Expo Bike Lane Opening Day

New Stations, Old Hardware

Expo Line Opening La Cienega bike racks
Racks overflowed on opening day - here next to the Expo bike path

Approaching the La Cienega station (the end of the line until Culver City opens soon) one sees an elevated station hovering like a mirage over Jefferson Boulevard. It’s no mirage: it is a real Westside rail station. Opening day found it crowded with railfans and cyclists all curious to ride the line that seems like it has been forever in the making. Bike racks were full. Fun was had.

Cyclists are not particularly satisfied with the bike component of this huge transportation project. The adjoining bike path seems like an afterthought (it was). Few aspects of the design suggest that engineers were acquainted with bike path design, and the discontiguous nature of the path (on street then off street) will prove to be confusing. The complex junctions it must traverse (Jefferson/La Cienega, Venice Robertson) will make for hazardous riding and might just suggest to cyclists, Take the train. Phase I implementation was widely panned; phase II promises to be better with the formation of an cycling community advisory body.

Expo line La Brea station
Expo line opening day: a study in color and contrast!

Up above the station, it’s clear that Metro spared no effort to integrate practical and aesthetic accents to make the train ride better. Colorful accents and undulating perforated sun canopy suggest a solid investment in a mass transit future.

We’re eagerly awaiting a refresh on the Expo rolling stock, however. It feels a bit stale, and no surprise here: riders found carriages that were reassigned from the Blue Line. Mature systems deploy carriages that are stainless steel, high capacity, vandal-proof and quiet. In contrast, the Expo train itself doesn’t conjure that state-of-the-art as much as look back to an era of relatively generic design. New trainsets will make all of the difference (whenever they arrive). [Update: On April 30th the Metro board voted to purchase 78 new light rail cars.]

Beyond the station, the view from the platform is strictly old-school Los Angeles: a pancake landscape of low-slung light industry limned by hardscrabble streets bereft of shade trees and behind it, small postwar homes of wood and stucco.

Expo station at La Cienega
The view from the Expo station at La Cienega

The view from above is so banal as to be unremarkable; up close on the ground, well, it’s not much more palatable. Whatever the charms of the Jefferson Boulevard corridor, what’s clear is that this view will change with increased investment around rail stations.

Expo: The South Los Angeles Ticket to Ride

One of the undeniable charms of the Metro is the New Orleans-like garden district rail tour of overlooked and undervalued corridors in South Los Angeles like Exposition Boulevard. There the Expo line offers riders a slice of Los Angeles history. Around La Brea the light industry that made Los Angeles an economic powerhouse is still on display (thought not the furniture manufacturing that kept many employed). Then there’s the eclectic mix of housing from oversized stucco boxes to diminutive clapboard shacks that date to the turn of the 20th century.

Shops also tell the story of change here. The West Angeles Church of God on Crenshaw, perhaps the most formidable cultural stake-in-the-ground, suggests the long history of the area as an African American redoubt. But the papuseria, fish taco, and live chicken shop at Western are the new markers of change as the area emerges as a majority Latino enclave.

Wheeling around to look southeast, the view from here is destined to change. Public investment in transit here begs nothing if not an economic inflection point: this transit-proximate land is under-valued. The gas station and auto shops that remind us of our auto past will tomorrow yield to ‘higher and better uses,’ as planners say. When businesses that can make better use of farepayer dollars will find their way here and tire and pawn shops will surrender.

Expo Western station intersection
Western & Exposition near the Expo station

Like the view from La Cienega station suggests, the Expo line itself is the harbinger of change.

Farther east toward the University of Southern California at Vermont, that dynamic is reversed. It was the longtime investment in the area’s largest employer that confers utility upon the Expo line. The university has already reshaped this community (for both good and bad) and to it the Expo is a latecomer. But a complement none the less.

Expo line at USC/Trousdale station
USC/Trousdale station

Students need think back a decade to remember Exposition as a relict place to park cheaply and avoid death and tickets in the scramble across the median. Now the two stations at USC are the best means of access. And doesn’t the campus make a pretty backdrop at Trousdale?

To the east the line takes a plunge underground. Here we turned around for a ride back to La Cienega on the Exposition Boulevard bike path to get a gander at all of the stations.

Expo bike lane blocked

The ride back east on the bike path proved to be a frustrating experience. For one thing, DOT closed stretches of Exposition for some inexplicable reason. Inconsistent signage created some ambiguity about whether bikes could pass, and in the event few cyclists were out. This might make a good future CicLAVia spur, but today riding the line was less than a pleasure.

Bike Routes: We Can Do Better!

Exposition Blvd. bike lane - a substandard facility
Substandard by any definition

The single biggest factor contributing to a negative experience along the Expo line is that the bike lanes in place aren’t taking care of cyclists. We’re not protected, and we’re not afforded standard-quality pavement. Why City of Los Angeles ever thought to put half of the bike lane in the gutter (right) is a mystery; it is simply not acceptable. This is not Metro’s responsibility, but with a project of this size and significance we could have planned for multimodal mobility along the Phase I route.

Metro does take responsibility for the Expo bike path, however, and here cyclists have not minced words: terrible; an afterthought; unsafe. Those are all sentiments expressed by the cycling community precisely because the Phase I path was an afterthought. It puts cyclists in harms way at most junctures. (But then again, nearly every major intersection along the Phase I route is problematic for anyone not driving – a reminder of the work that has to be done to make our region fully navigable by all users.)

Expo bike lane crossing at Gramercy
Crossing at Gramercy (credit: Metro)

The most critically-assessed problem is the crossing at Gramercy (right), which has cyclists crossing the rails at a shallower-than-90 degree angle. That is a recipe for disaster (especially in the rain) and a planning oversight serious enough to warrant Metro itself offering guidance on negotiating the crossover. That only highlights a problematic facility that like any road should be operable without handbook.

On opening day, our biggest disappointment was that stretches of the bike path were closed entirely. That included the most scenic stretch between La Cienega and Culver City characterized by a serpentine path and relatively rustic surrounds. Why not have these alignments open? Then again, with this event delayed so long it’s not clear why Metro opened the line for passenger travel before two remaining stations could be opened.

Or why open it a week after thousands of attendees flocked to USC to the Book Festival.

But all told it was a heartening day to be a Westside, a supporter of transit, and even a USC alum.

We look forward to the penultimate opening of the last two stations and eventually to the Phase II extension of the line and a bike path to Santa Monica. With increased focus on making the Phase II path better than the first, we can expect to have more good rolling times on lovely stretches like this one:

Expo bike path looking west
The best of the Expo Phase I bike path