Saturday, May 21, 2011

Los Angeles Busts Out a New Chapter in Planning

California has been on my mind for quite some time now. Not only have I been envisioning what my future residence in California will look like, but I've also been scouring the Interwebs for the "next big thing" in the state's urban planning world. I'm slowly coming to terms with the fact that I won't be able to make a living as a city planner, in any capacity, with only a Bachelor's degree. This, sadly, has been a delusion that I've had to get over rather quickly since graduating from UW. But let's sit back for a second and get a bird's eye view of reality. I figure that if I'm going to make a go at city planning as a career, then I sure as hell better have my finger on concrete projects I could work on when I'm finished with grad school. As they say, if you can dream it, you can do it!

The big picture is that out of California's diverse urban landscapes, the city of Los Angeles holds the most potential as a hotbed of innovative urban planning ideas and projects to engage with. Part of this is just due to the sheer size of LA as America's second biggest city, with nearly 13 million people in the metro area. There are world-class urban planning programs at both UCLA and USC that are of great interest to me. But more importantly, there is an abundance of urban planning projects ripe for the taking mostly because LA's urban planning processes and history have been so thoroughly, utterly fucked up.

The common maxim is that “if aliens were looking down on Los Angeles, they would come to the conclusion that the dominant life-form is the automobile”. Another suggests that even talking about LA as a coherent city is itself specious, that Los Angeles is a series of "72 suburbs searching for a city." How did things get to hell in a handbasket so fast? Why is LA so universally regarded as an urban planning catastrophe?

First, LA was dealt a bad hand simply by experiencing nearly all of its growth as a major city in the immediate post-WWII era. This was a time when the Interstate Highways Commission was pumping billions into brand new freeways. Simultaneously, the Los Angeles Railway, the city's former system of streetcars once among America's most extensive, was being bought out by General Motors and replaced with stinky, polluting diesel bus lines that - surprise! - no one wanted to take. The "locus" of downtown Los Angeles was beginning to become blighted long before the city entered its greatest period of urbanization from the 1960's onward. The dominant entertainment industry, where most of the city's jobs are, was decentralized and favored large studio warehouses in outlying areas, not the kind of centralized factories that solidified the urban centers of most American cities that came of age pre-WWII. These factors encouraged sprawling development patterns for both residential areas and employment centers. And LA's heavenly climate doesn't exactly discourage a car-oriented lifestyle with big, suburban lawns and white picket fences, now does it?

Of course, the suburban dream didn't quite work out as planned for LA. It goes without saying, of course, that LA has America's worst traffic, bar none. The city also has some of the worst social inequality in the US, the infamous Watts and Rodney King riots are only symbolic of this disturbing trend.

However, all is not lost! There are a whole host of new developments pointing toward a sustainable future for LA. Here's a recap of some of the most exciting ones:


LA is already ranked the 3rd best city for transit, according to US News & World Report. Even though most of the native Angelenos I know would never dream of taking public transportation, this isn't to say that there isn't public transit available. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has already pledged to accelerate the city's investment in transit, especially rail rapid transit, by building at least $13.7 billion in subways, light rail, and commuter rail in a 10-year time frame, rather than the 30-year plan originally outlined. The expansion of the Expo subway line to Culver City and eventually Santa Monica, two hubs of the perpetually traffic-choked and densely-populated West Side, is the plan's centerpiece.

Additional lines are planned for Westwood/UCLA (Purple Line), the San Fernando Valley (Orange Line), Pasadena to Pomona (Foothill extension), Santa Ana commuter rail, and LAX (Crenshaw corridor). This would be the first time in LA history that the city had three rail projects under construction at the same time.

 Villaraigosa's proposal is probably the most ambitious one for rail/subway transit in the US today. When California voters passed Measure R in November 2008, they agreed to a half-percent increase in sales tax to fund $27 billion in transit in thirty years. So how will LA accelerate these projects when Measure R is only supposed to generate about $3 billion in ten years? Ask the feds for money, and then pay it back when Measure R's funding kicks in completely by the end of the 30-year window. If  this deal is packaged the right way, the federal government could get a significant benefit by lending LA this unprecedented sum of money. Not only will the local economy get a boost (leading to increased federal payroll and gas taxes from the thousands of construction jobs that will be created), but the federal government will also play a hand in solidifying LA's future as a progressive, transit-based city of innovation. Loans to fund this new infrastructure could lure hundreds of thousands of jobs and new residents to the city, whose growth would pay back the loans. China's Special Economic Zones of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and others have been given a similar treatment over the years, with great success.

LA's ambitious plan to building 30 years of public transit in only 10 years

The Los Angeles City Council in March approved a plan calling for 1,680 miles of interconnected bikeways. This is a huge event equivalent to building 50 miles of bike lanes per year for thirty years! And it will go a long ways to encourage would-be cyclists previously terrified (with good reason!) by the city's traffic-choked and unfriendly streets, to take to the streets safely.

Map of LA's new system of 1,680 miles of bike lanes and boulevards planned by 2038
This heavy dose of bike infrastructure is also being funded by Measure R, 10% of which was dedicated to bicycle transportation. Here is a link to the full bike plan and more details from GOOD magazine:

The plan promises several changes for L.A. bikers: the Citywide Bikeway System will introduce three new interconnected bike path networks—Backbone (long crosstown routes on busy streets), Neighborhood (short connectors through small streets) and Green (along recreation areas)—throughout the city, a new pledge for Bicycle Friendly Streets will make streets more pleasant for riders and walkers, and a series of education programs and safety policies will help cars and cyclists co-exist. 
Of course, the LA Citywide Bikeway System is still in its conceptual phase and will require a great deal of commitment from the city to actually become a reality. Even so, the plan makes clear and definite the policy choices that Measure R will be allocated into, so even producing this long-range plan is a huge step forward for LA.

So what kinds of infrastructure could the bike plan lead to?

The plan will begin with bike accommodations we regularly see here in Seattle, like "sharrows" and dedicated bike lanes. Later on, bigger projects will include "bike boulevards" and traffic-separated bike lanes that until now have been almost exclusively the domain of cities like Portland, OR and Amsterdam, which I covered here.

Rendering of a "bike boulevard" planned for downtown Los Angeles

Some of the first traffic-separated bike lanes in Southern CA just opened in Long Beach a few weeks ago, and they provide a glimpse (hopefully) of what is to come to the rest of the metro area.

Bike lanes in Long Beach, CA


Figueroa Street, which runs through downtown and connects with the USC campus, is one of the streets identified as a Backbone corridor, which means its bike and pedestrian improvements will be given highest priority. In all, the street is nearly 30 miles long and is without doubt one of LA's longest and least pedestrian-friendly streets. Copenhagen-based Gehl Architects, of Cities for People fame, are already working on providing bike lanes, improved sidewalks, mixed-use development that embraces street level uses, and what to do with the nearly 545 acres of parking lots within a half-mile of the Figueroa Corridor. More info from GOOD:

The proposals for Figueroa Street are divided into "good," "better," and "best." The entire street would be configured to the "good" specs, with the protected bike lane, more trees, new paving, and general improvements to the pedestrian experience with crosswalk striping and mid-block crossings. The "better" and "best" schemes would be seen at more high-traffic intersections, like near Staples Center and USC's Galen Center.

Vision of a future Figueroa Street landscape. Doesn't it remind you just a bit of Las Ramblas?

An even more groundbreaking proposal comes from three architecture students at Cal Poly: why not ban cars from downtown LA entirely? A baffling 36% of the space of downtown LA is used for parking lots and garages for in-coming commuters. What if that were replaced by more housing, parks, plazas, transit, and all the other things we actually love about cities? Have a look at the slick video they produced for more info:

Downtown Los Angeles from tam thien tran on Vimeo.

Finally, I leave you with an inspirational passage from Tim Halbur of GOOD magazine:

I live in a beautiful old apartment in an historically preserved neighborhood filled with trees. Most mornings, I walk three blocks to the nearest rapid-transit stop and take a 10-minute ride past a major art museum, a couple of beautiful art deco theaters, and several busy shopping and office districts. On alternate days, I bike the four miles, stopping at any one of the many sidewalk cafes along the route before settling into my desk on the fifth floor of a 10-story office tower. 
Would you believe I live in Los Angeles? 
Most people picture sprawling suburbs with deteriorating lawns, framed by minimarts and overshadowed by the Hollywood sign. The corner minimarts are there, but they border old neighborhoods thick with duplexes and other lowrise multi-family dwellings, the kind of dense living quarters that are all the rage among urban planners. In fact, Los Angeles has more people living closer together than Portland, Oregon, the current poster child of urbanism. And depending on where you draw the lines, L.A. is denser even than New York City.

But where Los Angeles differs from those urban cities is that it is really, really big. While the County of New York is less than 23 square miles, Los Angeles County stretches across 4,083 square miles, larger than all of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. And while walkable neighborhoods like mine flourish in many cities across the county, the last 70-odd years of history have decimated the relationships between them. When talking about cities like Cleveland or Pittsburgh, city planners and architects refer to the dead or under-used areas as “broken teeth.” Well, Los Angeles might as well be a washed-up prizefighter, because there are a lot of gaping holes between those pearly whites. 
But all is not lost. Before we revert to old stereotypes about Los Angeles as a Blade Runner-esque dystopia, I’m here to report the good news: The City of Angels is turning away from that imagined future and heading toward a much brighter past.

So even though I'm not chomping at the bit to move to LA just yet - San Fran wins in so many areas it's not even funny :) -  it's good to know that even the most recalcitrant, stubbornly car-oriented cities can still be reborn into somewhere we would actually want to live!

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