LADOT’s John Fisher on the Future of the American City

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There are few names that draw such heated debate in the bike community than "John Fisher," one of the assistant general manager’s at LADOT; but the man viewed by many as the most important figure at LADOT when it comes to department policy.  After all, General Manager’s come and go, but John Fisher is a fixture.

Recently, the popular monthly magazine The Atlantic featured an interview with Fisher as part of it’s "The Future of the American City."  There’s a lot of car-talk in the interview, but both the interviewer and Fisher find some time to talk bicycling and pedestrian issues.

 

I bike to work every day
and I find myself constantly wishing that all the cars on the road would
disappear. What do transportation engineers take into account when considering
bikers and pedestrians?

In the last few years, there’s been a real emphasis on
improving the environment for other modes of travel, for bicyclists, for
pedestrians, and for the handicapped. We try to make our streets safer for
pedestrians. We have a major program to put in flashing lights and a warning
sign that will flash only when a pedestrian is crossing, called a smart
crosswalk or smart activated pedestrian warning. We’re trying to become
credible with the motorists–when these lights are flashing, there really is a
pedestrian, so yield to the pedestrian.

We’ve looked at some of our streets and determined that some
are mainly for through travel but others are for retail and pedestrian
friendliness. We’ve looked at how to make the sidewalks wider, how we can
provide more streetscape features such as decorative lighting, trees, and crosswalks.

With bicyclists, there are activists in many of the major
cities demanding more facilities for bicycles, so we’re looking at how we can restripe
our streets to accommodate bicycle lanes. I think in time there will be some
streets where we’ll deemphasize the streets for vehicular travel and make them
available for bicycle travel.

While the parts on pedestrians sounds encouraging, the part on cyclists is a little depressing.  At least it’s an honest appraisal of where the LADOT is in their thinking.  It sounds like the advocates pushing for bike boulevards and road diets have their work cut out for them.

  • There’s a lot of telling statements in such a short statement:

    “a major program to put in flashing lights [crosswalks]” compare the budget for these and the budget for car stuff and tell me if this program is indeed “major”?

    “We’ve looked at some of our streets and determined that some are mainly for through travel but others are for retail and pedestrian friendliness.” This “determination” I find pretty dubious – what streets were actually determined to be retail-priority? or ped-priority? Are these determinations reflected in the city’s street standards? Are cars actually de-emphasized on any of these streets?

    “We’ve looked at how to make the sidewalks wider” … just “looked at” not actually widened?

    Bike activists only in “many of the major cities”??? Name a major city that doesn’t have bike activists. We’re here and we’ll be here for a long time.

  • Kevin

    How do LADOT officials (assistant general managers, etc.) obtain their posts and how can concerned cyclists help to retain the ones that are productive with regard to bicycling issues and get rid of those who are not?

  • “We’re trying to become credible with the motorists.” You mean even motorists don’t listen to the millions of dollars in traffic signals you install for them? Maybe it’s because all of your streets are designed to move traffic at 15mph above the speed limit! That’s the strongest message you send to drivers…

    There’s one of those crosswalks down the street from my house on Glendale Blvd right under Sunset. These things are the typical band-aid on the gangrene. While DOT touts its pedestrian crossing program, it made testimony to Metro and CalTrans against a community developed plan for the Glendale Blvd corridor that would have slowed traffic speeds, gave consideration to other road users, and actually saved lives. DOT is more than happy to pursue hundreds of thousands of dollars in traffic signals without giving up a single foot of the real estate–the public right of way.

    And Joe’s right, the city has not a single street standard that reflects anything other than how much traffic to move through it. If Fisher were serious about any of this, which he absolutely is not, he’d be moving even half as fast as the NYCDOT, who painted 200 miles of bike facilities in 2 years…LADOT did just under 2 miles last year.

    Fisher is the one name every bicyclists should learn and use; he’s the man who keeps your wife, sister, girlfriend and mother absolutely shocked that you ride a bike every day, as he regularly stonewalls bike-friendly projects that would get large numbers of people on their bikes. And, as someone who has a senior role, and has had a senior role for a long, long time, in an organization that controls streets that kill a number of people nearly equal to the homicide rate, I’d go so far as to say he’s a man with a large amount of blood on his hands.

  • Those signalized pedestrian crossings aren’t what they’re cooked up to be. If automobiles are moving too fast, the answer isn’t to make pedestrians have to hit a button to travel across the road. The answer is: slow the bloody cars down.

    Those lamp posts and light signals also cost a lot. They cost so much, in fact, that the LADOT rarely gets to install them. In places where traffic volumes are lower than the street is designated, and LOS is above what the street is designated, we don’t get lane width reductions, chicanes, bulb-outs, bike lanes, speed humps, nor any other amenities. We instead get a flashing light and a chance to run for our lives at double, triple, or five times the cost of quicker, faster, and just as effective solutions.

    The case is not closed on automobile-only transportation in Los Angeles. The DOT that assumes this is so, as the LADOT’s upper management clearly does, does so at their own peril.

  • MU

    “…in time there will be some streets where we’ll…make them available for bicycle travel.”

    Silly me, I thought all streets were already available for bicycle travel. I’m glad they’re “looking into” that because activists demand it and not because it is smart transportation planning.

  • Telling statement:

    “I think in time there will be some streets where we’ll deemphasize the streets for vehicular travel and make them available for bicycle travel.”

    By “vehicular travel”, of course, he means cars.

    This language reveals that the legitimate mode of travel is by car, and that anything else is in opposition to it. As long as bicycles are not considered to be part of the vehicular traffic mix by people who shape our infrastructure, we will never have bike facilities that are useful for transportation.

  • MU

    I’ll also point out that in the original interview, in response to the question, “what causes congestion”, his first point is that it was caused by “the environmental movement of the 70’s”.
    Has this guy read anything written about traffic since the 70’s?

  • Eric B

    This one’s also great:

    “It is really hard to fool the motorist. We’ve got to provide a good alternative. We have to put in features to make the arterial streets more appealing.”

    Fooling the motorist not to cut through neighborhoods, he wants to “provide a good alternative,” i.e. a wider, faster arterial street. He doesn’t like the idea of convincing the motorist not to drive at all. His thinking is extraordinarily technology-driven rather than people-driven.

    He makes it clear that bike/peds are just knocking on the gates of the automobile kingdom, hoping for a handout.

  • Cory

    ADA establishes minimum widths for sidewalks. For many traffic engineers these minimums become the goal. I would like to see 10 ft lanes widths become the goal through-out the city. These 12-14 ft lanes only induce higher traffic speeds (which in turn increases the speed limits). Knock a few feet off here and there and suddenly you have discovered “how to make the sidewalks wider” or perhaps install some bike lanes. It is basic (and inexpensive) engineering. These warm and fuzzy interviews are more frustrating than anything else, I would almost prefer silence.

  • Eric B

    And his closing wisdom:

    “And transportation engineering can’t do it all; we really depend on enforcement and education. For example, we try to make pedestrian experiences as safe as possible, but if pedestrians are listening to an iPod or answering e-mail, they’re not looking at traffic. That’s not something we can solve with engineering.”

    This goes back to Josef’s quote a few weeks ago on “taming the pedestrian” in early LA history. Those pesky pedestrians who keep assuming that sidewalks and crosswalks are engineered to be safe places for them. Let’s educate them to follow all the auto-centric rules and then they’ll be safe–oops.

  • @Kevin – Assistant General Managers serve at the discretion of the mayor of Los Angeles. The mayor can remove Fisher from his AGM post.

    As Fisher rose up through the ranks, he does have civil servant protections, so he can’t be easily let go of, but he can easily be reassigned – either by the mayor or by the General Manager Rita Robinson. I personally suggest that he be assigned to staff the city’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

    From some of Fisher’s comments on LASB – see
    http://la.streetsblog.org/2010/04/28/10-set-aside-passes-ladot-makes-the-case-that-it-needs-reform/#comment-364371
    (while you’re there, maybe read my reply, too
    http://la.streetsblog.org/2010/04/28/10-set-aside-passes-ladot-makes-the-case-that-it-needs-reform/#comment-371051 ), it appears that Fisher is trying to cast himself as a friend of bicyclists. This is crass and insulting. It’s clear that Fisher wants to become general manager of the LADOT. It’s important for bicyclists, pedestrians, transit users, and others to make his past record clear, and to make sure that, unless he really his car-ist ways, he’ll never be head of the DOT.

  • I guess it’s too damn bad if your business or residence is on or near one of those “through” streets, more correctly called a traffic sewer.

    It would be great if we could reassign John Fisher, and while we’re at it, Michael Uyeno and Michelle Mowery to some other duties. Perhaps traffic planning in Dubai? We need a paradigm shift. The city we have doesn’t work.

    How about we just get rid of LADOT completely and turn their duties over to the planning department?

  • P

    To all of you throwing fits that cars rule the road, that is the reality of the situation. The vast majority of roads in the US were designed exclusively for cars. At least in cities, bikes and pedestrians have generally gotten at least marginal consideration, but only recently has the concept of roads where the dominant mode is not cars began to take hold in the US.

    But the fact remains that cars are still the dominant form of travel on any road, they are the largest and fastest thing using the roads, and they are the main mode of travel for most of the country, so it makes sense that they get first consideration regarding roads. Fortunately, many planners are coming to realize that in many places, bikes and pedestrians make up some portion of those using the roadway, and that their needs also require consideration. It just takes time to make designing roads for cars and bikes and pedestrians the norm instead of a special exception.

  • P,

    Oh good God, that is such a weak argument I just did a little “limp-wrist” signal with my hand reading your comment.

    (1) Prior to automobiles being the dominant mode of transportation in the N. America, we had horses and our own two feet for several centuries. Somehow, we were able to move away from the horses (and to discourage walking in most N. American cities). It is not inconceivable that we can change our roads to suit more than just high-speed private auto use.

    (2) The cost of making a modern, paved, street into a bike-, bus-, and pedestrian friendly corridor is vanishingly small compared to, say, maintenance of a freeway. The time scale to boost ridership on bikes, and subtract those numbers from car trips, is on the scale of one year, maybe less, with proper planning and timely “construction” (i.e. paint and cheap rubber bollards).

    Finally, bringing up the dominance of automobiles is such a cute little transportation engineering trick to make the listener/reader tacitly accept that, no matter the deaths, no matter the pollution, no matter the dismantling on local community and markets and mobility options, the car represents a vast silent majority of voters and consumers. To which I say, hogwash, horse-shit, and find yourself another sucker.

    The political ground game of the cycling community has shown itself to be robust, well-connected, driven by business interests, and the environmentally correct choice to make. I have yet to see a rally at city hall for faster through traffic in commercial corridors. I have yet to see motorists rise up and demand that deaths in traffic should be monitored and accounted for. The rhetoric of the common man and his car is dying, and new political barriers are being built up around an entirely new material situation in this country.

    Cycling is something that both sides of the current political aisle can see as a place to garner votes, to develop campaigns and networks for local support in elections, and for businesses to re-centralize in the metropolitan areas of the county (abandoning the outskirts to their fate as meth-dens, child abduction zones, and general ne’er do well gang land).

  • ml

    ubrayj02

    Whats up with the homophobic comment? We all know what that means. Completely uncool.

  • Eh? As in “weak wristed”, as in “lacking strength”, as in … ? If there is another meaning I can assure that I am totally unconcerned with it, and willing lose any Politically Correct points to those that care enough to not overlook that. I mean, my grammar and punctuation are typically grounds enough to write me off.

    Oh wait, I get it that is a hand sign for “gay” also. Okay, sorry, no intent to offend. There are multiple meanings that don’t always imply someone being gay. Gender politics and hand signals are up to you to decide fair reader. I did not intend “gay” with that remark.

    I once made a typo that turned into multi-month-long flame war over on LA Eastside, and I loved every minute of it, so bring it on.

  • P

    ubrayj02, you are trying to start an argument without actually disagreeing with anything I said. In fact your second point implicitly accepts the reality that the “modern, paved, street” was designed primarily for cars, and that changes are necessary to accommodate other modes of transportation, just as I had pointed out.

  • roadblock

    THE SIGNALIZED CROSSINGS ARE A DEATH TRAP. If there is a study anywhere being done on these things please post. My suspicion is that the death rate is higher. First of all they don’t make any fucking sense… They just sudenly start flashing yellow lights on the ground and sure that means slow down but most motorists don’t and further more the flashing lights blind you from seeing if there is an actual pedestrian crossing. NO. What you need is a flashing RED light that gives an order to cars to STOP. is there something wrong with a stop light? huh LADOT? why not have a car stop. the flashing yellow instinctually inspires people to speed up hoping to move past the area before a red appears.

  • P, I think ubrayjs point is pretty simple. There is no reason why decision makers should continue to spend public money on car infrastructure just because they observe that many people drive.

    That’s because TRAVEL CHOICES ARE A PRODUCT OF TRANSPORTATION INFRASTRUCTURE. Travel choices don’t come out of a void. And our transportation infrastructure, as anyone who has tried to leave their car behind knows, dramatically favors the automobile.

    People here drive because the City of Los Angeles spends enormous amounts of money subsidizing car travel. Los Angeles has spent almost 100 years ensuring that its citizens can drive and park free. There is no place in this city a car can’t reach. It didn’t have to be this way. We made a series of decisions and set priorities (in the way you’re suggesting we keep setting them), and this is what we got. The car is the most convenient, fastest, and (per trip, not including the fixed costs of ownership and maintenance) cheapest mode for most trips. THAT’s why Angelenos drive.

    We can choose to build infrastructure that supports the car-centric status quo, or we can be proactive about shaping a future in which other modes actually have a chance. If we set priorities based on the travel activity we observe (which is a product of decades of car-centric spending and thinking), the only future we will get is a criss-cross of traffic sewers.

    We should set transportation infrastructure spending and priorities according to the travel behavior we want to see 10 or 20 years from now, and in my book that means funding bike lanes, road diets, and bus-only lanes, and cutting off funding for roads and parking.

  • Can everyone commenting here please post comments at the Atlantic article linked to in Damien’s above post. I think it’s important that our voices leave the Streetsblog echo-chamber and make it onto mainstream new-media outlets.

  • Eric B

    The Atlantic’s commenting log-in was a bit too burdensome, but here’s what I wanted to say: (Thanks for linking to streetsblog over there!)

    John Fisher’s idea of a ped-friendly environment is putting up flashing lights before forcing pedestrians to play frogger at mid-block crossings. His department is solely responsible for making the entire City of Los Angeles a place to drive THROUGH rather than a place to go TO. While almost every other major American city has started a paradigm shift toward people and away from cars, Fisher’s LADOT has taken two years to study whether or not to apply bike “sharrows” on a limited trial basis.

    Even the last paragraph of this interview illustrates the problem: Fisher places the burden on pedestrians to see whether cars will stop for them rather than designing the roads to be safer. We need more innovative leadership at LADOT and less waiting around for the next high-tech automobile.

  • Jack

    New York City designated 200 miles of bicycle paths/lanes in 2 years. We should be pressing the LA city government to do something similar here. This is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to expand the transportation infrastructure of the city: literally just painting the pavement and putting up a few signs/lights.

    The city should aim to build a series of designated bicycle paths that are as separate from traffic as possible and as wide as possible. These could operate in a semi-grid or a hub-and-spoke design originating in downtown. Bicycle lanes would feed into this system. “Bicycle freeways” if you will. This alone would greatly enhance the security of riding a bike in the city and encourage A LOT of people to leave their cars behind at least occasionally.

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