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Frank Gruber

Promenade to LACMA in 14 Minutes?

By Frank J. Gruber

In last week's column I floated the idea that the Wilshire Boulevard "Subway to the Sea" should be a four-track system to allow for express trains that could skip stations and make better time. This is the system they have in New York.

My musings were rewarded with an email from Kymberleigh Richards, Public Affairs Director of Southern California Transit Advocates (, who tried to answer my question whether over the 16-mile length of Wilshire Boulevard it would be worth the extra expense to build four tracks.

Ms. Richards doubts that a four-track system would be cost-effective. But before I analyze that, and maybe disagree with her, Ms. Richards was kind enough to share a lot of information about the subway that supplements the Beverly Hills analysis that I wrote about last week, and this information got me thinking about what a subway would mean for us Santa Monicans.

To start, Ms. Richards told me that the expectation among MTA planners is that the extension of the Red Line to Santa Monica would have eighteen stations in total (ten of them new), as follows:

Existing stations:

  • Union Station
  • Civic Center
  • Pershing Square
  • 7th St/Metro Center
  • Westlake-MacArthur Park
  • Wilshire/Vermont
  • Wilshire/Normandie
  • Wilshire/Western

New stations:

  • Wilshire/Crenshaw
  • Wilshire/La Brea
  • Wilshire/Fairfax
  • Wilshire/La Cienega
  • Wilshire/Beverly
  • Century City (Santa Monica/Ave. of the Stars)
  • Westwood Village
  • Wilshire/Bundy
  • Wilshire/20th
  • 3rd Street Promenade

If you consider that Wilshire starts near the 7th Street/Metro Center stop, its sixteen miles will be covered by fifteen stations.

As for how long a trip would take, Ms. Richards told me that the length of the Wilshire line would be comparable to the length of the existing Red Line between downtown L.A. and North Hollywood, which is fourteen miles and fourteen stations. That trip takes 29 minutes. Figuring roughly two minutes per mile (and station), a trip from the Promenade Station to Metro Center would take about 31 minutes, and a trip all the way to Union Station would take perhaps 37.

That sounds good, but I am especially excited by how the subway would open up destinations in the middle of the route. Imagine being able, at any time of day to shuttle between Santa Monica and Beverly Hills or Century City in eight or ten or twelve minutes? To LACMA at Fairfax in fourteen?

Ms. Richards concluded that a four-track system would be unnecessary because the Red Line to North Hollywood, with similar distances and speeds, has already proven to be successful. It's also true that because we will only be building a system west of Western, over about ten miles, there is not enough distance for express trains to save as much time as expresses in New York do.

Nonetheless, I am still thinking two tracks good, four tracks better.

The reason is that every minute of more speed means more riders. The time riding on a train is only part of the time of a subway commute for most people. Although people currently riding buses on Wilshire will switch to the train, to attract more riders from among those who would otherwise drive, door-to-door speed will be of the essence, and that will depend on attracting riders to the subway who don't live near Wilshire and distributing them quickly to their jobs -- many beyond walking distance from Wilshire -- once they disembark.

For instance, if we want to do something about the 405, we need a system that brings commuters from the Valley to the Westwood subway station by way of buses that use the "high occupancy vehicle" (HOV) lanes. Even assuming the HOV lanes are not gummed up with two-person "carpools" and hybrids), that's going to add 15 or 20 minutes to a trip.

East-to-West commuters to Santa Monica will have to take shuttles or buses when they arrive at Wilshire Boulevard stations, because most of our jobs are not along Wilshire.

Connections take time, and commuters will more often choose to take the subway if they can blast between Western and Westwood, in either direction, stopping only once at Fairfax or La Cienega, and saving four or five minutes.

There is another reason to consider building four tracks: capacity. It probably sounds ridiculous to predict that ridership could max out on a heavy rail system in Los Angeles, but the Blue Line between Long Beach and downtown L.A. has already required retrofitting to allow for longer trains because of higher than predicted ridership, and the Orange Line busway is, less than two years after beginning operation, approaching its capacity of 22,000 riders per day.

People are hungry for transit in L.A. It's quite conceivable that more than 100,000 people -- the upper limit, per hour, for one track of a heavy rail subway -- will some day be riding the Wilshire subway in either direction between five and six in the afternoon.

The real question is -- are we going build the system we need to get people out of their cars, or -- as we have done so often -- settle for mass transit that's either not fast enough (the Gold Line), doesn't go far enough (the Green Line), or can't carry enough people (the Blue and Orange Lines)?

Consider this: the MTA has started running "express" trains on the Gold Line that skip stops to make better time. (Unfortunately, since these trains run on the same tracks as the local service, there is not much of an increase in speed.)

Or consider this: the phenomenally successful Orange Line, which has everyone involved with it patting their backs, was originally supposed to be a light rail system that would have had an end-to-end travel time of 28 minutes instead of the 41 minutes the buses take. But NIMBYs in the Valley didn't want the train. (Speaking of such things, some Cheviot Hills residents who support routing the Expo Line along the Exposition right of way have set up a marvelous website that details the history of the route.

I don't want to make the perfect the enemy of the good. Even if four tracks would be better, they would cost more, and money will be tight. But perhaps they wouldn't cost that much more.

Four tracks would require more tunneling, but contrary to what most people think, tunneling is not the most expensive element of building a subway. Tunneling usually only accounts for about fifteen percent of the cost. (Much more -- 50 percent -- is spent on stations, which are, in effect, multi-story buildings built underground, although stations on the Red Line extension will be cheaper than stations on the original segment because the old stations have a mezzanine level the MTA no longer uses to collect fares.)

You get what you pay for. What's it worth to you to do something about traffic?

Event Notice:

The Westside Urban Forum is hosting two breakfast programs, open to the public, to discuss L.A.'s housing crisis. The first takes place February 16, and the title of the program will be "Creative Destruction?: Condo Conversion and the Plight of the Rental Class." Although the panelists have not yet been announced, WUF events are always informative and provocative. The downside is the price for non-members is $55.


Location: The Regency Club, 10900 Wilshire Blvd., 17th Floor, Westwood.

Date and Time: Friday, February 16, 2007, Registration, 7:00 am; Program, 7:45 - 9:00 am.

For more information, contact: Christyne Buteyn
Phone: 310-394-0253
To register go to:

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