Wed, Feb

Living the Dream: A Streetcar Named Santa Monica


TRANSIT TALK--A Streetcar Named Santa Monica? OK, not exactly. It’s actually something better. A light rail line from downtown Los Angeles to within blocks of the sea. And if we do things right, in November the Expo Line could become one of several sorely needed (and accelerated) public transportation projects -- like a line through the Sepulveda Pass -- that Los Angeles is trying to make a reality. Vote early and often as they say in Chicago. 

What is so important about our new rail line to the beach? It came to me yesterday as I sat on the Expo Line to Santa Monica. 

We have broken the 63 year curse that no train would ever again pierce the sacred veil of LA’s far West Side. True, Boston’s 86 year long Curse of the Bambino is longer, but given our size, the Curse of the West Side impacted more Dodgers fans than Red Sox losers. 

“I am riding the train to Santa Monica!” I nearly shouted as we pulled into Bergamot Station.  I had the honor, thanks to a press tour with Mayor Garcetti and other elected, to preview the line which opens to the public on Friday, May 20. 

In any other city, the lightbulb that went off in my head that I was riding a train to the beach might not mean much. For example, riders of San Francisco’s N Judah light rail line have long been able to take the train to Ocean Beach -- since 1928, to be exact, when the route opened as a streetcar line. 

But this isn’t any other city. This is Los Angeles where the car was once king and small numbers of haters have long dictated what will, and won’t be, built. 

Now, at least as far as traffic-free driving goes, those days are long gone. And in its place are the famous Los Angeles parking lots, otherwise known as freeways that have sliced up dozens of perfectly nice neighborhoods and communities. 

Aside from the train’s arrival in downtown Santa Monica, perhaps the sweetest part of the ride for me was when the train chugged past the 10 Freeway close to the new Palms station. I also felt a pleasant whoosh of pride, and relief, when the train passed through Cheviot Hills where a handful of NIMBYs tried, and thankfully failed, to stop the Expo Line in its tracks. 

Ironically, it was, similarly, not in my back yard-minded Angelenos who more often than not allowed the freeway to come in, ruining neighborhoods for what sometimes seems like forever more.  

Reminders of our foolish addiction to the car abound along the route. As Neal Broverman put it in Los Angeles Magazine, “Views at the Palms, Bundy, and, especially, Sepulveda stations are kind of, ugh. The aerial views really show the auto-centric city planning that happened here -- tons of gas stations, liquor stores, and billboard blight. Hopefully, politicians like [Councilmember Mike] Bonin can help create more of a sense of place and really incentivize the Expo investment.” 

Now is the time to end the “no growthers’” stranglehold in Los Angeles and Santa Monica on sensible transit-oriented development and proceed with the building of projects worthy of our environment. 

Other public amenities I am hoping for with the opening of the Expo Line? That: 

  • Metro, Culver City Bus and Big Blue Bus got it right with their redesign of the feeder bus routes, and riders can get to the train car free. 
  • There is enough bike parking and bike share at the stations to accommodate all of the area’s active transportation and transit enthusiasts. 
  • Pedestrian improvements including sidewalks spreading out from the train line are inviting enough to encourage pedestrians to make their commute part of their 10,000 steps or bike ride a day. 

Kudos to Santa Monica which seems to have gotten things right, with Colorado Esplanade, the city’s attractive and WIDE pedestrian gateway and protected bike lane from the Expo Line station to Tongva Park, the Santa Monica Pier and beyond. 

Let’s also hope that Santa Monica will be measuring the benefits of the new train to downtown, including an off-the-charts bump for businesses in the area. For area merchants in downtown Santa Monica and at the other new stops along the line, it will be like CicLAvia all of the time with shoppers galore. 

Speaking of which, don’t forget the sure to be awesome bike and pedestrian streetfest, CicLAvia Southeast Cities, this Sunday from 9 am to 4 pm. 

Of course Expo to the beach will not be without its hiccups. Look out for the inevitable idiot drivers who think they can make it across the tracks ahead of the train, even though the light has changed. Others will whine about the noise and the increased foot and bike traffic around the stations and along the new protected bike path Metro has built adjacent to much of the line. Yay! 

And what about parking for transit riders who want to ride but simply can’t or won’t take the bus, walk or bike to the new stations? The new lot at Sepulveda and smaller lots at other stations just won’t be enough for the expected demand. This is why I am hoping Metro gets cracking on cutting deals with Caltrans and other land owners for more parking at underused locations like beneath the freeway at Pico and at churches and businesses along the remainder of the route. 

Metro has wisely done this at its Expo Line Crenshaw station where 400 spaces are available on weekdays in the garage belonging to the neighboring West Angeles Church of God in Christ

Lastly, consider signing the petition urging LADOT to provide signal preemption for the Expo Line through downtown Los Angeles and give priority to longer trains. 

With trains carrying hundreds of passengers versus cars carrying no more than a few, the choice is clear. 

See you soon on Expo and the rest of our growing transit system!


(Joel Epstein is a senior advisor to companies, law firms, foundations and public initiatives on communications strategy, corporate social responsibility (CSR), recruiting and outreach. He is a contributor to CityWatch and can be contacted at [email protected].) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.