Expo Line far exceeds ridership goals, but growth will be difficult to sustain

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The Expo Line light rail to Santa Monica attracted about 64,000 daily riders in June, a number officials weren't expecting to hit until 2030. But despite the line's popularity, constraints on the line could limit its long-term ridership growth.

Expo's quick success is a bright spot for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which has seen ridership drop system-wide in recent years.

Ridership gains on the Expo Line to Santa Monica and Gold Line to Azusa, the two light rail extensions that opened last year, have swiftly surpassed the projections contained in environmental reviews completed in 2009 and 2007 when the lines were planned.

But the high demand for the Expo's popular beach-bound trains could make for an Expo ride that is even more crowded in the months ahead. Transit-oriented development is planned along the route that will create more housing nearby and draw more riders on a rail line that can only grow so much.

Locating housing along transit, and bringing likely riders within a short walk of the line, is key to justifying the billions invested in rail transit. Mixed-used developments with high-density housing are planned for several locations along the Expo Line, including at the Culver City Ivy Station, which will see 200 residential units in a space formerly occupied by parking spaces.

Expo's physical limitations

The Expo Line currently runs at six-minute intervals during peak hours. Metro hopes to increase the frequency of the trains as ridership grows and more rail cars are completed. But the agency can't run a train beyond every five minutes because of space limitations on tracks shared with the Blue Line in downtown Los Angeles, where trains must stop at signals to let car traffic through.

Metro can add another car to a small number of Expo trains that are running with two cars, but it can't extend beyond that because the platforms along the line were built to accommodate only three cars. There are also space constraints at Metro's rail yard that limit the trains to three cars.

Gary Spivack, Metro's deputy head of transit operations, believes some pressure will be taken off the Expo line once the rail network expands. The completion of the Crenshaw/LAX Line is scheduled in 2019 and the Purple Line subway to Westwood in 2024.

"As we move forward, the system overall is gaining capacity — not just the Expo Line itself. People will have more options," he said.

The ridership projections come from the 2009 Environmental Impact Report, which were used to apply for federal funding. The Federal Transit Administration requires such estimates to be based on the current employment and population conditions when the environmental review takes place, rather than speculative future growth and development to safeguard federal investments.

The Expo Line ridership projection was formulated before Phase 1 opened; it also quickly overcame its 2020 ridership projection by 2015. The 2009 projections also were made when the technology industry in the Santa Monica area was just developing, and mobility options like bike-share and ride-hailing were not yet available, all of which factor into Expo's high ridership.

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