Exactly four weeks ago, the first train between Los Angeles and Santa Monica clattered westward, potentially changing the landscape of transportation in a city that long has been defined by the car (and the traffic jam). But is the new Metro Expo line actually the fastest way to get from skyline to shoreline?
In the quest for a definitive answer, plans for a classic race were hatched: car vs. train — and for a contemporary twist, an electric bicycle was thrown into the mix. The contestants were senior writer Gary Baum (nom de guerre Car Guy), senior writer Seth Abramovitch (aka Metro Guy) and features editor Peter Flax (dba Bike Guy). Like so many of the most famous marathons, this one connects two civic landmarks — a Starbucks in downtown L.A. and a Starbucks in Santa Monica. The rules are quite simple: No lawbreaking, no shady shenanigans and no whining. (The winner will be determined by time alone, but style points might be awarded for environmental sensitivity, cost savings, political correctness and social media impact.) And so, at 8:10 a.m. on Wednesday, June 14, fueled by large muffins and a little trash talk, a race across Los Angeles began. This is exactly what happened next, as told by each contestant.
CAR GUY Oddly enough, this car trip begins with one of the rarest modes of transit in L.A.: walking. And as I make my five-block journey from the Starbucks to my parking garage at the FIGat7th shopping center, I soak in the not-so-sweet scent of exhaust (which I really shouldn’t be complaining about, given my transit proclivities). But more strangely, I’m chased by the odor of dog feces, one that lingers until I more closely examine the sole of my right shoe. #Pedestrianlife.
METRO GUY After bidding adieu to my two coworkers, I walk three dense blocks through the financial district to Seventh Street/Metro Center station, where the light rail Blue and Expo Lines converge with the heavy rail Red and Purple Lines. This could be Manhattan. This could be any major U.S. city, really. I descend a staircase to the second underground level. After tinkering with the TAP machine (short for Transit Access Pass, a system that’s slightly more complicated to work than New York’s MetroCard vending machines), I ask three friendly employees in reflective vests how to catch the Expo Line to Santa Monica. “Make a right, climb a flight of stairs, make a left and down the stairs again to the platform! Take the light blue line, not the blue line!” he told me. How many different shades-of-blue line are there?
BIKE GUY I push off from Starbucks and roll south on Grand Avenue, which has a bike lane that is quite lovely, especially if you overlook the road construction and all the double-parked FedEx trucks. After a few easy minutes, I take a sweeping turn onto Venice Boulevard — this isn’t the fastest or most direct route to Santa Monica, but unlike suburban freeways like Olympic and Pico, it’s got a decent bike lane.
CAR GUY After an easy validation at Target, I hop in my car, exit the parking garage, punch in coordinates on Waze — which offers an atypically un-funky total freeway journey — and soon hit the 110 South onramp. The traffic is so light that I feel guilty. Sort of. (Not really.)
METRO GUY I’m standing on a busy but not-overly-crowded platform. A sign tells me the Expo Line — I don’t have my Pantone book, but it’s closer to aqua — is due to arrive in five minutes. It does, on schedule. This is great!
BIKE GUY I have left Starbucks Country, entering a frontier space in Los Angeles without a single Emmy consideration billboard. The eastern portion of Venice Boulevard, however, looks to be an excellent place if you’re searching for donuts, Al Pastor or auto body work. I’m riding an orange electric bike (a loaner from El Segundo-based newcomer Elby, whose rep urged me to identify it as tangerine) — I ride similar speeds on my road bike on my daily commute but this kind of pedal-assist technology means you can zip along in jeans without breaking a sweat. It feels like I’m noodling on the Santa Monica beach path but I’m hitting 18 mph. That’s a tangerine-colored win-win.
Photo taken by Peter Flax
CAR GUY It must be summer, because traffic on the 10 is so light. My Jewish guilt is rising, not just because I just know I’m going to handily win, but for environmental and sociological reasons, too. So guilty, in fact, that when Morning Edition is interrupted by KPCC’s “Hit It & Quit It” pledge drive (yes, that’s what the public radio station’s calling it) I decide to endure it as indirect penance rather than change the channel like everyone else does.
METRO GUY The crowded train empties — the station is the terminus for the light rail lines — and quickly fills up again. I have no trouble finding a seat. I scan the train to make sure I’m not preventing someone more deserving (frail and elderly, carrying a boxed toaster oven from Target) from sitting down. A male voice on a pre-recorded announcement warns, “Please don’t play loud music or take up more than one seat.” Makes sense.
BIKE GUY I stop at a red light at the intersection with San Vicente that takes three minutes to turn green. Given how so many people seem to love to hate cyclists, I’m making sure I follow all the rules of the road. Truth is, I meet a lot of people who like to describe urban cyclists as renegades but from my vantage point on two wheels I’m seeing a lot of naughty drivers. Everywhere I look, I see drivers futzing with their phones — people texting, people Facebooking, people squinting at their favorite mapping app. I see a guy in a Tesla biting his lower lip as he rolls a rotary razor over his chin.
CAR GUY Noted architectural scholar Reyner Banham famously said he learned to drive so he could read the city in the original. My cycling and light-railing colleagues might argue that they exist closer to the Los Angeles road and their fellow Angelenos, but I, in my hurtling-death-machine of quietude, am far better able to reflect and ponder on the distinct sprawling milieu that’s inspired the likes of Michael Mann and Ed Ruscha. I think about this and then I eat a banana.
TRAIN GUY I am having a very leisurely commute. The train has now been above ground for several stops (handy for texting friends about my exciting race and posting race photos to Instagram) as it passes Exposition Park at U.S.C. The Culver City stop is announced before I know it — fittingly enough as I read a book about the Munchkins of The Wizard of Oz, most of whom were put up at the historic Culver Hotel.
BIKE GUY Right after I cross Fairfax, I hear a loud horn sound behind me. I look back — I’m being tailed by a woman in a cream-colored Lexus sedan. She’s driving in the dedicated bike and bus lane (probably because Waze is telling her that a right onto I-10 is coming soon). I give an arms raised gesture that conveys friendly bewilderment accented by subtle notes of sanctimony. Building bridges out here.
CAR GUY At the La Brea Avenue off-ramp, traffic grows more congested. I settle into the stop-and-go mental rhythm — it can be bliss if you just let yourself go, trusting fully in Waze’s ability to predict your arrival time. I glance around the freeway at my fellow drivers, each in the midst of passive contemplation, each bearing an indistinct gaze as they listen to an audio book or a podcast or talk radio or music or their own inner thoughts. Joan Didion’s long-ago line about the city’s freeway system — that it’s “the only secular communion Los Angeles has” — remains true.
TRAIN GUY At this point in the voyage, the train is fairly empty. The announcer’s voice pipes in again: “Sexual harassment is strictly prohibited,” he says. “Report any inappropriate touching or comments to our tips hotline.” The passengers smile nervously. I look over and notice a warning sign: “See something. Say something.” I look under my seat. There’s nothing there.
BIKE GUY I roll under a gridlocked I-10. And a few minutes later, I cross beneath the Expo station in Culver and see people clustered on the platform. I am inhaling the fresh(ish) air and smelling the taco trucks and only occasionally getting cut off by buses. I am commuting, exercising and having an adventure at the same time. I am not beholden to fossil fuels or NPR fund drives. In other words, I am winning.
CAR GUY Just past Robertson Boulevard. I see a billboard for Universal’s The Secret Life of Pets, out July 8. “Wonder What They Do All Day?” it reads. That’s a really good question.
TRAIN GUY I strike up a conversation with a couple beside me who have spent much of the ride designing a family crest. Travis Collins, 26, and Mitali Jain, 27, tell me they are avid Metro users who recently moved to Los Feliz from farther-out L.A. suburbs. Jain is a painter and part-time actress who is on her way to a commercial shoot in Venice Beach. (“I’m not sure if I’m supposed to tell you this,” she says, “But it’s for a brand of gluten-free bread. We’re in teams. I’m on the green team.”) Collins works in marketing for a branding company. He says he loves working remotely from a cafe by the beach and will spend the day doing just that until Jain’s shoot is done. They’ll then take light rail home together.
Photo taken by Seth Abramovitch
BIKE GUY I reach the 405 and note that I haven’t checked my email or text messages in almost an hour. Even though I wait an eternity for the light at Sawtelle to turn green, I resist the urge — I am commuting with nature. In any case, I am firmly on the Westside: Starbucks every few blocks; all the billboards touting Netflix and HBO content. And for the first time since I left DTLA, I see another cyclist, a guy on a vintage Italian road bike, who could be labeled as a hipster.
CAR GUY I’m on the 10 only a few minutes from my exit in Santa Monica — and I can’t stop thinking about the pure joy of the automobile: the privacy, the freedom, the convenience. Cars used to have a good reputation.
BIKE GUY I turn onto Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice and almost immediately get passed by a grown man on an electric skateboard holding a cup from Intelligentsia. I like to think he was headed to his standing desk at Google to tweak whatever algorithms are decisive in making this article more searchable for eternity.
CAR GUY I pull into the Santa Monica Civic Center’s energy-efficient parking garage, featuring photovoltaic panels on the roof. See, the contemporary car scene isn’t all bad… right?
TRAIN GUY The train arrives in Santa Monica. At the exit, two scruffy Metro employees scan TAP cards with handheld readers to expedite the disembarking process (i.e. get rid of us). I head directly toward the Pacific Ocean, which beckons. I enjoy the smell of salt air and notice that the locals are incredibly fit and attractive, even for L.A. I pass a few familiar landmarks like Chez Jay’s on my way to Starbucks.
CAR GUY I leisurely stroll a couple of blocks to the Starbucks at Olympic Drive and Main Street at 9:05 a.m., texting my slowpoke comrades with photographic proof and a note: “Victory is vehicular culture’s. Would you like a Venti to console your loss?” I feel no guilt in my triumph.
BIKE GUY I pull up to Starbucks and pull up a smug text from Gary that he beat me. Typical driver behavior. Seth is nowhere to be seen so I get the silver medal! According to a fitness tracker, I averaged 16 mph (nearly identical to what the car could manage), an easy frolic on an e-bike but totally doable on a road bike for a recreational spandex type. I celebrate with a double smoked bacon, cheddar and egg sandwich that contains 490 calories, surely more than I burned on the ride. Clearly I’m the winner.
TRAIN GUY I spot Gary and Peter lounging at the cafe. I may have come in third, but sounds to me as if I had the best commute of all.
Peter Flax, Gary Baum and Seth Abramovitch before (left) and after (right) the commute; Photos taken by Seth Abramovitch
RACE RECAP Car Guy wins by a nose, completing a 14.8-mile drive in 55 minutes. The cost of the trip (excluding gas, insurance, depreciation, impact on environment and regular detailing) is $1.00. Second place went to Bike Guy, finishing a no-cost 15.9-mile ride in 59 minutes. Third place was awarded to Metro Guy, who did roughly a quarter mile of walking and a 15.2-mile train ride in 64 minutes. The total cost of the trip was $2.75, excluding muffins.