A Transformative Moment: Taking the Train to the Women’s March

This post was first published on Capital & Main on January 31, 2017

The women’s march on Saturday, January 21 was extraordinary in many ways, but for Los Angeles it might also have been a transformative moment. The turnout in Los Angeles was as much as ten times the size of the most optimistic estimates in the days before the march. Estimates of the number of marchers have ranged as high as 750,000 participants. But how people travelled to the march sites at Pershing Square and City Hall was itself extraordinary and could become the day when transit re-established its role as central to the L.A. experience.

In the morning hours and then again later in the afternoon nearly every bus and rail line that headed towards or from downtown was packed at full capacity to the point that people waiting, sometimes for two hours or more, couldn’t get on since the trains were so crowded. In my experience, since the station for the Expo line at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica was completely filled on the platform for the eastbound train, my friends and I decided to board the train at 8:30 in the morning going west. The train then headed towards the ocean to its last Santa Monica stop at 4th Street. After stopping to presumably let people exit and others come on board, the train then reversed and headed east past Bergamot and towards its last eastern-most stop at 7th Street in downtown L.A. We weren’t the only ones with that idea. Like us, others at Bergamot had boarded the train heading west, and it immediately became filled to capacity. And when it stopped at its end point in Santa Monica before heading east, only one or two people were able to squeeze their way on to the train. Though packed to the hilt, people on the Expo line were friendly, courteous, cheerful, and boisterous, and clearly seemed to enjoy the sense that they were about to be part of something special.

This was truly a different kind of L.A. moment.

The numbers released by Metro about the number of riders on the day of the march bear that out. There were 592,000 people who boarded the train the day of the women’s march. The typical number of boarding passengers on a Saturday, according to Metro, is around 230,000. And there were more than 40,000 new tap cards issued the day of the march, likely representing first time users.  To put that in perspective, there were more people taking the Metro in Los Angeles than there were on Inauguration day in Washington DC, a city rightly applauded for its transit system.

Los Angeles still has a long way to go to re-establish itself as a major transit-oriented city; a claim it was able to make through the mid-1940s. But as it seeks to extend its rail (and hopefully as well its bus) systems, and also increase its bike and pedestrian capacity, one major barrier remains the idea that to get from one place to the next, no matter the distance or the circumstance or the location, one needs to travel by car. L.A. still remains a bit transit phobic; the women’s march suggests it might become less so.

-Robert Gottlieb

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