L.A.’s Revelatory Light Rail for Nerds

The Gold Line Has Become a Brain Train, Linking Educational Institutions From Pasadena to East L.A.

Gold Line train leaving downtown Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of SounderBruce/Flickr.

My train line is smarter than your train line.

I’m a regular rider of “The Brain Train,” officially known as the Gold Line on the L.A. Metro system. The Gold Line is a light rail running from the eastern San Gabriel Valley into downtown L.A. and then back out again to East L.A. Along the way, it connects enough smart institutions—from innovative community colleges, to a leading cancer center, to the world’s greatest scientific university—to explode stereotypes about public transportation and Southern California itself.

Yes, other parts of California may claim brainier trains: The Caltrain commuter rail runs the Silicon Valley from San Francisco to Stanford to San Jose; San Diego is in the process of extending its trolley to UCSD; and Sonoma and Marin Counties are about to inaugurate the SMART train (although that’s an acronym, not a judgment of the intelligence of a delay-plagued project).

But for Los Angeles County—where we’re known for our good looks but not for our brains or public transportation—the Gold Line is a revelation. And over the next several years, the line will be extended at both ends in ways that could make it a candidate for the title (with apologies to the Red Line connecting Harvard and MIT in Cambridge, Mass.) of “the best educated rail line in the country.”

Even today, you can reach a startling diversity of intellectual institutions on the line. Starting at the Brain Train’s current eastern terminus on Atlantic Avenue, you’ll be within walking distance of East Los Angeles College. Get on the train there, and you can stop for a drink at Eastside Luv (a Boyle Heights hotspot offering art, music, and poetry) and then take the line downtown, where you’ll pass by the Japanese American National Museum and SCI-Arc, one of the world’s leading architectural schools. North of downtown, the Southwest Museum, a library and archive devoted to Native American history and artifacts, is at the Mount Washington Station. And if you disembark at Highland Park, you can ride your bike to Occidental, the elite private college that is one of President Obama’s alma maters.

When the train enters Pasadena, it goes right through the south campus of ArtCenter College of Design, a globally distinguished school, and later stops at Memorial Park, a block from the headquarters of Parsons, the leading engineering firm. Then the Gold Line turns east, with stops that are a walk to innovative Pasadena City College (among the best in the state at transferring students to four-year institutions) and a short bike ride to that wonder of science, Caltech, where planets are discovered and Nobels are won.

The Gold Line also connects the neighborhood where the Caltech-affiliated characters in the longstanding CBS sitcom hit, Big Bang Theory, live. (I have a question for the screenwriters: Why doesn’t Jim Parsons’ character, Sheldon, ever take the Brain Train?)

Los Angeles County—where we’re known for our good looks but not for our brains or public transportation—the Gold Line is a revelation. And over the next several years, the line will be extended at both ends in ways that could make it a candidate for the title … of “the best educated rail line in the country.”

Further east, the City of Hope Cancer Center in Duarte has its own stop on the Brain Train. And for now, the Gold Line ends at two higher education institutions: Citrus College, which the Brookings Institution has called one of the top 10 community colleges in the United States, and Azusa Pacific, a major Christian university. But plans are already underway to take the Gold Line further east, with a stop near the University of La Verne before eventually reaching the Claremont Colleges, the seven-school consortium.

The Brain Train’s educational resume runs beyond universities. The line runs right through two of the state’s top school districts—Arcadia and South Pasadena—and connects easily through bus transfers to two others, San Marino and La Cañada. The Gold Line also offers thought-provoking views of the majestic San Gabriel Mountains and of Mt. Wilson Observatory, once essential to the study of astronomy.

But do all the nerds along the line ride the train? No, but many cost-conscious ones do. The 31-mile-long Brain Train costs just $1.75 per boarding, and transfers to other lines are free. While ridership is flat overall on Metro, ridership has been growing on the Brain Train, which registered an all-time high for weekday boardings (more than 53,000) in June.

I’m often struck by the nerdiness of my fellow passengers. The Brain Train offers a smooth, quiet, and comfortable ride, and so it’s one of the rare public spaces where you’ll see people reading actual books. On recent rides, I encountered Benjamin Madley’s An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe 1846-1873, two volumes of the late Richard Feynman’s legendary lectures on physics, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer-winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, and Salvador Dali’s cookbook, Les diners de Gala.

The Brain Train is likely to get brainier, particularly if the transit connection ends up encouraging more cross-enrollment in classes for students or research collaboration between faculty at Gold Line-adjacent institutions. Schools along the line are already encouraging their students and staff to use it. At a public event late last year, a Citrus College administrator argued that the Gold Line is making it easier for students to reach the campus and complete their degrees, and the CEO of the Claremont Colleges said it would make field research by students and faculty much easier.

There also are efforts by educational institutions to enhance the Gold Line corridor. Most notably, ArtCenter, in Pasadena, is preparing a 15-year master plan that would launch a new bikeway near the Gold Line and build new student housing with green public spaces—Quads—that would be directly over the rail line, linking buildings on either side.

The Gold Line is “our extended classroom,” said Art Center’s associate vice president Rollin Homer at the 2016 public event. “We’re embracing it—we’re going to live and create alongside it.”

The Brain Train is still an urban rail line with typical problems. (I encountered a pile of human excrement on a seat on one morning, and recently assisted a half dozen fellow passengers in subduing an intoxicated rider.) But as someone who grew up in Pasadena before the line arrived in 2003, and now lives four blocks from a stop, I love the way the Gold Line connects me to familiar places in new ways.

The Brain Train, in other words, can really make you think.


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