A Los Angeles Primer: The Subway

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Los Angeles has a subway. This surprises almost as many visitors as it does natives. First moving here, I only considered apartments within walking distance of a station. Even then, I sensed this criterion, all-important elsewhere, has historically meant little to Los Angeles apartment-hunters. Despite taking four or five journeys underground every week, I understand, without the sneer of the least agreeable sort of public transit booster, why many Angelenos have never boarded so much as a station escalator. The Red and Purple subway lines serve this city of 500 square miles with less than eighteen miles of track, combined. Add in the above-ground train lines and the system's total comes, as of this writing, to more like ninety miles. Too much of the time, the question of whether you can get from where you are to where you need to go by subway, or by any line to which it connects, meets with a flat "no."

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I never look forward to explaining this to visitors from Europe or Asia. To whose satisfaction can I, or any Angeleno, account for why the westward Purple Line dead-ends thirteen miles from the coast, or why the northern end of the Red Line passes through one side of Hollywood but not the other? Shortly after setting myself up in Los Angeles, I asked a friend, well-placed by day job to know about Metro matters great and small, these very questions. His response, in full: "Politics." A fair point, but whenever I return home from a trip to Osaka, Mexico City, or even Washington, D.C., I wonder where else politics has so suppressed infrastructure as essential, to my mind, as water pipes, garbage dumps, or power lines.


But even here, politics hasn't suppressed it completely. What we have of the Los Angeles subway wends an odd tripartite path, beginning downtown at Union Station, taking you west through MacArthur Park (whose lake the tunnel's construction necessitated draining, of both water and a heap of discarded handguns), then offering you the choice of continuing west to Koreatown or breaking north, up Vermont Avenue through the east of Hollywood. The oft-heard criticism that the Red and Purple Lines "don't go anywhere" misses the mark, given the attractions of downtown, the pupusas of Westlake, the copious food and drink of Koreatown, and the presence of Amoeba Music so near the Sunset/Vine station. You could spend weeks, and I often do, satisfied with the social, cultural, and business opportunities along the subway's path. But then you feel like going to Silver Lake, or Leimert Park, or Santa Monica, and so feel just how much progress Los Angeles transit hasn't made.

Yet on the whole, those I introduce to our subway emerge impressed. Say what you will about their limited reach; the Red and Purple Lines surely must rank among the cleanest, most comfortable, least urine-smelling systems in America. You may lose twenty minutes waiting on platforms, but you'll have taken a subway -- in Los Angeles! Some transit observers regard this town as a child who, having broken a leg on the playground, started school only after a considerable delay: perhaps he hasn't caught up with his peers yet, but you should've seen how far behind he was a year ago. This sense of Los Angeles in the remedial class intersects with the notion, correct or not, that transportation just works differently here: differently when we didn't have a subway, and a different kind of subway now that we have one.

This latter difference expresses itself most strikingly in the design of the Red and Purple Line stations, each one practically a site-specific art installation. The filmmaker Michael Mann, though like many high-powered Hollywood types surely not much of a Metro rider himself, has praised their beauty and used them more than once as shooting locations. I'd be lying if I said the jaunty tilework figures along the walls of Civic Center, the vintage motion picture camera mounted at Hollywood/Highland, or the spare THX 1138 set that is Pershing Square don't draw a smile from me. But I'd also be lying if I said I never questioned the choice of aesthetic lavishness over geographical reach, if indeed the officials themselves faced such a choice. How much more easily could we traverse this city by now, I wonder, if they'd just gone with the blunt, utilitarian, exceedingly cheap style of an ex-Communist capital?


You can sense on the subway the persistent Los Angeles confusion between display and function. The city has struggled to resolve for itself whether public transit provides an elective, even appealing alternative to the automobile, or a support system for those too
poor, infirm, or foreign to drive one. While avid travelers and transplants from other urban centers consider this a long-settled issue, Los Angeles as a whole seems not to know quite what to want to believe. High praise for Metro's recent extensions -- conveyances that aren't cars, after all! In Los Angeles! -- may, perversely, only cloud the issue. While it does have far superior dedicated transit than most outsiders (or even insiders) expect, that right now only comes to, speaking with the greatest generosity, about half of what it needs. Easy on the gold stars; the kid may have stopped sniffing glue, but he still needs to learn his multiplication tables.

Still, we live in changing times. My generation of under-35 urban-dwellers shows mounting impatience with the cost and hassle of buying, fueling, parking, and insuring a car. The expectation held by Los Angeles of decades past (or, keeping perspective, most American cities today) that each and every citizen own and operate a whole motor vehicle sounds increasingly unreasonable, like asking us all to run our own individual generators or dig our own individual wells. Some of my peers respond by putting the brightest possible face on the situation, rejoicing whenever a few more miles' worth of train line opens up. While I admire this attitude, and certainly value what it celebrates, I can't help but compare it to throwing a party over 38 rather than 35 percent of a population getting clean water. The effort merits a round of applause, surely, but the hole remains perilously deep.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

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