Thousands of L.A. residents will line up this weekend to take a free round trip on the new Gold Line from downtown Los Angeles to Pasadena. For a lot of them, the ride will be a fling with rail transit. For others -- many others, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority hopes -- the trip will be the start of a wonderful relationship.
The MTA has predicted that 30,000 passengers will ride the Gold Line each day, and they want to hit that number, not because the fares will cover the cost of the trains (transit in L.A. never pays for itself) and not even to justify the $859 million spent on construction. They want to hit it because the Gold Line needs to be seen as a success to keep the idea of local light rail moving forward, eventually to Claremont and south through Boyle Heights to Montebello. As a transit-dependent Angeleno, I hope the Gold Line succeeds.
Since 1990, the MTA has built about 73 miles of rail, recovering less than 10% of the 1,000-mile system Los Angeles began losing to the automobile and buses in the mid-1920s. Most of the new track miles are in the Blue Line from Long Beach to downtown and the Green Line from Norwalk to El Segundo. The trains are fast and frequent, and the Blue Line is widely regarded as one of the most heavily used light-rail routes in the nation.
These long-distance lines mostly connect workers to jobs. The new Gold Line is the necessary next step for light rail in L.A., connecting neighborhoods to neighborhoods. At either end of the Gold Line's 13.7 miles of track are destinations with a complementary attractiveness: the Old Pasadena of upscale shops and restaurants in a family-friendly, sort-of-urban setting and the newly rediscovered downtown of Los Angeles with its darker vibe and growing population of young loft dwellers. These two neighborhoods were made for each other: sunshine and noir.
In between -- in crowded Chinatown and through Mt. Washington, Highland Park and South Pasadena -- are communities with some of the lowest percentage of automobile ownership in the county. The Gold Line packs 13 stops into its 36-minute run north and east from Union Station, keeping train speeds down but maximizing access from the route's dense and walkable neighborhoods. They'll get a big-city level of service, with trains running at 10- to 12-minute intervals (less frequently during nonpeak hours) and continuing until 2 a.m., seven days a week. Imagine a contemporary Los Angeles novel that begins, "We fell hopelessly in love on the train to Pasadena."
I'm a realist about rail transit in Los Angeles. At more than $6 billion, rail has been phenomenally expensive for the modest system we've got, and it's often poorly managed -- the Gold Line project was completed under budget and on time only because the MTA was replaced as its builder by a joint-powers construction authority. Rail also is controversial, pitting the combative Bus Riders Union and NIMBYist neighborhood organizations against the MTA and its army of expensive consultants. It's remarkable that the Gold Line was built at all.
It's amazing that Angelenos love light rail enough to vote repeatedly to tax themselves to build the system, especially given that so few of them will ever use it. Angelenos love the idea of you using rail transit, but not them. They think it will get you out of your SUV and make their commute easier. It won't, despite what rail boosters say. Rail transit removes only a tiny fraction of habitual drivers from the highway, a percentage that is swamped in L.A. by the influx of new residents, most of them driving cars.
Transit users in Los Angeles will always be overwhelmingly immigrant and non-Anglo and often too poor to own a car. Riders, in other words, without a choice. City planners urgently hope that development along rail lines, blending housing units and commercial space, will increase the percentage of voluntary riders. The Gold Line already has some mixed-use residential projects. They will be an early test of "transit oriented development" in L.A.
The Gold Line will test other, even more essential possibilities for this un-urban city, where it's a struggle to find places to practice the public art of civility.
Don't think of the Gold Line as mass transit, because if you do, you'll never ride it, and you'll miss the spectacle and the anonymous-yet-communal contact that makes cities great. Instead, think of the Gold Line as the Grove or Universal CityWalk or the Third Street Promenade in splendid motion. Think of it as the school where your fellow passengers teach you to be more urbane, as temporary liberation from the isolating shell of your car, as a place to cross the boundaries of our fragmented social geography.
I'll ride because I must. You'll ride to become a true citizen of a Los Angeles you hardly know.