The Red Line Just Turned 30. Here’s Why It Matters.

Text by India Mandelkern.

The B (Red) Line has always been the busiest line in our transit network. On an average weekday, the B Line has about 75,000 boardings.

Together with the D (Purple) Line, which shares some of the same track, the B Line has seen more than 400 million boardings over the past decade.

The B Line is one of many subways around the world that are ubiquitous. Nobody bats an eye.

Before the first 4.4-mile segment of the Red Line debuted in 1993 between Union Station and MacArthur Park, the idea of underground rail in Los Angeles most definitely raised eyebrows.

After all, Angelenos had never had a modern subway before. Would the new system be safe? Would it hold up in an earthquake? Would it be fast and compelling enough to lure Angelenos from their cars?

The leaders of Metro’s predecessors, the Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD) and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC), were determined to assuage the public’s concerns. They put out informational videos, like the one below, demonstrating how the new system would work for millions of would-be riders. Safety from natural disasters was a top priority, and the engineers had planned for everything. Seismically-reinforced tunnels, fire-resistant vehicles, emergency sprinklers. You name it. The Red Line could weather an apocalypse.

Yet even if the new subway’s engineering was state-of-the-art, the L.A. region was a driving city. The streetcars were long gone, the Blue Line was in its infancy. You had to give people good reasons to get them out of their cars.

To drum up excitement for the new subway, SCRTD initiated a public art element, officials dedicated .05% of the capital project budget for public artworks in each station.

This was considered a huge sum at the time. Each station was envisioned as an underground gallery that channeled a unique sense of place (such as Stephen Antonakos’ 12 neon sculptures that paid homage to the first neon-illuminated building in Pershing Square, or Roberto Gil de Montes’s allegorical triptych describing the descent underground at the 7th Street/Metro Center Station).

Art was also regarded as a social salve that could discourage litter and vandalism. “If we can get people to better respect these stations,” one commissioner remarked, “the money for public art will be well spent.”

Crowds on the Red Line shortly after it opened.

None of this should make you believe that building the Red Line was easy. It took 6.5 years to complete the first segment, which cost $330 million per mile.

But for many Angelenos, it was worth the wait. More than 52,800 people rode on the first day. Over 91,000 people rode it on the second day. By April 1, 1993, the Red Line had welcomed its millionth passenger. The lucky rider was honored with $100 worth of tokens (this was pre-TAP) and a gift certificate to Langer’s Deli, which had seen pastrami sales triple thanks to its proximity to the MacArthur Park/Westlake Station.

Equally important, the Red Line inspired awe among its first riders.

“For now, the novelty of the Red Line seems to have created a jovial atmosphere,” the Los Angeles Times reported in February 1993, nearly a month after it opened.

Unlike the New York City subway, where people were accustomed to avoiding eye contact, Angeleno riders “are still intrigued enough by their new surroundings that they have yet to develop the surly exterior of commuters whose only concern is to get quickly from here to there.”

Construction of the new twin tunnels.

This sense of awe extended to the trains themselves. When the Red Line debuted, keeping the sleek Italian-made subway cars clean and pristine was all-important. If riders didn’t feel comfortable descending into the stations, LA’s bet on rail would be worthless.

So, Metro invested in an ambitious cleaning campaign, preparing for the worst. Despite their concerns, however, there was little to clean, especially during those first months. Two instances of graffiti. Some gum. Some stains and candy wrappers. Angelenos seemed to take pride in their brand new ride.

Rendering of a proposed Red Line station.

So here we are, 30 years later. The Red Line is now officially known as the B Line  and continues beyond MacArthur Park; by the year 2000 it had been extended all the way to North Hollywood.

There have certainly been new challenges — the COVID-19 pandemic, the increase in our region’s unhoused population. We’re working to make our entire system feel safer and more comfortable for everyone.

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley at an opening event. He pushed hard to modernize our local transit system.

Still, we can’t overstate the Red Line’s significance to our mission. The Red Line introduced a new mode of transportation to a city designed for driving. It was a proof of concept that local rail can work in Los Angeles in spite of claims that it couldn’t be done.

It was a critical step toward the brighter, fairer, and cleaner future that inspires everything we do.

And, of course, the inevitable Elvis impersonator at a Red Line opening event.