Expo Line is on the right track but its neighborhood plan is going nowhere

How do you judge a new light-rail line? How do you decide if it has succeeded or failed? How do you measure the ways it has changed — or failed to change — a neighborhood? A city? A region?

These are questions that Los Angeles County, as it pursues an urban rail expansion as ambitious and expensive as any in American history, is going to be asking itself regularly over the next couple of decades. They’re especially relevant this spring as the newest part of that growing rail network, the Metro Expo Line, marks a double anniversary.

The line’s first phase, linking downtown with Culver City, celebrated its fifth birthday at the end of last month. An extension west to Santa Monica — which took Expo across the 405 Freeway, a major milestone both practically and psychologically — opened a year ago this weekend.

Ridership has outpaced expectations. Passenger numbers have climbed steadily since the second phase opened. So far this year, Expo has averaged more than 1.5 million passengers per month. Only the Blue Line, which opened in 1990, carries more people.

In other ways, the story has been less rosy. Strong Expo numbers have helped mask larger weakness across the Metro system as a whole, where total passenger numbers continue to fall, thanks in large part to cratering bus ridership.

And the quality of service on Expo, in a range of ways, has been disappointing. As my colleague Laura Nelson has reported, a shortage of rail cars led to overcrowding. Along the first leg, in and around downtown, Metro trains too often have to wait at intersections to let cars through. Traveling from one end of the line to the other takes at least 45 minutes and often closer to a full hour.

As an architecture critic, I’m more interested in the broader urban design and planning effects of rail expansion. And here the record is also mixed.

There’s no denying that the Expo Line has transformed our collective mental map of the region in important ways. For Metro passengers, the barrier between the Westside and the rest of the L.A. represented by the 405 — a kind of iron curtain for drivers — has gone away. Expo, by weaving above and below the 10 as it makes its way to Santa Monica, has also begun to make the north-south divide created by that freeway seem less daunting.

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When it comes to making sense of the zoning strategy for the neighborhoods along the line, alas, it’s a matter of picking our poison. Should we focus on the fact that new zoning plans for the Expo corridor in Los Angeles and Santa Monica have yet to be implemented? Or that the plans, as written, are so watered down by worries about density and new development as to be effectively meaningless in attacking our acute housing shortage?

In a city and county with a healthy approach to the relationship between mass transit and housing, the planning strategy would have been…

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