The Green Line is 25 years old; some thoughts on that

The Green Line in a photo taken in the late 1990s. Credit: Metro Library and Archive.

Today, August 12, is the 25th anniversary of the C (Green) Line. Let’s pause and let the, uh, enormity of the moment sink in.

If you’re sensing a certain ambivalence, you’re right.

Here’s the conundrum with the C Line. It was built as part of the controversial 105 freeway project and ― let’s be honest ― would likely not be built the same way today. There were a range of racial injustices and environmental issues, including: 1) the bulldozing of low-income, communities of color for the freeway, and 2) making the train hard to reach by sticking the tracks mostly in the middle of a busy, loud, smog-producing freeway.

While we acknowledge its problematic history, we also have to recognize that the C Line is here to stay. The 105 freeway is not going anywhere. Moving the C Line is not a realistic option financially, politically or logistically.

If there’s an upside, it’s that the C Line has still managed to deliver millions of rides over the past 25 years and there are several projects underway or in the planning pipeline that will improve it.

More on that in a bit. First, some history.

Once upon a time in the mid-1900s, the powers-that-be in our region had an extensive master plan for freeways. And most of those roads actually ended up being built between the late 1940s and 1970s.

As the years passed, traffic and smog worsened in our region. The civil rights and environmental movements gained steam and more communities began to question the wisdom of displacing and leveling neighborhoods for more freeways. Perhaps because freeway expansion proposals started aiming at wealthier, whiter communities.

The result: a few big freeway projects were stopped in their tracks.

The 710 infamously has a four-mile hole between Alhambra and Pasadena due in large part to opposition from South Pasadena.

Progress of the 2 freeway was halted in Silver Lake instead of continuing to the 101 and 405 freeways. Opposition from Beverly Hills was particularly strong.

The Marina Freeway never made it east of the 405. Plans for a “Reseda Freeway” that would have scraped across the Santa Monica Mountains from the San Fernando Valley to the beach were scrapped when residents of Pacific Palisades said “no thanks.”  

By the time the 1970s rolled around, the next big new freeway project on the docket was the 105. The idea was to ease east-west traffic in the corridor between the 5 freeway and the LAX area and make it easier to reach the airport and nearby aerospace jobs.

Unlike past freeways, the 105 ran headlong into opposition as it proposed to cut a wide swath through South Los Angeles and many other neighborhoods to the east. On the eastern end, Norwalk opposed the 105 and Caltrans lost enthusiasm for connecting the 105 to a 5 freeway already constipated with traffic.

As is often the case in California, the issue landed in the courts. After a decade of litigation, a federal judge made a series of rulings in the late ’70s and early ’80s that allowed the project to go forward on several conditions.

Several thousand homes that would be demolished had to be replaced. The freeway would be built mostly above or below street grade. And a mass transit line would be built in the corridor as a way to help communities impacted by the new freeway. 

Thus, the C Line was born. But it was both a mass transit project — and a massive mitigation effort — with a number of compromises from the start. Namely:

  1. Because the 105 stopped at the border of Norwalk, so would the C Line, denying it a useful connection in Norwalk to the Metrolink and Amtrak line that runs between downtown L.A., Orange County and San Diego.
  2. Most of the C Line’s 20-mile route is in the 105 median, requiring riders to descend from bridges over the freeway to isolated stations in the middle of a noisy and exhaust-ridden freeway.
  3. The four westernmost stations were only built for two-car trains. The standard for the rest of the Metro light rail system are three-car platforms.
  4. Perhaps most notoriously, the C Line has a station just south of LAX but doesn’t actually connect to the airport. There was a confluence of reasons for this epic failure ― failure isn’t a strong enough word, frankly ― including funding issues, ambivalence at LAX and L.A. City Hall and questionable safety concerns by the Federal Aviation Administration, among others.

All that adds up to less than ideal outcome: a light rail line that’s relatively quick but hard-to-reach and disconnected from the neighborhoods it was intended to serve. 

But then there’s this: in spite of all that, C Line ridership grew steadily over the years, peaking at more than 41,000 average weekday riders in 2014. With more than 5,100 parking spaces (including 1,759 in the enormous lot at the Norwalk Station), driving to stations was convenient. And thanks to having zero street crossings, the Green Line was fast by local transit standards (The 20-mile ride clocks in at 34 minutes). At peak hours, the train is usually moving faster than traffic on the 105.

In its own weird way, the C Line has offered another unusual legacy: it’s a blueprint for what not to do when building a transit line. In the case of Metro, freeway median stations have long been out of fashion (although a few would still get built). Planning for future projects puts a priority on connecting to neighborhoods. 

There are also improvements in the works that will make the C Line a lot more useful. 

Most notably, the Crenshaw/LAX Line that is nearing completion (and expected to open in 2021) was built with a connection to the C Line tracks. That will allow trains to move between the two lines and make it much easier for C Line riders to reach LAX, Inglewood and other places along the Crenshaw Corridor. 

Even better, a new station will be built in the next three years on the Crenshaw/LAX at Aviation and 96th streets. The station ― known as the Airport Metro Connector ― will allow C Line riders to ride the train directly to the LAX people mover that will serve airport terminals. 

That means that C Line riders can bid farewell to the long, traffic-laden, time-munching shuttle bus ride between the C Line’s Aviation Station and the airport horseshoe. 

Additionally, two Measure M projects will extend the C Line. The first will add four miles of track from the Redondo Beach Marine Station to the Torrance Transit Center. That will make it easier to reach the South Bay by rail and, conversely, speed up transit trips from the South Bay to both the north and east. 

Two other long-term Measure M projects are worth mentioning: a C Line extension to fill the two-mile gap between the C Line’s current terminus at Norwalk Station and the Norwalk Metrolink Station. And a K Line northern extension that ultimately make it easy to ride all the way from the C Line to Hollywood. 

There’s no way getting around the C Line’s history and there’s no putting the genie in the bottle when it comes to the 105 freeway. From an L.A. Times article in 2018: 

It [the 105] offered a good example of why the ardor [for new freeways] faded. The 105 violated environmental laws, displaced more than 25,000 people and left behind a legacy of noise and pollution in some of Los Angeles County’s poorest neighborhoods. After decades of delays and bitter litigation, its price tag rose to $2.2 billion, making it the most expensive roadway ever built in the United States.

As things turned out, the 105 was the final entirely new freeway built in L.A. County. So, while the freeway network has stalled, L.A. County’s rail transit is continuing to expand. Construction on several projects has continued during the ongoing pandemic.

The C Line is certainly far from perfect, but it will be a part of a transit network that will be much improved, faster and more accessible to more people. Your thoughts, readers and C Line riders?  

37 replies

  1. Isn’t it true that once the Crenshaw Line opens there won’t be a direct connection from LAX to Downtown LA? My understanding is that it will be a 3 seat ride from the airport into downtown. People Mover to Crenshaw to Expo, is that correct? Obviously it can be assumed that only airport employees will make this árduos trek. How many daily riders is Metro expecting to lose by not offering direct service from the Crenshaw Line to downtown via the Expo Line? And how many decades does Metro expect for it to take to build the connector between the Crenshaw Line and the Expo Line?

  2. Dear Steve,
    In reading your “celebratory” article on the “C” (Green line), I was a bit surprised at your facile approach to the review of its history. Perhaps you might have done a bit more research in the decision-making process for the C Line / Green Line, rather than lamenting the history of freeway expansion before excoriating the Green Line in the Source without context.
    Let me provide the context since I was the Chair of the Rail Planning and Rail Construction Committees for the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) at the time that the Green Line was built and the alignment and corridor decisions were made.
    The failure of L. A. Metro to complete the Green Line is due to Metro Board decision-making priorities, not design flaws. HARD STOP.
    Rather than completing the Green Line eastern, southern and northern segments, over the years LA Metro has prioritized completing the Orange Line busway across the San Fernando Valley, the Blue/Gold line to Azusa (and beyond), the Exposition Line to Santa Monica, the Purple Line to Westwood, and the Crenshaw/LAX line.
    In the past 25 years, Metro has made significant Green Line policy choices at several key decision points:
    1. The original Green Line right of way was provided in the center of the I-105 freeway as a mitigation design element that allowed the I-105 freeway to be built. A lawsuit related to environmental impacts and housing dislocations resulted in a Consent Decree, amended in 1981, which imposed several conditions on development of the freeway, including a requirement to improve carpooling and provide for a transit way, which became the Los Angeles Metro Rail Green Line. As such, it created a fully-grade separated right of way that could accommodate driverless trains within the limits of the freeway without an additional environmental clearance. Space for Green Line tracks and carpool lanes made the median of the I-105 a truly intermodal facility.
    2. The Green Line was designed as the first rail line in the United States to be automated – without drivers. The benefit was 2 minute service frequencies so that no one would have to wait on the freeway platform for very long. It also meant that the El Segundo Employment Area platforms could be two cars in length since the trains would be frequent. Due to political opposition at the time, the automated vehicles were replaced with Metro’s traditional light vehicles under the theory that the Green Line train fleet could be maintained at the Blue Line maintenance facility and a small new maintenance yard in El Segundo.
    3. Prioritizing rail development projects had long been the subject of two feuding regional transportation agencies in LA. The SCRTD developed the initial heavy-rail subway segments under downtown Los Angeles and operated the regional bus and rail system. The LACTC developed several light rail projects and the subway extension through Hollywood to North Hollywood. To stop the feuding, the state legislature merged the two agencies by creating the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority on April 1, 1993. Reconciling differing priorities between the two agencies may have adversely affected the completion of the Green line. Since LACTC was more focused on light rail, the eastern, southern and northern extensions may have been completed much sooner if the merger had not occurred,
    4. An eastern extension of the Green Line through Norwalk to the Metrolink station was environmentally cleared in January 1993 but was not pursued due to opposition by the City of Norwalk.
    5. The Green Line South extension from the I-105 freeway right-of-way through the El Segundo Employment Center was environmentally cleared February 1994 to ensure the line would open as construction was completed on the freeway from Norwalk through the El Segundo Employment Area decades earlier than would have been possible if the Green Line were built as a stand-alone project. The El Segundo segment stations were built to not preclude platform extensions to serve three-car trains when Metro determines they are warranted. Traditional Light Rail technology, rather than driverless automated vehicle technology, was selected.
    6. The Gold Line extension to Pasadena and a Green Line North extension also were environmentally cleared in February 1994. The Green Line North would connect the Green Line through LAX Lot C, and on Lincoln Blvd. through Westchester to Marina Del Rey.
    7. The EIR for a southern extension beyond the Redondo Beach station is underway with three-car platforms. An EIR is being prepared by Metro to extend the line south from the current Redondo Beach station to serve Lawndale, Redondo Beach and Torrance. The proposed alignments and profiles will use traditional light rail technology with at-grade and grade separated track segments.
    In closing, I’m sure that in the next 25 years there will be no lack of pundits criticizing inherent flaws, some avoidable and some unavoidable, in all of Metro’s light rail projects but understanding the context is important if judgements are going to be made.
    Thank you for the opportunity to respond to your article.

    Yours Truly,
    Jacki Bacharach
    1980-1993 – LA County Transportation Commissioner
    Chair, Countywide Rail Planning Committee and
    Chair, Rail Construction Committee that oversaw the development of the Blue and Green Line construction

  3. Steve, come visit our Historic Vineyard at the Willowbrook Community Garden on 121st St., just a 10-minute walk from the Watts/Avalon stop on the “C” Line!

  4. Great article; however, as mentioned by the article one issue the green line (and other lines that have freeway median stations) have is the noise from the freeway, which both hurts riders ears and probably driver perspective rider away. What frustrates me is that the solution to this is a relatively easy and inexpensive one, yet for some reason Metro seems to pretend its almost as hard as trying to land a human on mars. See solution in video below:

    (notice the glass gates that enclose the station, and open when the train arrives? why?! Why!? can’t metro just do that?! Problem solved)

  5. I kind of like the C Line… but it’s rarely a line that I ride. Seven years ago I rode the Green Line for Nobody Drives in LA and KCET, got off at all of the stops, and explored the areas around them. I was really charmed by Plaza Mexico. Other areas were really lifeless.

    Of course, it would be a lot more practical if it connected to Metrolink in the east or LAX in the west… but I’d also love to see it extended down an old right-of-way through Torrance and San Pedro to connect with the J and A lines.

  6. It’s to late for the c line but the CRENSHAW line should go west to Dockweller beach not be joined to the c line, I wish I could be part of the planning of these transit lines

  7. I can only see the Norwalk/Santa Fe Springs extension as an underground extension, maybe trenched but mostly underground. This judgement is based off how the current tail tracks at Norwalk are designed.

  8. Is there a need, and if so, are there plans to lengthen the platforms on those western stations?

    • Hi Bob;

      We’ve obviously been getting by with the platforms as they are for many years now. But we have sought funding to extend them. No dice thus far, but I think it will be an issue we revisit. It is a bit of a chicken-and-egg issue, too — higher ridership would help secure the funding but having the longer platforms would also be helpful to boost ridership. That said, I do think getting Crenshaw/LAX Line open and, beyond, opening the Airport Metro Connector station and the airport’s people mover will help ridership along the C (Green) and Crenshaw/LAX Line alignments and that could lead to getting the platforms extended — as well as getting closer to building the extension to Torrance.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  9. It will be built, eventually, in a tunnel. Like a subway under Wilshire it’s too useful not to happen.

  10. oh I’m still a-waiting for Metro to put up something — anything — to address the blasting sound from the freeway. Why not a plastic barrier/wall? That would help. If you can’t put them up along the freeway side of the tracks, in case some car hits it, then how about platform screen doors between the trains and the platform?

  11. Renaming the Green line was a bad bureaucratic idea. Renaming it “C” instead of “G” doesn’t make sense either.

    25 years later and still No Restrooms … what are you waiting for?

  12. It’s sad the other freeways weren’t built. The community would still have many thriving cultural neighborhoods and the added benefit of more mobility. Los Angeles has some of the least freeway lane miles per person of any major city. It’s hard to constantly make the induced demand argument against new construction and for me to take that argument seriously. Traffic would be better in the metro if the full system was constructed.

    The green line needs upgrades and with everything planned it should make it a better line. The trains need to be replaced and more security is needed to keep riders orderly as disorderly and unruly passengers are just as a big of a barrier to ridership as anything else.

  13. Steve,
    Great summary of the Green Line and challenges/pain points from a rider’s perspective. Are there any concerted efforts specifically looking at speeding up the extension to Norwalk? It seems like some lower hanging fruit that could have a huge benefit on connectivity, and would really open up LAX and parts of the South Bay to Metrolink riders. Not the sexiest project, but like the Regional Connector would help connect these annoyingly separated parts of our broader system.

    • Hi Transit Thanos,

      Not that I’m aware of — it’s a long term project for the time being and I think likely to stay that way. I agree it’s a shame it wasn’t done in the first place. I think the difficult thing here is that it likely has to be underground and that always raises the expense. Hard to say without studies how many people would transfer between commuter rail and the light rail line but I’d rather have a true network than one that is Swiss Cheesed (nothing against Swiss Cheese!). And totally agree that a lot of projects that could deliver big-time improvements aren’t very glamorous but would be high impact.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  14. “ The 710 infamously has a four-mile hole between Alhambra and Pasadena due in large part to opposition from South Pasadena.”

    Okay but like seriously, who actually wanted this extension to begin with? Nobody wanted it in 1962, nobody wanted it in 2017. South Pasadena was not alone, the fact that there were proposed routes from Irwindale and Azusa (I-605) to Edendale and Silver Lake (CA-2) it’s no surprise even other parts of the county gave this an automatic NOPE. Now please get rid of that “stub” by Cal State LA and in Pasadena and build some (affordable) housing on it. . . Something LA is in much need of even during a pandemic.

    • Hi Dave;

      Filling the gap had opponents and proponents — with many proponents pointing to increased surface street traffic between the 210/710 in Pas and the 710 in Alhambra. The proponents may not have won but I don’t think it’s fair to say “nobody” wanted it.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  15. Great article. Thanks for the history on the gap between the Norwalk Metro and Metrolink/Amtrak stations. As a regular Metrolink rider, regularly find new riders trying to navigate that gap, yelling at their drivers to pick them up at the “other” station 2 miles away!

  16. Back in the day 1999 to 2001, I worked for a software company right next to LAX. I tried to be a regular Green line passenger, but Norwalk parking lot would be filled up half the time. Still the times I did ride it, I like it. There is nothing better than being on a train it just flying past all the people stuck in traffic.

    Today, I do recreational trips in LA County from Orange County. Metrolink to Red/Purple line is my current favorite. Gold Line from East LA is the runner up. Having said that, I think will give the Green Line a try again when the extension to the Expo line opens.

  17. Didn’t mention the Artesia route that will connect to the Green line in time for the LA Olympics.

  18. Speaking of parking at a Metro Rail Station …
    I grew up in a city where public transit means you can take the public transit to complete your trip. It always puzzles me when a public transit system, like Metro Rail, basically requires you to drive to (or be dropped off at) a station, then take the train. It somewhat defeats the purpose of public transit.

    • Let’s say that if it wasn’t for the 105 freeway traffic on Imperial Highway, Firestone Boulevard, Rosecrans Boulevard and other surrounding streets would have gotten much worse especially when trying to reach the LAX area and inside to the drop-off/pickup-zones. Hard to speak for the 120 but I don’t think that it would have dramatically increased ridership to warrant more, frequent service & a Rapid line that sadly never came to fruition & under the NextGen bus study won’t happen.
      Now let’s say that the Green Line was to be built….where? Would have faced opposition regardless of route chosen and would either be raised like several portions of the Blue line and partly street-level which also would have faced strong opposition regarding how it should have been built here and there, etc.
      While there are few things that can slow down the line it seems to me that in years past the C line used to have much frequent service and could run as fast as the Red line. Now it takes longer for a train to arrive and I started to notice this a couple of years ago as a morning, early afternoon rider and I wonder what could have caused the reduced service? The 460 would need a different route to reach Norwalk, OCTA probably wouldn’t run its line 701 through a different route from Union Station, through DTLA onto the 605 freeway, plus more that I could keep rambling about ?.
      In the end, while both the 105 freeway and the Green Line both faced strong opposition, they both ended up being the solution we didn’t want but definitely needed.

  19. This probably sounds nitpicky. It’s a great article, and very well written. But a swatch is a sample of cloth. A freeway cuts a swath through an area.

    • Hey Timothy —

      You are 110 percent correct. Thanks for catching that and I fixed. My eyes are not what they used to be!

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

      • Kudos to Steve H and Metro for actually discussing negative aspects of one of their lines.

        While the C/Green Line is not an enjoyable ride, the LAX connection and eventual extension to Norwalk Metrolink will increase its value.

  20. I feel like the LAX connection is an excellent example of expectations crushing what was actually a workable solution.

    When I was in Boston several years ago, we took the Blue Line from the city to the airport. Like many other cities that built their trains long before their airports, the Blue Line does not run into the terminals, but instead drops you off at some dedicated buses that then take you to the terminals themselves. This service was fairly quick and convenient, and I don’t remember ever wondering why the Blue Line itself couldn’t run through the terminals.

    And it should be the same with LAX. There’s no reason why that connection has to be so painful. If we as a city had gotten over our disappointment of the Green Line not running directly into LAX, that connection could have been fairly smooth, with easy on/off buses for large luggage, and even dedicated lanes inside the terminal area to speed connections. Instead, we decided that the whole situation was terrible, and basically abandoned the entire connection.

    This seems to be a popular theme in LA transit overall. For all the money we have spent building expensive rail lines, we could have deployed hundreds of buses into dedicated bus lanes all across the city, making connections quick and easy. But buses are boring, so we dump more and more money into trains that still don’t ever go where we really want to go, with connections that take too long or have too many transfers.

    It is the perfect being the enemy of the good, and unfortunately we are a poorer city for it.

  21. In 1948 the LA Chamber of Commerece came out with a rail transit proposal that envisioned routing trains onto the medians of newly constructed freeways. The proposal died with no action, and all rail transit slowly withered till dying out totally in the early 1960’s.Forerunner to the Green Line.Steven, great article!

  22. The Green Line also was supposed to be driver free however that idea somehow magically disappeared. Although the idea of light rail down the middle of freeways being attacked the MTA did the same with the Gold Line in Pasadena eastward. The first attempt at light rail being in the middle of a freeway however is not a original idea with the miters at the MTA. The Pacific Electric realigned the San Fernando Valley service down the middle of the Hollywood Freeway beginning at Highland Ave. adjacent to the Hollywood Bowl. That is the reason there is the large bus parking island there and the odd northbound on ramp to the Hollywood Freeway and directing vehicles into the far left lanes. In fact instead of tunneling the Red Line beneath the Hollywood Hills the rail line could have followed the old P.E. route and still terminated at the North Hollywood station. underground after leaving the freeway or followed the Vineland Right of Way. There are so many possible routes down our freeways that could be utilized as a high speed alternative to private vehicle use. Take out or move the “Car Pool Lanes” allowing rail to be built. This not only for local transit but could be used for the on again off again High Speed Rail Project from northern California to Southern California eliminating the need to purchase expensive private land. And rail stations need not be in the open as we see on both the Green Line and Gold Lines but enclosed in a tunnel type configuration. My only guess is the MTA amateurs can’t find this innovating idea in their text books so said idea is beyond their scope of thinking. The above article only proves my observation. On another note briefly addressed. The Highway 2 freeway(Glendale Freeway) was stopped near the Silverlake neighborhood. It was planned at the end of World War Two to continue west thru Silverlake, East Hollywood, Hollywood , West Hollywood and Beverly Hills since the Hollywood Freeway was constructed with a interchange in mind near Vermont Ave. Since the Two Freeway is no longer a option, why hasn’t the MTA built a alternative? Sunset Bl. and Sana’a Monica Bl. are major traffic arteries that are completely grid locked during both the A.M. and P.M. rush hours it seems Downtown to the Westside via Sunset and Santa Monica Bl’s. would be a prime goal to address. But the MTA is not even addressing this traffic corridor and instead is more focused on other routes that are number one not as well traveled and number two served by numerous freeways.

    • Wasn’t the Hollywood Red Car a slog through the pass? If I’m recalling correctly, it was a steep and slow climb. Maybe a modern train could handle the grade, but by the time the Red Line extension was being built, an above-ground alternative would likely be messy for drivers on the 101. This would compound the pretty poor reputation MTA had with Red Line construction at that point– the sinkhole on Hollywood Blvd being emblematic of that.

  23. Good article and I appreciate the history on all of this. I remember when the Green Line (C) opened and my now 36 year old daughter and I rode it. We tried to ride all the new rails as they were built. I thought the C line would end near the pier and fun places of Redondo Beach! What a surprise when we got to the end, got off and wondered where the heck we were!!! And it most certainly was not a short walk to the pier, that’s for sure. It was a major disappointment to us and we hardly ever rode it. Add to that, parking was almost nonexistent at our Lakewood Blvd. station and the fact that we had to wait for the train in the middle of the freeway – well, it was a no brainer that we would not be taking that line ever if we could help it.

  24. Great job, Steve, summed up perfectly! Look forward to future extensions.

      • You’d never see a Canadian agency issue as honest an article as this, Steve. Congratulations.

        I continue to be amazed at what has been accomplished in Southern California in the 45 years since I first visited what was then a transit desert. There have certainly been some fumbles, but nothing compared with the botches committed here in what was supposed to be the model North American transit city. I think actor Peter Ustinov jinxed us in the late 1970s when he called us “New York designed and run by the Swiss.” That was a long time ago.

        The designers of the Metrolink commuter rail system came up here in the late 1980s to see if GO could be their model, which they decided it should be. One member of the team told me he hoped I’d eventually visit them and see a GO clone that varied only in the fleet’s paint scheme and the types of trees around their stations. Indeed, that came to pass.

        How did the Greater Toronto & Hamilton Area go so wrong when we used to be a shining transit beacon for others? It’s the eternal Canadian answer: politics, politicians and consultants. Resist it as much as you possibly can down there in what I regard as my second hometown.

    • And 25 years later, we’re still continuing to fail with planning by not having a Crenshaw/LAX station at The Forum/Sofi Stadium…

      Great piece, Steve