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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.
As streetcars disappeared, so too did the street life that had formed around them.
In Hollywood’s heyday during the 1920s and ’30s, L.A. was transit heaven, its “Red Car” and “Yellow Cars” forming the largest electric railway in the world. But as car ownership incraeased and people began heading out toward the suburbs, the Red Cars were seen less as a convenience than a nuisance. L.A.’s public-transit decline began in earnest when General Motors and others bought up the streetcar lines and replaced them with buses.
But as streetcars disappeared, so too did the street life that had formed around them. People entered shops and other businesses through giant parking garages rather than walking in through the front doors. Blocks began to feel less like high streets than highways. In the 1960s, some bright-eyed futurists almost got a network of Disneyland-era monorails built, but the great era of public transit had come to an end.
The Game Changer
It will be no easy feat to turn around the oft-undisputed belief that nobody walks in L.A., but evidence of a transit resurgence is palpable.
“In order to coax Angelenos out of their cars and onto the sidewalks, buses, and subways, planners need to turn their attention to the streets,” says Yonah Freemark, who writes about transportation and land use for The Transport Politic. “Most people who ride buses and trains walk to get to their stations,” he says. “If the pedestrian environment is unfriendly or uninteresting—as it is in too many places in L.A.—it wouldn't be surprising to see the car culture remain in place even after the development of the larger transit network.”
That larger transit network is courtesy of Measure R, a game-changing transportation bill approved by voters in 2008. Measure R, which raises sales tax in Los Angeles County by half a cent, is projected to bring in $40 billion over the next 30 years for traffic relief and transportation upgrades throughout the county. The cash will fund big-picture transit projects like connecting the Green Line directly to LAX (it currently connects to a shuttle bus to get travelers that last leg); the Gold Line out into the Inland Empire; and the Expo Line south into Culver City. But the measure will also be dedicated to the finer-grained details, such as pothole repairs, bike racks, and pedestrian improvements. One such project is the Figueroa Corridor Streetscape Project, which is re-envisioning the stretch of Figueroa Street between downtown Los Angeles and Exposition Park by adding dedicated bus lanes, park benches, and landscaping.
Perhaps the most significant project in terms of connectivity is the Regional Connector, a 1.9-mile underground light-rail (aka subway) that will finally turn the region’s rail system into a true network by connecting the Blue Line, Gold Line, and the upcoming Expo line. “Dollar for dollar, the Regional Connector is the best investment we can make," says Denny Zane, who, as executive director of Move L.A., a coalition of labor, business, and environmental groups, was instrumental in getting Measure R passed. “Right now, you can take the Blue Line from Long Beach to downtown L.A., and with a couple of transfers you can eventually get to North Hollywood. With the Regional Connector, you’ll be able to connect from Long Beach to Santa Monica, LAX, or Pasadena with ease.”
Freeways are of course still a part of the transportation pie, and will receive 20 percent of the Measure R funding. Work is underway to fix the most congested freeway interchanges along the 605 (which connects the Inland Empire to the busy docks in Long Beach) and improving carpool lanes along California’s spine, Interstate 5. The 405, 110, and 105 will each get ramp and interchange upgrades to make the most out of the freeways we have (rather than building more of them). These incremental upgrades will have an effect, but nothing like what can be achieved by getting people out of their cars and walking, biking, and taking transit.
While transit has actually come a long way in Los Angeles—Rapid Transit buses crisscross the city, and Metro brags of its network of 12-Minute Transit (rail and buses that pick up every 12 minutes or less)—there is still a lot to be done to connect all of these communities.
“We’re at a huge crossroads,” says Stephen Box, a grassroots transportation activist, who sought election for (and lost) a City Council seat in March. “The long-term infrastructure that’s being developed is wonderful. In the meantime, we have the worst streets in the nation, and we are disconnected in terms of available services. People don’t have good choices, and quite simply whatever transportation mode you pick is limited in its efficiency and its efficacy.”
Box is proud of how far bicycle planning has come in L.A., but he would really like to see the city embrace the Complete Streets Act, a California state bill that recommends that cities make accommodations for all users of roads including motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians as part of the planning for every roadway. Notice that the word is “recommend” and not “require.” “They’re not legally obligated to do anything,” says Box.
“There are some great bones in the city of L.A., and L.A. County as a whole, which were shaped around transit,” says Abigail Thorne-Lyman, project director at the nonprofit Reconnecting America. “Employment decentralization is the real problem.”
Unlike many large cities in the United States, jobs in Los Angeles are not concentrated in a central commercial core. So the traditional “hub and spoke” transit model—jobs downtown at the hub, transit lines snaking out into bedroom communities along the spokes—is no longer relevant to the needs of commuters who work in the county’s true employment centers in Santa Monica, UCLA and USC, Culver City and Century City, and the Port of Los Angeles. The “Subway to the Sea,” an east-west subway line up Wilshire Boulevard that is currently in the works under Measure R funding (in part), would go a long way toward helping people get to their jobs without getting stuck in grinding freeway commutes.
In the long run, the Metro will reach every part of the county and create an interconnectivity that we never had.
According to Thorne-Lyman, one-fifth of the jobs in the region are actually out in the San Gabriel Valley, the region stretching along the old Route 66 route east toward the desert. An extended Gold Line reaching out from Pasadena could connect more people with those jobs and is also part of the Measure R package.
“Connecting these other employment nodes with the transit network is going to really help connect people to their jobs,” says Thorne-Lyman.
Coming Soon, Possibly Sooner
Even as Measure R projects settle in for the long haul, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is diligently working to speed things up. He’s been making trips to Washington to sell Congress on his “30/10” plan, which asks Congress to loan the city $40 billion now, a sum the city expects to collect in tax money over the next 30 years, so Los Angeles can enjoy the benefits of its expanded transportation program in only 10 years. The plan has received ringing endorsements from groups like the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but may face opposition from the new Tea Party Republicans in the House who sneer at “big government” projects of this ilk.
Still, the future looks as clear as the carpool lane for the City of Angels, whether in 10 years or 30. By investing deeply in new transportation options and building on the very stylish historic infrastructure that’s here, Los Angeles could soon return to its former glory.
“In the long run, the Metro will reach every part of the county and create an interconnectivity that we never had,” says Zane. “The economic efficiency of that, as well as the environmental benefits, will be extraordinary. We always had the best weather. Now we’ll have the best transportation system and cleaner air. Who can compete with that?”