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MTA is on wrong track

Agency's plan to install turnstiles at subway and light-rail stations is a betrayal of their design.

December 05, 2007|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

The subway station is one of the newest building types in Greater Los Angeles. It is also one of the most thoroughly under-examined. When was the last time you thought, even fleetingly, about the design of L.A.'s subway and light-rail stops?

One reason the stations have remained relatively anonymous, architecturally speaking, is that most have settled comfortably into the city's landscape. Particularly on the Gold Line -- where above-ground stops in Chinatown, Highland Park, South Pasadena and elsewhere have an open, airy feel and real urban charisma -- these designs successfully reflect the energy and spirit of Southern California. That's no small accomplishment when you consider that for many Americans the very idea of a rail line is synonymous with older, vertical cities, dank underground spaces and creaking infrastructure.

So why is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority so determined to tinker with that success?

The MTA board voted overwhelmingly last week to push forward with a plan to install turnstiles in all its underground stations and in what it calls "strategic" stops along the light-rail Gold and Blue lines. The proposal has been in the news mostly for its economic and political implications. It would cost an estimated $30 million and save roughly $6.8 million per year by eliminating the cost of carrying the 5% of riders who exploit the current honor system by failing to buy a ticket.

But the proposal also promises to have a substantial architectural and urban-design effect. Indeed, 10 or 20 years from now, what we will probably remember about the turnstile plan is not whether it saved money for the MTA but that it marked the moment when the physical design of the system moved, in both literal and symbolic terms, from open to closed.

For me -- and I suspect for many other Angelenos -- the 5% premium represented by those who cheat the system seems an acceptable price to pay for the architectural and aesthetic benefits of its openness. As its staff prepares to send a final gate plan back to its board in January, the MTA shouldn't overlook the extent to which the best-designed stations, by their very sense of fluid connection to the city, attract new riders even as they make fare-skipping possible.

This is particularly true for above-ground stations served by light rail as opposed to subway stations buried beneath the streets. The typical MTA subway station was designed from the start to accommodate turnstiles. Adding them would certainly change the sense of flow and freedom that now characterize any MTA subway trip, but it wouldn't fundamentally alter the architecture of the stations.

The open-air stations, though, were never meant to include turnstiles, which could ruin their careful balance of accessibility and security. Take the South Pasadena stop on the Gold Line, officially known as Mission Station. With architecture by McLean & Schultz, a firm in Brea, and artwork by Michael Stutz, the station is open to the neighborhood on all sides.

Riders simply walk from the sidewalk, or from the pocket park that abuts the station, onto the tracks, where they can pick up a train heading east toward Sierra Madre or southwest into Chinatown and downtown. Those disembarking at Mission can walk directly onto adjoining sidewalks, entering the street life of the city instantaneously.

The success of the Mission station, from an architectural point of view, is now inextricably connected to the revival of the neighborhood as a whole, which is unusual in Southern California in its compact walkability. Would the station seem as attractive if the area around it weren't thriving? Perhaps not. But would all of the nearby restaurants and wine bars have opened up there without the proximity to one of the best-designed, easiest-to-use stations in the region? That too seems unlikely.

MTA official Jane Matsumoto, who has helped spearhead the gate plan, told me by phone Tuesday that Mission Station and other stops like it on the Gold Line have "architectural constraints" that make adding turnstiles impractical. It's encouraging to hear that gates are unlikely there, but the very phrase she used suggests that the culture of the MTA sees these issues less clearly than it should.

It's not architectural constraints that make gates impossible in South Pasadena. It's openness -- an appealing lack of constraints. The Mission design should be a model for future stations, not seen as an anomaly.

Matsumoto has been looking closely at the particulars of gate design lately. As any regular subway rider knows, some gates are better designed and work more smoothly than others. The "iron maiden" gates popular in some parts of the New York subway system, heavy barriers that run from floor to ceiling, would look particularly out of place here. Other types include the "parting leaf" gates used in Washington, D.C., and the bi-fold, "saloon-style" variation.

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