This is 30: On the unbearable lightness of LA Metro

Photo by Aurelia Ventura

Frances Anderton is an author and architecture critic who has been telling stories about LA’s changing cityscape through print, broadcast media, and public events for over 30 years. In this piece, she reflects on what she loves about taking transit in LA, and contemplates what it might take to turn our stations into bustling community hubs that connect us to each other as well as our destinations.  

By Frances Anderton

It used to be that driving a car in Los Angeles afforded a sense of liberation and it still does, at odd times of day and night like 3 AM on the freeway. But now, getting the bus or the train is freeing. 

When I go anywhere using mass transit, I feel a sense of lightness. No carcass of metal to strap myself into and steer out of its tight parking space tucked under the overhang at the back of our apartment building. No stop-and-go traffic to sit in, no time spent searching for parking nor money spent on it. No rising blood pressure at challenging interactions with other drivers, nor the mental effort of concentrating on the road.

I love checking out the schedule on the phone, stepping out of the house, and walking to the bus stop or train station carrying little more than a TAP card, which I flash at the machine and then sit down for a ride in the safe hands of the driver. There, I am free to check emails or people-watch or look out the window, musing on work and life and the cityscape. When I get to my final stop, it is great to exit the bus or the train and walk to my destination so I arrive feeling invigorated, not worn down by the ordeal of getting across town.

If it’s the E Line (formally Expo, a name I prefer to the anonymous letter E, especially as it honors Friends 4 Expo, the volunteer group that fought for years to create this light rail service) I’m riding, the trip has an added sense of lightness. That’s because physically, the raised parts seem to float above the city, and you can stare out at the mountains and sights like, say, the new Ivy station in Culver City, where you can peer into its courtyards and imagine the lives unfolding there, or catch a glimpse of one of LA’s more unusual new structures, the (W)rapper, a tower designed by Eric Owen Moss, near the Jefferson Station. 

Hanging out at Culver City station beneath its signature canopy. Photo by Aurelia Ventura

That floaty feeling is enhanced in the structure of the stations themselves, by which I mean their virtual lack of structure: just simple platforms, open on both sides to views and lightly covered by the undulating, perforated, metal canopies. While I appreciate the public art in the closed underground parts of the system, I prefer these airy, open, flowing stations (even if the canopies are a little impractical, since they don’t provide full protection from the sun or the rain.)

Having said all of this, however, lightness typically comes with its opposite: weight. The trip is rarely as effortless as described above. The stress-free nature of it is only possible under certain circumstances, which don’t exist for most people. By that I mean time –– it can sometimes take ages to get across Los Angeles using mass transit. To get from home to Downtown Los Angeles, the trip takes more than an hour when I factor in the walks between my home, the transit stops, and my final destination. So if I’m not traveling during rush hour, the car becomes attractive again. 

If you have heavy bags, young children, or have physical challenges, obviously the trips become less light. Then another reality of taking Metro these days is fear, a low level anxiety that accompanies every step of the journey. This is especially true for women on their own. The trains and buses do not come frequently enough, so riders can end up waiting in stations that are often almost empty (or frequented by riders who sometimes contribute to an uneasy experience), and then make the walk home on poorly shaded (or, at night, barely lit) suburban streets.  

Obviously, all of these first mile-last mile challenges can’t be solved overnight, especially in a region as far flung and huge as the 88-city Metro area. But improvements are underway. In 2020, Metro launched a microtransit service, available in some areas. I also understand that Metro will soon increase its buses and trains during peak time, which will be an attraction to commuters. It has increased security with its green-shirted ambassadors, who greet riders, answer their questions, and in my experience have been warm and welcoming. This is a great first step in encouraging the element that would provide the greatest sense of safety: human life, or what the famed urban critic Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street.”

Metro has tried to streamline the service with technology –– apps that help buy tickets, for example. Frictionless purchasing makes the transit experience easier of course, but I think a key element that makes older mass transit systems around the world so appealing is the presence of commerce: coffee and pastry stands and flower vendors helmed by living, breathing people, who become familiar faces –– and add to the feeling of mutual observation and safety in numbers. How lovely it would be if Metro could invite neighborhood coffee makers and other vendors to set up shop at the stations.  

Smells of coffee, fresh croissants and flowers could add a sensory delight to ones wait for the train or bus, but most importantly, they would reinforce Metro’s role not merely as a mode of transit but as public space, as a place of gathering for Angelenos as they wean themselves off dependence on the solitary car and participate in life in a new LA: denser, yes, but also more vital, and, perhaps, conducive to a bearable lightness of being.

Got a cool story about taking transit in LA? We want to hear from you! 

Interested in reading more from Anderton on building communities through architecture and design? Pick up a copy of her latest book, Common Ground: Multi-Family Housing in Los Angeles.  


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