There’ve recently been a couple of articles in the Los Angeles Times about the various state of local mass transit that have got me thinking. Mehmet Baker‘s “Metro is hemorrhaging riders. It needs to stop studying obvious fixes and start acting” appeared on Sunday, was good but many of the complaints voiced were the sort we’ve heard many times before (and will continue hearing many times yet). Namely, buses don’t come often enough (they don’t), all-door boarding should’ve already happened (it should’ve), cloth seats are disgusting (they are), and Angelenos voted to tax ourselves billions of dollars for improvements but ridership continues to fall because Metro is so slow to implement them (also true).
This morning, the Times published Colleen Shalby‘s “At 80, Union Station tries to reinvent itself for a rail future,” which examined the state of our transit network’s crown jewel. One of the suggestions was that long-time station tenant, Traxx, recently closed because a revitalized Downtown is luring money away from the train station — which seems like a bit of a stretch to me. The reporter also lists the cosmetic improvements taking place — including a sidewalk widening and ceiling cleaning — which, while nice, will probably not impel someone to make a destination of the station.
It seems to me that Union Station is moving in the right direction — albeit not necessarily for the reasons mentioned in Shalby’s piece. Firstly, I suspect that Traxx not because people willing to pay $20 for a Waldorf salad were lured to the nearby Arts District by the lure of food trucks, Saison beers, and games of corn hole — but rather because Traxx no longer enjoyed a monopoly as the only proper restaurant within the station. Gone are the days when it was either a pocket-gouging meal at Traxx — where the menu seemed to be oriented toward people old enough to remember Union Station’s opening day — or a wallet-friendly but stomach-churning meal from Subway or Wetzel’s Pretzels.
Now there are options, including ones that are healthier, tastier, less stuffy, and more affordable. There’s Imperial Western Beer Company, Green Bowl 2 Go, Bread n’ Rice, Barista Society, Ben & Jerry’s, Trimana, T&Y Bakery, and Café Crêpe. The closure of Traxx isn’t a symptom of decline but a sign of Union Station’s return.
Union Station’s changing fortunes are also a reminder of much of what is wrong with the rest of our train stations. Metro is one of Los Angeles’s biggest property owners (and potentially, landlords) and yet it seems only able to think of itself as a transit company. As a transit company, it focuses on cutting costs by cutting services — which makes it less reliable and the last resort. If they improved services, on the other hand, they would attract more riders. No one but trolls committed to “owning libs” by driving the climate into the ground actually wants to drive in a city — but when the alternative is moving in the wrong direction, that is what people will do.
Consider for all of North America‘s train stations which enjoy more usage than Los Angeles Union Station. There’s New York Penn Station, Toronto Union Station, Grand Central Terminal, Jamaica Station, Chicago Union Station, Ogilvie Transportation Center, Newark Penn Station, World Trade Center Station, Hoboken Terminal, Washington Union Station, and 30th Street Station. All are older than Los Angeles’s Union Station with the exception of World Trade Center Station, which was rebuilt because of the 11 September attacks. The next newest station, Newark Penn Station, is 84 years old.
It’s not their age that makes them so popular — although I’m sure some come just to take pictures of their beautiful architecture and design elements. In the US, aesthetic considerations for train stations are generally a thing of the past. Most people come because waiting in them for the next train is still preferable to the freedom afforded by a gridlocked, smoggy freeway commute. This is not the case with most of the train stations operated by Metro and Metrolink — certainly not those built by them.
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is a relatively young organization, having been established in 1993. Our commuter rail system, Metrolink, is just a year older. In 27 years, the two agencies have between them built 154 train stations. 26 more are under construction or in the works. The numbers are impressive but their quality is not. Zero of those stations have public restrooms and so, when passengers can no longer hold it, they’re reduced to urinating in doorways, stairwells, and elevators — and from the smell of it, a great number of them do. Coming from Santa Monica once, I had to disembark to pee in a doorway and then walk home from there because I wouldn’t have been able to make it to Union Station — one of the only stations with a restroom — and I didn’t want to wait another hour for the next bus.
Of course, public restrooms aren’t just places to relieve oneself, they’re also important for maintaining personal hygiene. Riders who can’t wash their hands with soap and water increase the risk of spreading all sorts of infectious bacterial and viral diseases. This is not a new notion. Thousands of years ago the Romans realized that the cost of building and maintaining public baths, toilets, sewers, and fountains was preferable to plagues. Mass transit systems in East Asian cities have in recent years dealt with emerging infectious diseases like Avian flu, SARS, and MERS, in part by prioritizing sanitation whereas most American mass transit networks have opted for an approach best described as “penny wise, pound foolish.”
The few stations which do have public restrooms are those that pre-date both Metro and Metrolink. (e.g. Chatsworth, Glendale, and Pomona stations). Most of the time, however, they are locked, and to use them one must appeal to a security guard’s kindness. Most, having none, will refuse you. A Metro official told me that they don’t build restrooms because of the cost of maintaining them. Imagine if airlines gave that excuse or if only the only airport with public restrooms was at Chicago O’Hare. Airports, of course, aren’t like that and there are multiple restrooms in the terminals of every airport — and shops whose rent helps pay for their maintenance. Consider LAX. About two-thirds of its revenue comes from “aviation revenue” (landing fees, land rentals, and building rentals) but about one-third comes from concession revenue, that is, retail shops and restaurants.
Meanwhile, Metro’s train stations are like dead malls. They won’t even consider concessions — except for the tiny Dunkin’ Donuts at the entrance of 7th Street/Metro Center Station. Rather than make money from concessions, Metro has always focused its efforts on saving money but cutting costs and services. That means no restrooms. And yet, when there are no restrooms, people don’t magically no longer need to answer nature’s call; instead, they make a restroom of the station — and one, presumably, which costs nearly as much (or more) to clean and maintain as a sink, toilet, and urinal.
There are also few stations in which there’s anymore better to do than admire the public art whilst waiting for the next train. They are barebones and mostly un-staffed. A vending machine once ate one of my $20 bills. I pressed a button for assistance and a disembodied voice took down my address and assured me that I would be reimbursed with a check. It never came. There’s no one to offer help, so when a Korean woman unable to speak more than a few words of English was clearly confused that the Blue Line had taken her not to Long Beach but to Santa Monica, it was left to me to explain that for some reason two trains — both blue — share the same line but travel to entirely different regions.
If you open a panel to charge your phone, you might be able to summon a Metro employee who will yell at you for your electricity heist. In other words, Metro and Metrolink train stations are about as fun to hang out in as public storage facilities or multi-story parking garages. Meanwhile, mall shoppers happily line up to take a trolley at the Americana, even though it goes nowhere because it already feels like it’s somewhere. The good news is that with the bar so low, they could easily be improved.
Since I’m vegetarian and Traxx’s non-animal-based options were limited almost entirely to cocktails, I never ate there. I did drink there a couple of times, however, and once the owner even bought me a few. It doesn’t make me happy to see any business fail, however, and I can’t help but wish that they’d relocated to a different train station rather than closed altogether. Most of the stations don’t even have so much as a vending machine from which to grab a bite, much less an actual restaurant of any kind. Lancaster Station has a convenience store called Snack Shack. Oceanside Transit Center has a Burger King. Orange Station has a Ruby’s Diner. The pickings, in other words, are decidedly slim.
Other amenities are limited to a couple of the older pre-Metro and pre-Metrolink stations. Fullerton Station is home to a train museum, where you can learn about the golden age of trains — a time when American train stations offered restaurants and restrooms. Claremont Station is home to a small art museum.
We don’t only have to look to the past for an example of how to improve train stations. We can also look to the future — or at the very least, Asia — which from the shores of the USA looks increasingly futuristic.
A recent survey amongst those international rating agency employees and travel consultants ranked the metro’s of Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul, and Taipei as the best in terms of reliability, efficiency, safety, and cleanliness. Having enjoyed them all (with the exception of Hong Kong — which I’ve not yet visited) I concur that they indeed excel in those areas but several others as well. Given the fact that Metro Los Angeles is home to the largest populations of Koreans and Taiwanese outside of their homelands — and not insubstantial populations of Japanese and Hong Kongers — the gulf between our sorry train stations and those of East Asian cities is no doubt glaringly obvious to many Angelenos.
When I first visited Taipei, the Taipei Mass Rapid Transit (臺北捷運) was a revelation. I’d previously used the metros of Chicago, New York City, and Paris. I had found them all to be sufficient — certainly sufficient enough to assume that anyone who lived in those cities and still opted to drive a car was criminally insane. Their stations, however, are not generally the sort one would make a destination of even when not waiting for or departing from a train. That was not the case in Taipei, where train stations double as large underground malls which bleed into the bustling night markets above.
Taipei’s Metro only launched in 1996 but already has 117 stations. Of course, Taiwan was also able to complete the 台灣高鐵 Taiwan High Speed Rail quicker than an ornery NIMBY could cry “boondoggle!” Taipei City is, as cities go, fairly small — about a quarter the size of Los Angeles in area. The Taiwan metro area is only home to about 8,605,000 people. I never experienced an uncomfortably crowded car there even though Taipei has one of the highest mass transit ridership averages of any city in the world.
Everything seemed designed with comfort and accessibility in mind. Not only does every station have restrooms but they are all handicap accessible — with ramps, wide fare gates, and urine-free elevators. The stations are also designed for the comfort of parents pushing strollers and there are breastfeeding rooms and special waiting rooms available for female passengers.
Bicycles are prioritized in Taipei, which also goes a long way. The stations have blocks-long double-decker bicycle racks to encourage people to bicycle to and from stations rather than take a taxi or drive. Bicycles are allowed on the trains, too, as are pets (so long as they’re carried). Station signage is in Chinese and English. Trains are punctual. There are free wifi and charging stations — but cellphone use is prohibited in the front and rear train cars. It’s free to use on your birthday for both you and a friend. In 2017, Taipei Metro had a customer satisfaction level of 95.9%.
Tokyo’s metro is a bit harder to navigate than Taipei’s, in part because there are several train operators in it and other major Japanese cities. In Tokyo, there’s the Tokyo Metro Co., Ltd. (東京メトロ), with nine lines and 179 stations. There’s also the Toei Subway (都営地下鉄) with its four lines and 106 stations. The former is represented by a stylized “M” on a blue sign, the latter by a stylized, green, ginkgo leaf. Making matters somewhat more complicated is the presence of multiple regional operators, including East Japan Railway Company (東日本旅客鉄道株式会社) and the Yamanote Line (山手線) or which is useful for getting around town.
The combination of public, semipublic, and private rail operators is further complicated by subway passes which don’t seem to work between agencies. As with Taipei’s metro, Tokyo’s stations are full of restaurants, shops, and services which make them popular destinations in their own right. Factor in your Japanese skills and you may find Tokyo’s metro stations overwhelming. Luckily, not only do all of the stations have helpful information booths — most are also patrolled by kindly old men whose favorite pastime seems to be helping foreigners navigate their complicated but efficient, clean, and punctual rail system. Women-only cars have been a fixture of Tokyo trains since 2001.
The Seoul Metropolitan Subway (수도권 전철), which began operation in 1974, has in recent years gained a deserved reputation as perhaps the best in the world. It has incredible coverage, serving a city smaller in area than the San Fernando Valley with 22 lines and 716 stations. Add to that an urban population of 25 million people — and yet it still rarely felt uncomfortably crowded. If a train is too crowded, there will be another in two or so minutes.
Naturally, there is WiFi on trains and they’re clean and quiet. Occasionally, a traditional Korean song plays when the train is in a transfer station. Announcements are made in Korean, English, Japanese, and Mandarin. The stations, of course, are full of boutiques, convenience stores, snack stalls, and vending machines. They all, naturally, have restrooms as well.
It’s hard to find any downsides to Seoul’s Metro. I suppose I could complain that I would’ve liked to have walked more in Seoul but there were just too many stations served too frequently by too convenient trains. Another might be the weird sense of social isolation one might feel surrounded by a car full of people wearing surgical masks and staring unblinkingly into their phone screens. Occasionally, as in every night, drunk Koreans will become a little more outgoing — making their friends giggle by sitting in a seat reserved for the pregnant or elderly (when they are neither — so long as neither is present, of course). When there are elders, they might demonstrate their impatience with you with a shove. Finally, I could do without warmed seats or intrusive station televisions showing news, sports, and weather.
There are a lot of things Metro and Metrolink could do to improve service. Most of them are oft-repeated amongst transit users and frequently acknowledged by transit agencies — if implemented with excruciating slowness. We should also probably upzone the entire city — ending the economic segregation that favors single-family housing in a city of apartment renters. Of course, it goes without saying that parking minimums have got to go. Hopefully, Metro’s NextGen Bus Study will result in a reconfiguration of bus lines so that buses feed train stations so that people aren’t faced with the choice between walking 45 minutes to a train station and a 45-minute bus journey with a transfer to the same destination.
In the meantime, my ideas for easily improving Metro and Metrolink stations…
Start making station announcements in Chinese (the language of most tourists), Spanish, Filipino, and Korean — the most spoken languages after English. Heck, make them in Armenian, Vietnamese, Farsi, Japanese, and Russian too, since we’re waiting as long as we are. Add a little jingle when a train station is passing through an ethnic enclave like Cambodia Town, Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Armenia, Little Tokyo, or Thai Town. It would dd fun, color, and usefulness to the transit experience and cost practically nothing.
Start leasing station space to vendors of electronics, flowers, jewelry, street food in busy stations like 7th Street/Metro Center, Harbor Freeway, Pico, Willowbrook/Rosa Parks, Wilshire/Vermont, and Wilshire/Western. Let the people who wander up and down trains obnoxiously hawking earbuds, incense, and candy sell in the stations instead. Maybe even host farmers’ markets in the stations now and then. Assuming the sky doesn’t fall — and it won’t — expand vending to termini like APU/Citrus College, Atlantic, Downtown Santa Monica, North Hollywood, Norwalk, Redondo Beach, and Wilshire/Western. Those vendors will pay rent. That rent can go towards service improvements and more station amenities.
Take the stations with vast amounts of parking (more than 400 spaces, some over 1,200) like Crenshaw, Del Mar, El Monte, Harbor Gateway Transit Center, Lakewood Boulevard, La Cienega/Jefferson, Long Beach Boulevard, Norwalk, North Hollywood, Redondo Beach, Reseda, Sepulveda, Van Nuys, Willow Street, and Sierra Madre Villa stations and let a few, maybe ten, food trucks park near the station once a week or so. Assuming again that the sky doesn’t fall, have night markets in the parking lots. This, too, will generate income for Metro.
The rent generated from vendors, both with stations and on their parking lots could then be used to pay the paltry amount to clean and maintain bathrooms. And then, in the year 2525, if humans are still alive, maybe all of our train stations will have shops, drinking fountains, restaurants, and restrooms.