Monday, September 30, 2013

That Midnight Train to Culver City

Patty here

I once told a friend that I used public transportation, most notably the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus. She stared at me in disbelief and then laughed nervously. Until that moment, I didn’t realize the perception of some Los Angeles Westsiders was that public transportation is an alien concept.

The Big Blue Bus

My mother never learned to drive a car, so growing up in Washington I always took the bus. When I moved to Seattle, I had a job on Queen Anne Hill where parking was street only and hard to find, so I took the bus to work, even though going home I had to transfer on a corner in downtown that after dark was junkie central. I never had a problem and never thought much about my personal safety. (Ah, youth)

The easiest subway to understand and navigate is the London Tube. Tokyo’s subway is a cookie cutter version of the Tube. Despite the language barrier, I was able to travel throughout the city by myself. Moscow’s subway was scrupulously clean, its walls covered with heroic worker art. Los Angeles is late to the party but it's in the process of building a light rail network that has been decades in the making. It will take several more years before a station reaches me but I see promising signs: some streets are now clogged with overpass construction.

The closest station to me is the Expo Line in Culver City. For a while I’ve been thinking about taking a ride to see how it works. Friday I finally did it. I wasn't sure where the station was, so I made a test run that morning to scope out the terrain. It wasn’t easy to find due to lane closures and construction. The park-and-ride lot was free, clean, well lit and nearly full. There are no paper tickets. You have to buy a plastic “tap” card for a buck. I think it’s like a debit card, i.e., you buy “credit” to add to it. I’m sure it’s easy when you know how to use it—and I thought I did—but the instructions weren’t all that clear as you will later read.

Expo Line

Friday night I had tickets to see Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch in The Sunshine Boys at the Ahmanson Theatre (wonderful!). To make sure I got there for the 8:00 p.m. curtain and a pre-show taco, I caught the 5:57 p.m. Expo Line train to the 7th Street/Metro Center Station and transferred to the Red Line headed for Civic Center Station. Both trains were full of mostly young people from various walks of life, including some walks I wouldn’t have taken. The route took me through parts of the city I had never seen before.

Now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles

Along the route, threatening signs warned me to tap, tap, tap my tap card at every turn and I ended up tapping away all my “credit” for the return trip. (Do you have to “tap” when you transfer? Nobody’s saying.) This exposed one of my pet peeves: If you’re writing instructions, you should assume people know nothing about the subject. If they do, they can skip ahead. If they don't, they'll know what the heck they're supposed to do.

After exiting at Civic Center Station, I strolled through the lovely Grand Park to get to the Music Center. That’s when I began to wonder whether the park would be as lovely at 11:00 p.m. when I had to walk back to the station in total darkness. I also worried who would be riding the train on the return trip to Culver City.

I’m happy to report that the park was just as lovely going back and all the young people who shared my car were mostly well behaved except for the four twenty-something guys hawking and spitting chewing tobacco into potato chip bags.

There’s the bottom line:
  • Train trip cost: $6.50 roundtrip because I over tapped. Should have cost $1.50 each way plus $1 for the card.
  • Train travel time: 1 hour and 15 minutes
  • Drive trip cost: $5.00 gas (estimate) plus parking at the theatre $10
  • Drive travel time: 45-50 minutes to the theatre in rush hour traffic, 30 minutes home
Would I take the trip again? Sure. Why? Sometimes a writer needs to get out of her comfort zone and see what the rest of the world looks like. It's important to understand the struggles some people face every single day of their lives. I saw a few of them on my journey. It's humbling and I'm betting the experience makes for better writing, too.

What's your favorite train/subway? Your favorite anti comfort zone trip?

Happy Monday!


  1. Whenever I was attending the Ahmanson or Taper Theaters, I would take the subway from Universal City downtown. Exactly 25 minutes. No hassle. Better than the 101. When they finally get light rail east of Culver City, your east-west route will be dramatically improved. Paul Levine

    1. I hope so because fighting Friday night traffic through downtown L.A. is the pits, as you well know.

  2. Patty, I've done London and Tokyo "tubes" and agree they are the easiest and best. As for L.A.? Never, not in this life. Nor Seattle's either, for that matter. The Seattle route goes through Gangland, great planning, that.

    1. When I lived in Seattle the monorail only went from the Seattle Center to downtown. But, Karl, never say never :O) You may just be ready for another great adventure.

  3. Hi Patty - what a great post! Needless to say, I love the Tube, and also London buses and I travel everywhere on the regular overground too. The Tube is 150 years old this year, though the map we have come to love, and that makes it so easy to get around dates back to about 1931. Needless to say, the actual Tube looks nothing like the diagrammatic map, but Harry Beck, the designer, was a genius, making it so simple to negotiate the underground railway - apparently there are noises about a redesign, but I do hope not! I love getting my Oyster card topped up and just whizzing here and there when I am in London - and I think it's designed so you can't over tap! Here in the Bay Area we have fair public transport - and I love to ride the ferries especially, so much more efficient, less stress and cheaper than the car! Jacqueline

    1. I hope they don't change the tube, either. And I love ferries. When I lived in Seattle, I used to take my bike on the ferry and ride the islands.

  4. I ride Seattle Metro pretty much daily. There are some lines that are dicier than others, obviously, but in general, I'm pretty pleased with the buses here. Of course if they cut all my routes next year, that opinion will change. But for character studies, the bus is great, and I've made some solid friends along the way.

    1. I agree about character material, Fran. Always good people watching experiences. When the Los Angeles Festival of Books was held at UCLA, I always took the bus. Almost everybody was heading to the festival and I had some lively conversations.