Despite the overwhelming midday heat, Woodie Hamilton is perfectly at ease on the 534 bus to Santa Monica. Wearing an undershirt and work slacks, he casually greets other riders and lays down his laptop bag on the floor, his collared shirt and tie hanging on the handrails above him.
This is his daily commute, and in a town where cars are king, Hamilton hasn't driven a car regularly since 1996. With the upcoming expansion of the Expo Line to Santa Monica, he isn't planning on getting behind the wheel any time soon.
"Without question, I'm looking forward to the Metro Line," said Hamilton, who lives in Baldwin Hills. "It's going to open up the West Side a lot."
The Santa Monica stop at Colorado and 4th is currently under construction and is the latest in an on-going expansion of Los Angeles' Metro Rail System, a plan that includes extensions to the Expo Line, the Gold Line and the Purple Line, as well as construction of the Regional Connector and Crenshaw Line light rails.
Rick Cole, newly appointed Santa Monica city manager, believes that the Santa Monica expansion is most important in what it symbolizes for the future of Los Angeles.
"This is the tipping point," Cole said. "When [the Santa Monica stop] opens, and when the others open sequentially, you'll be able to go from anywhere in Santa Monica to a lot of places in Southern California, and a lot of Southern California will be able to get to Santa Monica. That's a new era for Los Angeles."
Although some hesitation exists, many Santa Monica business owners appear to welcome the expansion. Not only could retail businesses bring in a greater amount of customers, but they could potentially diversify their customer base. Businesses that offer professional services may also stand to win by widening their employee pool, attracting workers who were either unwilling or unable to make the commute into Santa Monica previously.
For Hamilton, who runs his own marketing firm, the Expo Line doesn't just present a faster way to work, but opens up a major business opportunity.
"Our marketing initiative is called 'TriCityAlliance,' where we're working with businesses in downtown Los Angeles, Culver City and Santa Monica to create a reciprocating partnership between businesses along that corridor where they can cross-market," Hamilton said.
"There's going to be a lot of opportunities to do ... increase economic dollars from that region if there's a collective voice, if there's a centralized voice," Hamilton explains. "That's another reason I ride Expo, because I see that solution."
However, the line has raised several concerns among the area's residents.
Santa Monica already bears the marks of a booming tourist industry: from its 3rd Street Promenade one can easily locate luggage stores, daily bike rentals and foreign exchanges. Many in the area feel that the line expansion will bring in even more tourists, and with that, even more congestion.
But Cole says even without the threat of additional tourists, Santa Monica residents can expect the expansion to bring "direct, tangible, adverse effects."
"It will make auto traffic north-south in the city —— which is already pretty terrible —— even worse," Cole said.
Furthermore, he notes, there will be shortages in parking in the "more urbanized areas" and will introduce a greater potential for pedestrian injury and vehicular collisions.
Even with these challenges, one can find Santa Monica residents who are optimistic about what's to come.
"It would be nice to have more ways out of the West Side, more efficient ways, because the Big Blue Bus is kind of a mess, so that'll be great —— if it works," says Tanya Merriman, a Santa Monica resident and professor at the University of Southern California.
Cole noted that the Santa Monica extension is not a panacea for the "near-gridlock levels" of congestion on the West Side, but it's significant in the potential it creates.
"The train is just one dimension of the mobility options," Cole said.
But it's a change that could signal a fundamental shift in the way the city approaches transportation.
"It's the biggest change in transportation since the 10 Freeway opened in 1965," Cole said. "It's the spine around which we will build a range of mobility options beyond auto-dependency for the vast majority of residents."