Go west, young subway rider

D.J. WALDIE is the author of "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles" (Angel City Press, 2004).

THAT HOLLOW laughter you hear echoing from beneath your feet is the Ghost of Mass Transit Past, stirring again like one of Ebenezer Scrooge’s unwelcome holiday visitors below the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue, where the mid-city arm of the Red Line subway terminated in 1996.

Twenty-five years after a downtown-to-Santa-Monica subway line was proposed, and 10 years after it was pronounced DOA, the idea of a “subway to the sea” will not lie quietly in its grave.

It’s not hard to see why, particularly when you’re stuck in worsening traffic. The Wilshire Corridor has the jobs, retail, housing and population density to make a subway west of Western both desirable and practical -- just as desirable and practical as it was in 1980, when county voters approved an initial half-cent sales tax increase for a transit plan that would have built it.


But it never happened. And let’s be blunt: The Red Line subway stopped at Western because of Anglo homeowner fears of “those people” coming to their neighborhood (and Anglo shop owner fears that subway construction on Wilshire would kill business for years, only to deliver “those people” to their doors afterward).

That Rep. Henry Waxman and County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky (old opponents of a Red Line extension) are now talking about allowing a subway to cross into the so-called methane zone has nothing to do with their sudden discovery of a better, safer way through the Westside’s former oil fields. (The first Red Line tunnel came through the 1994 Northridge earthquake with hardly a crack.)

Rather, today’s talk of a subway extension demonstrates just how many homeowners and shop owners on the Westside have become “those people” themselves. Los Angeles is finally hybridized enough to imagine that transit riders are not Mau-Maus on the bus but only you and me and the woman who cleans your house.

It’s a demonstration of will and ingenuity that tens of thousands of these riders daily cobble together bits of a politicized transit system and commute to work, shop and make their way in a city that often misunderstands their transportation needs.

Los Angeles may be grown up enough for transit (and grown dense enough to need it), but that’s not enough to deliver the system the city should have. Transit in Los Angeles isn’t the neutral delivery of passengers from one dot on a map to another. Like everything that accelerates the flow of public money and political influence in this city, transit isn’t really about buses and trains, it’s about the mechanisms of power.

Every “great idea” for transit in the last 25 years has found a constituency of contractors, lobbyists and consultants ready to carve out their piece of the county, state and federal funding pie: heavy-rail subways, light-rail trolleys, dedicated busways, limited service buses, granny-toting jitneys and long-haul commuter trains. If it has wheels and you can find someone to subsidize its construction, it’s currently running on, under or alongside the streets of Los Angeles.


Passing enthusiasms and political fixes have contorted the city’s bus and rail networks into forms that are not logical or efficient. But that’s what happened when well-intentioned voters offered up a sea of county sales tax revenue in 1980 and again in 1990 for a transit system they had no intention of using.

It’s not to get themselves out of their SUVs that so many frustrated drivers support transit funding, it’s to get their neighbors out of theirs.

Big public transit projects are essential to the future of Los Angeles, even if they never add up to a coherent system. The proposed Red Line extension down Wilshire is essential, even though it will cost $200 million to $300 million per mile to build the three miles just to Fairfax. The new Exposition light-rail line to Culver City is essential too. So are more limited-service Rapid buses. And the plodding local buses, completing their crooked routes across the disregarded parts of the city, are utterly essential.

Building subways and light rail and expanding bus service won’t restore the visceral pleasures of 1960s freeway momentum (when the county had 4 million fewer residents). It won’t break up the rolling gridlock that infuriates Westside drivers. But more transit options are making an increasingly urban Los Angeles a little more livable.

If you’ve been reading these pages for a while, you may have caught the half-anxious, half-amazed tone of city watchers who seem to be wondering what to make of Los Angeles when it isn’t Los Angeles any more, when all of our cliched assumptions -- bright and noir -- are questioned by our encounters with a city that isn’t Raymond Chandler’s or even Joan Didion’s.

Public transit has the unsettling capacity to redefine our experience of a built-up, built-out and densified Los Angeles. If it’s ever built, a subway into the west will carry more than passengers; it will bear our imagination into a city as yet unrealized.