LOS ANGELES—When you say, “Don’t worry about me, I’ll just jump on the subway” to someone in El Lay, you get one of the following responses:
“Excuse me, would you repeat that?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you’d already arrived in California.”
“We don’t have a subway.”
“Nobody rides the subway.”
“Are you crazy?”
“You’ll get stabbed.”
“The subway doesn’t go anywhere.”
“Good luck with that.”
Suggesting you’ll be using Los Angeles mass transit—much less only mass transit during an extended stay in Southern California—ranks right up there with “I love Justin Bieber” as a phrase guaranteed to isolate you socially from everyone you meet.
I’ve told people that I’ll be taking the train into town from LAX—thereby sparing that person from the two-hour reality-show episode called “Picking You Up From the Airport”—only to have the native Angeleno say, “There is no train from the airport.”
Let me repeat that. They’re not telling me that they never take the train from the airport. They’re not telling me it’s a bad train or a slow train or an infrequently scheduled train. They’re denying the existence of any train at all. It’s happened more than once.
I say, “Do I need to send you the Internet link that tells you how to catch the shuttle to the Green Line?”
I realize it’s confusing, because the train station there is called “Aviation/LAX Station.” Unless you know what that means, you would never know that it’s the train station at the frigging airport.
Even worse than someone who has lived in Los Angeles for forty years and still has no idea that a train exists is someone who sort of half-remembers some information about a train from ten years ago that kind of maybe got built. Then you’re likely to get advice like, “Yeah, but they haven’t activated those stops yet. Those are just bus lanes.”
In which case you have to tell them that you’ve already taken the train three or four times and there were no buses in sight.
“Yeah, but that train doesn’t go anywhere. It just goes, like, to Compton.”
And then you have to tell them that, no, it will take me to the Blue Line, which will go straight north into downtown, where I can take the Purple Line out Wilshire or the Red Line into Hollywood or the Orange Line up over the mountains to Van Nuys. Or if I want to change at Union Station, I could get the Metrolink to San Bernardino or Lancaster or Oceanside. Or if I got really carried away, I could get the Amtrak to San Diego or Santa Barbara or Bakersfield. So starting down this Green Line journey is pretty much the opposite of the concept of “That train doesn’t go anywhere.”
“OK, the trains will be empty, though.”
No, actually, the Blue Line between downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach, to use one example, is almost always full.
“OK then, the trains will be dangerous.”
Well, uh, as a person who has ridden trains all over the world, I think the danger level would be described as maybe a “1” on a scale of 10. There are so many transit employees, vendors, and crowds of people that a mugging would be virtually impossible. The people on California trains are, in fact, a little too talkative—you can put that Kindle away—but it’s not menacing talk at all. It’s sort of, “Hey, man, you got smokes?”
Normally I wouldn’t make a big deal about people being space cadets—I’m not a car-hater and I couldn’t care less what transportation choice people make—but we’re talking about the city where people gripe about traffic all the time. New York has equally bad traffic, but it’s not that hot a topic of conversation since it’s assumed that you made that choice for yourself. You chose to get up early, take the Garden State to the Jersey Turnpike, then sit in the Holland Tunnel bottleneck and pay eight bucks for the privilege of driving your car into Manhattan so you can put it in the forty-dollar-a-day parking garage. The reason you’re not gonna gripe that much about how bad the various traffic situations were is that people already know what a douche you are since you could have gotten there quicker and with less hassle on the train.
In Los Angeles it’s the opposite. The person who takes the train is the douche. And if anyone ever philosophizes about the subject, it’s to say something like, “Mass transit is no good for Southern California. It’s a car culture.”
Well, yeah, because people choose to ignore the multi-billion-dollar train and bus system that was built in the eighties and nineties. Los Angeles, like most big cities, became excited about mass transit in the seventies, got a boatload of money from Washington, and built a system that was pretty much operable by the year 2000. For a city with the kind of sprawl that El Lay has, it’s pretty amazing. I’ve used it. It works. Why does everyone deny that it exists?
Not that it doesn’t have major holes in it. For example, the most annoying traffic corridors are the ones that run east-west from downtown and Hollywood—Santa Monica Boulevard, Wilshire Boulevard, and Sunset Boulevard. And these are the corridors the LA master planners chose not to address in the subway system. The Purple Line runs from Union Station out Wilshire Boulevard and then stops dead at Western Avenue for some reason. Unless you’re going to Koreatown, the line is worthless. All they would have to do is extend it through West LA and Beverly Hills to Santa Monica and there would be mass celebrations by millions of William Morris agents, not to mention Wolfgang Puck, for taking all those Bentley-obstructing cars off the streets. As it is, the Purple Line is like a shuttle to the Wiltern Theatre, which I’m sure is very convenient for the manager of Tears for Fears.
There are other oddities. On certain lines, the train actually stops for cars. I know there are trolleys that stop for cars in most major world cities, but this is the same high-speed train that’s zooming underground in the downtown and Hollywood areas, then suddenly it becomes the equivalent of a 1938 streetcar? Trains should always have the right-of-way over cars. That’s sort of the point of being a train.
Another strange decision is the building of stations that are on concrete platforms several miles above the street. Most cities in the world have been trying to get rid of elevated train tracks for about, oh, a hundred years now. They disrupt neighborhoods, they’re eyesores, and they discourage commerce because there’s no place to put your newsstand, your Snapple kiosk, or your Pakistani lottery vendor. Elevated transit stations always end up with broken-down elevators, pissing off the handicapped, besides just being these imposing Roman aqueducts that nobody wants to climb up on in the first place. Los Angeles should have plenty of railroad right-of-way—it was laid out by Huntington and Stanford and all the other West Coast robber barons—but they seem bent on running the trains right down the middle of the freeway corridors, requiring you in some cases to clamber up into a scary-looking steel-and-concrete monkey-bar industrial maze that looks like something left over from an old episode of Mannix.
Still, the rail system is there, and if you combine it with state-of-the-art buses that are so sleek and quiet and cool that you’re likely to fall asleep in them, it can get you anywhere you need to go.
Three weeks ago Los Angeles announced to the world that they were about to face “Carmageddon.” The 405 Freeway was being shut down for construction at Mulholland Drive and so the world was going to end. These were similar to the apocalyptic reports we get in New York whenever President Obama comes to town and a bunch of streets and highways have to be closed down. And those reports always end with, “Alternate routes would be the 4 train, the B train, the PATH from Jersey City, or…”—you get the idea. And so “Carmageddon” was about to take place, and for some reason this was a worldwide story because I’m hearing these traffic reports on the opposite coast, and yet no one is saying, “So the alternate routes, according to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, will be the following extra express bus routes and more frequent rail departures throughout the western half of the county on the following lines….” Which would be, like, the sort of “duh” thing to do. Yes, you would have to take east-west routes and then cross the Santa Monica Mountains at some other canyon. You would have to go out of your way. But there was no mention of that sort of adjustment.
Instead, people were being told to stay home.
Now. The only reason people would be told to stay home is that the city’s leaders—the people who presumably approved the funds for the excellent mass-transit system and built it to its present state—are the same people who say, “The train doesn’t go to the airport.” I know it’s hard to believe, but what other explanation could there be? Nobody needed to stay home. You would only think that if you were proceeding from the assumption that there is no alternative to car travel. It’s like the entire city grew so enamored of medical marijuana that they forgot they have trains and buses. Then, when they occasionally remember that they do have a mass-transit system, they invent phantom criminals who are getting ready to reenact The Taking of Pelham 123, only worse because Denzel Washington is not here to save us. Actually, the most sinister thing that happens on the Blue Line is illegal Snickers sales, no doubt terrifying the first-time riders cutting the umbilical cord that ties them to Bel Air.
Which is fine with me, because I can stretch out on the shuttle on my way to the secret LAX Station.
Actually, on this trip, I’ll be leaving from Burbank Airport instead of LAX, a decision that causes my friend to apologize for not being available that day to take me to the airport because…
I interrupted. “The train goes there, too.”
“But I looked on the map.”
“It’s a different train. It’s the Metrolink.”
Los Angeles people, listen up. If you ever need to get anywhere fast, whether you’re in the Valley or South Central or Santa Monica or Long Beach or downtown, just email me. I’ll be in Greenwich Village and I’ll tell you which train or bus to take.
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