At the Grove, a shopping mall here in LA, there’s a trolley to nowhere. A battery-powered, double-decker, vintage-styled car shuffles shoppers a few blocks, from Banana Republic to Kiehl’s. This used to bother me to no end: A train that doesn’t actually go anywhere. (This is, coincidentally, the biggest complaint about the LA subway system, too.)
But during our meeting and tour with Rick Caruso, the developer of the Grove—and Americana, the two most “happiest malls on Earth” around town—he pointed out the trolley-to-nowhere as a particularly effective part of his strategy. The trolley is a way to deliver to his guests what they want: People love trains, they love the idea of the past, they love being outside, they love going for rides. Even—and maybe especially—if they could have walked the distance themselves.
Caruso was able to relate this to a few pretty interesting things about transit in LA (he also said plenty of things that I don’t agree with, but more on that later). First, why bother tunneling underground? People want to be in the California sun, watching the world go by. This I definitely concur with: It’s actually why I prefer taking the bus in LA. Second, people would take public transit more if they could see it easily, and thematically, fit into their existing entertainment strategy. So his proposal is to connect his trolley to the Beverly Center, serving the corridor of shopping that already exists along 3rd Street. In fact, he said he’d already offered to pay half.
It’s actually a great idea: Building very short rail routes all over town based on very specific behavior, not necessarily as part of this massive Manifest Destiny-like campaign to get the subway to the sea. We make our big rail decisions for commuters, based on where they need to go each day to work. Why not create mini-rail that serves where the rest of us are going: the artists with flexible schedules, the tourists who need to see the sights…even the shoppers, god bless them.
It got me thinking about my other favorite train that doesn’t go anywhere, Angels Flight. The 109-year-old funicular is kind of like the Grove trolley of its time: It shuttled the residents of Bunker Hill a very short distance to services, although unlike the Grove, up a huge hill. But Angels Flight did it in an extremely attractive and innovative way that made other people—not just the ones who needed it—want to ride it. When I wrote a story for the Architect’s Newspaper after Angels Flight reopened, I rode it until I found a commuter to interview who was actually riding it explicitly to get up the hill, and indeed, many of the people who work in California Plaza at the top do use it. But it’s also extremely popular with tourists, many of whom have probably come to the area just to see what it’s all about. Our group certainly went out of our way to ride it the other night, in a sparkly descent into the Historic Core that left everyone in awe.
The point is, even though it’s short, and you could walk up the stairs, you’re going to shift your behavior because of what Angels Flight is. It might make you more likely to come to the area; it might make you more likely to visit the Grand Central Market at its terminus. And it’s acted as a lightning rod for the area: There’s a downtown streetcar in motion for the area that will now be playing off Angels Flight’s old-timey vibe. It’s not just about being useful for shuffling people around—although it will also be useful for getting people around. But the fact is that by making the experience more physically attractive—and, yes, fun!—for everyone, it can serve both the people who need it, and the people who don’t need it, but will ride it because they like it.
High above LA is another train people like, the tram that takes visitors from a parking lot to the Getty complex, floating over the city. The reason for a train is more practical in this case—there’s just not room for all those cars on top—but it also contributes to the Getty’s magical moment of arrival. The dramatic entrance to the white castle would not be the same if you piloted yourself up that hill in your Honda Civic. The experience while at the museum is made even more transformative by the simple fact that there are simply no cars allowed.
The Getty trams shuttles about 1.3 million people a year up that hill. The Grove’s trolley? 730,000 people per year, a few blocks. Angels Flight? It hasn’t been open for a whole year yet, but they recorded an amazing 30,000 boardings in their first two weeks open. Of course this doesn’t compare to the incredible figures of Metro—the Orange Line busway shattered ridership estimates, and I’ve heard the Blue Line is the most boarded rail line in the country—but these numbers are not insignificant in the least.
With subways to anywhere moving at a glacial pace, I actually think the future of LA might be found in these point-to-point, commercially-funded transit systems that are more like rides—cough, Disneyland, cough—than utilitarian, underground rail. A trolley/funicular combo that twirled up Highland would be a far more efficient way to get people from Hollywood Boulevard to the Hollywood Bowl, and could go on to connect people with access to the Hollywood Reservoir and our coming-soon Cahuenga Peak park. How about looking at the three most-visited museums or attractions in the city and committing to connecting those? How about a Beach Express that could help to keep cars far away from the clogged parking lots along the ocean, and make that first view of the Pacific Ocean even more special?
Of course, some people will say that unearthing our famous trolley heritage feels too throwback for Angelenos who should be looking firmly towards the future. And I’m sure that the idea of allowing private companies (and shudder, developers) to take over some of these mini-rail lines makes planners want to lay themselves down on the tracks. But whatever you think about the Grove, I can say with confidence that Caruso is right in one of his claims: It is a place that people go. In a matter of two hours there, I saw two of my friends—the lovely Jeff Miller and the lovely Nate Berg—and I haven’t run into a single other friend at any of the many, many museums and cultural institutions we’ve been visiting. In that sense, I think you can say that Caruso has given people what they want. And he might be right about what people want out of rail in LA.