A Streets-Level Review of the Gold Line Eastside Extension

11_13_09_1.jpgReady to Open? Mariachi Plaza behind a steel fence.

(Editor’s note.  Some people are asking why there isn’t more on the bike amenities at the station.  The Source did such a good job on the lockers and racks issue that we didn’t think it was necessary.  Read their review here. )

As many of you know, the Gold Line Eastside Extension is scheduled to open on Sunday stretching from the Little Tokyo Arts District to Atlantic Boulevard in Monterey Park.  Because of some controversy over the safety measures taken by Metro, a team of six cyclists including myself, Carlos Morales, Renee Morales, Browne Molyneux, Steven Frein, and Andrew Didia headed out to check out the new stations, and the area around them, for ourselves.  Andrew deserves some sort of prize for doing the ride on his birthday.  Browne’s review of the ride will be available on The Bus Bench next week.

Overall, we had a favorable impression of the future Gold Line and see how it will be a boon for the communities through which it passes.  However, there were some safety concerns we had, especially at the Little Tokyo and Indiana Stations.

For the record, we’re going to set-aside the issue of whether or not stations should be grade-separated with the exception of Indiana Station.  Indiana is the first station not separated after the two that are. 

Also, I timed every intersection to see if the timing was appropriate for pedestrians to get across the street.  The farther east that we went, the worse the signal timing was.  Our recommendation is that the city or Metro should do a study of all the crossing times at these intersections and re-time several of them.  In the meantime, the short signals on the east are going to create pedestrian/car conflicts.

There was also a general concern that there are no gates separating the trains from the pedestrian crossings.  For a pedestrian crossing the street, the site of a train coming at them, even if it stops, with nothing between them is a daunting one.  Without gates, pedestrians are in a more vulnerable position.

Last, we didn’t look at the intersection from a driver’s perspective.  If that’s what you’re looking for, call AAA.

We also noticed that there were workers installing signs and doing cleaning at every stations.  Some stations had power tools and even construction materials.  The best analogy I can give is that Metro is acting like I did in college when I was cramming for exams at the last second.  Maybe Sunday is too soon to open?

You can read our station by station review after the jump after a surprise impromptu interview with Los Angeles City Councilman and Metro Board Member Jose Huizar who happened to be giving an interview to a Metro camera person at Mariachi Plaza.  For all of my pictures, check out the LA Streetsblog Flickr pool.  Before the jump, let’s here from Councilman Huizar on the state of the $4.5 million that the Metro Board put towards safety improvements along the Eastside Extension.

[audio:http://la.streetsblog.org/wp-content/pdf/VN520032.mp3]

Honest question, if all the safety improvements aren’t going to be done for a couple of months, why are we opening the station in two days?

We began the ride at Union Station and headed South to the Little Tokyo Station, where we had a series of concerns with the pedestrian crossing at Alameda and Temple Street. 

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For pedestrians going east on the North side of the street, a wall creates a blind intersection for trains traveling South.  Mercifully, the tracks that are running feet from the crossings are going north so the pedestrian does have some space.

However, for everyone walking along the east side of the station, the northbound rail cars travel feet from you at all times.  You can literally reach out and touch the cars as they go past.

On the south side of the intersection, there is a pedestrian island separating the station from the street for pedestrians.  Unfortunately, the island is only a couple of feet wide.  A group of people standing on the island could easily spill out into the rail area.  Worse, a family, with the parents looking forward, could easily miss someone behind them taking a step backwards into the tracks.

As a whole, that intersection needs improvements.  Widening the island or using pedestrian gates to help keep people off the tracks are two solutions.  No matter what, this intersection is going to need some help.

The good news is this intersection was one of the worst we saw the entire trip.  I was a little worried when we had so many complaints from the first intersection we saw…

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The intersection at the South side of the station was an improvement, although trains taking a right from first onto Alameda again cross so very close to the sidewalk.  There is another pedestrian island, but this time it’s a much larger island.

It should be noted that both crossings had flashing "train approaching" signs along with wide, brick crosswalks and yellow uneven entrances to the crossings so vision impaired pedestrians have a warning before crossing the tracks or a street.  All of these amenities appeared at every intersection affected by the Gold Line.

From there we traveled east to the Pico/Aliso Station in Boyle Heights.

11_13_09_4.jpgThis hard hat had plenty of times to cross the six lanes of traffic and transit. </sarcasm>

At Pico/Aliso a charter school faces the North side of the station, which apparently is one of the main reasons the station was put where it was according to Councilman Huizar.  The Pedestrian island was larger, and riders were happy that the walk/don’t walk signals were facing the people coming off the trains as well as those at the crosswalks. Already, we were confronted with north/south crosswalks that were under-timed.

Maybe we were distracted because the staff on hand at this station were the only ones that let us get up into the station of the raised ones.  From where we were standing, the intersections looked good.

We continued on first street down First Street to Mariachi Plaza.  The station itself blends beautifully with the iconic architecture around the plaza.  It looks great and enhances the plaza area.  Good work, architects.  Sadly, there were no mariachi’s present at the time of our arrival.  Instead, we had Councilman and Board Member Huizar.

11_13_09_5.jpgThat’s Browne, not the Councilman

Generally, we found both ground level stations for below-level rail to have adequate amenities.  Many of the problems that we note at stations are caused by adding a third mode of transit to an already busy street.  As I said earlier, we don’t intend to make the argument that the line needs to be built below grade.  From a safety standpoint, it can’t be a coincidence that the stations we felt most comfortable and safe around were the same ones that didn’t have the train running on the street.  Even the crossing signal times seemed adequate.

Our next stop was Soto Station.

11_14_09_soto_correctionSoto station through steel.

Soto station has a huge plaza surrounding the station, but is sort of charmless.  Especially after the beauty of Mariachi Plaza, the giant empty plaza surrounded by fence architecture style seemed more like a prison than a transit stop.

Of course, by Sunday the fence should be down and according to some the plaza will be full of street vendors.  At the south side of the station were some benches so we assume that there’s going to be something for those sitting to do in the rest of the plaza.  The layout of the station plaza reminded me of the Santa Monica/Vermont Station on the Red Line, and that station features a handful of street vendors selling hats, sunglasses, and food.

From there, we returned to at-grade stations stopping at Indiana.

11_13_09_7.jpgFencing on the far side

Overall, the traffic flow made the station inhospitable and that was before adding the light rail.  The sidewalks leading into the station along First Street were narrow.  They actually had fencing up to keep pedestrians from wandering in the streets at places.

Our first reaction was, "why isn’t this station built below grade?"  The poor quality of the street and sidewalks had us concerned.  When you add in the experience our friends at Curbed had here a couple of months ago, and there are larger problems.

The light rail, not at-grade again, comes down first and turns right into Indiana station.  After traveling south through the station, it then takes another right onto third.

In the middle of the station, passengers have the option to cross the tracks to get to the center island or to get back onto the street by crossing through a series of gates that you can push open.  True, there are large flashing lights when a train is coming, but at the least this crossing should be below or above grade and the fences should be closed.  Having gates that can be opened that easily is a recipe for disaster.

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However, there’s a larger issue with this station that would be best addressed by bringing in some progressive transportation engineers and changing the character of the three streets, First, Third and Indiana, that surround the station.  Even with large crosswalks, the area had a bad feeling to it, with traffic racing along the street and trains moving through the station just feet from the sidewalks.

Our next stop was the Maravilla Station.  The station itself, like the other raised stations at Pico/Aliso and the two that end the line, are located in the street so pedestrians have to cross the street to get to the station.  It seems that at all of these stations there is going to be conflict between pedestrians trying to get to the station and catch a train and cars, who may have a green light at the time, not looking for them.

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Of particular interest at this station was the bike parking.  I’m standing in a circle with racks and lockers.  The Christmas tree is the start of the station.  See any issues?

Another note is that it was nigh impossible for seniors that we saw to cross Third all the way.  A pedestrian trying to get across from the north to the south might miss a train while jogging across the street, even with the signs.  Especially with the giant Christmas tree.

From here we moved the East L.A. Civic Center.  The Civic Center stop is going to have the same issues as the others with a mid-street station, but other than that we found the crosswalks to be wide and the signals to be strong.  A wide street again creates an issue for pedestrians.  Maybe the city should have a task force to address pedestrian signal timing around the stations?

11_13_09_10.jpgFor our car driving friends. Be careful making a left out of the Eastside Civic Center. The train is partially blocked.

Our last stop is the Atlantic Station, where the crosswalk signalization problem kicked into over-drive.  Because each intersection had a series of islands, there were times were it would take over five minutes to cross the street, and that was for Browne who is young and healthy.  A senior might well just give up on crossing altogether.

11_13_09_11.jpgIt may be the end of the line, but our friend the bus moves forward.

On the east side of the station, you actually have to cross a lane of traffic to get to a signal-call box.  I’ve never seen that before.

From there, we got back on our bikes and headed west toward Little Tokyo and Union Station.  To summarize our views and impressions:

1) The Gold Line is going to be a positive for the community.  The route was well chosen.

2) Our general concerns with the intersection timing should be addressed across the line by LADOT

3) Metro doesn’t seem ready for the opening.  There was work being done on every station, and sometimes it involved construction equipment.  Maybe by tomorrow it will all be fine, but today it seems not yet ready.

4) There still needs to be a lot of work done around Indiana Station.  The crossing within the station should also be improved somehow.

5) The intersections around Little Tokyo also need to be addressed.  The one at the North side of the station seems particularly dangerous.

6) First could use a bike lane.  It’s wide enough and it’s a good idea to combine modes.

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