By Matthew Fleming, May 17, 2014
Commuters on the Gold Line pass by a series of parked train cars as the
metro rail makes its way towards Chinatown on Wednesday.
One of the first lessons I learned when I moved to Los Angeles from
Washington, D.C., was I didn’t have to sacrifice my experience riding
the Metro system.
It took only three trips on the L.A. Metro to
learn it’s just as good as the one in D.C. I’d ridden all my life. That
D.C. Metro has built a venerable reputation worldwide for its ability to
move people around.
Here, I’ve mostly heard complaints: the L.A. Metro doesn’t go anywhere; no one uses it; it’s awful.
Truth is, people who say that don’t know just how good they’ve got it.
no surprise that art is a big difference between L.A. and D.C. The art
at L.A.’s stations is amazing. Each is unique. From random mannequins
hanging from the ceiling, to mosaic benches and an artistic bazaar in
between, L.A stations are far more aesthetically pleasing then D.C.’s
brown and gray tunnels.
L.A.’s stations are like a hip spot;
D.C.’s feel like the underground world from the movie “Demolition Man.”
D.C. is a pretty uptight place.
But what D.C. loses in style points for it’s lack of station decor, it makes up for with its Metro drivers.
automated voice informs riders what the next destination is in L.A.,
but in D.C., this job is done live, and no two drivers are the same.
Some talk really fast, some have a broken mic, some are peppy, some
sound sad. Occasionally, you get one that’s not afraid to show some
During rush hour one time, I remember a D.C. driver saying “there’s
another train directly behind this one. You don’t need to pack into this
one. Seriously. It’s coming. You can trust me. Yes, I’m talking to
One distinct advantage D.C. has is
cellphone service at underground stations. It could just be that my
carrier doesn’t get a signal down there; it has certainly let me down
before. Regardless, there was no signal.
Fare Evasion and Enforcement
Metro makes sure you pay for your rides. There are turnstiles that
allow access upon payment. It’s a pretty standard system.
through without paying, you’d have to either follow someone closely
through or jump the turnstiles – difficult since the turnstile is
hip-high and there are usually Metro employees at the gate.
much of L.A. seems like an honor system. Some stations have turnstiles,
but they don’t appear to lock. I don’t know for sure, since I now have a
Pavlovian response whenever I see a turnstile. In D.C., you know your
card didn’t work, because you’ll walk into a locked turnstile and bruise
your hip bone.
In L.A., a sheriff’s deputy checks each tap card
with his or her phone. If someone hasn’t tapped, then that person
receives a $75 ticket, as happened with one lady in my car.
to a combination of a rapidly expiring tap card balance, my lack of
experience riding the subway, and an unwillingness to figure out the
proper procedures, I would have certainly been fined near the end of my
journey had I been asked to provide proof of tap.
On a recent trip to the Valley, I evaded fare accidentally. At the North
Hollywood station was a sheriff deputy. I wasn't near him, so he didn't
check my card, and I didn’t realize the inconspicuous pedestal where I
was supposed to tap. Honestly, in the bus-boarding melee, I didn’t even
think to pay and didn’t realize what happened until much further along
into the trip.
All of this could be avoided with turnstiles.
deputies do make me feel safer, though. Neither Metro system has a big
crime problem. Both systems’ crime rates are less than 1 incident per
100,000 boardings. I never felt threatened on the L.A. metro. But I did
feel safer with the occasional deputy’s presence. D.C. doesn’t have a
The lack of turnstiles and the
presence of sheriffs highlight another difference: If you have to
transfer in L.A., you’re going to pay. D.C. has a minimum fare of
between $1.70 and $2.10 depending on time of day, but total cost is
determined by final destination.
On a trip to Redondo Beach, I
needed two transfers one way – I avoided a transfer on the way home.
Some of this could be attributed to rookie mistakes, but I had no idea
how much transfers cost. I just kept tapping away as if they were free –
which I thought they were. By the end of the trip, I think I spent
about $17, although I have no way of knowing since I never saw a balance
at any point throughout my trip.
I have since learned that
transfers cost $1.50 each. And the savvy metro rider purchases daily,
weekly or monthly passes that allows for her or him to not get double
To sum up about cost: D.C. has a maximum of $5.75 per
ride. L.A. charges $5 for a day pass. The advantage goes to L.A, but I
think too much institutional knowledge is required.
Truth is, the subway works great if it’s
convenient. I don’t ride the Metro, because the two offices I go to are
located at the two closest Metro stops to my apartment. I’m walking
The L.A. system is reliant on buses to offset the
limitations of station location, which is something few people want to
deal with. There are a lot of commonly traveled places that are
inaccessible by the subway.
As I got out of the train at the
Redondo Beach station, I realized that the Metro station is not near the
beach and is instead in an office park. I was expecting more water. Or
some water. And some sand. But it’s about 2 miles from the water.
This is not a problem for just L.A.
is one of the most desirable places to go in D.C., mainly for the
shopping. But there’s no Metro stop there. Actually, there isn’t one in
the next best shopping site, either, Tyson’s Corner, Va., although one
will be opening soon. There’s a lot of great shopping in L.A. that the
subway can't seem to find.
If you live near a
station, so you don’t have to park, and you are going somewhere that’s
also near a station, Metro is really helpful.
Only the ends of
the line have parking in D.C. I haven’t seen any parking lots at stops
in L.A., although I think I saw one in the Valley, and there could be
Even if parking is provided, it comes at an additional
cost. It costs $5 per entry in D.C., so a commuter could spend around
$10 round trip on an average day. I don’t know the cost to park in L.A.,
having never seen a Metro-specific parking lot. But day parking will
cost anywhere from $6-$10.
Once I get to the L.A. station, I’m
reminded of a more subtle difference. It’s more of an insider-type
difference, yet one that every Washingtonian would notice.
a local custom in D.C. that you do not, under any circumstances, ever,
for any reason, ever, ever, stand on the left side of an escalator.
L.A., it’s more of an anything-goes-type situation. People standing on
the left and passing on the right. Or standing on both sides creating a
back up. It’s pandemonium. Did I mention that D.C. is uptight?
Everything is always under repair in D.C. I’ve been told that L.A. has a lot of repairs, but so far I haven’t seen many.
D.C., I’ve seen a supposed fix of a door, which used two plastic trash
bags tied together. One end of the plastic bag rope was connected to a
door handle to keep it closed, the other end was connected to a metal
beam inside the frame of the adjacent wall, accessed through a hole in
the drywall. This lasted for several months.
D.C., it’s not uncommon to spend your ride mired in frustration over of
being jammed into a car, face-to-face with a total stranger, with one
selfish person holding up the train by squeezing in as the doors try to
On another trip through the Valley, it was crowded 90
minutes before rush hour. It was 3:30 in the afternoon and it was
standing-room only. Pretty busy for a system that I’d heard no one uses.
This problem is worse on a rainy day in D.C., when riders are
less likely to walk anywhere – it’s like the Hunger Games trying to
board a train.
Speaking of uptight, there is an annoying trend
in D.C. of people listening to songs without headphones. It’s tough to
explain why exactly this is annoying, but it is, even if I like the
song. I didn’t think this happened in L.A.
I was wrong.
also thought that only in D.C. would there be people rapping to
themselves, but not really keeping it to themselves, with no music and
Again, I was wrong.
It’s not uncommon to
find people outside a D.C. station playing a random assortment of
buckets arranged like a drum set. It’s actually pretty cool and is
derived from Gogo music, native to D.C. and an acquired taste.
past Willowbrook, I saw a man selling candy bars on the train. I’ve
never seen that in D.C., which surprises me. It’s actually not a bad
Transferring to the Orange
Line at North Hollywood felt like a bait and switch. It’s not a train,
it’s a bus. It is unencumbered by traffic on a dedicated road, but it
still is at the mercy of traffic lights. My trip down the Orange Line
ended in Reseda, for no other reason than I felt satisfied with the
answer “Yes, this is all that’s going to happen.”
Satisfied with the conclusion that the L.A. Metro is at least as good as D.C’s, I headed back downtown.
Three more questions for Art Leahy
When we we be able to get to LAX on the Metro? So
we have two things going on: We have the airport looking at the
development of a People Mover and we have Metro looking at the Crenshaw
Line. In December, Metro and LAWA (Los Angeles World Airports) met
together to talk about different options, and we’re in the joint
planning phase. I hope that by the end of the year we come to some
And then we’d start doing project development which
will probably take several years. So I don’t think we’re going to have
the connection done in two years, but when the Crenshaw Line opens up in
four years, by then we’ll have a pretty good idea of what we’re going
to do, so we could begin construction reasonably soon after that.
been talk of rate increases. How are those justified when so many
stations are on the honor system, which seems to promote fare evasion? About
four years ago, we began to install turnstiles at the bigger stations.
We've also directed the sheriff to increase the amount of fare
inspections to make sure that everybody is paying. Even if we had no
fare evasion, we would still need a fare increase. Our fares are too low
against the cost of the system. It will still be amongst the very
lowest in the big cities in the world.
Our current system
does not permit transfers. Part of the fare proposal is to permit
transfers. What we want is for bus lines and rail lines to work together
as one system. When you don't permit transfers, you're combating the
ability of people to use it as one system, which is simply not
reasonable. So we do have low fares, and we'll continue to have low
fares, and we'll offer the additional significant benefit of transfers.
What other improvements are coming up for MTA? Several
things. First of all, the Gold Line in the San Gabriel Valley will open
up in about 18 or 20 months – it will go all the way out to Azusa. The
Expo Line, which will run out to Santa Monica, will also open in about
18 to 20 months.
In the next few weeks, we're going to have a
grant for the subway to La Cienega. We'll award the contract this summer
sometime, and we'll be under construction later this year.
We'll be under construction on Crenshaw – the subway and the regional
connector – that will hook up the lines on the Eastside, Pasadena and
East L.A., with the lines on the Westside and Long Beach.
buying 550 new clean-air buses – we've just received a delivery. They
have improved safety features and accessibility for wheelchair
In addition to that, we're buying $1.5 billion of new rail cars, so that they can run the lines that I've just described.
investing substantial sums of money in reducing maintenance. When I
arrived here, I discovered a fair amount of deferred maintenance on
signal systems and power distribution and landscaping, so we're going
back systematically to correct those defects.