Price Speaks on the Failure of LA’s Boulevards

Gordon Price began his lecture at City Hall yesterday by noting that big changes are coming as a result of global warming and a decline in the amount of oil the world can produce and warned that Los Angeles will be one of the cities that will see the most change.

But it didn’t have to be that way. Back in the 1920’s, Los Angeles, like Vancouver, was built around a streetcar system. The difference between how each city grew in the last 75 years can be described in two sentences, "Los Angeles committed to the car. Vancouver accommodated the car." Today in Vancouver, nobody is more than 1/4 mile away from public transportation, and in the walkable, bikeable downtown area more people walk or bike (to say nothing of transit) than drive.

To achieve this mode share, Vancouver had to do a lot of thing’s differently than Los Angeles has been doing. First, it needed to re-zone and rebuild its downtown and neighborhoods. Price claimed the key to walkability wasn’t just having wide sidewalks, attractive store fronts and minimal white noise (traffic of more than 30 mph reduces walkability because it impedes a conversation). A community also needs access to a mid-sized grocery store. Without it, people will get in their cars to go grocery shopping and once in their cars drive other places.

In Price’s own neighborhood, a grocery store was put in the bottom floor of a high rise (that is easily accessible via foot traffic) and of the 230 spaces built below the store, there is never more than 1/4 of them being used.

Of course, parking, and the North American obsession with providing free parking, is also at the root of many urban ills. Price pointed to the Larchmont Village in Los Angeles as an example of the kind of development that works for both neighborhood residents and business owners. He then pointed out it would be illegal to build today under LA’s parking codes because of a lack of car parking.

So, what are the results of the different planning styles we’ve seen between Vancouver and Los Angeles? In Vancouver’s downtown, 49% of all trips were made by car in 1992, compared to 13% car pool, 23% transit and 15% walking/biking. The government set ambitious goals to change the mode share. By 2021 they planned to reduce driving to 36% and car pooling to 12% by increasing transit usage to 34% and walking and biking to 30%.

So far, they succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. By 2004, single-occupancy driving was reduced to 30% of all trips with car-pooling adding another 9%. Transit usage and walking/biking each achieved a 30% share meaning more people commute by transit, walking and biking than by car. By contrast, census figures show that in 2006 more than 70% of LA commuters drove in a single passenger vehicle and another 12% car pooled. Given that 6% worked from home that means about 1/5 as many workers either took transit, walked or biked as they do in Vancouver.

So, what can Los Angeles do now? Price didn’t have a silver bullet answer, but the blueprint is there in his talk. But re-engineering our streets for all modes of transportation, reforming the parking code, adding more dense development, and rebuilding our mass transit system is easier said than done. But since we live in a world where oil is beginning to run out just as the competition for it is heating up, if Los Angeles wants to remain one of the world’s premier cities we don’t have a choice.

  • Anonymous

    This goober doesn’t understand the class issues with carpooling and bus ridership.

    Our citizens have been fooled enough times by mass-transit madness, and they’ve had enough “encounters” with bums and gangsters that they’ve chosen to sit in their cars, bumper-to-bumper, at any price.

    If the aforementioned advocate is unwilling to address the security and safety concerns that currently prevent those of means from “sharing” with the inner-city folk, it ain’t gonna happen.

    Note that there ARE examples where classes mix – the Santa Monica freeway bus, and to some extent, the Metro Rail lines, though these are showing signs of neglect.

    If carpooling is to be effective, we need a biometric vetting ID system for anonymous passengers (think SLUG lines with authentication), HOT lanes, some form of “guaranteed ride home” program, and an end to the current public transit monopoly.

  • IceyPancho

    Interesting article. Many people are writing about these issues now, but most fail to suggest the necessity for raising revenue, the most likely source being an increase in taxes of some kind.

  • IceyPancho

    What I wanted to say before inadvertently posting the previous comment was that LA County is the 17th largest economy in the world and CA is the 7th largest economy in the world and that we have the resources to transform the transportation system of the entire state independent of a federal gov’t that is bogged down with delusions of perpetuating a crumbling empire.

    I find it ludicrous that Los Angelenos complain about traffic, high gas prices, or even appear concerned about global warming(California is the 12th largest emitter of greenhouse gases worldwide, 41% of which come from cars). Los Angeles has 1/10 of the mass transit of Paris? Maybe 1/15? Maybe 1/20?

    As Americans we consume 25% of the world’s oil, if people such as Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton were more honest they would acknowledge the necessity for reducing car ownership rates in order to create the energy independence they often mention. But then, they wouldn’t be electable would they?

    And that is the realization Los Angelenos and Californians have to make: that we can’t afford the car as the primary mode of transportation anymore. Talking about mass transit without suggesting how to fund it gives me the impression that the writer or speaker lacks imagination or courage(such as Antonio Villaraigosa).

    Taxes are good. Especially if they are imposed on gasoline and used to fund mass transit.

  • Damien Newton

    Thanks for your posts Icey.

    To be fair to Mr. Price, he is a guest in our city from Vancouver, Canada. He did talk somewhat about funding, but really that part of the equation is up to us as Angelenos.

    You’re not going to get an argument from me about transportation funding and the need to commit more resources and taxes…it’s something I’ve written a lot about, and in a past was “the guy that advocates for a gas tax” back in New Jersey.

  • Damien Goodmon

    It begins with grade separated rail.

    Good points made, I’ll only point out that Vancouver is nothing like Los Angeles. Los Angeles is more analogous to metro areas like Greater London with Tokyo like polycentrism. That polycentrism is why our challenge is so unique.

    Taking cars of the road is highly dependent on providing alternatives to regional transportation (Long Beach to LAX, Warner Center to Pasadena, etc.). With the increase in housing cost – pushing more workers away from the economic centers, this problem is exacerbating. Used to be a single-mom secretary working in Downtown could afford a house/apartment in a decent neighborhood in South LA. Now such places go for $1500 a month or cost $500K. So people move out to Paramount and the SFV.

    Sort of coming back to my central point: increasing residential or office density in a location will ALWAYS be opposed by locals, and the crux of their objections are justifiable, in my opinion. We have great examples with the Grove.

    Build the rapid transit network first (and to be “rapid” it has to be moving FAST) and then the parking requirement reductions, density bonuses all begin to make sense – because there will be actual modal shifts and alternatives to single occupancy vehicles. And yes it has to be a NETWORK, otherwise the regional trips off the corridor aren’t addressed. Another great example is what Hollywood/Highland, which sits on top of one of the most used subway lines in the country, has done to traffic in it’s surrounding area.

  • Joe Linton

    Joe Linton from Livable Places, here – we’re the group that hosted Mr. Price’s talk, so you may dismiss my point of view as biased boosterism. Actually, Price didn’t suggest too much in the way of carpooling – but suggests that the most resilient system is one that isn’t too dependent on a single mode. The viable choices that people have are: car, car-share, taxi, transit, bike or walk.

    He stated that Vancouver’s density works mostly due to the viability of walking! Their downtown population doubled and they actually saw a decrease in car trips, with a very small increase in transit… turns out folks were walking instead of driving, and even instead of transit. So, if Vancouver’s experience can inform us (and I think it can), land use and urban design might be more important than grade-separated rail or carpooling.

    He definitely made distinctions between Vancouver and L.A. (no freeways there, their region’s population is an order of magnitude smaller than ours), but he made parallels between Los Angeles and Vancouver. We both have the populous downtowns and boulevards that came of age in the “street car city” which can support effective density.

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