As the Metro Gold Line’s sleek train approaches Union Station, the east-bound passengers waiting on the platform come to attention. Giggling teenage girls with studded lips and bright fuscia hair stop smacking their chewing gum. A young guy, shaking his head to the sound of his earphones, grips his skateboard more tightly to his chest. Another man, jeans splattered with white paint, firmly guides his bicycle. A woman in an electric wheelchair moves forward down the platform. They are all headed East.
The view from the station is so clear after recent rains that the details of every sight seem to shimmer. It’s the perfect day to be on the street, not in a car, beholding Los Angeles from a new perspective.
The Gold Line light-rail extension opened in November 2009 and includes eight stops. The route travels almost entirely at street level through the Little Tokyo/Arts District area and Boyle Heights to the far side of Unincorporated East Los Angeles, a total of six miles on a 29-minute trip. The original Gold Line portion, constructed in 2003, runs from Pasadena to Union Station, including a stop in Highland Park close to Oxy.
At a cost of $898 million, the Gold Line light-rail extension is the city’s latest effort to enhance public transportation in a city where urban sprawl generates daunting transportation challenges. But will new public transportation options help Oxy students to venture from their protective college oasis and explore their city? Students will probably continue to rely on cars regardless of public transportation advances. But the new Gold Line Extension offers one more opportunity to leave Oxy’s bubble and experience the city near its eastern border, exploring unknown culture and interacting with eastside Angelenos and their neighborhoods.
Beginning in 1990, the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (also called “Metro”) has constructed five light-rail lines extending to Long Beach, the South Bay, Hollywood and Koreatown. Next, an extension to Culver City will be completed, and plans have been approved for a “Subway to the Sea.”
After five years of construction, opening day community celebrations for the officially titled “Edward R. Roybal Metro Gold Line Eastside Extension” commemorated the first operating rail between Downtown and East L.A. since 1963, when the streetcar system was dismantled in favor of highways. Though he died before its completion, Roybal, a Boyle Heights native, was a major proponent of the extension.
Many celebrate new rail as a sign of civic progress. However, there has been criticism of Metro’s transit planning. LA Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote, “I like trains and wish we could go on forever laying down more tracks. But rail is the most expensive transit to build. And in a horizontal city, it’s hard to imagine Westsiders, in particular, getting out of their cars unless their homes and offices are within two blocks of a train station and there’s a Starbucks along the way.”
Not just Westsiders, but Oxy students too might be disappointed to find that their intended destinations aren’t clustered around one bus or rail stop. Plus, planning a multi-legged trip can be difficult and the Metro website isn’t user-friendly. As well, using public transportation means losing the comforts of a private storage space (the car trunk) and a personal music hall (the car stereo), as well as the freedom to change plans along the way.
Aaron Stark’s (’12) experience at Oxy’s 2008 Multicultural Summer Institute illustrates one problem with using public transportation. Taking bus and rail for a field trip to the California African American Museum just south of Downtown from Oxy took an hour and a half. Stark thought it was valuable to learn about public transportation and interact with the community beyond Oxy. But when asked if he would do it again, he said, “Absolutely not. I would drive. That was far, and we didn’t have much time to enjoy the museum.” According to the Oxy website, two-thirds of students on campus have cars, so automobile transportation is often an option.
When the Gold Line first opened in 2003 and ran just between Downtown and Pasadena, Oxy experimented with a shuttle program to the Highland Park station. It was soon discontinued due to low ridership, said Oxy Director of Communications Jim Tranquada.
Director of Student Life Tamara Rice realizes that public transportation in LA is not used as widely as it is in other American metropolises, especially when alternate forms of transportation are available. For Oxy students, the Zipcar rental service could be available as soon as next semester. (Zipcar has partnered with over 30 colleges and universities to provide their car sharing service on or near campus, according to their website.) Even so, Rice sees the Gold Line as a way for students to “get out and see L.A. in a cost-efficient way.”
The Office of Student Life typically relies on Bengal Buses for its programming rather than the Metro, but that could change if students are interested in programming that uses public transportation. OSL Programming Assistant Gabriela Ochoa (’12) said that the office is discussing ways to encourage students to use public transportation. One idea is to use the Gold Line to expand on a walking tour of local art galleries. “There are so many stores, museums, galleries, and more that are just a bus or train ride away,” Ochoa said. “Programming events using public transportation would allow students to get off campus and explore L.A.”
In particular, the Gold Line extension provides a convenient way to explore two of L.A.’s most diverse and historic communities.
Just one stop past Union Station is the Little Tokyo/Arts District Station. Although many Japanese residents have moved to other areas of the city, Little Tokyo continues to prosper as one of three remaining Japantowns on the West Coast.
“Little Tokyo is one of the great strengths of Los Angeles, a historic Japanese American district that is still a thriving center for culture, restaurants, and shopping,” said Asian Studies Professor Morgan Pitelka. He recommends to students the area’s Japanese museums and theaters as well as “amazing and affordable” food options, saying, “If you haven’t been to Daikokuya Ramen yet, you haven’t tasted L.A. The Gold Line stop is a great resource for the whole city to get to know Little Tokyo.”
Adjacent to Little Tokyo is Downtown’s Arts District, a small neighborhood that was once an industrial center. Today it is home to lofts and studios, a handful of funky restaurants and the Southern California Institute of Architecture.
The corazón of Latino L.A. is the Eastside, an unofficially defined area that most Angelenos consider the communities east of the L.A. River including Boyle Heights and Unincorporated East L.A. (The term “East L.A.” breeds confusion as it can refer to the general east Los Angeles area, or the formal unincorporated area of East L.A. As an unincorporated area, East L.A. is governed by the County Board of Supervisors and receives its public services from the County, rather than the City of Los Angeles.)
The Eastside has traditionally been an immigrant hub. In the 1900s Jewish and Japanese populations dominated the Boyle Heights and East L.A., areas that included a variety of ethnic groups. Serbian, Catholic, Jewish and Chinese cemeteries as well as Buddhist churches (all visible from the Gold Line) reflect the past.
Today, Boyle Heights and East L.A. are close to 100 percent Latino, according the 2000 Census. Appropriately, the Gold Line has a Spanish translation – La línea de oro – the first time ever that the name of a Metro facility, rail or bus line has been officially translated.
The Eastside may feel familiar to Oxy students because of its similarity to Eagle Rock. Both areas have a significant Latino population, immigrant-run mom-and-pop shops, auto mechanics, taco eateries, small markets and stucco bungalows.
The Eastside deserves student attention because it is “often neglected or invisible in people’s perception of the city,” said English and Comparative Literary Studies Professor Raul Villa. Of course, he was quick to note that many other traditionally neglected neighborhoods – South L.A., for example – also merit student interest. “But why not put this area into the mix?” he asked, citing Eastside’s interesting art, food and historic neighborhoods as reasons to explore.
The Eastside also features a population that relies on public transportation. According to the Gold Line extension’s “Purpose and Need Report,” about 20 percent of Eastside workers use the bus system to get to work (at locations scattered around the city), compared to only 6.5 percent in L.A. County. Officials project a daily ridership of 13,000 on the Gold Line by the end of its first year.
Demographic statistics of the Gold Line Extension aren’t yet available from Metro, but other sources suggest that ridership is diverse, though mainly low-income members of L.A.’s working class.
“Many socioeconomically disadvantaged folks use or are forced to use public transportation as their main mode of transport,” said Rosny Daniel (’09). As the MSI student director in 2008, Daniel helped orchestrate an extensive trip using public transportation. The goal was for students to see L.A. from a new perspective.
Daniel said, “When someone has to learn what it is like to wait for the bus, not have anywhere to sit, have to walk far, and try to do daily things like buy groceries or go to the drug store using the bus or train, they will be more aware of how difficult it can be for those folks who have to do it.”
That was Daniel’s first experience with public transportation in L.A. Now he commutes on the Blue Line from Long Beach to L.A. three times a week. Though he recognizes the challenges, he encourages Oxy students to try public transportation, saying, “You can save money on gas and parking, get a little taste of authentic L.A., and cut down on the terrible stress of driving.” Daniel also notes that public transportation could help L.A. to be “user-friendly” by lessening congestion and environmental hazards.
Politics Professor Regina Freer encourages public transportation as well. “I want students to recognize that they’re in one of the largest, most diverse cities in the world,” she said. “You can’t see that from Oxy, you can’t even see that from Fiji hill.”
Another reason to value the Gold Line is offered by LA Times columnist Hector Tobar: “Los Angeles is shrinking.” Despite the billions of dollars spent on public transit in L.A., Tobar believes each extension helps to “make our sprawling city smaller,” making the role of “city-adventurer” available to all. He concludes, “you never know what you’ll find at the next station.”