City Planning’s Opportunity to Re-make Los Angeles’ Streets
DCP is responsible for the city's General Plan, which includes various components. The main part of the plan that codifies street specifics is the Transportation Element, most recently updated in 1999 and available on-line. The language in the transportation element is actually not bad. It plans for many features that Streetsblog readers favor, including "[making] the street system accessible, safe, and convenient for bicycle, pedestrian, and school child travel" and a "comprehensive program of multi-modal strategies" and more.
Unfortunately quite a bit of transportation element ends up boiling down to a 1-page Standard Street Dimensions sheet - on which the words "transit" and "bicycle" do not appear. The street dimensions specifications show standard cross-sections for all the types of streets that L.A. designates: Major Highway, Collector Street, etc. Bike/Ped planning consultant Ryan Snyder calls these street specifications the "DNA" of our streets. Whenever there's a new school, new park, new building, etc. the city consults the 1-pager and then generally mandates that the street be widened to its specified capacity. Check out the link - it's one page and it's instructive of why L.A. streets look the way they do.
Under the leadership of General Manager Gail Goldberg, DCP has been starting to chip away at the city's sadly suburban street standards. DCP's Urban Design Studio created a great new street plan for Downtown Los Angeles, which keeps in place the existing road-widths and the existing character of our no-setback downtown buildings. On 7th Street, the downtown plan actually specifies a road diet (reducing car lanes) to create bike lanes. DCP has other promising multi-modal pilots in the works, including the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan. But there's still the matter of those suburban street standards being applied throughout the city day in day out.
DCP hopes to update the Transportation Element of the General Plan
in the next few years. Planner Claire Bowin speaks of renaming it the
Mobility Element, and planning L.A.'s transportation systems into
something truly multi-modal. Unfortunately, for the last few years, the
DCP's Bowin got the idea to get a jump on the Mobility Element by seeking funding for studies that would get portions of it done. One of the first of these is the Street Classification and Benchmarking Study. Through this study the city will review best practices from other municipalities, and come up with ideas for modifying L.A.'s street classification system.
Bowin anticipates including expanding the way L.A.'s streets' performance is measured. Currently the city evaluates its streets using a metric called Level of Service (LOS.) LOS just measures vehicles, with no accounting for pedestians, cyclists, or transit.
The street classification approach favored by DCP and their consultant is to come up with a "Layered Network" - what appears to be essentially a finer-grained version of the existing street standards, which would include not just the current single type of each street. For example, in addition to today's "Secondary Highway", the new plan would be to have various types: Transit-Priority Secondary Highway, Bike-Priority Secondary Highway, etc. This would generate a network of streets geared to each mode: a Transit-Priority Network, a Bike-Priority Network, a Pedestrian-Priority Network, and, yes, even an Auto-Priority Network. (Doesn't L.A. already have one of those?)
While the Layered Network approach is likely to be a step in the right direction, especially in the light of today's car-monoculture standards, it's not quite a complete streets approach. Shouldn't all of Los Angeles be safe for walking? Early drafts of the study includes grating descriptions like this one of a Major Highway Class I: "Bicycle travel is not typically on this roadway. Bicycle priority streets should be designated on parallel facilities." Is this the kind of designation that the current Department of Transportation regime is likely to favor?
A shortfall of this study as currently scoped is that it's just a study. DCP states that it will have no specific recommended ordinances to be adopted. Any changes in the streets DNA will have to wait a few years before they can be adopted. Even then, Bowin characterizes the new standards would be a "greater toolbox" that would be available "for use in Community Plans." The Community Plan process is an exceeding slow and labyrinthine tool for adopting new street standards. It sounds like it would be another at least 2-3 years for the new toolbox to be approved in the Mobility Element, then another 2-3 years before a specific new standard could get approved for a specific street in a new Community Plan. With this approach, a fast-tracked change would be around 2015, if we're lucky. WWJSKD?
At the study briefing that this author attended, Stephen Box, Glenn Bailey, Ryan Snyder and others called for specific policy recommendations that could be made in a study like this:
- Minimize lane widths: Most of the revised classifications still call for excessive 11-foot-wide travel lanes. For pedestrian-priority and bike-priority streets, lane width should be the minimum: just 10-foot-wide
- Suspend Road-Widening: When DCP reviewed its downtown street standards, it suspended the roadway-widening for the downtown area. While DCP is reviewing its standards that apply citywide, it should place a moratorium on road-widening citywide.
- Suspend Other Unsafe Practices: Similar to road-widening, the report could recommend a moratorium on other practices that create unsafe incomplete streets. End speed limit increases. End crosswalk removals and the city's current practice of incomplete crosswalks at interesections. Halt new bike- and pedestian-unfriendly peak-hour parking restrictions for increasing car capacity.
- Add New Place-based Classifications: The proposed layered approach is still car-centric. New street designations could include: Main Street, Shared Space, Promenade, etc. - safe places where Angelenos would really want to go to, not just go through.
- Add Sidewalk Standards: Safe walkable places start with well-designed sidewalks with clear functional zones. Even on the newly proposed "Pedestrian Priority Streets" the road has clearly designated lanes, and the sidewalks get what's left over. The new standards should be exactly the reverse.
- Learn From Others: Many other cities have adopted great, comprehensive, complete streets standards. Look to progressive examples, including New York City's Street Design Manual.
L.A.'s next generation is counting on the Department of City Planning to do real planning. It's a good sign that DCP is re-examining the DNA of Los Angeles' streets. This study is a great opportunity to step away from streets that are car-centric wastelands and step toward health safe livable places.