City Planning’s Opportunity to Re-make Los Angeles’ Streets

5_7_10_joe_pic.jpgBicycle-friendly Street from New York City’s Street Design Manual

Los Angeles’ Department of City Planning (DCP) is working on a study
that has the potential to change the way that the city does
streets. DCP’s "Street Classification and Benchmarking Study" is lead
by city planners Claire Bowin and Jane Choi and their consultant,
Fehr and Peers’ Jeremy Klop. The $55,000 study is funded by the
Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG.) There’s
apparently no information on the study online yet, though briefings on
it were presented at the recent StreetSummit and to the Green L.A. Transportation Work Group. Dorothy Le reported on the GLATWG briefing at the Bike Coalition’s blog.

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.

5_7_10_design.jpgBicycle-unfriendly Streets from Los Angeles’ Current Street Standards

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
new likely-multi-million-dollar Mobility Element has always been a
few years off. With the city’s current budget crisis, it’s not in the
workplan for this fiscal year. Doesn’t appear likely next year either.

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.

  • The system the city currently uses to classify roads carries with it Average Daily Trips, Vehicle Miles Traveled, and Level Of Service numbers. All of these measures are car-moving-shit-pipe metrics.

    All of our city streets should be designed to minimize pedestrian, bicyclist, and motorist fatalities and crashes. Why not introduce a design requirement that a street must be designed so that the number of fatalities shall never rise above X?

    The deleterious effects of ambient noise on humans is well studied and fairly well-understood. It is also relatively easy to monitor. Why not introduce a standard for ambient street traffic noise levels? This one measurement would drastically effect the way a street is designed. High car speeds lead to extremely loud streets (even if they are eCars!).

    The California Board of Equalization takes in Sales Tax from business, and keeps records dating back to the implementation of sales tax in California. The BOE then hands back a percentage of this sales tax money to the city governments in charge of the areas from which it came. I was surprised to learn back in 2003 that local cities do not track the areas that generate their sales tax revenue! Why not? Making LA’s streets more profitable for merchants leads to more revenue for the city – and slowing down car speeds can do wonders for a business district. Though these street standards are not the right place for a tracking of geo-coded sales tax revenue, I think the city is doing itself a great disservice by not requesting this data from the state (after it has been sufficiently anatomized) to determine the effects its policies are having, on a quarter by quarter basis.

    Planning would be an ideal location for safety, noise, retail sales, and other metrics to be compiled and turned into an online map and published report to council (and the general public). The power of this information would lead to a generation of politicians much more in tune with the rational interests of the people they represent, as opposed to the current situation when politicians work hard only for the notional “support” of the minuscule voting public at election time and then crap on our quality of life while in office.

  • Gina

    Again, drivers are conditioned to equate green with “GO”., bike lanes should be painted a deep red like in Copenhagen because drivers are automatically per-conditoned to equate red with “Stop” meaning they don’t drive there and if they do need to pass they need to be very cautious (RED again) of cyclists.

    If you’re going to do this then do it right, also, bike sharrows are better than bike lanes.

    Why? Because lanes imply that bikes can’t take up a lane and that is a recipe for disaster.

    Better to paint the right lane a deep red on all two lane in one direction streets.

    Also, signs with bikes on them and “PASS WITH CARE” should be posted on all streets regardless of sharrows or bike lanes.

    Don’t do half measures that will just have to be improved upon in a couple years, do it right the first time.

    The point is not to make cycling easier for cyclists, it’s to encourage motorists to cycle instead of drive, to do that the city needs to provide and entire lane, painted deep red, as a designated bike sharrow. Cars may only enter it to make a right hand turn or to get into a parallel parking space or residence/business and since it’s red they will know to be cautious.

    Also, an entire lane will make more motorists feel safe cycling on the road.

    Gridlock is due to too many motorists, when you can’t park or get around town easily business suffer.

  • One more point, the MTA’s Enhanced Public Outreach Plan in 2002 concluded:

    “Bicyclists need access to the same destinations as drivers of automobiles. Origin and Destination Survey results show that the most common destinations for bicyclists are concentrated along major arterials, especially in areas with intense commercial activity”

    So clearly the “parallel side street” thing, while noble and useful in some instances is a failure of political ambition and design. Arterials exist in vital geographic, economic, and culturally important locations – these are the best places we have for getting around. Cyclists will continue to use them in greater numbers for the same reason roller bladers, people walking, public transit agency buses, and private motorists do.

    Do not run from this fact, but embrace it. The only fight worth fighting here is to remove arterial lanes from auto-only uses and expand access and mobility to bicyclists, pedestrians, and public transportation. If these tool box doesn’t achieve that, then please move on to something that will!

  • Sharrows are great and all, but I prefer bike lanes, preferably with traffic calming. They don’t have to imply that regular lanes aren’t for bikes. That’s just a mistaken conclusion that some people come to.

    I think your average Joe/Jane would agree.

  • KC

    Chewie,

    I would not agree that bike lines are preferable. In fact, I detest most bike lanes. Why? Because they put me between high-speed traffic and driveways, right turns (many of which aren’t signaled for), doors and parking spaces. I tend to think of it as a channel of doom (or treacherous obstacles at the very least). For example, I have chosen a a street with no bike line (Fountain) over a street with a bike lane (Santa Monica) for my daily commute to avoid the precarious position of being in the bike lane. And everyday I wish there were sharrows.

  • Marcotico

    I saw a presentation on the preparation of that NYDOT street standards guidebook and it was very impressive. They publish it as a looseleaf binder so that people understand that it is a work in process. Also they designate standards (like bike lanes, and lighting elements) as standard, accepted (i’m paraphrasing) or pilot, which allows the planning, and operations people to select items from a menu of options.

    Of course the other important aspect was that they guidebook was made with the cooperation of 7 different agencies, so when it says something can be implemented it means it won’t encounter a bunch of redtape form another department like streets and sewers or something.

  • DanaPointer

    In Netherlands and Denmark on calm residential streets there is really no bike infra, sharrows or anything else, except maybe something that resembles a “bike boulevard” at times with non-continuous lanes for cars(diversions etc). You can often pass through a residential area in Denmark on bike while you can’t in a car.

    The big difference is in arterial streets which in CPH have segregated bike tracks while in SoCal they are a total mess for anything but minimum 3000lbs hunk of steel.

  • Carter R

    Just to throw another 2 cents in.

    In Strasbourg, FR – a livable and bikeable city if there ever were one – bike lanes and sharrows are used all over the place and in conjunction.

    Moreover, bike lanes often run next to roads on the sidewalks. On a lot of arterials in LA (i.e. Pico Blvd), the sidewalks are plenty wide to accommodate foot and bike traffic side-by-side. In conjunction, you could have red bike lanes next to the crosswalks to give that all-important signal to cars to watch our for bikes crossing the streets.

    Or more ambitiously, just redesign the whole thing into a complete street with a bike lane between a median-separated bus-only lane and the sidewalk.

  • Urban Reason

    I only had a few moments to skim over this plan, but at first glance I really feel a little disappointed by the lack of more comprehensive bike infrastructure. I’d really like to see a full adoption of bike infrastructure on every single streets in the form of bike lanes (out of door-zone), and sharrows on more narrow streets. Am I the only one who feels LA should be making every effort to use our 300 days of sunshine and unusually wide streets to convert as many trips into biking and transit as possible?

  • @ Urban Reason

    I pretty much agree. We should make out-of-the-door-zone bike lanes on major streets where it’s politically possible and sharrows pretty much everywhere else. Also, traffic calming everywhere it’s politically possible. And how about 5% of the city’s car parking spaces converted to bike racks (seriously, would anyone even notice except cyclists)?

  • Gina

    In Amsterdam, Dubai and other European cities the bike lanes are painted a dark red so cars know not to drive in them, green is the wrong color to paint bike lanes, that is a recipe for disaster!

    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_396uogFbxnI/StxdvjEO2dI/AAAAAAAAAKU/O4BcEE9vdss/s400/DSC05479.JPG

    Scroll down to see dark red bike lanes:
    http://dubaisansauto.blogspot.com/

  • @ Gina

    Are there studies that prove which color (or uncolored) is safer? Maybe the proper color is reflective highlighter yellow :)

  • John A. Mozzer

    The current City of Los Angeles street standards are bad not only because they fail to accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists.

    Often, street widening serves no purpose, even for automobile traffic. And a property owner is subject to a “street dedication”, pushing back the building line, for no sensible reason. The result is erratic front setbacks with no benefit.

    To see an example, look at the Wilcox Street edge of The Gatsby Hollywood project, south of Fountain Avenue. Frankly, the widening of the west side of Wilcox looks dumb.

  • Henry

    I’m glad to hear that they are doing something about the way the street are designed. The city needs to make the bike lanes safer. Recreating the Los Angeles’ streets could decrease the numbers of accidents in the area.

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