, and the need to start over from scratch.

Yes, Los Angeles has a subway. Really.

System

A northbound Red Line train takes on passengers at Hollywood/Highland station

The Los Angeles County Metro Rail ("Metro" for short), operated by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, consists of five lines - two heavy-rail subway, and three light-rail - for the most part anchored in the city of Los Angeles, but reaching to much of Los Angeles County. As I mentioned earlier, this isn't the first time Los Angeles has supported a rail transit system. Like most mid-sized and large North American cities, it once had a streetcar system. In a rare forward-looking moment, though, many of the original rights-of-way were left undeveloped and thus available for the present network to be built upon - the modern Blue Line follows the route of the Pacific Electric Long Beach line, while the under-construction Expo Line retraces parts of the original Santa Monica Air Line.

Although small - fourteen stations over two lines, contained entirely within the city of Los Angeles itself - the subway system is the spine of the network. Divided into the Red Line and Purple Line, the underground tracks run west together from Union Station to the junction station of Wilshire/Vermont, a two-level station that struck me as vaguely reminiscent of Lionel-Groulx station, a multi-line hub on the Montreal Metro. From there, the Purple Line continues two stops west to Wilshire/Western, while the Red Line curves north and west again beneath Hollywood Boulevard. From Hollywood/Highland station - which you may recognize if you've ever seen Speed, as it was where the out-of-control subway train erupted out of the ground at the end - it continues north beneath the Santa Monica Mountains1, accounting for the ear-popping, five-minute travel time between Hollywood/Highland and Universal City stations, and terminates at North Hollywood. As of this writing, there are no firm plans to extend the subway beyond its current extent. Aside from the subway yard adjacent to the Los Angeles River, the subway trains do not operate aboveground.

A Blue Line train proceeds down its right-of-way along Flower Street in Los Angeles, bound for Long Beach

The Blue, Green, and Gold Lines constitute the majority of the system's rail kilometers, and are for the most part surface-running light rail, although the southern arm of the Gold Line includes two subterranean stations. The Green Line, which runs primarily in the median of Interstate 105 in a similar fashion as the University-Spadina subway in Toronto between Eglinton West and Wilson stations or the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line on the Chicago 'L,' is the only line that doesn't connect to downtown Los Angeles. Neither does it connect to Los Angeles International Airport, despite passing relatively close to it - although there is a shuttlebus connection between the airport and Aviation/LAX station. As I didn't use it, I can't comment on how well the connection holds up, but it's a safe bet that a direct connection to the seventh busiest airport in the world would not negatively affect Metro's fortunes.

That Metro doesn't have astoundingly high ridership figures shouldn't come as a surprise. Considering the degree to which Los Angeles and the surrounding area are (or, at least, are stereotyped as being) car-oriented and car-dependent, I'd say it's been rather successful. The Blue Line is apparently the second-busiest light-rail line in the United States - with 73,048 average weekday boardings in November 2009, it's more heavily used than any individual streetcar line in Toronto, as well as all but the three busiest Chicago 'L' rapid transit lines.

Ticket vending machines at East LA Civic Center station

As of this writing, the base one-way fare on Metro is $1.25, the lowest of any transit system I've ever used. Not only is it understandable, I think it's absolutely necessary at this point if public transit in Los Angeles is to prosper. Unlike the systems of Toronto, Montreal, and Chicago, which have had decades in which to mature, Metro is still insinuating itself into the urban fabric and still working on pulling people out of their cars. High fares in the early years of a transit system are counterproductive. Still, it's only because the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is subsidized to a degree that the TTC, say, can only dream of - in 2008 it recovered 28.5% of its operating costs from fares, while under its present Long Range Transportation Plan it aims to achieve only a 33% recovery ratio by 2015.

What's unusual about the fare structure on Metro is that there is no allowance for direct cash payment. There are two ways to pay a Metro Rail fare. The first is at one of the ticket vending machines that are installed at all Metro Rail stations, where you can buy a one-way ticket, a day pass, or a Metro-to-Muni transfer ticket2 with coins, bills, discounted tokens, or a credit or debit card. This system is a particular drag when you've got a minute and a half until your train pulls in and you're fumbling for change to feed the machine.

What's more, the one-way tickets are unusually restrictive. Not only do they expire only a couple of hours after you buy them, they are good for travel only on one particular line - so, even though the Red Line and Blue Line connect within a fare-paid area, buying a one-way ticket at North Hollywood and using it to travel to Compton via 7th Street/Metro Center would be an invalid trip. If you're going to be in Los Angeles for a while, my suggestion is to use a TAP card.

This man is happy because he has a TAP card.

The Transit Access Pass ("TAP") card is an electronic payment method made possible by modern smartcard technology. The LACMTA website has the whole deal if you're interested in reading further. TAP cards cost $2, and can then be loaded with a deductible balance or a time-based pass. I got around with a $17 weekly pass on my TAP card. The biggest problem I had with my TAP card was finding it - it took me a couple of days to find a vendor within walking distance.

Fare enforcement on Metro is the province of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and I witnessed LASD officers enforcing fares numerous times during the week I used the system - on one occasion, I witnessed them confront a fare evader at Hollywood/Highland station in a professional and utterly uncompromising manner. A standard tactic I noted was for multiple officers to station themselves just before the turnstiles on the fare-paid side and ask each and every passing person for proof of fare payment. With a paper ticket, this is easy enough; for TAP cards, they carry readers that can tell whether or not the card has been appropriately validated.

The uncompromising nature of these fare inspections was cause for nerve-wracking worry for me a few times while riding Metro - not because of the inspections, but because of the threat of them, and because I frequently don't trust my own recollection. Accustomed as I am to the "swipe and pass through" system in Toronto, isn't it possible that I could have entered the system without tapping my TAP card and not realizing it? Sure, I could get off at the next station, exit, and re-enter while making sure to tap, but what if they were doing an inspection right there? If you're prone to worry and self-doubt, my best advice would be MAKE SURE THAT YOU TAP, FOR GOD'S SAKE. I don't imagine a Los Angeles vacation would be improved by a $250 fine and forty-eight hours of community service.

Stations

A crowd builds on the platform at Union Station

I said before that the Los Angeles County Metro Rail operates the only truly modern subway I've ever been on, and it's not entirely due to the technology it uses - automated fare collection, for example, does not a modern system make. It's the general design aesthetic of the stations that struck me as being rather more modern than the hunched, utilitarian stations that dominate the Toronto subway and the Chicago 'L' - I find Los Angeles stations reminiscent of those on the Montreal Metro, had that system been built in the 1990s and not the 1960s, with public art integrated into the design and high ceilings giving a feeling of openness. That openness, incidentally, went along way toward soothing my lingering feelings of disquiet at being underground in an earthquake zone.3

Most of the subway stations seem to be built to roughly the same blueprint. They're all center-platform stations, generally with a paired staircase and escalator at one end of the platform leading to a mezzanine that houses the TAP turnstiles and ticket vending machines. From there, another set of staircases and elevators generally leads to the surface. Metro Rail stations tend to be dug deep, possibly a seismic necessity - based on the staircases, I estimated Hollywood/Highland station to be on the order of 125 feet below street level, North Hollywood station 111 feet, and Soto station 87 feet. Whether or not these estimates are accurate, I can't say for sure - nor can I find any solid information online. Still, Metro takes more after the similarly-deep Montreal Metro in this regard, unlike the primarily-elevated Chicago 'L' or the Toronto subway, where I've heard traffic above from underground station platforms when conditions were right.4

If I had to describe the nature of Los Angeles underground stations in one word, and I couldn't use "open," it would be "concrete." Grey is the predominant color throughout the system, and aside from departures from the standard at stations like Universal City, it's most prominent on the platforms. The five stations of the Sheppard Line in Toronto are rather similar to Los Angeles stations in this regard - considering that they were designed in the late 1990s and opened for service in 2002, it may not be a coincidence.

Where Metro's stations differ from the Sheppard Line stations, and indeed from almost every station on the Toronto subway, Montreal Metro, and Chicago 'L,' is in terms of staff. There are no collectors in Los Angeles County Metro Rail stations - the main reason why the ticket vending machines are ubiquitous. For my part, it was a bit weird to get used to. Los Angeles doesn't seem to have a counterpart of the Designated Waiting Area (DWA) system that exists in Toronto, and even if it does I don't see how it could work. Just last year, a man who pushed two teenagers onto the tracks at Dufferin station here in Toronto was only apprehended because the collector on duty, together with a subway rider, chased him down and restrained him until the police arrived. Had this happened in Los Angeles instead, I suppose they'd have to rely purely on the intervention of Good Samaritans.

Indiana station, serving light-rail trains on the Gold Line

Light-rail stations are a completely different sort. Depending on the nature of their surroundings, they'll either be isolated from the street entirely, as is the case with Indiana station as well as many Blue Line stations - this is most common when the line is following a historic right-of-way - while others are directly in the median of the street. The platforms feel considerably narrower than in the underground stations, and most are totally exposed to the elements, with no walls and only limited roofing. Only Slauson and Firestone, two elevated stations on the Blue Line, really challenged this in my experience.

The same is true to an extent for even the subway stations - where those in Toronto, Chicago, or Montreal rely on either doors or narrow corridors to isolate them from outside weather as much as possible, Los Angeles stations are generally as open as possible. Frequently, when emerging from the underground, I had to open my umbrella while I was still a good distance from the end of the escalator. They get away with this because of the general infrequency of inclement weather in southern California.

There's not a strong advertising presence on Metro. This may be because with its current governmental subsidies, it doesn't need all the sweet sweet ad money it can get, unlike the TTC. Whatever the cause, not only did I not encounter any station domination campaigns while I was there, but the single biggest advertiser in the system seems to be Metro itself. Otherwise, the advertising space seemed to be occupied pretty much entirely by Halls and Exitos 93.9, a Spanish-language radio station.

Equipment

A Breda P2550 light-rail train in service on the Gold Line

The Los Angeles County Metro Rail maintains a diverse set of rolling stock to service its lines. The Red and Purple Lines use the Ansaldobreda A650, the dimensions of which are almost identical to the T-series cars currently in service on the Toronto subway, though it is capable of a rather higher top speed. The stations are built to accomodate six-car trains, though they're only run that long in rush hour. For most of the day, Red Line service is provided by four-car trains, and Purple Line service by two-car trains. They are, I'm thankful to report, air-conditioned.

Nevertheless, they do feel a bit smaller than Toronto trains. Partially, this is due to the number of seats that have been removed from one corner of the cars to provide additional standing room and disabled passenger accessibility. The nature of the seats themselves may also play a role in this - they're a lot deeper and wider than those in Toronto, Chicago, or Montreal.

The light-rail lines use trains from three different sources. Of those, the Seimens P2000 model used on the Green and Gold Lines was an unexpected reminder of home - when accelerating, they make precisely the same noise as Toronto subway trains. Unlike Toronto subway trains, though, the door-closing chime on Metro is one or two high, quick whistles - a bit more punchy, but not as calm-sounding, as what the TTC chose. Blue Line trains tend to ring their bells when they enter a station, which is good, because if they don't they're utterly silent until they are literally right next to you.

Automated announcements are in use throughout the Metro Rail system. Befitting the nature of the area's population, the announcements are uniformly bilingual in English and Spanish. On all lines but the Green Line the English announcer is male while the Spanish announcer is female, while the Green Line seems to have its own announcement voices, both of whom are male.5 Unlike Chicago, the pronunciation of station names omits the slash between street names - so, while the 'L' station State/Lake is read as "State and Lake," Hollywood/Highland is read as "Hollywood Highland."

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

Turnstiles mark the fare-paid boundary within Hollywood/Highland station

Los Angeles, it seems, continues the brave tradition of every transit system I visit running far more infrequently than in Toronto. Headways are, in fact, long enough that they're scheduled in the timetables. Train frequencies climb to "every 5 minutes" east of Wilshire/Vermont only because the Red Line and Purple Line provide duplicate service. Outside of rush hour, the headways in Los Angeles are more reflective of what I've come to expect from streetcars or buses. At 3:45 PM on a Saturday, hardly a quiet travelling time, I observed a twelve-minute wait between Red Line trains bound for North Hollywood.

Though it's been said that Metro doesn't have turnstiles, that's not exactly true. What it doesn't have is fare-locked turnstiles. Presumably, this is so that when the Cowboy Cop is pursuing the Big Bad toward the platform for the Final Showdown, he doesn't need to dramatically vault over them or un-dramatically fumble for change. In Toronto, say, the only unlocked turnstile is the one directly adjacent to the collector's booth - all the others require a Metropass to be scanned or a token to be fed into the slot before they'll let you through. In Los Angeles, if you're carrying a paper pass you only need to walk through and that's the end of it. It's a little different with TAP cards - a TAP card holder needs to validate their TAP card whenever they pass through a turnstile. Even then, the turnstiles are still unlocked, which makes Metro the only urban mass transit system I know which runs on the honor system.6

One group that found it easy to access the system were what I term, for lack of a better one, the "subway salesmen."7 On two occasions, a guy - I believe it may have been the same guy - went around the car distributing cheap plastic-wrapped tchotchkes with a label asserting that he was deaf and asking people to pay $1 or $2 for them. He'd go around, handing one out to everyone on the car, and would then come around again to collect either the money or the tchotchke. Another time I witnessed someone selling chocolate bars - and if there's anyone you can trust to have good merchandise, obviously it's the subway vendor guy. I don't know. Maybe it's just me. Personally, I've never seen this kind of business in Toronto, and neither has anyone I've asked about it.

Conclusion

You can tell a lot about a city from its transit system, particularly its subways.8 For example, Toronto's reveals that in 1954 it was a grey, boring, provincial backwater with no ambition.9 I think that, in its Metro Rail, Los Angeles has the potential to at least partially overcome its dependence on the car, to make travelling easier for those who choose not to rely on four private wheels. Today, Metro Rail's position may be reflective of the Toronto subway at its opening, when it was nothing more than twelve stations along a single line fed by the streetcar network.

Tomorrow, it will be different. The nature of development in Los Angeles has left a large number of "transit deserts" in the modern city, areas which entirely lack higher-scale transit. LACMTA is already pursuing plans for expansion - from the Expo Line, currently slated to begin operation in spring 2011, to the western extension of the Purple Line, maybe all the way to the Pacific Ocean. There's no shortage of people who would ride a subway to the sea, and after having had to sit in the traffic along Santa Monica Boulevard, I'm one of them. If you're interested in more information, The Source at Metro.net is a good one - and Metro.net itself, website of the LACMTA, was recently named by LA Weekly as the best government website in Los Angeles.

Transit in Los Angeles has great potential, and has had the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past. It's looking firmly toward the future.

1 The science is still out as to whether any of them are dormant volcanoes, or if we'll just have to wait for Mount Wilshire to erupt and fill the subway with surprisingly low-temperature lava. Even now, I'm not sure if Volcano was a film with an anti-transit bent, or if the makers just thought it would be cool to wreck the shiny new subway system.

2 This allows the bearer to transfer onto a seperate municipal bus system at the end of their Metro Rail journey. It does not, as I eventually determined, have anything to do with public transit in San Francisco.

3 I know that the Los Angeles subway is built to survive powerful earthquakes, and that it can be safer to be under the ground than above it during one. That doesn't exactly reassure my idiot reptile brain.

4 I think that the recent shutdown of part of the Toronto subway due to a street repair crew accidentally digging through the tunnel roof without realizing it was there vindicates my impression of Toronto as maintaining a somewhat shallow system.

5 The Metro Orange Line seems to use the same set of voices, but as it is officially listed by LACMTA as part of the Metro Liner system independent of Metro Rail, it does not count. Nyah.

6 For the moment, at least. I've heard rumblings that LACMTA is going to start introducing fare-locked turnstiles soon to combat fare evasion. Evidently other people aren't as deterred by the prospect of being raked over the coals by a Los Angeles County Sheriff as I am.

7 If there's an actual name for these guys, please tell me what it is. I don't want to live in ignorance!

8 That assumes it has any. Something definitely is wrong with the world if Cleveland can support a subway system when cities like Dallas or Phoenix can't, or won't. Probably "won't," given the suburban patterns of development in Sun Belt cities.

9 Thankfully it's changed a bit since then. Seriously, though - Queen station and Downsview station might as well be part of completely different systems.

Previous Tunnel Visions

10 comments:

  1. In regards to your comment that it may be the only urban system that uses the honor system, I believe Vancouver's Skytrain system also uses an honor system for its fares.

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  2. The turnstiles are a step towards removing the honor system. The turnstiles were installed on the Red Line last year. There are plans to add them on the other lines too, I've heard. At some point, the paper tickets will be retired and everyone will be required to use a TAP card. At that point, the turnstiles will only allow passage when you tap your TAP.

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  3. The fares are low because of some convoluted funding system that encourages low base fares but high pass fares - the day pass is $5, which is the normal tourist fare media, and only available with a TAP card (on buses), which are hard to find for the average visitor. They should sell TAP cards on buses for $5, as even $10 for a tourist to ride transit all day would be a bargain.

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  4. The fares appear low but they sure do add up quickly with conditions of the ticket, as you mentioned. Transfers aren't free or subsidized, so any travel on 2+ lines requires a $5 day pass, which is set to increase to $7 in a year or so.

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  5. The turnstiles are currently unlocked and free swinging but could be locked as soon as March according to what I've read on Metro's website. The installations are nearly complete. Expect to see turnstiles installed on all green line stations, other elevated light rail stations, and a couple of the street level light rail stations over the next few months. The underground stations on the blue and gold line already have them and they will soon be turned on with the rest of the red and purple line turnstiles.

    And it's not really an honor system. No system in the world has an honor system that I'm aware of. It's a proof of payment (POP) system, which means that you have to be prepared to prove that you have paid for your ride.

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  6. Proof-of-payment is a sort of honor system, though - the agency trusts you to pay a fare and take proof on board with you, without putting in any blocks that force you to demonstrate you've paid your fare. One of the Toronto streetcar lines has a POP system like this, as does GO Transit, the Toronto regional commuter rail agency.

    The only major difference is that Los Angeles is a lot more active in proving the honesty of its riders. I saw more fare checks in the eight days I was in LA than I've seen in three years of regularly riding the Queen streetcar.

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  7. There actually are firm plans to extend the subway. The "subway to the sea" along Wilshire is no longer a fantasy. Henry Waxman's tunneling ban was finally lifted in 2007, and in 2008 the voters passed a sales tax increase with a funding commitment to extend the Purple Line to Westwood, even in the absence of state and federal funds.

    LA will almost certainly get a 50% federal match once the preliminary work is completed, so that will speed things up and make further subway extensions possible.

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  8. nice idea our country needs an extended subway and fix some defects of the old one. Also more green stations. are needed

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  9. I would like read more information about this, is very interesting! Thanks for the information. A worth bookmarking blog. I would be reading your articles regularly from now on.

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  10. A very nice piece. You have a great outsider's insight into L.A. The Metro is evolving from "honor" fares to the TAP card. As a further update, the Expo Line to Culver City opened in April 2012. Since a NIMBY challenge has been dismissed in court, the line should be completed to Santa Monica by 2015-2016. The Gold Line extension from Pasadena some 11 miles to Azusa in the San Gabriel Valley should also be running by that date. You'll have to come back for another ride!

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