downtown los angeles, Ideas for Downtown LA

Ideas for Downtown LA: Make Union Station a Destination (Not Just a Transfer Point)

Los Angeles Union Station has been getting busier and busier over the years as multiple train lines and bus routes have converged here

It was officially announced last month that the Los Angeles County transportation agency, Metro, was purchasing the beautiful but underutilized Union Station from a private owner. Even though it is underutilized (ridership could be higher) and has so much more potential (more varied uses on site), Union Station is still the undisputed hub of transit on the entire West Coast (west of Chicago to be exact).

Union Station is sometimes called the “Last Great Railway Station” in the United States as it was built in 1939 (after many of the other great railway stations on the East Coast in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Washington DC). Anyone who visits Union Station and admires architecture will enjoy the cavernous yet intimate style of the grand concourse with its Streamline Moderne Mission Revival design.

One of the most interesting developments that have been taking place in Union Station recently in the past few months is the introduction of more shops that serve transit riders (Amtrak, Metrolink, subway, light-rail, and buses). Stores like the Japanese convenience mart Famima, the aromatic Wetzels Pretzels that greet morning commuters, Subway sandwiches for hungry travelers, and a wi-fi hot spot at Starbucks (opening Friday, March 25). Adding stores reminds me of some of the other train stations I have been to in cities like New York, Washington DC and Taipei where shopping and dining at a rail station is as natural as an Angeleno getting in the car and going to the mall.

That’s why I’m really excited that Metro decided to buy Union Station because that gives us (the transit riders) more control over its destiny. What I would like to see happen at Union Station in the next few years is:

1) Continue with the trend of adding more shops/restaurants and events at Union Station (like the new Union Station flea market Truckit Fest), making Union Station a destination itself and not just a transfer point.

2) Consolidate as much transit services into Union Station as possible including relocating Greyhound’s bus terminal from 7th/Alameda (in the middle of nowhere) to somewhere onsite. And bring back Megabus!

The Japanese convenience mart Famima was the first to open in a new wave of stores being introduced to Union Station

Wetzels Pretzels is especially popular in the morning as commuters are greeted by the aromatic scent of freshly baked pretzels

Subway sandwiches for riders who just want a quick bite to eat is an added convenience at Union Station

See's Candies has also opened a stand for those last minute chocolate cravings

Starbucks (with wi-fi) will be opening on Friday, March 25, 2011

All the other new stores join Traxx Restaurant which has been open at Union Station since 1997

These pictures I took of the expansive (mostly underground) Taipei Railway Main Station on my trip to Taiwan could provide a glimpse of what Union Station could evolve toward as more shops and restaurants are added to accommodate transit riders (and increase revenues for Metro).

The MRT (Taipei Rapid Transit) subway at Taipei's version of Union Station called Taipei Railway Main Station

Transit ridership in Taipei has increased dramatically as each new subway line is added to their very young but growing network

The concourses that traverse through the underground portion of Taipei Main Station are expansive and filled with shops and restaurants

7-Eleven (along with other convenience chains) are ubiquitous in Taipei including here in the train station (and is like Famima at Union Station)

The Body Shop (a UK brand) selling soaps and perfumes at the Taipei Railway Main Station

Yamazaki selling fresh baked goods beckons transit riders passing by (much like the new Wetzels Pretzels at Union Station)

Yoshinoya serves up fast casual food (with a Chinese/Taiwanese twist) at Taipei Railway Main Station (kind of like Subway sandwiches at Union Station)

Taipei Railway Main Station selling clothes (I always love to see "Los Angeles" when I'm traveling abroad!)

Another underground section connected to the Taipei Railway Main Station

Restaurants, galleries, and shops are popular in this underground mall connected to the train station

A restaurant serving up Chinese beef noodle soup with outdoor seating (like Traxx at Union Station) inside the shopping mall connected to the train station

"Delicious Food Zone" is a popular destination as people come to Taipei Railway Main Station not only to transfer but to hang out with their friends and family

You can never have too many pastry shops

A great chance for artist to expose their work at a busy train station


  1. John G. says

    Nice comparison!

    Thanks for sharing the pics, they really show the true potential of Union Station…

  2. Ben K says

    Great photos of Taipei Main Station! Even bigger and better than when I was there 10 years ago. Just one minor point, Body Shop is actually a British company.

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  4. Marcotico says

    Great article. As i was walking through there this morning, I hope they make clocks and Departure signs ubiquitous throughout the station complex. Traxx Bar should certainly have a Departure board within eye sight.

    Also can’t believe you had a Megabus shout out. I took it once and I loved it, but you have to be young and resilient to take the overnight bus. I took it with it a buddy for a guy’s weekend in San Francisco, but I don’t think i could convince my wife to take it over a flight!

  5. Ben K says

    Marcotico, I’m one of those young and resilient ones who’d welcome more Megabus-like services on the West Coast. There are fewer population centers of car-free young people here compared with the East Coast, but I think $4 gasoline might persuade more to forego driving in favor of the bus or carpooling. Hopefully we’ll have high-speed rail in 10+ years.

  6. GLR says

    Yay! Megabus! I loved having the Megabus option. I hope they’re considering coming back to L.A.

  7. Great article! I am excited about Metro taking over Union Station too. I look forward to the day when LA has high speed rail passing through!

  8. James Fujita says

    Your photos of Taipei remind me of many stations in Japan, and not just because of the Asian faces and kanji writing.

    Union Station’s historic status will present some interesting challenges, but I certainly do think that there is room for more retail.

    (Maybe underground, as other stations have done.)

  9. Love the developments happening with Union Station. The place seems so much more alive today then it did just a few years ago. My only concern with the new Starborgs is that it is placed too close to the main entrance to the Metro Subway, and it along with the Wetzle’s may cause a bit of a jam when it gets busy.

    I too wish the Greyhound Station was at Union. I always feel sorry for L.A. visitors that arrive there with few connecting options. The station being there actually goes back to prior to the building of Union Station, when Grand Central Station was located nearby at Alameda and 6th Street. Unfortunately, Union Station has squandered much of their space that could have been used to build a Greyhound terminal by building commercial and housing developments on the site. But with Metro now in control, it certainly opens more options.

  10. Cph says

    How about some services, like dry cleaning or shoe repair? Or a post office or even a branch library?

  11. Scott Mercer says

    Prior to that hideous location near 7th/Alameda, the Greyhound Terminal was actually much closer to the center of things at Sixth and Los Angeles. They owned that whole block. That block used to be the tail end tracks for the Pacific Electric terminal, now the Pacific Electric lofts, and you used to walk from the building through openings on to an elevated series of outdoor tracks over Los Angeles street. The last PE train ran in 1961, and I believe the Greyhound terminal was built around 1964. I believe it moved to its present location in the early 90’s, when Downtown was at its lowest point (we’re talking 1992 Riots here). Recently I was watching some old movie (DVD) that featured that Greyhound terminal in its heyday (late 1960’s). You can still see the scars on the outside of the building where it read “Greyhound.” Just look up while walking along Los Angeles street.
    If the Greyhound terminal was still there, it would only be a four block walk to the Pershing Square subway station. Maybe put Greyhound back over there?

  12. Erik G. says

    I am not sure what the situation is in Taiwan, but one of the main reasons train stations in Europe, especially northern Europe, is due to so-called “closing laws”, like our old “Blue Laws” that limit what hours/days shops can be open. In those countries, the train station has always been exempt from those laws, and that is why you see the monster shopping complexes that have been installed at Leipzig Hbf, Copenhagen H, Utrecht Centraal, and Oslo S. (Other stations, such as the new Berlin Lehrter- or Haupt- Bhf have these shopping plazas, but these were planned from the building of these stations).
    We do not have these restrictions to boost or focus shopping at our main railway station.

  13. Lawrence says

    Union Station is beautiful and as a regular transit rider I’m glad to see the extra energy that Starbucks, Subway, Fammima!! etc. have added. I would love to see a new restaurant take over the original restaurant space in the other building. The old ticketing concourse has enormous potential as well.

  14. If Union Station seems underutilized it’s probably because it’s really more important as a transfer point (Metrolink, Red Line, Gold Line, Amtrak) than it is as a final destination. And people transferring tend to focus on getting to their connecting train rather than milling around the station. And Union Station has always struck me as being rather out of the way compared to, say 7th Street.

    When I’ve taken the the Red Line, the trains always seemed much busier at Pershing Square and points west and north, than between Pershing Square and Union Station. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen more than a half dozen people at the same time enter or leave a train at Civic Center.

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