Last Thursday, during my semi-intentional hiatus, Metro CEO Phil Washington announced that phase 2 of the Expo Line will begin revenue service on Friday, May 20th. Phase 2 extends the line from its current terminus at Venice Boulevard on the Culver City/Los Angeles border out to the city of Santa Monica, a short distance from the beach. The Expo Line has drawn a great deal of attention as compared with other Metro projects because, in addition to serving major job centers in Santa Monica, it will also become the first Metro Rail Line to provide direct access to the beach.
An end-to-end trip is expected to take 46 minutes, which is certainly favorable to driving on the 10 freeway at peak hours. Off-peak, it will likely take 10-15 minutes longer than driving to travel from Santa Monica to DTLA, and that’s without factoring in the possibility of 15 or 20 minute headways during evening hours. It remains to be seen if riders will opt to take Metro instead, but given the difficulty of driving in and around either city’s downtown, I imagine that Expo will also be popular outside of rush hour. The first phase of Expo, which is not quite 4 years old, has outperformed the initial ridership expectations that Metro set during the planning phase. Today, it’s averaging around 31,000 daily boardings and it will see a jump in ridership over the course of the next year. The Expo Line has the spotlight right now, and, fairly or not, it will likely be held as an indicator of the public’s overall enthusiasm to give Metro a try.
In the past few years, DTLA has become much more than the jumbo-sized office park that it was for a long time. Anecdotally, when I go downtown on a weekend these days, the streets are overflowing with tourists. Spots like Grand Central Market are booming in a way that would have been unfathomable even a short time ago. Expo will offer an easy connection between two of the largest tourist attractions in the county, and it is sure to be a hit among vacationers. Tourists have long been befuddled by their inability to get to the beach on L.A.’s rail system. It is after all, the asset we trumpet most loudly. Having to explain to confused college students on the Red Line that Vermont/Santa Monica station is not anywhere near the ocean, and then trying to get them onto a westbound 704 is a memory I treasure (their expressions!), but those days are soon to be ended. Starting this spring, it will be much easier for tourists staying in the beach to get to Downtown, Hollywood and back. For them, it is an all-around win.
Another development which was not planned for at the outset was the emergence of Los Angeles’ beachside tech hub. Clusters of high paying tech jobs have grown in the last decade in the communities of Santa Monica, Venice and Playa Vista. Though many of the major players in Santa Monica have recently decamped for Playa Vista, yet there remain many companies which will soon be within walking distance of an Expo Line stop. Bergamot Station in particular will allow many commuters direct access to their jobs. Theoretically, a commuter from Culver City to Bergamot station would be able to get to and from work in under 20 minutes. Short trips like these may end up being the greatest overall benefit of the Expo Line, and the Westside is still seeing a general influx of high wage earners and high wage paying jobs. In the near term, Expo may be responsible for directing where those workers decide to live, especially if it is comparatively faster to reach Santa Monica by train than it would be to drive up from somewhere like Westchester.
As to the question in the headline, the answer is a qualified “no.” The Expo Line may indeed be the beginning of a major new era in the history of Los Angeles transportation, time will tell. However, there will certainly be kinks to work out. The Expo Line can be expected to suffer the drawbacks of running at-grade through both Downtown Santa Monica and Downtown Los Angeles. In my experience, commuting from DTLA out to Culver City by Expo, the northbound segment along Flower St. was the worst: a seemingly-interminable series of jolting stops all the way to 7th St./Metro Center. The signalling in 7th/Metro’s Flower St. tunnel always seems especially bad, as though arrivals were deliberately timed to make transfers to the Red/Purple lines downtown impossible. There is no reason to expect much better from the at-grade segment along Colorado. Headways are expected to be 12 minutes at peak hours and possibly even less frequent during the evening hours. As has been the case for other Metro Rail lines, low service levels may well obliterate rail as an option for late-night party-going, or even getting dinner with friends.
Furthermore, in an arena where Metro has no direct authority, Santa Monica as a city is going through a major upheaval as it attempts to reconcile the arrival of Expo Line with the slow-growth politics it has typically espoused. Much like Los Angeles, Santa Monica is about to see a ballot measure aimed at severely restricting development. SaMo’s would entail putting projects up for individual approval, and presumably, most projects will therefore stall or be discarded if the ballot measure should pass. The histrionics are the result of the City Council’s attempts to allow buildings of up to 5 stories on the major boulevards, as proposed in 2010’s Land Use and Circulation Element. In a city that has seen population stagnate for decades while job numbers have continually increased, it is hard to see a means for Santa Monica to maximize the potential that Expo presents without allowing for at least some targeted growth. In a theme that I expect to become more and more prevalent, Santa Monica has expectations that they can stand pat and that the availability of rail will alleviate mobility concerns (or, ahem, “ease traffic”) for them. This is a certain fallacy. The Expo Line will not lack for destinations, but if it is to put even a dent in the infamous car traffic of the Westside, it is imperative that we start the conversation on how to get better transit access for more people.