Will the Problems That Plague the Expo Line Get Worse Next Year?

City council will give the train traffic signal priority to address delays and bunching, but overcrowding could still be an issue when the Crenshaw Line opens
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The seven-year-old Expo Line has felt some intense growing pains lately. One of the city’s most popular rail lines, Expo endured overcrowding earlier this year when Metro cut rush-hour frequencies. In October, after a vocal outcry on social media, the transit agency reinstated six-minute headways during the entirety of rush hour and extended peak-time service past 7 p.m.

As evident on a recent morning commute, the change hasn’t erased all the problems. Some westbound trains were uncomfortably packed, mostly because trains were bunched together leaving downtown, throwing the six-minute headways out of whack. There are several reasons for train bunching, one of which is the street-level route Expo takes through DTLA and other parts of the city. Currently, trains get no priority at traffic lights and often have to sit for several minutes while cars zip past them.

Signal prioritization has bedeviled Expo and other street-level trains, like the Gold Line, for years. Earlier this week, L.A. City Council unanimously approved Councilman Mike Bonin’s proposal to give signal priority to trains making street-level crossings and to examine how L.A.’s traffic control system could prioritize transit, cyclists, and pedestrians.

Metro is under the gun to address delays and crowding on Expo, not just because it receives over 50,000 daily riders, but because it stands to get even busier next year and in the years after. The Crenshaw Line—which will terminate at the Expo Line’s Crenshaw station—is finally in early testing phases, allowing commuters from Westchester, Inglewood, Hyde Park, Baldwin Hills, and the Crenshaw District to connect to the Expo Line in Fall or Winter 2020. Additionally, many riders in Santa Monica and DTLA will hop on Expo and Crenshaw to access or leave LAX. This all means Expo will be even busier a year from now.

So, what’s the plan to make sure an already “bursting at the seams” Expo doesn’t grow untenable for commuters? Metro Communications Manager Jose Ubaldo says the agency is prepared for the challenge.

“We are continuously monitoring ridership trends, particularly as we open new rail lines, and we are prepared to quickly make adjustments as necessary to provide the most responsive service to customers,” Ubaldo tells us. “We have done that most recently in 2016 when both Expo Line Phase 2 and Gold Line Foothill Extension opened.

Further, we have seen with previous rail openings that ridership patterns can also shift, and we expect that the Crenshaw/LAX Line could provide an attractive alternative to other nearby parallel services offered today, particularly passengers looking to bypass Downtown L.A. In turn, this can actually result in a shift in which segments of the Expo Line sees the greatest amount of use.”

Since Crenshaw travels north and south and Expo east and west, the chances that the latter will reduce ridership on the former are slim. While more transit riders is a net positive, dissatisfaction with the system could accomplish the opposite in the long run. And Metro will only have a few years to tweak Expo and Crenshaw before the Regional Connector transit line opens in 2022. When the RC starts service, Expo will stretch all the way to East Los Angeles and include three new stations in DTLA. Don’t be surprised if daily ridership tops 100k, and L.A.’s trains start looking more and more like Tokyo’s. Sardine city!


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