A train to somewhere

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.

My little Angel

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.

Getty train

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.

More about the USC/Annenberg Getty Arts Journalism Fellowship. More photos here.

This entry was posted in building, designing, riding, USC/Annenberg Getty, walking. Bookmark the permalink.
  • dogwelderx

    I know people complain about the LA subway system, but I love the Red Line. I live near the Universal City station. I almost always take the train downtown, and I usually take it if I'm going to Hollywood. I wish the Orange Line was an elevated train instead of a bus – my parents live in the West Valley, and that would be a nice trip- but there's no way the folks on Chandler would let that happen.

    …and if they actually managed to build the “Subway to the Sea,” I would be on that thing all the time.

  • artfart1975

    I agree with dogwelderx. The subways don't go to “nowhere,” quite the contrary. I love taking the red line to Hollywood and downtown. It's very convenient and a wonderful alternative to driving in traffic, paying for parking, and then having to be extra careful not to drink too much. It's definitely faster than driving on the 101!

    And consider me in on that “Subway to the Sea,” too. That needs to happen. Like five years ago.

  • Hcrummer

    I also use the train all the time. I live in Pasadena and I take the train to Hollywood, Long Beach, Little Tokyo, etc. When I need to travel out of the area, I take the train to Union Station and catch the express to LAX or Amtrak/Metrolink to wherever I want to go. I will be excited when the train gets to the sea and when the Gold Line extension happens, but I definitely don't think our train system “doesn't actually go anywhere.”

  • Rico

    This is totally fascinating and makes me rethink my disdain for several of the rides you mentioned. Connecting the trolley from the Grove to the BevCenter would be MAGICAL for that entire area, by the way, which is hopelessly overtrafficked (lots of narrow side streets).

    That said, as a former Pittsburgher, you'll never get me to appreciate Angel's Flight. You want to see funiculars? Here, here're some effing *funiculars:*



  • Atheatre1

    Did Mom go on the Angel Flight funicular? It's on my list for our next trip to LA.

    Grandpa Petro

  • Condorita

    While we're at it, can we turn the remaining bits and pieces of Pacific Electric rights-of-way into multi-use trails? A great many of them are still around, still neglected and unused (a wonderful exception: Bellflower's segment!).

  • im

    not to mention the fact that LA had a lot of those trains/trams in the past. i love the idea of the many short rides. i was recently in Seattle where they just reopened the streetcar (http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/stcar_slu.htm) the most interesting and astonishing fact is that each stop is sponsored by “someone” and that the voice that announce the stop each time says the sponsor, endlessly, what a great way of getting publicity! is that all right to get all this attention? not sure, but the result, the streetcar itself, it is great!

  • http://twitter.com/ScottMercer Scott Mercer

    I'm not “on board” with the idea the subways go “nowhere.” Downtown LA and Hollywood aren't exactly rural outposts with tumbleweeds rolling down the streets. The Red Line usually carries 140k or 150k passengers a day. That's not chicken feed, and is more than several other “heavy rail” systems in the United States. Lower than Chicago, New York or Washington, yes, but not much.

    But, I do support your activism for these “small lines.” (You did leave out the Port of Los Angeles Red Car. )

    In my way of thinking, streetcar lines like this could bridge gaps between subway lines, and more importantly, cost so much less than subways that individual municipalities could build and operate them.

    I'm thinking of a streetcar in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, that would connect Hollywood and Highland with Wilshire and LaCienega, owned by the cities. A streetcar in Alhambra that would connect the El Monte busway with the Gold LIne in South Pasadena, owned by the city of Alhambra. A streetcar in Norwalk, connecting the end of the Green Line with the Metrolink station two miles away, owned by the City of Norwalk, which already has its own bus lines. A streetcar owned by Culver City Bus, going from the Expo Line station down Venice Boulevard to the Beach…where a streetcar used to run over 40 years ago. There's plenty of room on the street.

    These are just initial ideas, but many more could be cooked up. Good post.

  • Alissa

    Thanks everyone for your awesome comments!

    Also, I don't believe the statement about the train not going anywhere, either (I take it all the time, too!) but I hear it from a *lot* of people—that the train doesn't go to the places that they actually want to go.

  • John Parman

    This is a great article – one of the first I've seen to take a contrary view (of a topic that suffers hugely from group-think).

  • Wanderer

    This article is akin to saying we don't need fish, we need broccoli. You need both. The long trunk rail lines–which LA actually has a pretty good record of getting built–are needed to get from Pasadena to Santa Monica. Connecting lines, which can be bus or rail, are needed for “the last mile” or in some instances (like up a steep hill like Bunker Hill) the last fraction of a mile. I like the Hollywood Boulevard-Hollywood Bowl idea, but it's a complement to the Red Line, not a substitute for it.

  • Mike

    Hi Alissa! Great article! I love the idea of the subway in LA, but agree that with light rail, you get to see more of the wonderful city we live in. Some areas we really do need subway instead of light rail though (Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica Blvd come to mind). Street cars coupled with subway and light rail sounds like a great idea, and we really should start pushing that. Can't wait for the street car to be built in downtown LA. Hope they find the means to get that working through Echo Park, Silver Lake, Los Feliz all the way to Hollywood. These areas really need some mode of transit to hit all the destinations.

  • Rickrise

    Extending the Grove's silly trolley down Third would be a good idea–it would actually be useful as well as fun then, and it would seed the idea of more rail transit. Nothing wrong with local short lines, as you said.

    BTW, in Japan, many local subways are built by developers (and often have a major station in one of their store basements); they both compete and coordinate with the JR (government) subways, and all of them–JR included–make a profit and feed each other passengers.

  • Davethecat

    The trolley at The Grove serves another very particular function. The Fairfax/Farmer's Market area had been home (and continues to be home) to a population that was/is aging. There was a lot of neighborhood resentment for the new complex and real concerns that the aging population would be displaced by shops they would never use and too hard for them to get around. The Grove is successful because it managed to meet the needs of the entire population. The trolley, along with the performance areas, grass, movie theaters, fountains, even the music that emanates from the planter boxes made it possible for the elderly to enjoy the new complex the same as everyone else. Having grown up in this area for 50+ years, I also was very upset to see this change in the neighborhood and it took me more than a year to visit The Grove, but since then I have been very impressed with all the innovation and intent to make it a real gathering place. Interestingly enough, I do not feel the same about the Glendale Americana. THAT feels only commercial to me.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I’d actually like to see the trolley extended to connect with the under-construction Metro station at Wilshire & Fairfax. Just a stone’s throw away, but annoyingly far for those of us who don’t have a car (and even when I had a car the Fairfax traffic between Wilshire and The Grove was the worst).