If you drive through Cheviot Hills and Rancho Park and see the orange-and-black signs peppering front lawns, you might get the impression that these neighborhoods solidly oppose the coming of the Expo light-rail line. "Kids and Trains Don't Mix," they shout, and "Don't Let the Train Block the Road." But the reality is quite different.
Every weekend for the last couple of months, a group of us have been walking door to door, talking to our neighbors about the Expo Line that will soon connect our community to downtown Los Angeles, Santa Monica and points in between.
One Saturday we met a couple and two youngsters just returning home as we arrived at their door. "I'm all for Expo!" the dad said enthusiastically. "My only complaint is that it is not closer to where we live!"
Many of our neighbors have enjoyed living in cities with highly developed transit systems, such as Chicago, New York, Paris and Berlin. One woman had chosen her Boston apartment because it was near a rail station, so she could commute without driving. "Why," these neighbors ask us, looking puzzled, "would anyone not want a transit line near their homes?"
As we go door to door, it becomes extremely clear: The great majority of our neighbors either welcome this new transit line or are uninformed but open to it. Only a minority oppose the line.
One weekend we knocked on 60 doors. We found 15 active supporters of the rail line at grade as currently proposed, three vehement opponents and 14 who had no opinion one way or the other. (The others weren't home.) And so it goes every weekend: We've never found the opponents in the majority. At this point, we have talked with more than half of the 1,400 households in Cheviot Hills, giving priority to those who live closer to the line.
But, as often happens in our democracy, the noise of a vocal minority is louder than the quiet majority. Today in Cheviot Hills and Rancho Park, the anti-mass-transit minority is hollering, while the much-larger group that supports the rail line sits back quietly.
Community sentiment has changed since 1992, when Yvonne Brathwaite Burke defeated Diane Watson in the race for county supervisor. Burke's firm opposition to a light-rail line on the Exposition right-of-way echoed the vocal stance of the board of directors of the Cheviot Hills Homeowners Assn. and helped her win. But blocking construction of the line left the Westside suffering ever-worse traffic congestion even as residents of the rest of the city were finally able to benefit from mass-transit alternatives to driving.
Before retiring, Burke changed her mind and supported construction of the Expo Line on the empty right-of-way. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents Cheviot Hills and Rancho Park, also supports the Expo Line and argues that at-grade light rail is the perfect system for our low-density suburban city. And, after testimony of dozens of proponents and a flood of e-mails in favor of the rail line, the Expo Authority board of directors voted in February to build the line on the right-of-way.
Not to be deterred, opponents now hope to stop Expo Line construction with a lawsuit challenging the environmental impact report, scheduled for trial Tuesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court. And, while collecting the necessary money to sue, they've put out signs and worked hard to stir up fear with lies and half-truths about the line.
They claim, for example, that it will block traffic on Overland Avenue and Westwood Boulevard when, in fact, the Overland signal at Ashby currently turns red 40 times an hour at peak periods and the Expo Line will cross Overland only 24 times in that same hour. Coordinating the signals will mean minimal or no delays to north-south traffic.
Preying on parents' natural and normal protectiveness, these naysayers allege that the line will endanger students at Overland Elementary School. To refute that, we need only look to the Gold Line. There are 38 schools within a mile of that line, and not one child has been injured in its seven years of operation. And teachers love to use the Gold Line for field trips.
If you live east of us and work in Santa Monica or Century City, or if you live west of us and work downtown, you probably find yourself inching along the 10 Freeway every day. And Expo opponents would have you continue fighting this traffic into eternity.
So we continue to walk our neighborhoods talking with our neighbors, hoping that this time the quiet majority will finally prevail and we will all gain the choice of leaving our cars at home.
Karen Leonard is an anthropology professor at UC Irvine. Sarah Hays is a Los Angeles architect. They are co-chairs of Light Rail for Cheviot Hills (lightrailforcheviot.org).