TOKYO — Fourteen months ago, the Metro’s Expo Line train began service between downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) and Santa Monica. It got a lot of media coverage, and rightfully so. Given the choice between the stress of driving on the 10 Freeway between the two destinations during rush hour or taking a leisurely ride on a train seemed like a no-brainer. Take a nap. Read the paper. Check email. The train seemed like the way to go.
Even though the Santa Monica-DTLA connection was a great news hook, the Expo Line had been actually running between Culver City and DTLA for years.
With Southern California automobile traffic more congested than ever, the reality of being able to commute the 15 miles on a train from the Westside to DTLA or vice-versa — and all points in between — seemed too good to be true.
Well, the ride part was true. The good part, I’m not so sure.
To be fair, published reports have the Expo Line ridership beating projections. The route has proved to be so popular and successful that the interval between trains went to every six minutes from every 12 minutes.
When I started working in Little Tokyo last fall, I was very interested in taking the Expo Line to get there. I wasn’t, however, commuting to downtown from Santa Monica, even though I used to live there well before the Expo Line reached that far.
I was actually commuting from Culver City. In theory, at that time, it appeared to be perfect, especially since there was a big park-and-ride lot at the Culver City station, where you could park your car all day for free. I took the Expo Line nearly every day for several months.
I had, however, experience riding trains in Japan. My memories of Japan’s timely, clean, safe and efficient train system must have colored my expectations for the Expo Line; it just seemed inferior to how trains worked in Japan. Was my memory playing tricks on me?
Well, I’ve been riding a lot of trains in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area the last few days and my memory was not playing tricks on me. Tokyo trains beat L.A. trains — the Expo Line, anyway — in nearly every way.
Payment methods: In L.A., you may use a TAP card to pay your fare, and it works with trains and with many municipal buses. It’s a reusable plastic “smart” card that you can preload money into and when you board the bus or enter the train station, you “tap” the card on a sensor that deducts the fare. Japan’s similar system is the PASMO, which is also a smart card that allows you to preload it with money for commuting. But I also used it to purchase groceries, coffee (at some Starbucks) and restaurant food. Can’t do that with the TAP card. Winner: PASMO.
Speed: I’m jumping ahead here and have to admit that I quit taking the Expo Line, choosing to drive instead. For a number of reasons, when traveling the same distance, car vs. train, the Expo Line is slower. One reason is that the trains don’t always get priority over car traffic, and can be victimized by the same traffic woes that cars face. Japanese trains, meantime, get priority when crossing streets with cars.
Not only that, many Japanese train lines have express or semi-express trains that stop only at selected stations. I think there are 19 stops along the Expo Line, and the train stops at every one. It’d be great if there were, interspersed among the trains that stop at each station, an express train that stopped at five or six stations. I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.
Meantime, driving a car in rush hour is a stress-inducing chore. But by using a combination of surface streets and the freeway, it is quicker. Winner: Driving.
Safety, Cleanliness, Fellow Commuters and Amenities: I never witnessed any crime or violence while riding the Expo Line. But news reports had someone getting stabbed in the neck in Santa Monica while riding the Expo Line on Dec. 15, 2016, after a fight. Before that, on Oct. 4, 2016, sheriff’s deputies shot a man who lunged at them with a knife, also in Santa Monica. (There have also been reports that crime has increased 5.5 percent in Santa Monica since the Expo Line reached that city, but that’s another topic.)
Until recently, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department provided security for all the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s trains; now, police from Long Beach and Los Angeles City have taken over in their respective jurisdictions. This happened since I quit taking the Expo Line, but when I was riding, I wish there had been more uniformed cops on the trains, just to keep the jokers in check.
Likewise, I’ve never witnessed any crime or violence riding on trains in Japan. Doesn’t mean it never happens. But I’m a lot more relaxed riding trains in Japan than riding the Expo Line, where I’m just a lot warier. (It goes without saying that crime rates in Japan are far lower than in the U.S.)
Maybe it’s partly because some riders simply don’t know how to behave on a train — smoking (not just cigarettes), talking on the phone, playing loud music through the phone’s speaker, plus peddlers hawking snacks, beggars hitting you up for money — it’s just unpleasant.
Then there are the people who bring their bikes on the train — too bad if a tire leaves a skid mark on the pant leg of your business attire. (Can’t there be a train car just for people with bicycles?)
The other thing that gets me: the people who think the station’s stairs are chairs. With hundreds of people walking through, why in the world are there people who think it’s OK to block foot traffic by sitting on the steps? (And who in their right mind would sit on those filthy stairs in the first place?)
Meantime, the Expo Line trains are plain unclean — grimy, grungy and sometimes graffiti’d. And why does the cellular signal disappear? Everyone uses a smartphone now, but once you’re underground, the signal dies. No one thought to make the signal available underground? I’ve been carrying a pocket hotspot with me here in Japan and I’ve never lost the signal, even when underground.
Speaking of unclean, a lot of the trains and the stations smell. The 7th Street/Metro Center station, for example, always has a weird, unidentifiable, almost mechanical stink to it. Never experienced that in Japan. Winner: Japan.
Cost: This one has always gotten me: If I ride from Santa Monica to DTLA, the one-way fare is $1.75. If I ride from Jefferson/USC to 7th Street/Metro Center — a much shorter distance — it’s also $1.75. I guess it’s the first-class postage stamp pricing method, where the cost is the same if I’m sending a letter to Nome, Alaska or my next-door neighbor.
In Japan on trains (and buses), the farther you ride, the more you pay. Postage is one thing, but paying the same for different distances? That makes zero sense to me.
But the real deal-killer for the Expo Line and me, with regard to money, came when the Culver City parking lot closed back in February. Free parking was no more. There were some options, where you could park for $3 a day at a nearby structure. Let’s see — my roundtrip on the Expo Line is already $3.50. Now add $3 to park my car near home and it’s $6.50 a day to go to work.
However, if I drive to work, I’m just paying $4 a day to park if I use a 10-hour meter in the Little Tokyo-adjacent Arts District. Yes, there’s wear-and-tear, fuel (except I drive an EV) and insurance I’m paying for anyway. Taking the Expo Line just started costing too much.
As an aside, there is the parking structure at La Cienega and Jefferson boulevards, also $3 a day. I tried that once — and maybe it’s since changed — but trying to exit by making a left onto La Cienega, the oncoming traffic is nonstop. And, even more difficult is making a left onto La Cienega and then trying to get all the way over to make a left onto Jefferson. Nearly impossible. Did anyone in a decision-making capacity actually try exiting from that structure? Something tells me no. Loser: Expo Line/Metro.
Years ago, punk rock band the Clash had a song titled “Train in Vain.” My experience gives that a whole different meaning.
Stonebridge Rhythm and Blues Fest Dept.: Speaking of music, no, the Clash is not part of this weekend’s Stonebridge Rhythm and Blues Fest on Sunday, July 23, at the Redondo Performing Art Center. To see the current lineup, order tickets or get more info, visit http://tinyurl.com/ktdoebg and be sure to use the promo code “rafu” for a 10 percent discount.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.