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Community Organizing Wins the Day: Skills and Enthusiasm of Many to Build Expo for All

Behind the May 20 opening of the Expo Line to Santa Monica lies the untold story of dozens of dedicated volunteers who worked for decades to make this line happen.

Few people know that Expo Line light rail was a glimmer in the eye of Santa Monica city officials as early as 1989. That year they convened a group of citizens to advocate for purchasing a former Red Car right of way from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica. They envisioned providing a fast, comfortable, and green light rail line along this route.

Historic Red Car on today's Expo Line. Photo via Friends for Expo

Historic Red Car on what is today the Expo Line. Photo via Friends for Expo. See also historic red car video.

Among that group was Darrell Clarke, who, growing up in Los Angeles, had often talked with his parents about that city’s large network of red and yellow streetcars and their demise in 1963. When, as a UC Berkeley student in 1974, Clarke rode the first public BART train from the East Bay to San Francisco, he thought about his hometown. Why, he wondered, couldn’t Los Angeles have great mass transit too?

Fifteen years later, Clarke joined this Committee to Preserve the Right-of-Way.

The decades-long campaign to build Expo Line had begun.

Grassroots Organizing Begins

Launched on the initiative of Santa Monica city council members Christine Reed and Denny Zane, the Committee to Preserve the Right-of-Way convinced Los Angeles Metro’s predecessor to buy this route, originally built in 1875 as a steam railroad by Santa Monica founder Senator John P. Jones. Dubbed the “Air Line,” it was later electrified and carried passengers until 1953 and freight until the mid-1980s. The freight train was noisy, and when the family of Presley Burroughs, another member of the Committee to Preserve the Right-of-Way, moved into a new home in Baldwin Vista in 1968, Burroughs – who would become an urban planner – remembers his father telling their new neighbors, “If you put passenger rail there, you’ll get a sound wall.”

But not everyone in Los Angeles wanted a passenger line on Exposition. Homeowners’ groups in Cheviot Hills and Rancho Park opposed it. That didn’t stop the Committee to Preserve the Right-of-Way. Clarke, Burroughs and Russ Davies, a retired IBM marketing manager, documented the economic and social sense of a light rail line on Exposition the line, and pleaded their case by petitioning door to door and tabling at shopping malls.

Planning began after the right-of-way purchase, then halted, then restarted in 1998 after the cancellation of new subway extensions left federal money on the table for mass transit to the Westside.

Meanwhile, then-mayor Richard Riordan and County Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Yvonne Burke traveled in 1999 to Curitiba, Brazil, known for a successful Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line. That trip planted the seed of Bus Rapid Transit in the heads of several key players in the city.

The following year, longtime community organizer Kathy Seal, facing both an empty nest and a growing concern about the environment, wondered if a light rail line to Santa Monica would help. “I was worried about the environment, especially climate change,” she remembers. “And personally, I couldn’t stand the traffic gridlock.”

“Call Darrell Clarke,” counseled her husband Jim, a transportation consultant.

“When do we meet?” Clarke answered when Kathy proposed starting a mass organization to fight for light rail on Expo.

Told about this idea, Kathy’s fellow community activist Julia Maher came on board. “We wanted to use the pressure of grassroots support to make the Expo line happen,” remembers Maher, who worked in her local neighborhood association and the newly-formed SoRo (South Robertson) Neighborhood Council. “I realized that a light rail line would change the way I felt about Los Angeles.”

Open to volunteers of any political persuasion, Friends 4 Expo Transit was born.

The group quickly attracted new activists, many of them women who were not typical rail buffs, but who emphasized the social and environmental impact of a future Expo line. “We saw this project as a way to bring people and communities together rather than dividing them,” remembers attorney Faith Mitchell (who’d married both Burroughs and Expo in 1994). She suggested “Connecting Neighbors” for the F4E slogan, as the activists pointed out the sociability of riding a light rail train, the boon it would provide for teenagers and the elderly, and the increased access for everyone – especially the disadvantaged and car-less – to the community’s valuable resources.

“We saw it as serving Westside and downtown jobs, a ladder of economic opportunity giving residents greater access to the rich economic, educational and spiritual centers throughout the Los Angeles region,” says Clarke. As fighting against climate change rose on the national agenda, the activists stressed the environmental benefit of clean, speedy, high-capacity light rail.

Early Friends4Expo promotional image.

Early Friends4Expo promotional image.

Outreach and Organizing: Solidifying the Voice of the Majority

Dozens of enthusiasts joined and Friends4Expo went to work, presenting slide shows to schools, senior centers, churches, a mosque, chambers of commerce, Rotary clubs, Neighborhood Councils, unions, and neighborhood groups flanking the right of way. They gathered thousands of signatures at farmers’ markets, neighborhood festivals, outdoor malls, and citywide events like the Los Angeles Times Book Festival. They lobbied Los Angeles, Culver City, and Santa Monica city council members, and members of the Metro board. Representatives of constituents along the proposed line took note. As one elected official told the activists, “You start the parade and I’ll walk in front of it.”

Which is what F4E did. In addition to their broad community outreach, which produced a long list of supporters, the activists reached out to community newspapers and met with the Los Angeles Times editorial board. Two community colleges endorsed the project, as did the Music Center and the University of Southern California. KNX 1070 radio and the Times editorialized in favor of light rail on Expo.

Relying on an email list of 2,500 and their website, F4E members brought supporters to attend Metro board meetings and public hearings, including one especially boisterous meeting in the spring of 2001 at the Veterans Administration auditorium. Ken Alpern, a leader in the Westside Village Neighborhood Association led a large crowd who testified, one after the other, that they wanted light rail on Expo. The huge and passionate support for Expo light rail surprised even the longtime activists, who for the first time sensed victory emerging: even if a minority feared it, they realized, the great majority of Angelenos wanted the Expo light rail line.

In addition to community organizing, F4E members contributed technical analysis to the project. Schematics and census tract data, for example, provided by Clarke to refute opponents’ low density and low ridership arguments, influenced the Expo Line’s environmental impact reports. Gökhan Esirgen, a USC physicist, developed a Wikipedia page.

Although F4E concentrated on harnessing the enthusiasm of ordinary citizens, the activists also worked closely with allies among elected officials. Metro staff – used to fearful residents crying, “No, not in my community!” – gladly answered F4E’s requests for information. As Expo Construction Authority CEO Rick Thorpe would later say, “This is the first time in my career that I’ve experienced a group that is FOR something.” Read more…

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How Would Jane Jacobs Zone?

The King-Spadina area of Toronto is a living testament to Jane Jacobs' alternative vision for zoning. Photo: IBlogTO

The King-Spadina area of Toronto is a living testament to how Jane Jacobs would shape the development of cities. Photo: IBlogTO

Everyone’s paying tribute to Jane Jacobs today, on what would be the pioneering urbanist’s 100th birthday. Jacobs’ classic critique of mid-century American urban planning dogma, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is probably the most influential book ever written about planning. But her legacy is also contested, and her ideas still go unheeded in most cities. Was she too averse to change? And how do her theories of city-building work in practice?

Payton Chung at West North attempts to settle some of these questions by looking at Jacobs’ very real policy impact in her adopted hometown of Toronto. He revisits this passage from Death and Life:

[T]he greatest flaw in city zoning is that it permits monotony… Perhaps the next greatest flaw is that it ignores scale of use, where this is an important consideration, or confuses it with kind of use, and this leads, on the one hand, to visual (and sometimes functional) disintegration of streets, or on the other hand to indiscriminate attempts to sort out and segregate kinds of uses no matter what their size or empiric effect. Diversity itself is thus unnecessarily suppressed.

What most people don’t realize, Chung says, is that Jacobs put these ideas into practice in the 1990s, advising Toronto on a major downtown rezoning:

Read more…

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Today’s Headlines

  • Happy 100th Birthday To Jane Jacobs (Boy on a Bike)
  • Gold Line Popularity Sparks Azusa Parking Restrictions (KPCC)
  • Get Rid Of Pedestrian Beg Buttons (Gizmodo)
  • CHP Cracks Down On Illegal Street Racing (LAT)
  • WeHo Approves Bike Share Fee Structure, Not “WeHoGo” Name (WeHoVille)
  • Curbed’s Timeline For Upcoming LAX Projects
  • L.A. Plans To Curb Mansionization (KPCC)
  • Uber Plans To End Surge Pricing (KPCC)

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Highway Propaganda Vids Sell City Residents on the Wonders of Wider Roads

It’s not enough for highway builders to carve out land at great public expense so they can jam more cars into cities. Now they want you to believe their projects are great for the neighborhoods that bear the brunt of the added traffic and pollution.

Up top is a video produced by the Colorado Department of Transportation to sell the public on its massive I-70 expansion project. Streetsblog Denver reports that the agency spent $88,000 in public funds to make this 30-minute epic.

The I-70 project will replace 12 miles of aging highway with a new highway, adding four lanes in the process. Because 900 feet of the new highway trench will be covered with a park, the CDOT video helpfully explains that the widening is really all about doing right by immigrant neighborhoods — not moving traffic. Many residents affected by the project beg to differ.

As a tool to sway public opinion, the CDOT video probably won’t make much of an impact. At the time we published this post it only had 135 views after a month on Vimeo. But the propaganda technique is something to keep an eye on. Colorado DOT isn’t the only road builder trying out the same message.

To promote the “Opportunity Corridor,” a road expansion project through low-income Cleveland neighborhoods, the local chamber of commerce commissioned the video below. The angle is very similar to CDOT’s video: This highway isn’t like the bad highways of the past — a new breed of road builder has figured out how to make asphalt and traffic lanes work wonders for struggling neighborhoods.

Read more…
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Cyclists Will Pay to Park at Seattle’s New Light Rail Stations. Will Drivers?

Right now, the Seattle region is hashing out how to spend $50 billion to expand transit. The project list, known as ST3, is tilted heavily toward the suburbs, not the urban core where ridership would be higher.

Parking at Sound Transit's Tukwila International Blvd Station. Photo: Oran Viriyincy

Parking at Sound Transit’s Tukwila International Blvd Station. Photo: Oran Viriyincy

Included with all those suburban stations will be thousands of new parking stalls, which each cost tens of thousands of dollars to build. Interestingly, Josh Feit at PubliCola reports that Sound Transit hasn’t decided yet whether to charge for car parking at stations, but it has already indicated that bike parking won’t be free:

As the debate over parking for cars at light rail stations gets underway — should people have to pay for parking (activists from the Transit Access Stakeholders group think so) — ST is already setting a precedent for bike parking. Bikers have to pay.

Sound Transit debuted a new bike storage cage at its Beacon Hill station last month where bikers pay $4.10 a month for access. ST says they will replicate the bike storage model at more stations going forward.

With the ST3 plan considering at least 8,330 new parking spaces for cars at about $70,000 a stall, the debate should include another stat: Federal Highway Administration estimates put the cost of building new bike racks at about $50 per bike and more elaborate storage, like cages, costing about $1,500 per bike.

At least if bike parking has a price, there’s no excuse to provide free parking for cars.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Mobility Lab posts a new video explaining the concept of transportation demand management. Columbus Underground announces the opening of the city’s new airport bus service. And Broken Sidewalk details what the city of Louisville is doing to make biking to the Kentucky Derby convenient.

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Today’s Headlines

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Little-Tokyo-to-Watts Ride Explores Shared History of Japanese- and African-American Angelenos

The unity ride hosted by the East Side Riders and the Asian-Pacific Islander Obesity Prevention Alliance kicked off Bike Month on Sunday. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

The unity ride hosted by the East Side Riders and the Asian and Pacific Islander Obesity Prevention Alliance kicked off Bike Month on Sunday. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

I rolled up on the group gathered in front of the Japanese American National Museum yesterday morning just in time to catch the discussion of some of the history of the Little Tokyo area.

The unity bike ride – the third annual effort between the East Side Riders Bike Club and the Asian and Pacific Islander Obesity Prevention Alliance (APIOPA) to link the communities that lie along the historic Central Avenue corridor – aimed to educate participants about the history Japanese- and African-American Angelenos shared.

Starting at the museum at 1st and Central, Steve Nagano, a former teacher and participant in the Digital Histories project, spoke about the 30,000 Japanese and Japanese-American residents who had lived in the area prior to their internment during World War II. Rounding up the residents of one marginalized group, he explained, had only made way for others. African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans moved into the area, drawn by the prospect of jobs in the war industries and constrained by the history of redlining that had made it nearly impossible for non-whites to live west of Central Avenue.

There were stories passed down through the generations, Nagano said, of African-Americans helping take care of Japanese property during the war and even possibly hiding a few Japanese who wished to avoid internment. But the arrival of the newcomers also left its mark—the area was renamed Bronzeville and the population grew so large and the residences so overcrowded that conditions deteriorated rather rapidly. With the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 no doubt adding fuel to the notion that it was dangerous to have so many potentially “subversive” residents living in such close quarters, many of the area’s buildings were condemned, and at least fifty African-American families were moved to Jordan Downs in Watts (housing that had served as barracks for white workers in the early part of the war). Once those residents were gone, white landlords were reluctant to rent to other folks of color, including some of the Japanese by then returning from internment.

Steve Nagano speaks in front of the Go For Broke Monument honoring the Japanese-American veterans who served their country to prove their loyalty. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Steve Nagano speaks in front of the Go For Broke Monument honoring the Japanese-American veterans who served their country to prove their loyalty. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

This look at interwoven histories comes at a moment in which it is becoming increasingly clear just how vulnerable early discriminatory planning practices have left lower-income communities of color all along Central Avenue, as well as to the east, in Boyle Heights.

As Nagano noted, housing is springing up left and right all around Little Tokyo, but very little of it is affordable. And existing senior housing for elderly Japanese (just across the river) is currently under threat. Older and lower-income residents fear that without a conscientious effort to preserve space for those in need, the opening of the regional connector hub and more luxury housing will result not only in the physical displacement of those on the margins but an erasure of the area’s history as well. While much of the public art in the area, including some of the murals, testifies to some of the community’s important history, it is not as meaningful without the presence of the people whose stories it tells.

Heading south along Central to Watts, it is clear residents are struggling with some of the same issues. Read more…

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This Week in Livable Streets

sblog_calendarThis Saturday, celebrate the halfway point for Metro Crenshaw-LAX rail construction. Housing, Wolfpack Hustle, and walk and bike tours round out the week.

  • Thursday 5/5 – The Echo Park Improvement Association hosts a panel discussion on bicycling in L.A. at 7 p.m. in Williams Hall at the Barlow Respiratory Hospital at 2000 Stadium Way, in Elysian Park. Panelists include Nick Richert (Bike Talk), Don Ward (Wolfpack Hustle), Nona Varnado (L.A. Bike Trains, L.A. Bike Fest), Melody Brocious (bike polo), Betsy Medvedosky (art and cycling), Vanessa Gray (C.I.C.L.E.) and Josef Bray-Ali (Flying Pigeon). Details at Facebook event.
  • Thursday 5/5 – Join the UNIDAD Coalition to talk about the future of South Central at a town hall regarding the $1.2 billion Reef development. UNIDAD and South Central residents have been working on a community benefits proposal they hope could mitigate some of the impacts of such a major development in an area where disinvestment has generally been the rule. Details at Facebook event.
  • Friday 5/6 – The American Institute of Architects hosts Design for Dignity: Changing The Housing Equation By Design a one-day conference highlighting workable solutions to solving Southern California’s housing crisis. The event takes place from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Inner-City Arts at 720 Kohler Street in downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District. Register at AIA L.A. Share via Facebook event.
  • Saturday 5/7 – Si Se Mueve hosts a 6-mile walk exploration of Highland Park, departing at 8 a.m from the Metro Gold Line Highland Park Station. Details at Facebook event.
  • Saturday 5/7 – CicLAvia and the Southeast Bicycle Alliance are hosting a Southeast Cities Exploratory Ride. Meet at the Watts Towers at 9 a.m. to check out part of the route for the upcoming CicLAvia Southeast. Bikes, boards, scooters, and all forms of alt-transit welcome! Waiver required to join (will hand out before ride starts). All riders under 18 must wear a helmet. Details at Facebook Event.
  • Saturday 5/7 – The Los Angeles chapter of Young Professionals in Transportation is hosting a short, family-friendly free bike ride through Crenshaw and Leimert Park. Meet at 9:30 a.m. at the Metro Expo Line Crenshaw Station. The ride departs promptly at 10:00 a.m., and ends at Leimert Plaza. More details at Facebook event and at YPT-LA. And, while you’re there, enjoy the next event, too!
  • Saturday 5/7 – Metro hosts a celebration commemorating the half-way point toward completion of the Crenshaw-LAX light rail line. The celebration takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Leimert Park Village at 4395 Leimert Boulevard in South Los Angeles. Activities include music, kids zone, Metro and contractor employment opportunities, and more. For details see Metro website.
  • Saturday 5/7 – Wolfpack Hustle hosts the Long Beach Short Line Crit taking place alongside the Long Beach Bike Fest. Qualifiers start at 4 p.m. and main track events at 7:30 p.m. (women) and 8:15 p.m. (men). Circuit viewable throughout downtown Long Beach. Volunteers needed. Details at Facebook Event and at Wolfpack Hustle.
  • Sunday 5/8 – The L.A. Bicycle Festival touches down in downtown L.A.’s Grand Park from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Billed as a bicycle theme park, the festival includes family-friendly workshops, demos, beer garden, interactive art installations, wandering musicians, local ride groups among the most innovative bike and gear brands. Details at Facebook event.
  • Sunday 5/8 – L.A. Walks hosts a DTLA Women’s History Mother’s Day Walk. Event starts at Arcadia and Main at 3 p.m. Details at Facebook event.

Did we miss anything? Is there something we should list on future calendars? Email


Downey Ride & Stride Open Streets Event Open Thread

Downey Ride & Stride open streets festival took place yesterday. All photos Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

Some of the participants at the Downey Ride & Stride open streets festival, which took place yesterday. All photos Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

The city of Downey held its first open streets festival yesterday. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Downey Ride & Stride dedicated 5.5 miles of city streets to walking, bicycling, skating, wheelchairs, and plenty of other car-free activities.

Downey is one of the cities sponsored by Metro in its initial round of open streets funding. Events in this round need to take place by June 30, so there are a handful of open streets events coming up this month and next: May 15 – CicLAvia Southeast Cities, June 5 – ‘Coast’ Santa Monica, and two big San Gabriel Valley events: June 12 – Viva SGV and June 26 – Golden Streets.

Overall it was a great event. My daughter and I and her grandparents had a really good time riding and walking the route.

More than any other open streets event I have attended, the route included a number of small- to medium-sized residential streets. For participants, these streets work fine, but I hope that the advance communications were thorough and that the folks whose driveways were blocked knew what was coming.

Plenty of cyclists enjoyed the event. There were also lots of families just out walking in the middle of the car-free street.

The event included a lot of programming. There were hundreds of booths, fire trucks, bounce houses, food trucks, face painting, DJs, bands, and much more. It felt like half the groups in Downey – from churches to investment firms to school clubs to beauty pageant ensembles – were represented along the route. We enjoyed interacting with lots of folks, but in a way it felt almost too programmed; I think it is important to trust that people moving around a city on bike or on foot will enjoy interacting with other participants, and with businesses along the route.


Thousands of cyclists took to the streets of Downey

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Cycling Booms in London, and the City’s Not Looking Back

Image: City of London

If current trends continue, there will be more people bike commuting in central London than car commuting by 2018. Image: City of London

Boris Johnson says that one of his goals as mayor of London was to make cycling “more popular and more normal.” As Johnson’s eight-year tenure winds down, it looks like the progress he made in his second term has accomplished that mission.

If current trends continue, bike commuters will outnumber car commuters in central London by 2018, according to a recent report from Johnson’s office [PDF]. Citywide, Transport for London estimates people already make 645,000 bike trips on an average day.

When Londoners head to the polls later this week to elect their next mayor, five candidates will be on the ballot, all of whom have signaled they will continue to expand the city’s bike network, reports the BBC’s Tom Edwards. Most of them have pledged to triple the amount of protected bike lanes in the city.

You can trace the London cycling boom to several factors, including the introduction of congestion charging under Johnson’s predecessor, Ken Livingstone, in 2003. But the big turning point came during Johnson’s second term, when bike advocates prompted him to get serious about installing protected bike lanes.

In his first term, Johnson championed the construction of “cycle superhighways” on some of the city’s busiest streets. But these routes, which offered little or nothing in the way of physical protection, didn’t live up to their billing. Cyclists were not satisfied with them and staged huge protests calling for safer bike infrastructure. The BBC’s Edwards recalls how cyclists booed Johnson when he was seeking reelection four years ago.

In recent years, Johnson has devoted more resources to protected bike lanes, upgrading the existing “cycle superhighways” and laying out a plan for more. He now says his “single biggest regret” was not doing so sooner.

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