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Return To Riding MetroRail, Same Problems, Some Are Worse

LA TRANSIT - To individually reduce my carbon footprint, since 1993 I have been a regular transit rider. COVID brought this to a screeching halt.

It has been nearly two years since I last rode a Metro light rail or subway. I very carefully and infrequently continued riding buses, Metro’s and other bus agencies, but with my teaching job switched to remote learning, concerts cancelled, and life in general shut down or reduced, MetroRail was now out of my transit experiences.  

With COVID cases falling, mask restrictions seemingly on the way out-or lessened, and indoor events already taking place, I contemplated attending a concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen-Conductor, at Walt Disney Concert Hall, at the Music Center, Downtown Los Angeles-DTLA.  

I weighed the odds, summed up the circumstances, and decided try my luck. I would drive to the Sepulveda Expo Station, take the Expo Line to the 7th Street Station, transfer downstairs to a Red or Purple Line Subway downstairs to get to the Civic Center/Grand Park Station, and then walk to WDCH. 

While I try to make trips all by transit, there are occasions when driving, or hybrid driving and transit, are needed. Many concerts end around 10:00PM, and operas can easily go past 11:00PM. At those late hours buses run at a reduced schedule, sometimes one bus every fifty to sixty minutes, and many stop before midnight. A long wait at a bus stop at night is not desired. 

For this concert all transit was not an option. I could miss a bus, and at worst the last bus, even by thirty seconds, and then be stuck at a rail station. A taxi ride would be the remedy, but this becomes expensive. I have yet to use rideshare. 

So for this evening concert I drove to the Metro parking structure for the Expo Sepulveda Station, and this triggered memories of riding MetroRail, and how too often Metro seems incapable of centering their service on the passenger. Their operations remain driven by engineering, construction, and the latest public relations project to try to increase ridership. 

Transit ridership is down, and Metro, and all transit agencies, can easily increase ridership by placing the needs, desires, and apprehensions of their riders always first and foremost. Metro needs to shift its primary focus away from the hard and cold numbers and measurements of engineering and physical operations, not to say those are not important. 

Their attention needs to pivot and make the highest priority to know the experiences of what it takes passengers to ride trains and buses in Los Angeles. 

Metro Sepulveda Expo Line Parking Structure 

The first remembrance of my past MetroRail experiences was parking in their structure. Parking was easy. The grounds were pretty clean, but then came time to pay for parking. 

At this parking structure Metro seems to have gone out of its way to create a confusing, difficult, and possibly hazardous situation to purchase a parking permit at an electronic kiosk. For the entire parking structure there was only one, and now there are two kiosks, side by side. 

The kiosks are located at the bottom of a stairway in what could be described as a small, walled in patio, sitting in the open air. In bright sunlight the glare on the screens makes them very hard to read which leads to confusion, and fumbling for payment.  

When it is raining it becomes this maddening exercise in frustration to try to hold an umbrella overhead to keep dry, try to read the screen, understand the directions, punch on to the keypad the required information, and then insert payment by card. When it is dark and raining these problems are made worse by very low lighting. During this process running through one’s mind is the realization that one could miss the train because they are wasting precious time trying to navigate the parking kiosks.  

What makes this location a possible danger is that the person trying to use the kiosk is boxed in and isolated. There is a stairwell behind us and we cannot see who is coming down the stairs. There is another recessed area to our backs. 

One time I was at the kiosk to make payment, and then realized that behind me was a group of young men I had not seen while descending the stairs to the kiosk. They were drinking. This was startling, and as a guy to guys I could salute them and move on, but a woman in this spot may not be as safe. 

There needs to be parking kiosks on every floor of the parking structure, uniformly placed throughout near the elevators. This would give shelter and give those using the kiosks a much clearer, and safer vision of their surroundings.  

Expo Sepulveda Station to DTLA 

This station is over Sepulveda Boulevard, and like other above grade stations, it is to placate the drivers on the boulevard who would otherwise have to wait while the trains pass. This is another example of we transit riders reduced to secondary consideration.  

There are two ways to get from the ground floor to the station above: stairs or elevator.  

If I am carrying a heavy load, like a lot of books, I take the elevator. But like all elevators they break down. This has happened, and riders are left with two choices. One is to walk across the bottom floor of the station, cross Sepulveda to the other station platform, and take the other elevator, if that one is also working. This wastes a lot of time, and can cause the missing of a train. The other is to walk up the stairs. This is a good hike, and if carrying a load, becomes a chore. 

But, the drivers on Sepulveda Blvd. are happy because they can drive by and not have to worry about stopping for a train on ground level. Of course we are in looming climate crises because we have been driving gasoline powered cars too far and too frequently, but drivers must be appeased. 

On the Expo Train 

There were only two cars on the train I rode, sometimes the trains run with three cars. Before entering I scouted the cars to see which was less crowded to try to follow COVID social distancing. I did fairly well, and settled for the front car. Most of the passengers were wearing their face mask, though like everywhere some people are intent on not covering their nose. 

I settled in what I thought was a safe place, but then spotted at the back of the car no-mask riders. Then, looking closer, one was a young man with a camera on a tripod, filming a young man and woman who spoke dialogue. None wore a facemark, and all were talking loudly enough to be heard at a distance, meaning they could be releasing the COVID virus. 

I moved away from them to the other half of the car. Most were masked, except for the homeless people, and the guy who later down the line sauntered onboard with his take out meal and sat down and began eating. Obviously masks come off when eating.  

Signs and public announcements on trains and buses state eating is not allowed. This did not seem to be of concern to the man. He eventually left the train car, eating as he walked. 

He seems to not be the only one eating on trains, the floor of the car was littered throughout with food wrappers. 

Is this the new post-COVID norm of blatant disregard to the rules and other passengers and litter piled on the car floor? 

The rest of the trip to the 7th Street Metro Station was uneventful. A good point is that the trains running around 6:00PM were frequent and the time to get to DTLA was not too bad.  

Having driven to the Music Center in traffic and gridlock too many times, using trains is what I prefer to a large degree. And I am reducing my carbon footprint, but negative riding experiences will deter me, and others, from using transit. 

7th Street Metro Station 

Once arrived at this station it is a quick walk to the TAP card kiosk to pay for the subway, and then down the stairs to the platform for the subways.  With some time since I last rode MetroRail I had to carefully read the maps to decide which direction to take for WDCH. Once that problem was solved I took the next subway to the Civic Center/Grand Park Station two stops away. Was it the Red or Purple Line I don’t remember. The closeness of the color red for these two lines leads to confusion.  

However, Metro does seem consistent in the confusing method of naming rail lines which share the same tracks and stations similar colors: shades of red for the Red and Purple lines, shades of blue for the Blue and Expo Lines. 

Once on the subway the environment was the similar to the Expo Train, trash on the floor, most, but not all wearing face masks. Homeless in the seats. Differences were the lighting was too low, the walls looked dingy, and the A/C seemed barely functioning-needed for COVID protocols. 

Civic Center/Grand Park Station 

After disembarking at the Civic Center/Grand Park Station I walked out briskly, I needed to purchase a ticket and did not want to get shut-out. This is a deeply dug station and luckily the up escalator was working. The down one was not, the one I would need going home.  

I walked up the steep hill of 1st Street to WDCH, bought my ticket, waited in line to show proof of vaccination-thank you WDCH and Los Angeles Philharmonic, and enjoyed a wonderful, thrilling, and at times profound concert.

 

Return Home 

1st Street/Grand Park Station return trip 

In reversing my steps, the walk down the 1st Street hill to the Metro Station was quick, but the station entry continues to present problems. The momentum from the downhill carries one to a sudden right turn to curved stairs on to the platform. This entrance was dark and needs more light for subway riders, and for those at the bus stop there.  

This station is an oval of sorts, with a blind turn from the sidewalk to the stairs. Walking anywhere requires one to always be alert, so looking around the station platform is done while descending the curved staircase with the momentum of the downhill walk. This must be done with care. 

Once on the platform and turning right are two large, deep steps which have caused me to stumble. This must have happened to others because the top of the stairs are painted red with a warning to watch the steps, but given the blind curve, the momentum from the downhill and eyeing the station platform the warnings for these hazardous stairs are missed. There are missteps, stumbles and falls. Now, the paint is faded and the stairs chipped, and with insufficient lighting, it is a worse hazard. Would not a ramp be better than these stairs? 

The down escalator was not repaired so I used the stairs. Since I am in the final weeks as a junior citizen my legs are not what they once were, so the descent was slower than in the past. Just as I reached the gates to pay to ride I heard a train at the station. I was too late, it pulled away and my wait for the next train was fourteen minutes, which is acceptable.  

Since I was going only two stops I would take whichever train was next, Red or Purple Line. I exited  the subway car at the 7th Street Station to transfer to the Expo Line for the Sepulveda Station.  

7th Street Metro Station return trip 

Metro has never been great with its signage. At this station, once exited from the subway car the rider is confronted with two upward staircases, each one is critical to arriving at the correct platform for either the Blue Line or Expo Line. For years this was hit and miss because there were no signs indicating which platform to use.  

Over the years I, and others, ended up on the wrong platform. To get to the correct platform the rider needed to take a walkway over the tracks, which required more stairs. This wasted precious time to connect to the correct train.  

Metro’s first fix for this problem was a poster on a black background affixed to a silver metal column. These posters were in a recessed space between an escalator and stairwell. It is a dark space making them difficult to see and read. Making this worse is a shade of the color blue is used for both the Blue and Expo Lines, creating more confusion. Contrasting colors for these lines is needed to assist transit riders. 

To fix the first fix, Metro made smaller versions of the same signs with the same confusing colors attached to a post anchored in a thick, round plate, about ten feet high, in front of the old signs still on the columns. The newer signs work a little better, but the old signs remain in the background, and this looks amateurish.  

I found the correct stairs and walked up to the platform of the 7th Street Station. There on the tracks was a waiting train. If it was the Expo Train this would be good because it would allow me to take a train immediately and save time, but I didn’t know if it was the Expo Line train I needed, or a Blue Line train. 

I quicken my pace, use the TAP card to pay fare, walk up to the train, and look for the electronic marque to tell me if it is the Blue or Expo Line. After some searching I find the sign, it’s the Expo Line, and board the front car. At the front of this car are two men, both without face masks. I decide to distance myself from them for COVD safety, and sit at the opposite end of the front half of the car. Train cars are divided in two and have a walkthrough. The two guys up front are smoking something, tobacco or weed I cannot determine, and sharing a paper cup of something. Both of these are wrong, there is no smoking, eating or drinking on buses and trains. But I dare not say anything these days. Like road rage and jetliner rage, there could be train rage.  

The train pulls from the station and the two guys continue smoking and drinking while on the train. They continue to smoke and drink the entire time I ride this train. This is completely wrong, but there are no authorities to stop them. I feel I am social distanced enough, but keep them in my sights.  

As I look around the train the floor is littered with food wrappers, discarded face masks, papers and pieces of cardboard. The litter is much worse than when I rode an Expo Train to DTLA. 

If Metro wants to maintain riders, and attract new ones, the cars need constant sweeping. There should be some semblance of order and following the rules while riding trains and buses. 

Imagine a couple with a planned night out, doing the city experience found in most major cities to take transit for a meal, concert, play, whatever. The imagining of it is exciting and romantic, but the romance with evaporate when riding litter filled trains with passengers smoking, eating and drinking. The odds of them trying another city experience become quite slim. 

Of course there are those regular transit riders who cannot afford a night out on the town, let alone buy a car to get away from these situations. But dirty, trashy trains with passengers flaunting the rules are great motivators for buying a car and becoming a former transit rider. 

I decide to move to the other half of the car. A woman boards with one of the rentable scooters. This is not the first time I’ve seen this, but the scooter’s headlight is glaring into my eyes, and its alarms sound off. She tells the scooter to be quiet to no avail. She departs, and leaves the scooter on the train. 

From my experiences with Metro, and other transit agencies, it seems management and structure disappear after 5:00PM weekdays and on weekends. While offices may close, transit ridership continues seven days a week, late into the evening, and we transit riders should not be abandoned because it’s the weekend or the day shift is over.  

I arrive at the Sepulveda Station and walk toward the parking structure. On Exposition Boulevard are buses parked far away from the station. It is precarious enough time-wise to try to make transfers, but to have a bus stop and the buses so far away makes it all the more difficult for the transit rider to make timely transfers.  

The planet is warming at alarming speeds. Moving to all electric fleets of vehicles is decades away. Ditching the car and instead taking buses or trains is the quickest way to reduce releasing greater and greater amounts of carbon gases into the atmosphere to try to slow the warming to save the planet, and us. 

Metro has civic, fiduciary, ethical, environmental and even moral obligations to create a transit system, particularly trains, which not only run on time and frequently, but places it riders forefront in providing a safe, clean, easy to use transit network. 

 

( Matthew Hetz is a Los Angeles native. He is a transit rider and advocate, a composer, music instructor, and member and former president and executive director of the Culver City Symphony Orchestra.)