Expo Bike Lane Opening Day

Expo line opening day preparations
Not a minute too soon: prep continued midway though opening day

It has been a long time coming, but the Expo line has finally debuted! From Downtown to La Cienega our region’s newest Metro line does what few thought possible: to move Westsiders by rail. It is a testament to a sort-of-can-do spirit that suggests the Los Angeles region may yet one day move by transit. But with the subway extension slowed and Metro back in court over bus cutbacks, will Expo be a hook on which transit advocates can hang their hat to ask voters for another bite at the Measure R apple?

New People Mover from Visual Environment of Los Angeles (1971)
Envisioning the people-moving future of Los Angeles circa 1971

The new Expo line seems a vision out of the future: an elevated rail line that would whisk Westside passengers from Downtown Los Angeles to its periphery in comfort and convenience. But is it the future?

The Visual Environment of Los Angeles report (produced by the Department of City Planning in 1971) pictured today’s Expo nearly forty years ago. Like our line, it emanated from Downtown Los Angeles. Even the rolling stock looks the same. But where the planners of yesterday saw a future of plans enacted and people moved, our civic leaders had other priorities.

Our region has a long history of visionary plans put to rest on a shelf. From Olmsted Brothers & Harland Bartholomew & Associates came “Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region” in 1930. Commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber, their plan re-integrated human habitation into our natural environment and linked it all together with a system of parkways. In important ways it presaged a movement toward ecological thinking that sees covered streams ‘daylighted’ and natural corridors created for wildlife. That proposal suffered a worse fate than even shelfware: it was simply pulled from the shelves when it countered pushback from entrenched political interests, according to a review of the plan and its reception.

Linear park from Visual Environment of Los Angeles
Linear park atop local street circa 1971

Visual Environment, too, was not destined to reach a wide audience or significantly direct the debate over the region’s fate. But forty years ago it did anticipate several developments that makes it seem positively prescient: multifamily would someday begin to replace commercial strip shopping centers; parks would find a place on local streets much like San Francisco’s ‘parklets’ do today; and boxy, modernist-style apartments (like we see in downtown Santa Monica today) would change the character of the urban environment.

Perhaps most improbably, Visual Environment envisioned a robust and revitalized San Pedro waterfront. (That transformation was slowly taking shape before the Governor pulled the plug on redevelopment financing last year.)  The report notably misjudged the likelihood of “good architectural transitions” however; planners invariably privilege the wisdom of their codebook!

Air Line crossing Ballona Creek in 1953
The Air Line crosses Ballona Creek in 1953

We need not look back only forty years to see the future. We can dial back the clock about a century because the Expo line is actually a latter-day incarnation of the Air Line (running on Los Angeles and Independence tracks) that once transported passengers from Downtown to Santa Monica. KCET reminds us that before these elevated stations the Air Line traversed tracks and trestles along today’s Exposition, Jefferson, National, and Olympic Boulevards. When inheritor Pacific Electric consolidated the railways and, later in mid-century, picked up its trainsets and sold off the lines, it left the Westside  without rail service for the first time since the interurban railways brought disparate pieces of the region into a functional whole. (Beverly Hills was the junction of two lines.)

With the Measure R extension possibly heading to voters in the Fall, much is riding on the return of light rail. Metro employees were out in force on opening day to ensure all went smoothly. And mostly it did. Let’s take a quick look at the day.