I wish this were a happy column about public transit and the new Metro Expo Line extension in Southern California. I wish I could validate all the triumphant talk about Los Angeles’ transit resurgence and the restoration of a rail link between downtown and the Pacific.
But I’m a rail commuter now, and no longer have time for fairy tales.
Perhaps I expected too much. For four long years, I’ve commuted by car between Pasadena 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 open to Santa Monica and my commute, and my life, would change for the better.
That day arrived two weeks ago, and my dreams were dashed. I had been ready for the kinks of a new line that is still adding rail cars. But I was unprepared for just how slow — and painful — a light-rail commute could be.
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 4½ hours at work.
On my first day — the fourth day of Expo service — I drove five minutes from my kids’ preschool to a Gold Line station in Pasadena, eager for the new routine. Then I waited 20 minutes for a train to arrive — the wait is supposed to be six — and the train took 45 minutes to reach Union Station downtown (it should take 30). There was another 10-minute delay when I had to switch to the subway to go three stops to pick up the new Expo Line.
Metro had advertised Expo as a 48-minute ride, but it took more than an hour. The track runs down the middle of streets — and the train stops for some traffic lights. In Santa Monica, after a six-block walk, I arrived at wo rk 2½ hours after I had reached the Pasadena station.
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. 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 Wi-Fi. But after 45 minutes of typing with my computer on my legs, my back hurt.
As I boarded the Gold Line, I had been in transit for nearly two hours — and 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.
I had allowed myself 2½ hours to return to Pasadena 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 4½ hours at work.
There were things I liked about the ride. I did enjoy the walks on either end. The city looks great from Expo’s bridges. And I was happy to bump into three friends.
But the ride was simply too slow, and the experience too rough. I did the same commute two more days — things were faster, but the round trip still took four hours. All that time on the train left me feeling physically sore.
I also felt frustrated — at California’s underwhelming ambition. From our famously frugal governor to our taxphobic voters, we choose the cheaper, easier path rather than the better, arguably necessary, one. For this vital east-west axis, we didn’t have to create a relatively cheap and slow light-rail line. We could have built something faster and more convenient that would have attracted more riders. (There were just 12,000 boardings at the new Expo extension stations on my first day riding, as many people as board the New York subway every three minutes.) But it would have been nearly impossible to get political support and funding.
I’m not giving up on rail. As more train cars are added, waits for trains should shorten. 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. (University of Southern California has three stations close together.) And, now that I’m experiencing transit here firsthand, I’m glad that Metro is planning a massive $120 billion ballot measure for November that will fund all kinds of transportation upgrades.
When I drove to work one day later that week, the commute was still miserable — 2½ hours round-trip. But even that was much faster than Metro. And my body felt fresher, and I got to listen to the radio.
Which is better — car or rail? Both are awful, in different ways. I console myself in knowing that now at least I can pick my poison.
Reposted from SFGate with the author's permission.