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The Gold Line in Los Angeles has been beat up since its opening in 2003. Ridership has been disappointing and everyone is quick to point fingers including blaming light rail despite the extreme success of the other light rail lines in Los Angeles.
In a way, the Gold Line is near and dear to my heart. The line operates along the former right of way of the Santa Fe Railroad that was home to the Santa Fe's most famous passenger trains the Super Chief and El Capitan. For the first 19 years of my life, I lived most of them within a few blocks of this line and during high school the railroad went behind the home that my parents owned.
The best way to learn how to make a system successful is to look at what is done right and what is done wrong within a transit system.
First of all, the gold line travels from Union Station in Los Angeles to Sierra Madre Villa in Pasadena (I am only going over the original line, not the recently opened East Los Angeles extension). As mention the route travels along the former right of way of the Santa Fe railroad which was abandoned in 1994 for construction of the Gold Line.
The line starts at Los Angeles Union Station. While Union Station is an architectural marvel, it sits outside the main downtown area and requires a transfer to reach anyplace in the downtown area. Once of the big downfalls of the Gold Line presently is that there is no connection between itself and the Blue Line between downtown and Long Beach. While the Red Line does provide connecting service anyone wanting to travel from the Blue Line to the Gold Line must make two transfers to make the connection.
The Regional Connector project that will link up the Gold Line with the Blue Line and the under construction Expo Line will be a boon for the Gold Line allowing single ride and single transfer connections between the different light rail lines.
In addition even transferring at Union Station takes effort. Because the Red Line subway was designed before plans were made for the Gold Line, making connections between the two requires several trips down an escalator, a walk down a tunnel under the Amtrak and Metrolink station tracks, then up a ramp to the gold line station.
The next stop on the route is the Chinatown Stop. This stop is located in the more industrial part of the Chinatown area and is a couple of block walk to the main action in Chinatown. In addition the area looks run down and does not give the average person confidence if walking after dark. Metro also lists several buses that connect at this station but several of them are located a few blocks away.
Lincoln and Cypress is another stop that shows multiple bus routes serving them but most of the bus routes run on Figueroa which is a pedestrian unfriendly walk from the Gold Line Station. The best option would be to have routes 90, 91, 94, and 794 feed directly into the gold line once the regional connector is finished. To accomplish this the presently small parking lot will need to be replaced by a parking garage with a bus turnaround located at ground level.
Next up is the Heritage Square station. This route does have parking and is served by route 83. However METRO lists the station as being served by Route 81 but it is several blocks away. After the Heritage Square station comes the Southwest Museum stop. Yes, the stop serves the Southwest Museum plus the surrounding community but has no parking.
Highland Park is another station that shows being served by multiple routes but truly only has one route directly serving the station. The station also has parking available however the neighborhood is heavly gang infested so walking to the other buses or leaving a car in the parking lot would not be the best idea.
If you ride the line after the Highland Park Station you cross the Arroyo Seco on a spectacular bridge. Below you will see the Pasadena Freeway, one of the first freeways in the nation and one of the most hair raising experiences for a driver. It is not too bad when you get on where the freeway starts on the north or from the south but if you get on at most any other on ramps you are in for an experience. First you have to come to full and complete stop then accelerate into the freeway lane. There is no acceleration lanes, when you move from your stop you are in a main traffic lane with people coming at you at high speed.
The next stop is the single stop in South Pasadena. South Pasadena is best known for fighting the extension of the Long Beach freeway (I-710) through town. However, don't think that these people are some big transit supporters looking to stop a freeway, they are the ultimate NIMBY's. They just want the freeway moved to the lower income part of town (lower income by South Pasadena's standards, not the average person).
Metro shows there is parking available at the station but it is extremely limited. There is a neighborhood shuttle to the station during peak hours plus Metro line 176. The problem is that most residents of the city would have to access the station via car due to the lack of available transit service so it limits the number of potential riders at the stop.
All the remaining stations are in the Pasadena area. First up is Fillmore which for years has mainly been an industrial area. The street immediately to the east of the Fillmore and Del Mar station is Arroyo Parkway which becomes the Pasadena Freeway. The area around the station seems to be transforming since the coming of the Gold Line but still has a ways to go.
I talked about the Del Mar station when discussing TOD and TAD a few months back. Both the Del Mar and Fillmore Station do have service from ARTS and one Metro bus route with most of the other Metro lines located at least a block or more away. The next station at Memorial Park actually had an apartment complex built on top of the station back when it was still a mainline railroad but once again would probably be classified as Transit Adjacent Development not Transit Oriented Development.
The next two stations are both located in the center of the Interstate 215. The lake street station has seen some development nearby but both it and the Allen Station suffer from the problems of being in the middle of a freeway: hard to access, limited redevelopment possibilities and large amounts of noise for waiting customers.
The current end of the line is at Sierra Madre Villa. The station has a multi level parking garage and some recent development around it. However, once again the station is hard to access because of being in the middle of the freeway.
So what is keeping the Gold Line from reaching its full potential:
First of all, the lack of the regional connector from Union Station to the Blue line at the Flower/7th has been a major factor in the Gold Line not being the success it should be (although ridership is still adequate, just not what it should be). Once the regional connector is finished, it will be a major boon to the line.
Second factor hampering the Gold Line is Metro which has done a poor job of integrating bus service with the Gold Line. Transfers from bus to light rail should be seamless and easy for the customers. Metro has altered several bus lines to serve the Sierra Madre Villa station, however that is at the east end of the system and is of little help for people traveling to the main shopping and employment areas of Pasadena unless they want to back track. The number of buses serving the station will be very helpful once the line is extended to Azusa and beyond.
One idea would be to take Pasadena ARTS transit route 10 and modify it so that it would service the Del Mar light rail station and service the major retail and employements centers in the city. The route already does a good job of this but needs to be integrated with the light rail line to make it more effective.
Another long term problem facing the Gold Line is the lack of expansion capacity. Several stations were designed for only two cars trains and how many trains can be at the station at one time. The South Pasadena and Highland Park stations would be difficult to expand due to nearby streets but could be done. While capacity may not be an issue at the present time, looking long term capacity issues will need to be dealt with.
The final problem facing the Gold Line is the lack of parking. While the stations close to downtown do not need parking, the farther out you get from the center of the town, the larger need there is for parking. Yes, in a perfect world we would love to see the line be able to do without parking, but until we start seeing a fundamental change in development patterns, parking is going to be needed.
While the Gold Line does have issues, the line has the potential to become a super star. It is up to Metro and the cities involved to make it happen.