Connecting California

Don’t Believe the L.A. Transit Hype

Slow and Cheap, the New Expo Line Will Dash Your Commuting Dreams

I wish this were a happy column about the advance of California public transit.

I wish I could report that my own life is better now that I ride the brand-new Metro Expo Line extension to work in Santa Monica. And I wish I could validate all the triumphant talk of the great metropolis of Los Angeles becoming a fabulous train town again, with the restoration of a vital rail link between its city center and the Pacific.

But I’m a rail commuter in Southern California now, so I no longer have time for fairy tales.

Or much of anything else.

Perhaps I expected too much. For four long years, I’ve commuted between the San Gabriel Valley 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 extend to downtown Santa Monica and my commute, and with it my life, would change for the better.

That day arrived two weeks ago, and immediately my dreams were dashed. I had been ready for the hiccups and kinks of a new line, and I had been warned that the trains would be slower and crowded until Metro could add enough cars and drivers for full service.

But I was unprepared for just how slow—and painful—a commute via light rail could be.

On my first day—the fourth day of service on the new line—I dropped off my two younger boys at preschool and drove five minutes to a Gold Line station in Pasadena, parked, and walked three minutes to the train. I was happy and eager for the new routine.

Then I waited 20 minutes for a train to arrive—the wait is supposed to be less than 10 minutes at that hour. And the train moved slowly—it took more than 40 minutes to reach Union Station downtown (the train schedule says it should take 30).

There I had to switch to the subway to go three stops to pick up the new Expo Line. But the switch was mismanaged by a Metro staffer who inexplicably packed two subway cars with people—while refusing to let anyone onto two relatively empty cars. That train left, stranding hundreds of us for another 10 minutes before another subway arrived and we were allowed to board.

The switch to the new Expo Line at the Metro Center station for the third leg of my trip was smooth. But the Expo Line was painfully slow. Metro had advertised a 48-minute ride, but it took more than an hour. The track runs down the middle of streets—and the train stops for traffic lights at some intersections. In Santa Monica, after a six-block walk, I arrived at work two and a half hours after I had reached the Pasadena station—25 miles away. In that same time, I could have flown to Las Vegas, played the airport slots, and flown home, jackpot in hand.

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. Once on board, a fellow passenger started screaming how much Jesus loved me (even as I wondered if the transit gods had forsaken me).

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 wifi. My attempt to conduct a phone interview failed (the train was too loud). And after about 45 minutes of typing with my computer on my legs while sitting on one of the train’s hard plastic chairs, my back started to hurt.

As I boarded the Gold Line, I had been in transit for nearly two hours. 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. And I couldn’t work on the Gold Line—the two-car train was so full it had no open seats.

I had allowed myself two and a half hours to return to Pasadena, grab my car 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 four and a half hours at work. Yes, our car culture isn’t sustainable—but neither is public transit like this.

There were things I liked about the ride. I loved the walks on either end. The city looks beautiful from the various bridges along the new Expo route. And I liked the fact that I bumped into three people I know.

But the ride was simply too slow, and the experience too rough, to be comfortable. I did the same commute two more days—and things were smoother and faster, but the round trip still took me four hours. And all that time on the train took a physical toll—I felt sore at night.

I also felt frustrated—at California’s underwhelming ambition. Over and over in this state, from our famously frugal governor to our tax-phobic voters, we tend to choose the cheaper, easier path rather than the better, arguably necessary, one. For this vital east-west axis, Metro and local governments didn’t have to create a relatively cheap and slow light-rail line that stops at traffic lights. They could have built a proper subway-style line to whisk people efficiently over greater distances. That would have better served their cities, and attracted more riders (There were 12,000 Expo Line rides on the seven new stations my first day—as many people as board the New York subway every three minutes). But that would have cost a lot more money, and it would have been nearly impossible to get political support and funding.

Complaining about such things is politically incorrect these days. Dogmatic transit cheerleaders responded to my disappointed first-ride tweets with taunts that I should live closer to work, which seems an odd rallying cry for people championing public transit investments, and a fairly elitist one too when you consider the cost of living anywhere near Santa Monica.

I’m not giving up on rail altogether. As more train cars are added, waits for trains should shorten and riding should become a little more comfortable. 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 (USC has three stations very close together).

And, now that I’m experiencing the need for improvements firsthand, I’m very glad that Metro is planning a November ballot measure that would raise sales taxes to cover $120 billion in transportation projects, including all kinds of expansions and upgrades of train and bus lines.

When I drove to work one day later last week, the commute was still miserable—two-and-a-half hours round-trip. But that was much faster than it had been on Metro. And my body felt fresher and I got to listen to the radio.

Which is better—car or rail? Both are awful, just in different ways. I console myself in knowing that now at least I can pick my poison.

  • Todd Koerner

    Hi, Joe. Heard you talk about this on KCRW and it all sounded so familiar. I should be able to take the train from Redondo Beach to downtown without too much angst, but no such luck. The challenges are many:
    1) Waiting too long for a train at the end of the line (Marine Ave. station).
    2) Changing trains from Green to Blue, where the trains are regularly jammed and unpleasant.
    3) Stopping for traffic while in a train – what?! That’s insane.
    4) Having to switch to the Red Line to get to the Metro Center.
    5) On the return, it is agony waiting for the Green Line on an open platform between two directions of highway traffic, with all the requisite noise and grime.

    All in all, as a commuter, I evaluate the proposition and taking the train just doesn’t make sense. I can get to my destination much quicker driving, and the frustration of navigating the Metro make it an exercise in futility.

    Thanks, but no thanks. Metro is only useful for very specific commutes and after much consideration of the expense and bother.

    • Mr. B

      My cousin has lived in Manhattan Beach since 1972. Her husband tells the story of buying a lot there shortly before the 405 opened. Prior to that opening, MB was deemed too far a drive for daily commutes to DTLA where most white collar jobs were still located. Maybe, as other comments here have suggested, your premise of an easy commute at 25 or more miles distance is unrealistic and unsustainable, like it once was, not too long ago.

  • Kris Bartelle


    I’m glad you view in the present now represents the reality of rail commuting vs. the nostalgia that has been guiding our visions and politics of local transit and I hope your disappointments are sublimated into a better public understanding of what rail does and does not do for Los Angeles in the future.

    Your editorial does not identify another perspective, and that is one of the current transit rider, who would have to take several buses from your home in Pasadena to that in Santa Monica. If you glance over Metro’s website you can see that a transit bus would take upwards of 3 hours in each direction or 6 hours of their day. To these people the saving of 2 hours means many good things for them and their families. These people are the primary riders and they benefit far more than transit riders that have other options, such as yourself. You do benefit in other indirect ways that aren’t as tangible, transit will take a number of cars off the roads, and I’m sure Metro will have a study soon showing this. Unfortunately until we congestion price traffic, these cars taken off the road will rebound and the roads will be full again in a year or two.

    A second point that should be noted is these systems are incredibly expensive to build and politically not supported in comparison to road building. Because federal transit grants (which Metro relies on from 30%-50% of their funding) are competitive, it is much more expensive to build a lightrail in an urban environment such as Los Angeles instead of a rural or suburban area, such as Salt Lake City or Portland. Los Angeles can never compete on the cost alone. Because of that FTA looks at the cost per rider and that does help level the playing field a little bit. So to keep cost level Metro cuts has to cut corners from wants to needs. No bridge, no tunnels unless absolutely necessary, they are 8 to 20 times as expensive to build as an at grade system and the public hates concrete monolithic bridges on their streets as much as they hate losing their left hand turn lanes. What’s a transit planner to do? Add stations, they add riders and lower the cost per rider making the system cost competitive with other grants applicants and avoid bridges. To your point adding bridges does lower travel times and brings on a couple non transit dependent riders, but compared to the cost of the bridge the math doesn’t add up. The public is going to be upset no matter what, better to keep the cost down. Unfortunately both decisions increase travel times for all riders. To get these systems built in the first place is a monumental achievements considering that it took 30 years of politicking to get it built at all, imagine how long it would have taken if you wanted to get it done right!

  • Charles Tudor

    The best public transit solution for Los Angeles could have been completely in place in the eighties: make the right lane on freeways and major through streets in the city exclusively for buses and exiting vehicles. Simple, and hundreds of billions of dollars cheaper.

    • Alex Brideau III

      Well, I suppose that’s something that’s still physically possible, though I suspect car drivers would riot (just like they would have back in the ’80s) if they were told a lane was being “taken away” from car use.

      That said, perhaps these days certain freeway shoulders could be repainted so they can be used for breakdowns and buses only. I believe such a project has had some success Up North (not sure if it’s the Bay Area or Seattle area). I’d recommend starting with the 101 Freeway as it still has a few unused busway-style stations in place that could be renovated and brought back into use.

    • Richard

      The entire rail transit network to date and all the money currently committed to rail transit in Los Angeles in the future 30 years does not yet equal 100 billion dollars. So it would be impossible to be ‘hundreds of billions of dollars cheaper” The expo line cost $2.5 billion. Measure R only provides $15 billion for rail(and the orange line bus route).
      Buses are expensive. $8 billion from Measure R goes to keeping the buses moving. Painting the right lanes of freeways and through streets wouldn’t do much if there are no buses to run in the lanes.

      Still not a bad idea, Metro already has it’s Red Rapid service all over the county. It would be nice if the Rapid service was actually Rapid. Put a bus lane on every one of those routes and see how well it improves things. That can be done in addition to rail, because in some places you want higher capacity than buses can provide, lower maintenance costs, more accessible stations. Transportation in LA sucks, just about every mode in all parts of the county. EVERYTHING needs to improve.

  • James Watt McCormick

    Your points are well taken. METRO, and its predecessor agency, LACTC, have been long dominated by a perverse “small is beautiful” ideology of urban development, largely synonymous with a no/slow growth cabal posing as progressive environmentalists. Notwithstanding my gratitude for any progress, opting for EXPO as the “westside” system was both cheap and foolhardy but popular among this cohort as a sop to modernity while keeping the investment small and a commitment to progress modest.

    In the late 80s, Congressman Waxman blocked the extension of the “Red Line” (now Purple Line) heavy rail subway directly down Wilshire and the powers that were (Yaroslavsky & Bradley mainly but also the entire leadership of Westside municipalities and most of the environmental leadership) acquiesced in a misguided loyalty to the idea that Congressman Dixon’s more racially diverse neighborhood would benefit notwithstanding that the “detour” proposed would add lots of time and cost to the run from DTLA to west LA. That route was finally and properly found to be unfeasible, wasting years and many millions of dollars both in costs and in lost Federal subsidies. Waxman finally removed his barrier but without apology for the tremendous environmental cost of delaying implementation of the most cost and transportation efficient system possible in the entire greater Los Angeles Region.

    Fundamentally, Los Angeles’ transit politics is classical “log rolling” and requires compromise and distributed benefits, as it should. Sadly, in the past, it has lacked the kind of leadership that would have committed to a system that would do the greatest environmental good quickest for everyone’s benefit. The current $120Bn METRO plan is the first truly progressive proposal to come out of METRO and should be supported by everyone with a mind to bringing our region into the 20th!! century. The plan, hopefully in conjunction with a national commitment to infrastructure development, might mean you will be able to ride the rapid rails and get around LA expeditiously in your lifetime. As a 68 year old I hope to too but I have come to be skeptical of our ability as a region to act coherently for our collective good. I hope to be proved wrong in my skepticism.

  • Walt Arrrrr

    Let’s get this straight, this entire editorial is based on a sample size of ONE ROUND TRIP. (One round trip during the first week of service no-less.) An alternative title may as well be: “Man Checks Privilege, Gets Back Into Car.”

    For us long-time public transit riders the new Expo Line between Santa Monica and downtown is the bee’s knees, the icing on the cake, and the cinnamon on our abuelita’s hot chocolate. In an ever-growing and connected Los Angeles public transit network there is nothing better than being able to go car-free on a regular basis. Today I kicked-off my summer vacation by dropping my daughter off at school in Highland Park, then boarding the Gold Line with my bike and transported myself via rail and two wheels to the cool sands outside the Annenberg Beach House where I read a Jane Jacobs book I borrowed from the Expo Line adjacent Palms public library a week before. This trip took me NINETY MINUTES.

    We do what makes sense to us. Does it make sense for me to drive my daughter a mile to school, haul my bike in my car, fight traffic to the Westside, and find parking just to relax and read a book? No, today it didn’t. But taking the train to the beach using my monthly pass did. Just as for Matthews, living in the San Gabriel Valley and driving day-in, day-out to a job in Santa Monica for years has made sense to him. The thing is, now we have more choices in how we transport ourselves, we are making our region richer with choices for those who can master them.

    What Matthews’ article is really about is culture shock. The culture shock of multi-modalism and what that means to Los Angeles. We are leaving behind the failed car-centric culture experiment, and getting back to a people-centric culture that has dominated cities for millennia. Change is hard, but with enough practice, even suburbanites can figure out to transport themselves in our urban landscape.

  • Kersu Dalal

    I am sorry but this article wreaks of car-centric privilege that has been the leitmotif in Southern California for far too long! The automobile may have deceived the author into believing it is fiscally and environmentally responsible to live in the San Gabriel Valley and commute 40 miles each way to his job in Santa Monica. But the truth is that neither the car nor public transit can sustain this “lifestyle choice” any longer. We all need to make compromises in the second densest city in the US and that involves everything from moving closer to your job and/or listening to public radio on your two hour commute home.

    • hcat

      Given the price of housing in Santa Monica? It isn’t “fiscally responsible” for him to live in Santa Monica and commute to his job on Santa Monica. The big issue is, why are so many jobs in Santa Monica?

  • Zeke G

    Even if the 25-30 mile commute were entirely grade separated and via heavy rail like the El in Chicago, you would still expect an hour and a half travel time. Plus heavy rail rides rougher so the aches the author complains of would be much worse.
    Commutes of that distance are better accomplished by commuter rail or express bus, but they certainly wouldn’t be $1.75 and I’d still expect an hour plus on those modes.
    The idea that the author tried to conduct a phone interview on a train is pretty disrespectful and thoughtless. Its public transit and phone calls should be limited and generally discouraged out of courtesy.

  • Jeremiah

    I think it’s really important for people in LA to stop making ridiculous comparisons to NYC transit as reasons for our “transit failures”. Many communities in the NYC metro area that are 25+ miles away from the Financial District (as Pasadena Sierra Madre station is from Santa Monica) have a similar 2-hour transit commute compared to a one-hour-or-less car trip. There are few places in the world where one can choose any community in a 25-mile straight line from their job and have a faster-than-driving commute by transit. The Expo Line shouldn’t be expected to fix every LA commute. It works best for those whose origins and destinations are both on the same line, just like every NYC subway line. Ask a New Yorker whose commute requires three trains if they’re happy about that. I imagine they are not.

  • Qrys

    The commuter rail and bus system is not designed to be able to connect 3 different lines in the way this author assumed. Gold Line day commuters were always anticipated to have a destination either in Pasadena or downtown LA. Expo line commuters similarly have been projected to live in the vicinity of that route and that probably they would head into downtown, not outbound into Santa Monica. This is pretty standard stuff for metropolitan transit planning. Perhaps the completion of the regional connector will reduce the commute delay he describes by minutes, but it’s not ever going to be a ‘bullet train’ from Pomona to the beach. Those expecting otherwise should either rethink their accommodation or their employment. There’s a lot of townhomes and condos going up in the area, but the tradeoff may be giving up one or two cars in order to afford those in-town rents. Each household needs to make their own call. There’s no “one-size-fits-all” in transportation planning.

  • Mr. B

    Mr. Matthews article makes it sound that, short of helicoptering from Pasadena to Santa Monica and back during rush hours, he has significantly faster alternatives to Metro. He also fails to mention that when Metro’s Interconnector project is completed in several years, he will be able to make the same trip on one train thereby shaving some 30 minutes off his one way travel time. It took half a century to build all of LA’s freeways; the first Metro rail line opened 25 years ago. Maybe Mr. Matthews should cease using his column for self-centered whining and instead use his journalistic capabilities to report on the bigger picture: LA’s car-centric culture is unsustainable and its days are numbered. Oh, and for the record, my trip this morning on the Expo line from DTLA to SM for a 9:00AM doctor appointment took 45 minutes from door to door. I defy anyone to beat that in a car.

  • Eric W

    Joe –

    Try some public transit alternates. You took ONE ride and expected it to work perfectly. Nothing works on the first try.

    I used to bicycle to The Huntington Gardens & Library from downtown Santa Monica. That’s 24 miles and takes almost two hours – a bit less downhill on the way back. Sometimes I got tired and I tried some alternatives mid-route.

    The Gold line segment is a fast route (though I could beat it via Huntington Drive on a bike.) Once you’re at Union Station (the only Metro handy public restroom) there are several choices, The Big Blue R10 is way fast in non-peak times (about 45 minutes) slower in traffic. Metro’s 733 on Venice (under an hour) is quite a bit quicker than the 720 on Wilshire, due to less lights & stops I’d guess. And the 704 is much, much slower – even if you took it to the Hollywood Bvld station and changed to the Red line. You might wait as much as 15 minutes for a bus on any of them – try the Transit app. I can ride faster than any of the Metro bus routes by bicycle, and there are plenty of interesting places on the way.

    You can beat any of these routes with a car. But you can do something while you’re using the alternate – read, work or exercise. That’s worth quite a bit more to me than a small amount of time.


  • DarrellClarke

    There are three solvable issues slowing your trip here:
    1. Temporary lack of capacity (waiting for more Kinkisharyo cars to be delivered and approved, due to Metro’s delay in ordering them) and initial operations rough edges;
    2. Two transfers including a long walk in Union Station until the Regional Connector is completed c. 2020;
    3. Resistance by L.A. Department of Transportation to improving trains’ priority at signalized intersections.
    It is not that light rail was done on the cheap compared to a subway. Light rail with gated crossings has the same 30 mph average speed as subways with stations one mile apart.

    • cal

      I disagree.
      Now that the expo line has been running for a few months.
      studies would show that the most number of passengers get on at 7th and get off at santa monica. they are forced to stop a full train at every stop to pick up one or two passengers.
      Fixing the express/local issue, and train red light synchronization would reduce the time from 55 minutes to 40 minutes. 30 minutes could be achievable.

  • Brian in Koreatown

    America is now behind developing countries in infrastructure. And we will not catch up.
    My wife is from Taiwan. From her parents house in the suburbs of Taipei I can now walk to highspeed rail and travel to the south of Taiwan (equivalent to going to San Francisco) in 2 hours. I walk in, buy a ticket from a machine, and step on to one of the trains that come every 20-30 minutes. Once there, I can go door to door on a metro that is all underground and fast to just about anywhere.
    America peaked in the 1990s…. it’s all downhill from here.

    • Jeffrey Lee

      You are right in terms of transportation. I’ve taken metros in Singapore, Bangkok, Tokyo and Hong Kong is all better than Americas. It’s better than LA because LA metro sucks. But it’s better than Manhattan because their’s are old and it actually works fine, even better than LA’s. So it would cost to much to change them. The Asian country’s systems are just newer.

  • Antonio Perales

    As someone who has used public transportation in LA since the early 80’s (back when it was RTD) I can tell you that it has become terrible now. It started to go downhill once MTA took over. Around 2003 is when you could really start seeing how badly managed the bus system was. Now they have cancelled bus lines in order to push people onto the trains. The Gold Line lost a lot of money, they started cancelling lines in order to push people onto the Gold Line. Basically fluff their numbers. The turnstiles cost $46 million and they do not work, and the Tap Card is garbage. There was never any “real” problem with the old paper passes. There used to be over ten MTA buses that used the busway to El Monte, now they only have three. The subway is a joke, it is more of a tourist attraction. Just go to the Hollywood and Vine station and see all the money they wasted on the so called “art” they installed on the terminal walls. No one in their right mind would used the LA subway as a means to commute, it just doesn’t move fast enough. The Expo line to santa monica is a big joke. There is no reason why that train should take 50 minutes. No reason at all

    • Virtuous2012

      Straight question; Why is TAP card “garbage”? I never had any trouble w/mine, so really want to understand your comment.

      As to the Expo line to Santa Monica, which does NOT take 50 minutes, BTW, we are very happy to have it. But SM has reconfigured Big Blue Bus lines (I think; not well informed) to coordinate with Expo stops, thus doing away with some buses I very occasionally took.

      A lot of readjustment is needed in the heads of long-time drivers, including me, to the trains. Some comments I have seen assume there will be a train stop practically in front of their door to get from A to B. Not realistic. Let’s hope we all get with it. Make suggestions to the right authorities instead of just venting.

      • Antonio Perales

        From Downtown LA to Santa Monica via the Expo Line is a 50 min ride. I have taken it four times since my last post and I have never arrived in Santa Monica less than 50 min. The expo line is garbage. Not a commuter train

  • jasporia

    Have the people defending the expo line actually used it?
    As the author wrote there is a stretch by usc where stops are seemingly blocks apart and it is also stopping at street lights where you have to wonder what they were thinking.
    If they would have spent a little more and built a third track to allow express trains this would have been a game changer. That didn’t happen so they must fix the stopping at lights issue and develop some kind of express system where it doesn’t stop at every station.
    Mass transit is great but doing it on the cheap and stupid isn’t. Don’t hate this guy for telling the truth. We need a system that works not some liberal checklist that most people avoid because it’s so inconvenient. If we are going to do it, let’s do it right.

    • Virtuous2012

      Yes. repeatedly. I started using it when you had to drive to Robertson and park.
      Now it’s out to Santa Monica, yay! Sheer heaven to get off right in FRONT of Exposition Park museums, SC, downtown, and with quick change to Music Center.

      Point is, public trans serves not only work commuters but people with all kinds of needs who don’t drive, don’t want to drive & fight traffic, can’t afford parking, etc.

  • NorcalGeek

    LA’s rail expansion is heartening but so disappointing when you actually use it. The EXPO line practically crawls on the tracks. On my recent trip, it took an hour from DTLA to SM. Contrast that with BART in SF, where trains beat cars handily. BART trains can run at up to 80 mph. We need high speed transit, not toy trains.

    And I hear there is a plan to build a DTLA Streetcar loop that goes at 6 mph!! Seems like an expensive toy to me. A self driving minibus could do the job much cheaper.