Streetsblog Interview: Professor Robert Gottlieb

12_25_08_gottlieb.jpg

Robert Gottlieb is the Henry R. Luce Professor of Urban Environmental Studies
and Director of the Urban Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College.  The Institute seeks to marry education with action and thus Gottlieb and his students have become a major force for transportation reform in Los Angeles.

In addition to his work on signature projects such as Arroyo Fest and the upcoming Bike Summit Gottlieb has joined the ranks of bloggers.  At UEPI’s blog you can read his thoughts and research on the history of bikes in the pre-automobile era and the role of bikes in creating a green economy.

Streetsblog: When you
study environmental policy, you focus a lot on transportation issues. When I saw you at the Future Without a Car
Conference you were talking about bikes and the history of bikes in America and
where we should be going as a country. I
guess to start, it would be helpful to get a brief description of your teaching
and how you deal with transportation.

GottliebWe see
things first from the environmental side. Environmental issues are
daily life issues. That’s really the mantra of the
environmental justice movement, that the environment is where
you live work and play. Any environmental agenda would necessarily
address transportation issues and housing, urban space, education and
green space. There are a range of things that have both
environmental consequence and have to do with the way in which urban
life is organized.

So that’s the
approach. You can’t really talk about urban space and urban
politics without talking about transportation…particularly in
Los Angeles which is a focal point of the program.

What we do here at
the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute is we don’t
separate research and teaching from action and community engagement.
We see ourselves as action as well as education and
research oriented. The opening line in the catalog for our
program is, “…if you want to change the world, come to
Urban and Environmental Policy.” Thus, we get students
who are passionate around social change.

Transportation
factors significantly into all of that.

As an institute we
first got deeply involved in transportation when we got
involved around issues regarding the Arroyo Corridor, the
Pasadena to L.A. stretch that includes the Pasadena Freeway,
the Arroyo Seco watershed and the communities along the corridor.
Out of that came an idea, first broached by community members,
about pulling off a bike ride and a walk ON the freeway.

Getting that took
two years of organizing by the community and putting pressure
on the transportation agencies. When we approached Caltrans they
thought it was a joke, so we organized from the bottom up and the
top down. First we got some elected officials on board to
argue on our behalf while simultaneously undertaking a community
campaign. We eventually did it. One transportation planner
called it a “community organizing thriller.” We got
them to agree to a Sunday morning closing of the freeway and to have
bicyclists and pedestrians spend four hours toolin’ around.

Since then we
continue to be strongly involved with transportation. Bike issues
represent such a core way to get involved in transportation as well
as urban space issues. It’s really become essential to what we
are.

And that’s
what led us to this Bike Summit discussion.

12_25_08_arroyo.jpg

Streetsblog: Let’s
hold off on the Bike Summit for a second. I’ve heard some talk about bringing back Arroyo Fest. Have you heard anything about that, or was it
our one shot at the freeway?

GottliebIt’s not a one time shot, but it’s how and why you do it. When it happened, it took a lot of resources to pull off and a lot of organizing to deal with the agencies. One of the downsides of Arroyo Fest was the limited capacity of the bike movement, as it existed at the time. The
bike movement then was weaker; today, there are far more groups engaged
in far more activities than there were then. Thus, at the time of
ArroyoFest there wasn’t the capacity of the movement to use the event as an organizing tool.

The second thing, in terms of resources, was feedback suggesting that any future ArroyoFest might require commercial sponsorship to turn it into an LA Marathon type of event. We didn’t want to do that. For this to make sense, it had to be a community event, a bicycle event and a livable communities event.

So we didn’t really see the capacity to pull off a repeat of the event of that magnitude at that point in time. When James (Rojas) recently started talking to people at Caltrans saying, “let’s do Arroyo Fest again” and they came to talk to us about the idea, we responded: let’s strengthen the capacity to do events such as Arroyo Fest by strengthening the bike movement and by strengthening the community base for such an event so we’re never dependent on corporate funds to pull it off. We didn’t want to see something like: “Toyota presents Arroyo Fest”

That can happen. It was one of the ideas five years ago to seek out corporate sponsorship, especially in relation to one major sponsor. We didn’t want to do that.

So, yes. It’s possible to do an event like this again. But first you really want to build a constituent base of groups and people and you really want to do it so that closing down the freeway for a bike ride and walk happens every year, every month, indeed every week. Similar
to the concept that’s happening in places like Mexico so that you
incorporate it into the fabric of the community and it’s not something
that just comes along every couple of years.

That kind of thinking is what led to the Bike Summit.

There’s also a group of people that want to pull off a Ciclovia
type event which captures the same type of energy that went into
ArroyoFest, except it’s not freeway based, it’s surface street based. We are really in favor of that sort of event also. We could see people using the Arroyo Fest model literally everywhere.

All of that being said, that one time event, which we do hope will become an ongoing event, was truly a magical moment. It’s
important to grasp what that meant, to take over a freeway, to hear the
sounds of silence, to experience a sense of place you can’t experience
driving on a freeway, to understand that the Pasadena Freeway was once
designed as a parkway for a very different type of relationship to the
environments it intersected..

Also, ArroyoFest did have an impact on helping stimulate new bike movement activity. Take the group C.I.C.L.E. C.I.C.L.E did not emerge directly from ArroyoFest, but Liz and Shay have said to me that Arroyo Fest stimulated their imagination. You
can see it then as part of a re-emerging bike movement; one magical
moment in a process of movement growth and increased capacity.

Streetsblog: You’ve
mentioned the upcoming Bike Summit a
couple of times so let’s get into it. I
know not everything is set yet and I have some idea personally from talking to
a representative from T.A. that’s coming into town and I talk and type with Joe
almost constantly, but what do YOU envision it being?

Gottlieb: It’s not a one time shot, but it’s how and why you do it. When it happened, it took a lot of resources to pull off and a lot of organizing to deal with the agencies. One of the downsides of Arroyo Fest was the limited capacity of the bike movement, as it existed at the time. The
bike movement then was weaker; today, there are far more groups engaged
in far more activities than there were then. Thus, at the time of
ArroyoFest there wasn’t the capacity of the movement to use the event as an organizing tool.

The second thing, in terms of resources, was feedback suggesting that any future ArroyoFest might require commercial sponsorship to turn it into an LA Marathon type of event. We didn’t want to do that. For this to make sense, it had to be a community event, a bicycle event and a livable communities event.

So we didn’t really see the capacity to pull off a repeat of the event of that magnitude at that point in time. When James (Rojas) recently started talking to people at Caltrans saying, “let’s do Arroyo Fest again” and they came to talk to us about the idea, we responded: let’s strengthen the capacity to do events such as Arroyo Fest by strengthening the bike movement and by strengthening the community base for such an event so we’re never dependent on corporate funds to pull it off. We didn’t want to see something like: “Toyota presents Arroyo Fest”

That can happen. It was one of the ideas five years ago to seek out corporate sponsorship, especially in relation to one major sponsor. We didn’t want to do that.

So, yes. It’s possible to do an event like this again. But first you really want to build a constituent base of groups and people and you really want to do it so that closing down the freeway for a bike ride and walk happens every year, every month, indeed every week. Similar
to the concept that’s happening in places like Mexico so that you
incorporate it into the fabric of the community and it’s not something
that just comes along every couple of years.

That kind of thinking is what led to the Bike Summit.

There’s also a group of people that want to pull off a Ciclovia
type event which captures the same type of energy that went into
ArroyoFest, except it’s not freeway based, it’s surface street based. We are really in favor of that sort of event also. We could see people using the Arroyo Fest model literally everywhere.

All of that being said, that one time event, which we do hope will become an ongoing event, was truly a magical moment. It’s
important to grasp what that meant, to take over a freeway, to hear the
sounds of silence, to experience a sense of place you can’t experience
driving on a freeway, to understand that the Pasadena Freeway was once
designed as a parkway for a very different type of relationship to the
environments it intersected..

Also, ArroyoFest did have an impact on helping stimulate new bike movement activity. Take the group C.I.C.L.E. C.I.C.L.E did not emerge directly from ArroyoFest, but Liz and Shay have said to me that Arroyo Fest stimulated their imagination. You
can see it then as part of a re-emerging bike movement; one magical
moment in a process of movement growth and increased capacity.

Streetsblog: You’ve mentioned the upcoming Bike Summit a couple of times so let’s get into it. I
know not everything is set yet and I have some idea personally from
talking to a representative from T.A. that’s coming into town and I
talk and type with Joe almost constantly, but what do YOU envision it
being?

Gottlieb: Maybe a good way to think of it is first the goals and then what it does. I think we’re hoping to accomplish a number of things.

One is to strengthen capacities. There’s a mushrooming of interest and things are going on. Whether it’s things like the kitchen or the rides. The Summit, by pulling people together will strengthen capacities. By working together we’ll all be stronger.

There’s a group that even Joe Linton
hadn’t heard of in South L.A. that wants to do a workshop on biking in
South L.A. and the issues they have to confront. There’s
a group in Boyle Heights that would do a Boyle Heights bike workshop
which would focus on the lack of lanes in Boyle Heights. There’s a lot of riders there that aren’t part of the greater bike movement. Those kind of workshops that we’re planning are then also aimed at another key goal: diversifying and expanding the bike movement.

We need to bring in more people, especially those that use their bikes to get to work or for other necessities but don’t think of themselves as bike advocates. So, that’s another strategy for the Summit, to bring people in to say that it makes sense for people to push for bike needs or pedestrian needs as part of a community plan process; for example, to change the streetscape of Boyle Heights so that people can bike.

The third component Is to cohere and
expand the visibility around the role of bikes so that people don’t see
biking as an alternative only when the price of gas is high. First of all, it’s still unclear whether we are in fact seeing a longer term increase in bike use independent of the price of gas. The
Summit has been organized to look at bike issues as part of a deeper
transformation of transportation and the built environment.

That’s reflected by bringing in speakers from Mexico City to say that in that very city, the pollution headquarters of North America, thanks
to effective bike advocacy, a reform mayor, and the potential for a
more comprehensive transportation alternative approach, that bikes have
an important role in that transformation.

We’re bringing in Noah Budnick from New York to talk about some of the dynamic things going on in that city and other parts of the country. We’re adding a speaker from Portland to do the same thing.

Yet L.A. has in some respects the greatest capacity, in the face of car and freeway dominance, to be at the leading edge of elevating bikes as a key alternative. We have a twelve month bikes season. We have relatively flat surface streets. Also bikes are particularly conducive to short trips. That’s
where we can focus on reducing automobile usage and converting
streetscapes rather than the exclusive focus of Bike to Work.

Bike to Work isn’t a bad thing but
very often you get those responses from people that bike or transit is
too far, or takes too long…But what about going that first half a mile? So much of our car use in L.A. are short trips as well.

There are lots of opportunities, even
in a “spread out region,” where bikes can play a really substantial
part in re-thinking landscape, and transportation and bikes in a
community environment.

The LA Bike Summit gives a chance to say that bikes in L.A. really make a lot of sense.

To be a real success it has to be part of a process. It’s clearly designed to develop more networking and more visibility, education and diversity of bike advocates.

By saying we’re not just a niche thing
for a group of people that ride around at midnight but for people that
want to get around as well for any number of purposes. Not that I have anything against riding around at midnight. That’s great too.

Streetsblog: When you
look at L.A. as we are now, do you see anything that makes you think we’re
beginning to move in the right direction?

Gottlieb: Yes and
No.

We’re moving in the right direction in that it’s a little
bit more on the radar screen, not ve12_25_08_Gotlieb_book.jpgry much but a little more at the city,
county, state and national scene. It’s
also very clear that we can now make the argument that if you’re talking green
economy, alternative transportation or other big-ticket item that is going to
be on the agenda that you’re going to have to talk about bikes. Yes, I see it a little bit happening and the
opportunity for a lot more.

“No” in
the sense that there’s an element of green-washing that goes on
when there’s a Bike Master Plan or you do other things that tap
what you have accomplished from planning that aren’t thinking
outside the box and aren’t moving an agenda forward in a way we
need.

Transportation. Air
Quality. Global Warming. Sense of Place.

These are all things on public policy agendas, yet bikes are still at best at the margins of policymaking.

There are opportunities and things are moving forward but we have to think a lot more expansively.

Streetsblog: Now the
last question. You have a genie that is
willing to grant a wish, but it has to be about transportation in Los Angeles,
what would be that one thing.

GottliebIn a
short-term it would be easy to accomplish, from government, the way
they’re dedicating spaces in Mexico City that take large spaces
and dedicate them as public spaces at least periodically, if not a
daily basis.

On streets, on
freeways, on parks…in Griffith Park, having bike and
pedestrian environments and car-free environments. That way people
can visualize what it means to move in that direction even if it
means we have to change the streetscape and even if it’s just
every Sunday.

In the long-term we
really need to enter into a post-automobile era. There’s a
saying in the environmental world that you need to create a hierarchy
of goals. When dealing with waste issues, for example,
the hierarchy is reduce-reuse-recycle.

In transportation we
have it all wrong. The focus is make cars more efficient at the top,
then rail, then bus, then bikes and pedestrians. That has to be
reversed at all levels. When you start doing that it changes the
notion of what it means to be involved in transportation planning.

One of the things I
do is edit a series for M.I.T. press called Urban and Industrial
Environments. We just got a new manuscript called Traffic which
was done by this really creative planner and advocate from Italy
who’s core thesis is that transportation planning is being done
by people who construct it as an engineering paradigm. How do you
get people from place to place the quickest. Everything flows from
that.

That worldview
permeates how we think about urban life.

But what if you had
Caltrans run by a group of philosophers who would be thinking of
transportation with a different conceptual framework
regarding transportation planning and urban life. From
that would flow how we build our transportation system. It’s
similar to what James Rojas is trying to get at with his modeling
streetscape exercises. This book might be published by M.I.T.
press. We have to reorient the ways we think about place and
“getting there.” Today, that thinking about
transportation is placed within that engineering paradigm, about
getting there fastest instead of how one experiences the place that
one passes through.

When you look at it
that way, bikes rise to the top. Transportation planning would
then be place-based and the urban planning framework, in
its various dimensions, that is, the notion of what it means to live,
and work, and play in the city, would also reflect that change to a
city where place truly matters

Photo: UEPI/Flickr, MIT Press

11 thoughts on Streetsblog Interview: Professor Robert Gottlieb

  1. “What we do here at the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute is we don’t separate research and teaching from action and community. We see ourselves as action people as well as education people and research people. The opening line in the catalog for our program is, “…if you want to change the world, come to Urban and Environmental Policy. Thus, we get students who are passionate around social change.”

    That’s great. I am not a big fan of putting everything in a little box either. Too bad I didn’t know of this program, maybe I wouldn’t have wasted so much time in the philosophy department talking about things I can do nothing about…

    Browne

  2. “That’s reflected in bringing in speakers from Mexico City to say that the pollution headquarters of North America, even with a strong transit system, needed a reform mayor to make bikes a considerable part of the city.”

    What? A reform mayor? What is this heretical nonsense. We’re doing just fine with San Antonio at the “handlebars!” We’ve got momentum…we’ve got it going on…we’re on a roll…we’re gonna get a bike rack at City Hall East…someday.

  3. Though you showed one – you didn’t mention Gottlieb’s books! I suggest that folks read Reinventing Los Angeles, The Next Los Angeles, Forcing the Spring (on the history of environmental movements), and A Life of Its Own (on water issues in LA).

  4. “We just got a new manuscript called Traffic which was done by this really creative planner and advocate from Italy who’s core thesis is that transportation planning is being done by people who construct it as an engineering paradigm. How do you get people from place to place the quickest. Everything flows from that.”

    This is so true! I read through the Institute for Transportation Engineer’s history (off of their web-site), and this is how they describe the growth and development of their field:

    It must be remembered that as the 1920’s began, the transportation scenario in the United States was changing. People and goods now traveled in automobiles and trucks and the horse drawn vehicle which had predominated was disappearing. Buses and streetcars were a common sight in the 1920’s. The streetcar, in fact, dominated arterial streets in most urban area and because trolleys were placed in the center of the street, the marginal roadway access left on the side made for very poor performance for automotive vehicles.
    Maintaining any kind of a safe traffic movement under these conditions ultimately helped to bring about a new professional, the traffic engineer. Practicing the use of engineering techniques, organization, and traffic control the traffic engineer was to be responsible for keeping traffic moving in the cities, especially automotive traffic.
    -Istitute for Transportation Engineers, “The Early Year: Establishing and Identity”, pg. 1

    http://www.ite.org/aboutite/History.asp

  5. The professional class of engineers that control transportation plannign and funding in the U.S. need to have their engineering goals supplemented not with “philosophers” (as Gottlieb mentions above), but with social scientists and economists.

    Transportation planning measurably affects our quality of life and our local economic circumstances. Our quality of life is NOT just the ability to get around (as transportation engineers commonly mis-define it). You can measure, through survey, how many people in an area feel safe around their home, how many friends they have, how engaged they are in civic affairs.

    You can also measure economic health locally by tracking commercial vacancies, defaults on small business loans, retail sales tax income.

    Using these types of measures, transportation planning can become a more robust field – not just sewer pipe engineering for cars!

  6. Speaking as a Librarian who works for a bunch of engineers, I can’t help but agree with Ubrayj on this one.

    Quite possibly one of the biggest obstacles that a better more bikeable Los Angeles faces is the car focused single-mindedness of those traffic engineers over at LADOT.

    Methinks an educational campaign is in order, or at least a dedicated in-your-face kind of a PR blitz directed squarely at those aforementioned engineers.

  7. The problem is that your “educational” campaign will be viewed by engineers as one of those re-education camps or sexual harassment prevention training, which no one wants to attend. You have to start by breaking the LADOT’s attachment to numbers and quantitative measures and start throwing in qualitative stuff, which will make a lot of them panic. The problem is that, quite frankly, engineers aren’t comfortable with fuzzy stuff like how “safe” someone feels and hide behind the safety of easily calculated metrics like travel time delay and level of service. Today’s graduates from engineering schools are doing a decent job of training people that are comfortable with uncertainty, and the senior managers are learning the ropes of “alternative transportation” through conferences and political pressure.

    The real obstacle is the middle managers and supervisors in terminal positions, protected by civil service and unions, who basically decided when they stopped getting promoted 10 or 20 or 30 years ago to hold onto their position and keep their same world view, because there is no reason to change if you’re not financially rewarded for it. If you can find a way to “re-educate” those people without having the union scream bloody murder, I’m all for it.

  8. I agree. Promoted to a level of incompetence, many city employees (i used to work for LA Public Library, so I get to say this) are exactly as you say:

    “10 or 20 or 30 years ago to hold onto their position and keep their same world view, because there is no reason to change if you’re not financially rewarded for it”

    Simply put, I quit that job….the “re-education” process was all but hopeless. I stuck out, a LOT.

    That said, I do believe there are some minds that could be reached at LADOT. I think the “education” would have to come in the form of “FUN” though.

    Perhaps a group ride planned just for all LADOT employees?
    Then the Mayor Tony shows up for a photo-op?

    God I wish Garcetti would run for Mayor.

    If by some chance we could get one of our Streetsblogging pro-bikers into that new job at LADOT, that could be an opportunity to educate from within. Kind of a long shot, yeah, but not entirely impossible.

  9. calwatch said:

    “The problem is that, quite frankly, engineers aren’t comfortable with fuzzy stuff like how “safe” someone feels and hide behind the safety of easily calculated metrics like travel time delay and level of service.”

    This is precisely the point I found myself at sometime in 2007. I spent a lot of time trolling through my old notes and digging through the internet trying to find data that would push a pro-bike, pro-human, agenda with an engineer.

    “Fuzzy stuff” like feelings of safety are, in fact, determinable using good social science. This was demonstrated effectively by Donald Appleyard in his Livable Streets surveys in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

    Further, I have found a whole host of pre-made data sets and scientific standards that could tie nicely into a package of reform in transportation engineering (locally, and maybe regionally or nationally).

    This would include:

    Board of Equalization records of retail sales tax income;
    California Office of Noise Control noise standards;
    U.S. Census data;
    CARB and SCAQMD air quality standards (applied in small areas)

    The survey technique would not have to very sophisticated either: pay a grad student (or undergraduates) to record coded type of human behavior on the roadway (viewing video tape).

    Set up a monitoring device or devices (air and noise quality measuring devices) in a study area.

    Grab data from various government agencies.

    Send out a “Radius Map” style of survey to a study area with a Donald Appleyard style Livability Survey.

    Create a reporting agency that collects and compiles a database of injuries, deaths, and incidents in an area.

    This technique could be added into the community planning process, and would allow politicians to see what is actually happening in their districts. It would allow an engineer to make the tradeoff with vehicle speeds and retail sales tax income, lower crash rates, and true accessibility for a wide swath of the population.

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