The Problem With the Metro Blue/Expo Light Rail Is… Cars

Can you spot the Expo Line train waiting behind all those cars downtown? Capture from Streetsfilms
Can you spot the Expo Line train waiting behind all those cars downtown? Capture from Streetsfilms

Streetfilms and TransitCenter were in Los Angeles a couple weeks ago riding Metro’s rail lines, and interviewing livability experts on what’s working here and what isn’t. Below is the first short documentary to come from that visit.

The Streetfilm features some of Streetsblog’s favorite L.A. transportation experts: Curbed’s Alissa Walker, and UCLA’s Juan Matute and Michael Manville.

The experts shed light on a big problem with Metro light rail lines. As Walker puts it, “the problem with mass transit in Los Angeles is cars.”

Both the Blue and Expo Lines move at fairly high speeds where they are on their own dedicated rail rights-of-way, but, as they get into downtown Los Angeles, they run at-grade on streets. There they compete with lots of car traffic, and their speeds decrease a great deal. Specifically, as Manville states:

You get into that [downtown] area, and suddenly there’s a dispute over who’s going to have priority. I think, in a real way, in that fight, the transit line lost. Because the Blue Line and the Expo Line, not only do they have to circumnavigate with each other, but now you’re in a congested urban environment and the cars, in a real way, do have priority.

This has been very clear on the Blue and Expo lines, but it also applies to the Orange Line and parts of the Gold Line – and probably the planned Van Nuys Blvd line.

Metro board and staff are aware of the issue. In early 2017, the board passed a motion directing staff to improve Expo/Blue speed and reliability, especially along the at-grade portion downtown. The motion directs Metro staff to evaluate and implement short-term improvements “including but not limited to signal optimization, signal priority, signal preemption, and consideration of street closures” as well as studying long-term improvements such as grade separation.

Thanks to the board’s push and Metro staff’s hard work, some short-term improvements have been implemented. A new gate-arm was installed to keep scofflaw drivers from repeatedly crashing into trains when illegally turning left from Flower Street onto the 10 Freeway on-ramp. Internally, Metro improved reliability by improving operational procedures at 7th Street, adding new rail cars, and cross-training Blue/Expo operators.

But why not give a train, carrying hundreds of people, priority over a car, which typically carries one person?

Part of Metro’s answer is that streets and signal prioritization are not entirely in its control. Metro runs the trains, and must negotiate with local cities for how streets will operate.

Prior to the arrival of its current General Manager Seleta Reynolds, the city of L.A. Transportation Department (LADOT) was more-or-less hostile to transit operations that would impact car through-put. Under Reynolds, LADOT is more open to supporting transit operations, but getting Metro and DOT to work together to improve transit is not easy.

In 2014, there appeared to be a political and staff consensus that it was time to speed up the Orange Line BRT even if it meant very minor delays to drivers. Despite a push by City Councilmember and Metro Boardmember Paul Krekorian, those Orange Line improvements never materialized. (Perhaps they will be rolled into Metro’s planned Orange Line gates and bridge project, anticipated circa 2025.)

In 2019, as part of the “New Blue” Blue Line rehabilitation project, basically each half of the Blue Line will be shut down for six months so that the line can be brought into a state of good repair and some capital improvements can be completed. The major capital project will be the Willowbrook/Rosa Parks station overhaul. There are also a couple of improvements that will help with Blue/Expo reliability downtown: 7th Street station crossover tracks and an upgrade to the Washington/Flower wye junction.

Why not implement more improvements downtown? At least as of February, Metro staff stated that they will be working with LADOT to finalize projects under consideration for the Blue Line’s at-grade stretches in downtown L.A.

If you ride the Blue and Expo Lines, then now is the time to make some noise and let your city council, your mayor, and your Metro board representatives know that the train should have priority. The New Blue shutdown presents an opportune time to implement improvements.

  • JarekFA

    so is the issue that at signalized intersection Metro has to wait for the light cycle to change? They lights don’t automatically change for them? That’s kinda fucked up.

    They don’t get stuck behind single occupancy vehicles in traffic though like the bus, right?

  • LazyReader

    So the issue is cars….groundbreaking research.

    In the Washington Post, Los Angeles opened an extension of the Expo light-rail line in 2016 that cost a mere $2.43 billion. With that extension, weekday ridership on the line grew from 46,000 to 64,000 trips. It would sound impressive….What the Post fails to mention is what’s happened to bus ridership. The growth in the citie’s rail ridership more than offset with decrease in bus ridership. Los Angeles has lost almost four bus trips for every new rail trip. That means that, for a mere $37,000 per daily trip ($74,000 per daily round trip), Los Angeles light-rail construction has been getting people off of transit and into cars. That’s bad for transit, but good for the people since the car offer them a lot more mobility. Or better yet, just pay people 37 grand not to ride transit again.

  • Jason

    First paragraph: yes.

    Second paragraph: it’s actually worse because light rail can’t go around track obstructions. Remember what happened on the Expo extension’s very first day?

  • Matt

    The whole line cost $2.3B not just the extension.

  • Matt

    Also, bus ridership fell mostly when illegal immigrants were given licenses and Uber and Lyft came into the picture. No evidence rail caused people not to take transit all of a sudden.

  • The Expo Line opened (to La Cienega) on April 28, 2012

    The Poor-quality junction at Washington and Flower was repaired some time after December 2012:

    Seleta Reynold’s first day at LADOT was August 11, 2014

  • This isn’t a problem with new rail construction. This is a problem with existing and woefully outdated bus route networks not being redesigned when big rail projects and land use changes shift travel patterns.

  • QuestionQue

    Light rail on a dedicated right of way is comfortable while a bus starting and stopping in traffic is miserable. To get people out of their cars charging for parking everywhere is necessary. Customers without cars paying more to shop in order to subsidize parking lots for drivers is unacceptable. There is no such thing as free parking as the costs are passed on to someone.

  • LazyReader

    The cost of parking/etc can come out of the consumer. But this argument that government shouldn’t subsidize cars? Instead they should subsidize transit which the government already does and is failing anyway. Cities spend anywhere from 50 to over 80% of their transportation budgets on transit solely. Transit is a dying industry thanks to overbloated bureaucracy that favors vast capital expenditures instead of simple solutions. Since transit is perceived by most as a moral, societal and
    environmental good, any attempt to curtail it or allow it to expire is
    therefore…immoral, racist, elitist and bad for the environment, blah de
    blah blah. The chief demographic transit was originally meant for,
    the Poor, the Handicapped, the elderly and children. Paratransit
    services have largely outmoded collectivist transit approaches of taking
    care of the elderly and handicapped by offering essentially door to
    door service. Vans can carry children to their afterschool destinations
    and back. And programs aimed at helping poor people buy a car are
    statistically shown to alleviate poverty, because once you have an
    automobile you’re no longer locally geographically bound to a career and
    are free to pursue work or even a new residence elsewhere…which is
    what cities fear most; people fleeing. The automotive revolution and the
    building of the interstate allowed people to leave the geographic
    constraints of cities for better places. Transit is merely the
    methodology of urban planners to re-acclimate people back to urban
    appreciation. They failed.

  • Ben Phelps

    who is this person? Shouldn’t feed the troll but: cars ARE subsidized. Massively. Duh.

    “The chief demographic transit was originally meant for, the Poor, the Handicapped, the elderly and children” categorically untrue. Transit was originally built for the middle to-well off so that they could buy homes in the suburbs and get into town easily. Also visit any city with a well-functioning transit system. It is used by all segments of the population. A transit system that is only used by “the poor” is one that will always be underfunded and see as “failing” by the likes of this troll.

  • I mean, I’d sooner take a train over a bus too, especially if they cost the same. So why are people surprised to see that when LA Metro opened more rail lines, bus ridership fell? Plus, there are now other options to fill that segment of the transportation puzzle.

  • RedMercury

    I’ve gotta admit, this was always one of my grouses with the Blue Line.

    I’d catch it in Long Beach and take the Blue/Green Line out to the airport where I worked. The Green Line was great. But the Blue Line felt like it took forever to get out of downtown Long Beach. At one point, I biked instead of taking the train and it took about 10 minutes longer.

    Hell, it doesn’t have to be buried. I’m fine with putting it in a trench. But the at-grade through busy streets? Pfft.

  • Rores

    Japan’s monorail works well.

  • Jason

    Also the NIMBY riots that occur every time someone even DARES to suggest “stealing lanes from drivers!” by proposing a bus lane.

  • Guy Ross

    I know, I know, ‘DNE’ but c’mon man….

    ‘The chief demographic transit was originally meant for,
    the Poor, the Handicapped, the elderly and children’

    Transit was ‘originally’ designed to get the Petit Bourgeoisie safely and swiftly through cities. The poor were walking.

  • Guy Ross

    When you find out what happened to the ridership on the Los Angeles Railway after the Feds built the Pasadena Freeway in 1940, I think we should stand back as your head explodes.

  • Easy solution for LADOT:

    1) Train approaches intersection.
    2) Traffic signals switch to 4-way flashing red (as is done near many rail road at-grade crossings.
    3) Traffic, including the Metro Light Rail Train, and pedestrians, treat the intersection as a four-way stop.
    4) Train proceeds through intersection and signals return to steady red and then to normal cycle.

    Result, train has to stop, but only for a short period of time (seconds rather than minutes).

    This isn’t rocket science.

  • jcovarru

    Personally, I think they oughta just pony up the money, and grade separate all rail on Flower Street.
    But, if they want don’t want to spend any money at all, they could at least close down Washington between Flower and Grand. After all, that’s where the rail junction is.
    Both rail lines would benefit (no more interaction with cars), and Flower Street drivers would benefit (fewer red lights). And LATTC would gain an expanded footprint, with direct pedestrian connection to the Blue Line.
    Yes, east-west traffic on Washington Blvd would have to be rerouted. I can live with that.

  • ExpoRider

    Its not cars that cause the problems for the light rail lines, it’s the policy of providing preferential treatment to cars over trains.
    Why not allocate green time in proportion to the number of people carried by each mode? That sounds fair, doesn’t it?
    The light rail lines currently use approximately 33 percent of the green time in the peak periods (assuming 40 trains per hour, 30 seconds per train, and no overlap) and 17 percent of the green time during the mid-day.
    By comparison, the Blue and Expo Lines combine to serve approximately 65,000 daily trips through this segment of their alignments, as compared to approximately 35,000 people per day on Washington Boulevard (and far fewer people on other streets, such as Venice and Pico). Under the proposed policy, the light rail lines would be entitled to at least 65 percent of the green time, at least twice as much as they are currently using.

  • Young Thug

    Honestly, it baffles me that the city doesn’t prioritize the most efficient mode of transit. Like there should be an incentive to riding transit, plus this would make getting in and out of downtown not account for 1/3 to 1/4 of your ride.

  • Young Thug

    Yeah, and it’s so unfortunate that they won’t be able to reroute those buses to service other places

  • johnmcnary1
  • Richard Bullington

    Trains (and their riders often) don’t vote. Cars and their drivers somehow seem to.

  • Richard Bullington

    Let’s all block this smug thug. I’ll be the first.

  • Joe Linton

    That must be why L.A. voters keep approving Metro sales tax measures

  • Michael Escobar

    rail should never share grade with auto traffic. there should never be at-grade crossings. why should a transit vehicle that weighs more than 50,000 pounds and can carry more than 50 people have to wait because a solo driver in an automobile disregarded signals and camped out on the tracks waiting for the light to change, or got disoriented and turned onto the track instead of turning onto a cross street? why should any driver or rail passenger get injured as a result of these mistakes, which happen all the time? why should we spend so much money on a rail line, as opposed to putting a bus line in, when the trains will be held hostage by auto traffic?

  • Richard Bullington

    You know why that is: “I’ll vote for this transit levy so that Joe and Tom down the block will take the train and make more room on the freeway for ME!”


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