Walking into the Future City: Or, Dispatches from a Pedestrian Lovefest

Carter Rubin is a native Angelino and recent
graduate of Pitzer College in Claremont, where he studied Global
Politics.  It was then that he came to appreciate the Metrolink and its
Red Line connection.  Nowadays, Carter can be seen riding his
hand-me-down Nishiki 10-Speed up and down Pico Boulevard on the
Westside, when he’s not ogling Metro planning documents.

Yesterday morning, the Los Angeles County Metro convened
over 300 city and regional officials, planning consultants, academics,
students, and at least one self-proclaimed futurist for a daylong symposium
entitled “Walking into the Future City.” Over the span of seven hours, the Metro organizers made a genuine, if
frenetic, effort to cover all the excellent reasons for local governments to
make a financial and philosophical commitment to pedestrians.

To give you the shotgun sample of yesterday’s presentation
themes.

“Improving
Mobility,” “Complete Streets,” “Efficient Pedestrian Systems,” “Green Streets,”
“Linking Pedestrians,” “the health of our communities,” making “Change Happen,”
“Safe Routes to School,” “Preparing for an Aging Population,” “The Built
Environment,” “Accomodat[ing] Persons with Disabilities,” “Walking,” “the
Walking Environment,” and “Walking Strategies” (presumably power-, moon-,
etc.).

But above all, in a region where historically (and
presently) the pedestrian has been at the bottom of the transportation food
chain, the conference provided a vision for a more vibrant, safe, and useful
street life in Southern California. The excitement was palpable, but the cynic in me had me holding my
breath.

We’re in Los Angeles after all, and the pedestrian proof will
be in the pedestrian pudding, as in, when there’s actually money dedicated to
making said pudding.

So during the “networking lunch” segment, I tracked down Robin
Blair, Metro Planning Director and today’s MC, to find out what exactly has
changed at MTA to justify all the excitement. For starters, Blaire noted, instead of having “maybe $1 million
for ped and bike,” as was the case
fifteen years ago, this year alone the MTA has $36M to doll out to local
governments for pedestrian improvement projects. But more broadly, Blair said he could sense a palpable increase
in the desire for an improved quality of street life and the fulfilling social
interactions it provides.

Asked if there were any big pedestrian projects we should be
looking out for, Blair pointed to the $10M allocated to improvements in East LA
to help safely connect residents to the new Gold Line stations. Although, he quickly noted that it was
rare for Metro to directly fund projects in this manner. Instead, the MTA’s primary objective is
to play a supporting role to local governments with its annual “calls for
project funding.”

In the long run, Blair envisions a Los Angeles that has
numerous public places in which “cars are not allowed,” or at the very least, a
city in which priority to cars is not surrendered by knee-jerk default.

In the Post-Measure R world, hope abounds for Los
Angeles. The institutional will is
solidifying and the money is starting to pool in meaningful amounts. Still, it’s up to us to stay engaged in
the planning process and to keep the pressure on MTA to make good on all those
intoxicating buzzwords. For
starters, let’s take to heart the words of Long Beach Mobility Coordinator
Charlie Gandy and “bring on the pilot projects!”

  • A HUGE hurdle all of this pro-bike and pro-pedestrian stuff faces is CEQA law. To truly remake LA’s streets, we need the authority to degrade Level Of Service for automobiles without having to go through $1 million in EIR stuff and worry about lawsuits.

    If a city could narrow lanes, reduce LOS, reduce car speeds and in return get wider sidewalks, measurably safer streets, better bus throughput, and move more humans (and support more diverse activities) out of the bargain I don’t think there’d be too much political opposition to change.

    As it stands now, we’re just one big CEQA lawsuit away from real change.

  • Marcotico

    That’s a good point, and a few of the commentators brought it up at the session. Cities have to establish policies that recognize other metrics besides auto-LOS, then they have the legal standing to make those other LOS count as much as traffic LOS. The consultant from Fehr&Pehrs said that the next version of the Highway Capacity Manual has procedures for measuring and and documenting pedestrian level of service, which I thought was pretty cool. But it does require cities measuring those things, and paying the consultant to do those things when they get contracts out.

  • Pedestrian LOS is an interesting idea, and I’ve read two or three different attempts to do LOS for pedestrians. I always feel that they lack what car-only LOS lacks: they don’t capture the value that streetss have beyond moving people around like a sewer pipe moves waste.

    Jahn Gehl Architects does a really great street use survey (like the one he did for Times Square) that goes a long way in quantifying the effects of car-centric vs. pedestrian-centric roadway configurations.

    There is a great book that uses sociology to map the effects of car-only street designs called “livable Streets” that I use as a bible. Talk about metrics! Imagine the city using social surveys to judge a street the same way that they use lame-ass 15 minute traffic counts. It would radically alter the way the city gets feedback. Instead of ad hoc, it would be a constant mandated input from the public that a public servant would ignore at their own peril and politicians could exploit for electoral advantage.

    “I will get rid of on-street fatalities with my 10 point plan! I will save your kids and decrease the capital costs of running the city. My opponent has turned us into beggars, running around with a hat, begging from the Feds, begging from the State, begging from Wall Street ‘Buy our bonds, pay for our pension, pave our roads’, I will get these changes done with NO increases in your taxes, by lowering the costs of maintaining our roads and caring for our people. Vote XXXX”

    The freakin’ speech writes itself. All we need is the data and surveys to make that political speech into a reality.

  • I didn’t stay for the whole day, but the two hours of presentations I saw in the morning didn’t make reference to the fact that it is, actually, possible to live carfree in LA now, and we do, actually, have walkable neighborhoods. No mention was made of learning from existing pedestrians; the prevailing idea (not surprising at a meeting of planners and policymakers) was that we’ll have to design our way into walkable cities. Why not ask people to drive less now? Why not talk to people who drive less now?

  • Katie

    The HCM and AASHTO actually have pedestrian LOS standards right now, but as ped guru Dan Burden points out, they measure LOS strictly in terms of “flow.” This means a damaged sidewalk with no parkway and no pedestrians is LOS “A” and a crowded, colorful sidewalk with street furniture and trees is LOS “F.”

    I’m glad to hear the new version of the HCM will include (hopefully improved) measures for pedestrian LOS, but as there remains a dearth of meaningful research on what makes a place “walkable,” I wonder how useful any new standards will actually be.

    Katie
    http://www.wherethesidewalkstarts.blogspot.com/

  • Adonia — I think your point is spot on. The streets are walkable, and we have many walkable neighborhoods, and as with bikes, only people who can’t get around any other way seem to be taking advantage.

    I was there for the whole day, and the afternoon speakers and panels did feature SOME actual pedestrians and not just planners. We had elderly and disabled speakers talk about their experiences and needs, and we had speakers talking about the experience of pedestrians with the Metro Gold Line extension, and how that impacted existing pedestrian routes. However, I would like to see more pedestrians represented next time, and more of a focus on what pedestrians are walking TO (how to get more grocery stores in food deserts, etc) and on things that would increase pedestrianism, like a commitment to public water fountains and public bathrooms. One more thing that’s common place in Europe, and almost nonexistent here.

    One of the recurring themes that may have picked up after you left was how to change the PERCEPTION of safety – just as we have a perception of dangerous streets for cyclists, we have a perception of dangerous streets for peds. Mark Fenton talked about how 30 percent of morning traffic was moms taking the kids to school, and how the perception of dangerous streets kept parents from letting their kids walk to school, despite no actual increase in danger since the 50s, when kids walked and biked to school. We had Jessica Meaney from Safe Routes to School and Mark Fenton both touch on things like Walking Buses and other ways to encourage kids to walk and bike to school.

  • Carter Rubin

    @Yoshiyahu

    Thanks for including those observations. Each one is spot on.

  • Eric B

    Katie said: “I’m glad to hear the new version of the HCM will include (hopefully improved) measures for pedestrian LOS, but as there remains a dearth of meaningful research on what makes a place “walkable,” I wonder how useful any new standards will actually be.”

    I was also there all day and left feeling quite energized to just have that many professionals from so many parts of the LA region in one room talking about pedestrians like they matter.

    Building on what Katie said, not only is the research about which factors create “walkable” streets incomplete, I’d be leery of any engineer that came up with standards for these factors. What we’d end up with is some formula of Trees + Sidewalks + Benches/linear foot + Standardized storefronts + (insert random factor that correlates with pedestrianism) = “walkable.” Then, the cities would pick about three things from a list, apply them universally to make all streets “walkable” in the simplest way and we’d end up with yet another system of uninspired, completely alike streets.

    While we undoubtedly need some basic understanding of a floor for walkability, which I would argue depends more on density of interesting uses instead of actual facilities, I don’t know that simply adopting a “pedestrian LOS” actually gets us there. I’m more inclined to go with Fred Kent of Project for Public Spaces and think about each street as a place. It’s not some magical formula of benches and trees that makes a street walkable, although those are certainly some of the elements. It’s the sense of destination and identity that makes people want to be there.

    In summary, I don’t think it’s about changing engineering metrics (although that is an important step), it’s about fundamentally swapping engineers for landscape architects during street design.

  • Los Angeles has the worst vehicular noise pollution of any large U.S. city I’ve spent time in — and is an important, if not broadly articulated aspect of the unpleasant experience that is pedestrianizing in L.A. Anyone who walks or lives along a minor or major thoroughfare in L.A. or waits for buses on boulevards here — and hasn’t subconsciously deadened their auditory perception — notices quickly how loud and disturbing is the racket, roaring and rumbling from exhaust resonators installed on pickup trucks, SUVs and sports cars, and from the exhaust systems of large motorcycles, all of it purely recreational on the parts of these mostly young and middle-aged male drivers. This crap is unnecessary and indefensible. The pickup truck and SUV resonators generate a specific and insidious kind of noise pollution, a penetrating low-frequency vibratory noise that regularly invades my home on a thoroughfare in Sherman Oaks with every push on the accelerator by their totally inconsiderate drivers — and regularly degrades my streetside walking in the Valley and L.A. as a car-less Angeleno who almost daily uses MTA. I’m sick of the car noise.

    It’s high time for state legislation to end the constantly increasing installation and operation of exhaust system “resonators” in California.

    The sale and installation of these devices needs, simply, to be outlawed in our state, and existing devices removed from all vehicles in a two-year cycle accomplished through the biennial auto smog check and re-registration process.

    Was ambient vehicular noise discussed or mentioned at the ‘Walking Into the Future City’ Symposium?
    ____________________________________________________________________________________

    By the way. . .

    The MTA ‘Source’ at http://thesource.metro.net/2010/05/10/reminder-metro-hosts-pedestrian-symposium-on-wednesday/ declares that “the hope is to generate some good ideas that cities in Los Angeles County may want to pursue with help from Metro.”
    I wonder if the best of these ideas will be gathered together anywhere on the MTA website for public review, and maybe with a facility to allow the addition of further ideas and suggestions for improving pedestrianizing in Los Angeles, in particular from pedestrians themselves? This pedestrian would like to do that. I hope Streetsblog will run a follow-up to the MTA Pedestrian Symposium.

    Greg

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