These are iconic images of Los Angeles: the Hollywood sign, bumper-to-bumper traffic, red carpets rich with sequin-spangled starlets. One image that, until recently, came to almost no one’s mind was a railway. But the city is now trying to slough off the stereotype of being only for people who can tolerate spending most of their waking hours in a car, or who rage extravagantly against that fate. Late last month, the L.A. Metro opened an extension of the sky-blue Expo line (named after Exposition Boulevard, which it runs alongside), which now carries passengers from downtown to Santa Monica and the Pacific. The line is meant to serve more than sand-pail carriers. It links two of the city’s busiest business districts, downtown and the tech-startup-heavy community known as Silicon Beach, and makes stops in other spots populated with potential commuters, like the University of Southern California and restaurant strips in Culver City and the Palms.
Key word: “potential.” At the tail end of rush hour on a recent weekday morning, the ride from the 7th Street/Metro Center station to downtown Santa Monica lacked the kind of fast-walking, on-autopilot commuters who populate the New York City subway and other East Coast public-transit systems. Four women in business-casual garb seemed unsure of what train to get on (downtown, the Expo shares a platform with the line to Long Beach). One of them, in glasses and an ankle-length skirt, broke away to ask directions from an attendant in a yellow vest. “As long as it’s a blue dot, get on the damn train,” she reported back to her crew. “It all goes in the same direction.” They snapped a selfie in front of the vacant track.
While the Metro laid more than six and a half miles of new track and built seven new stations for the Expo’s extension, the trains that run on it are neither shiny nor new. Surfaces are scuffed. Plastic seats bear the scrawls of sharp objects. On a poster urging riders to say something if they see something, police officers smiled with blackened teeth. Most of the journey takes places above ground, and once the train emerged from the bowels of downtown, slogging slowly past the Staples Center and car dealerships, riders immersed themselves in their cell phones, earbuds firmly in place. Some seemed fixed on their destination: an elderly man wearing a hat asked the passenger next to him if this was, in fact, the train to Santa Monica. Assured of its terminus, he sat back and stared out the window, as squat single-family homes gave way to tall office buildings, construction sites, swaying palms, and, eventually, creative workspaces.
In many ways, the Expo line chronicles a changing Los Angeles. For a long time, Hollywood was thought to be the only game in town. But downtown has lately emerged as a nexus of real estate, restaurants, night life, and the arts—in April, the 90012 Zip Code, which encompasses Civic Center, Little Tokyo, and parts of the Arts District, was named, in an analysis put together by Realtor.com, the second-most prominent “boom town” in America; the number of households is expected to grow 8.8 per cent in the next five years. Google, Snapchat, and Facebook have sprawling offices on the city’s west side. But L.A.’s thronged streets aren’t equipped to handle the constant flow of people travelling in all directions. According to one study, the average Angeleno spent eighty-one hours idling on freeways in 2015, more than any other group of commuters in the country (a reality that smacks drivers stuck on the 101 at odd hours, such as noon on a Tuesday).
By 2030, the Metro estimates that L.A. riders will take sixty-four thousand trips on the Expo line every day, more than double the twenty-nine thousand trips averaged in all of April. Sharing one another’s space is going to take some getting used to. The other day, around the La Cienega/Jefferson stop on the Expo line, a man wearing a baby-blue polo shirt and black headphones started two-stepping, and let go of a large gray suitcase that he had rolled onto the train. It slid down the aisle and ran into another passenger. “Oh, shit!” the man said, by way of apology, before resuming his moves, left hand now firmly planted on the handle of his luggage.
A few years ago, I overheard a friend offering advice to someone who was planning a move to Los Angeles: “Make sure you love your car, because you’re going to spend most of your time in it.” That doesn’t have to be the case anymore. The Metro isn’t perfect—it took an hour and forty minutes to get from my home in Hollywood to the Santa Monica pier, a trip that might have taken an hour by car, even in rush-hour traffic—but its expansion is chipping away at the city’s solo-driving culture. Ride-sharing services have dramatically changed the migration patterns of city dwellers (Eastsiders brunch in Venice, polishing off bottles of rosé before ordering Ubers home), and that “Swingers” scene in which the guys chug up into the hills in separate cars in search of the night’s next great party is as anachronistic as the three-Martini lunch.
If Angelenos are willing to give up the sanctity of their own four doors for a stranger’s Prius, it stands to reason that they would be open to trading the mobility of four wheels for the pleasures of public transit. And there are pleasures, despite the length of travel, the stops and starts, and the chewing gum caked into the ridges of the train’s linoleum floor. Foremost among them is the romance of boarding a train in the gritty underground and stepping off on a newly paved, sun-bathed platform, the Pacific glimmering in the distance.
When the Expo train lurched to a stop in Santa Monica the other day, the elderly man hustled off, walking down a wide sidewalk of blue and yellow bricks inlaid with softly curving waves. Tall poles framed either side of the street; strings of small lights hung between them. The effect was of a window to the ocean. Moments earlier, an automated P.A. system had announced that this was “as far as the train goes.” It was far enough.