The LA Podcast

Metro’s Oscar Nightmare

by Alissa Walker
May 3, 2021
From the director of Traffic. Photo by Alissa Walker

“You have got to be kidding me,” I said to no one in particular as I looked to the right, where a security guard for the Oscars was pointing me towards what looked exactly like a freeway ramp. It probably shouldn’t have surprised me that he told me to walk that way, a route with three “no pedestrian” signs, plus an additional sign that said “NO PEDESTRIANS” in words in case you missed the other three. But after spending 45 minutes trying to get to Union Station from the Little Tokyo side, with every street lined with signage reading “AWARD PERMIT ONLY LIMO/VALET” dead-ending in 8-foot chain link fences, a group of us on foot determined that this ramp — which apparently was, technically, a freeway ramp, but only for buses — was likely the shortest walk into the station via the bus plaza at the rear. When we were halfway up the ramp, the Silver Line rattled by, unnervingly close, as I followed the others on what would be my first of many ludicrous journeys that day.

A month and a half ago, just after it was announced that the Oscars would be trying something new for its Very Special Pandemic-Era Special™, I pleaded with Metro: Please, don’t do this. There were plenty of safe, empty, camera-ready venues that would not have diverted public transit riders onto dedicated busways, like Dodger Stadium, or the Hollywood Bowl, or a bunch of historic movie theaters, or Carolina Miranda’s brilliant idea to use the Music Center instead. When I was resigned to the fact that the venue wouldn’t change, I passed along some advice: “Roll out a literal red carpet for transit users; create and give out commemorative Metro cards; and have non-police ambassadors on site to steer riders where to go.” 

When I went downtown on Sunday I was planning to write a lighthearted story about how the station did, in fact, stay fully operational for transit users, how even the distinctive butter-cinnamon scent of Wetzel’s Pretzels, cited by Union Station management as a metric for how trips would not be interrupted, wafted blissfully through nostrils of both subway-rider and Oscar-winner on both sides of the station’s gated-off partitions. I couldn’t write that story. Instead, I’ve spent the last week processing some of the most truly inhumane treatment of public transit users that I have ever witnessed, and as someone who has spent almost two decades taking the bus in L.A., that’s saying a lot. You can throw any type of of disclaimer on the situation that you want — it was only really bad for a few days, big flashy events always suck for regular people, film productions do the same thing all the time, transit is challenging in L.A. in general — and I’m not discounting any of that. What concerns me is the choice of our transportation agency to subject its customers to this type of treatment on purpose, by making a decision behind closed doors, without any public input on how it would affect those customers. And for what? From what I saw and heard last weekend, no amount of imagined film-industry clout is worth upending the lives of the city’s most transit-dependent residents at the region’s largest multimodal transportation hub, for disruptions that lasted, in some cases, almost a month.

I don’t need to tell you much about what the planned arrangement was for the station, because you could watch it yourself, on TV. While passengers were shunted to the bus plaza in the back, the ceremony itself was held at the front of the house, which had been completely barricaded off so a red carpet, supper-club set, and lounge area could occupy the entrance, ticket hall, and seating areas usually used by riders. Celebrities were apparently offered PCR rapid tests before cavorting on camera mask-free — California opened eligibility to everyone over 50 on April 5 and everyone over 16 on April 15; which vax tier were actors in again? — just feet from where Union Station had previously promoted the city’s most transit-accessible COVID testing center. But the testing center wasn’t there that day, of course. It had been relocated to a tough-to-find corner in the rear of the station, just like everything else serving transit riders that might have ruined the wide shot. Not only was there no mention during the broadcast of the station’s present-day function, historic notability, or cinematic relevance — I saw more than a few comments on Twitter wondering if it was an abandoned building — if you watched the show it was almost comical to see the great extent to which the producers covered up the station’s signature interiors and eliminated any references to buses, subways, or trains. The Oscars could have been shot on a studio soundstage with a few exterior shots of the station, and no one would have known the difference. 

Bryan Cranston, beaming in live from the Dolby Theatre, where distanced healthcare workers were watching the simulcast — I guess they could have had it there after all? — assured the audience, and maybe the entire transit-riding population of L.A., that the Oscars would be back home in Hollywood next year. The Oscars are always a problem in Hollywood, too, where they make trips unpredictable for transit riders and turn the Walk of Fame into even more of a police state for almost a month at a time. (I lived nearby for years and one time had to walk through a metal detector to go to the farmers market.) Thanks to the year-round premieres that are just as disruptive, during some months of the year Hollywood Boulevard is closed for events more than it’s open, which is usually what I’m yelling about during award season. Of course it’s unacceptable for Metro to close the Hollywood/Highland station and divert buses for weeks when the Oscars are at the Dolby. But the difference between that and what happened at Union Station last month is that Metro’s leadership had an opportunity to say, hey, you know, Academy, it’s an honor just to be nominated, but, actually, we’re just trying to keep everyone safe and alive at the moment, and we don’t need to subject our riders or workers to this. They had the opportunity to turn down these awards — and they didn’t.

In February, according to public documents, Metro — which owns Union Station — was approached by a “notable executive producer” who was producing an “A-list international entertainment award show” and wanted to use the station as the location. “Due to the exigent circumstances,” the documents say, “it became necessary for Metro Chief Executive Officer Phillip A. Washington to quickly execute the contract.” The selling point, according to the documents, was publicity, a viewership of 650 million people “giving Metro a marketing exposure valued at approximately $20 million.” The only condition of the agreement was that the station must “continue operating and serving our patrons with as limited interruption to normal functions as possible.” Setting aside the question of whether or not Metro’s CEO has the delegated authority to sign such a contract, which was over $500,000, and may have, in fact, required board approval, what I saw that day was so far from “limited interruption to normal functions as possible” — even though I’m sure Metro would tell you all the trains and buses arrived and departed on time. 

Surely Metro staff saw these problems, too, if they were supposedly out patrolling the perimeter, as the chief of system security and law enforcement Judy Gerhardt told the Los Angeles Times. She worked closely with LAPD and the Academy security in a “collective effort to make sure our ridership is not affected.” A Metro spokesperson told the Hollywood Reporter they didn’t receive any complaints of pedestrian or ADA access issues and “provided both a shuttle bus and two ADA-specific shuttles from Access Services to ferry customers from Alameda Street at Union Station West to the Patsaouras Plaza Busway at Union Station East to help any pedestrians navigate the pedestrian closure.” As someone who walked back and forth from the bus plaza to Alameda Street several times — and yes, that harrowing tunnel on Cesar Chavez was even more terrifying with so many people walking through it inches from speeding cars — I encountered people who 1) didn’t know the Oscars were happening 2) didn’t know why the front entrance was inaccessible 3) thought the entire station was closed. There were many people trudging through that tunnel — people lugging suitcases from the FlyAway after long flights, people using wheelchairs, people using walkers, people using canes, people pushing strollers and trying to encourage reluctant toddlers to keep walking, people with bikes who couldn’t figure out where to securely lock them — who might have really loved to take advantage of such a shuttle, would they have known about it. But there was no wayfinding signage outside. There were no maps. There were no ambassadors to answer questions. There wasn’t even a sign in the bus plaza for the Dodger Express buses, which had been relocated from the front of the station, and which an operator told me went way underutilized, with only a few hundred passengers using them to get from Union Station to the stadium, compared to another recent day game. If Metro was indeed patrolling the perimeter, no one stopped to assist any of the dozen or so folks I was trying to help get where they needed to go. Meanwhile, LAPD officers and Academy security zipped past us, in those fancy six-person golf carts, just yards away. 

Maybe, you’d say, because Metro’s budget is already strapped due to the pandemic, that there was likely no money to pay for these types of services which might have improved the experience for riders. But the license agreement says that any wayfinding or additional personnel would be paid for by the Academy. In fact, I saw plenty of Academy-branded wayfinding on my way to Union Station as I approached from the south: dozens of signs, blocks of lane closures, and plenty of traffic officers making sure people got inside safely — all marked LIMO/VALET. There were not even signs directing people to Olvera Street, the historic center of the city, which many people assumed was closed due to the wall of fences around it even though it’s right across the street. At one point, I actually wondered if the once-ambitious plan to pedestrianize the entire front of the station and create an actual connection with Olvera Street, which has now been pruned so far back that it’s really just a few raised crosswalks, was derailed because it would restrict that all-important special-event car access to Union Station’s photogenic front facade.

When I finally made my way to the station, I met up with Ash Pana, whose viral tweet earlier in the week predicting such a catastrophe served as a warning for what we were all witnessing. Pana, who is disabled, lives in the Mozaic, the apartment complex on the northwest corner of the Union Station parking lot. We took a tour of the building, which was close enough to the station we could see Glenn Close’s royal blue gown on the red carpet. Pana showed me how Metro had restricted accessibility for them, first by fencing off the parking lot for weeks, forcing them to travel all the way around to the station’s southern courtyard entrance; and then by fencing off the sidewalk on the weekend of the show, forcing them to take the tunnel to the rear entrance. Inside the station, the documentary Crip Camp had been nominated for an award, and an ADA-compliant ramp had been carefully constructed to create the first accessible stage in Oscar history. Outside the station, people using wheelchairs were exiled to the insufficient sidewalks of the half-mile tunnel detour. Sure, there had been a map shared online denoting such a closure would be starting on April 24, but that map — which still didn’t include any information about pedestrian detours — was interestingly never posted in or around the station, nor distributed to Mozaic residents, many of whom are transit-reliant folks like Pana who live there precisely because of its easy access to Metro. “We didn’t ask for this,” Pana told me. “We weren’t compensated for this. And in no way is it fair or reasonable to shut down a public utility and make it inaccessible to the public.”

With Oscars viewership down 58 percent this year, it’s difficult to assess the value of that “$20 million exposure” that Metro received in exchange for subjecting its passengers to such deteriorating conditions on the ground. Metro hasn’t even tweeted anything about the Oscars since posting the most recent information on the closures. The one thing that might have made it all worth it didn’t happen: no celebrities rode the train this year; perennial B Line-rider Ed Begley Jr. didn’t even go (the guest list was pruned down to nominees and presenters only). But I did see several people walking rushedly through the station who were wearing tuxedos. They weren’t attendees, they were event staff, trying to get to work. They all signed NDAs and would not say more to me than that, but I had to wonder if they, too, had been inconvenienced by Metro’s thoughtlessness. 

Union Station is so much more than a train station. It’s more than a multimodal transportation hub. It’s a place where the most marginalized people in LA are just trying to get somewhere else. And not just for one day, but for multiple days, the entity which owns that place decided to make life harder for them. That’s who our own transit agency literally kicked to the curb so the “notable executive producer” — who honestly, sounds like kind of a dick? — could produce his “A-list international entertainment award show.” How did Metro get it so wrong? Maybe if Metro thought of Union Station, and all of its stations, not as something with a “perimeter,” but as a living, breathing organism that stretches out like roots in every direction; unfurling into, under, and around the surrounding community, the situation might have been different. In a way, the Oscars laid bare one of Metro’s biggest failures: forgetting that Metro riders are still Metro riders when they step, ramp, or roll off that mode of transit. That’s not just on Metro, of course, but a much larger, more systemic problem for a city that talks a big game on mobility justice, but hasn’t prioritized the extremely non-controversial infrastructural improvements that would make life precisely 1000 percent times better for all its transit riders: bus shelters, sidewalk repairs, curb ramps. The environmental review for the city’s big $1.5 billion plan to fix all of its sidewalks, which was the result of a 2015 lawsuit, was only finalized last week

I don’t really want to think more about what I saw at Union Station during the Oscars, or for someone at Metro to try to convince me that I’m wrong. I’m just going to hope that the people who work at Metro also believe this was a failure of leadership and that they agree that nothing like this should ever happen again. I’m going to focus on these words I heard last month, at the last Metro press event: “My immediate goals and focus will be on restoring transit service and helping Metro lead this county out of the pandemic and into a new dawn where customers come first and equity is at the center of everything we do.” Metro’s new CEO, Stephanie Wiggins, could start as soon as this month.