This guest post is the first in a two part series from Darren Davis who is a Principal Transport Planner for Auckland Transport looking at the revival and future of rapid transit in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles is virtually a metonym for car-based mobility based on an extensive freeway network. Sadly, the early promise of unlimited mobility on uncongested freeways has turned from autopia to dystopia where Los Angeles is routinely in second place in the United States (after Washington DC) in time wasted stuck in traffic and where the picture postcard sunsets are the result of photochemical smog refracting the rays of the sun.
However, all is far from lost for Los Angeles and it has much going for it as a once and future transit city. It was originally developed on the basis of the world’s largest streetcar network, the Pacific Red Cars, with 1,600 km of track. It is relatively dense; it has a largely intact rectilinear grid street and arterials well-spaced for excellent public transport access. Its polycentric nature actually works to its advantage as it promotes bidirectional travel, making better use of available public transport capacity. And in addition, a lot of the former Pacific Red Car corridors were still available to be reused.
In October 1992, I travelled to Los Angeles for the first time and spent a week with the then Metropolitan Transportation Commission (LAMTC) at the early stages of the LA rail renaissance. I wrote an article about my experience entitled “LA: City on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”
At the time of my visit, Los Angeles had just one light rail line, opened two years previously to typically great LA fanfare, including the presence of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This was the Blue Line which covers the 35.4 km between Downtown LA and Long Beach via South Los Angeles. By 1992, the line was carrying 35,000 passengers per day, half of whom were new to public transport. My then interpretation was that this was not good value for the $US887 million capex investment and $42.6 million annual opex requirement, less than 11 per cent of which was being recovered through the farebox. However, hindsight is the greatest teacher and the Blue Line is now carrying 90,000 passengers per day, making it the second busiest light rail line in the United States after Boston’s Green Line.
Also while I was in Los Angeles in 1992, the first stage of the Metrolink commuter rail network opened on three lines and has since been progressively expanded to seven lines over six Southern California counties, covering 624 km of track and carrying over 40,000 weekday passengers on an average trip length of 60 km and an average operating speed (including station stops) of 60 km/h.
January 1993 saw the opening of the first stage of the underground Red/Purple Line subway linking Union Station to MacArthur Park in the Westlake District. The line was originally slated to continue west on Wilshire Boulevard corridor, one of the densest urban corridors in the United States. However, politics got in the way and a methane explosion in the Fairfax District was used as a pretext to prevent subway construction west of Western Avenue on the Wilshire Corridor, purportedly on safety grounds. So the Purple Line subway ended up as a 3.7 km stub line to Western Avenue in Koreatown, completed in 1996. The main Red Line was diverted up Vermont Avenue and then under Hollywood Boulevard, reaching the legendary intersection of Hollywood and Vine in 1998 before continuing west to Hollywood and Highland and then north under the Cahuenga Pass to Universal City and North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley in 2000
Ironically, more politicking, based on local neighbourhood concerns, got in the way of a further extension of the Red Line at grade west of North Hollywood on a disused Pacific Red Car corridor. This ended up requiring any further rail to be fully underground, a prohibitively expensive proposition for the relatively low density San Fernando Valley. This turn of events led to some lateral thinking and a flying visit to Curitiba in Brazil which resulted in the corridor being used by the Orange Line Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to Warner Center and Canoga Park at the western end of the valley in 2005 with a northern extension to Chatsworth Metrolink Station completed in 2012 for a total line length of 29 km. The Orange Line is one of the best BRT implementations in the United States. It carries around 30,000 passengers per day with frequencies of every 4 minutes at peak times; 8 minutes interpeak and 10 minutes at weekends and is a significant feeder to the Red Line at its North Hollywood terminus. Ironically, its peak capacity is close to being maxed out due to the east west line’s interaction with numerous heavily trafficked north south arterials. This issue could be solved with absolute traffic signal priority for buses or the use of bi-articulated buses.
After the Red Line, the next rail line to be built was the 32.2 km Green Line which resulted from a judicial compromise over the construction of the last freeway to be built in Los Angeles, the Glenn Anderson Freeway linking Norwalk with LAX Airport and the South Bay. This required the inclusion of rapid transit into the freeway median. Due to the then booming aerospace industry in the South Bay, the decision was taken to prioritise servicing the South Bay over a spur into LAX Airport, instead requiring airport-bound customers to transfer to a free bus shuttle at Aviation/LAX Station, 4 km from the airport. The line was also foreshortened at its eastern end well short of its originally intended (and more useful) terminus at the Norwalk Metrolink Station. The Green Line opened in 1995 just as the South Bay aerospace industry went into major decline and it has since been mocked as the line that goes from nowhere to nowhere. Nevertheless, it still carries 40,000 weekday passengers; connects to the very heavily used Blue Line at Willowbrook and to LAX at Aviation/ LAX (via a free bus shuttle). Due to the line being fully grade-separated, it averages 52.2 km/h (including station stops).
Further rail development took place with the opening of the Gold Line from Union Station to Pasadena in 2003, a project that jumped up the priority queue due to energetic lobbying and political support in the area and the San Gabriel Valley to its east as well as the absence of other suitable “shovel-ready” projects. This line was extended from Union Station into East Los Angeles in 2007 including a 2.9 km underground section with two stations under East First Street in Boyle Heights. The Gold Line has a total length of 31.7 km carries around 43,000 daily passengers.
The latest light rail line to be completed is the 13.8 km first stage of the Expo Line from Downtown Los Angeles to Culver City on the Westside, again utilising a disused Red Car corridor parallel to Expo Boulevard. This line brings the University of Southern California and the various museums and sports venues in the Expo Park/ LA Coliseum area into the rail network and is the first rail line to serve the heavily congested Westside in over 50 years. Only opened in 2012, it is already exceeding its 2020 patronage estimates with 27,000 daily passengers just one year after opening.
In 1990, Los Angeles had 0 km of rail. Since then, it has progressively built out 28 km of fully underground metro heavy rail; 113 km of light rail and 624 km of commuter rail. Underground heavy rail carries 160,000 passengers per day; light rail 200,000 and the largely peak-focused commuter rail 40,000. Going from 0 to ~400,000 daily rail passengers in a little over 20 years is not an achievement to be sniffed at.
As of today this is the extent of the LA rapid transit system. Metro have also put together this neat interactive timeline of the development of their rapid transit network.
Tomorrow Darren will cover what’s planned for the future of rapid transit in LA and how they are paying for it.
The author the above article is an employee of Auckland Transport, however, the views, or opinions expressed in that article are personal to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Auckland Transport, its management or employees. Auckland Transport is not responsible for, and disclaims any and all liability for the content of the article.