At the Crossroads: In Order to Create a More Walkable L.A., Start with the Basics.
(Max Podemski is the Planning Director of Pacoima Beauftiful…but you already knew that, right? – DN)
In recent years, the media has been filled with stories about Los Angeles transformation into a more livable and walkable city. This has been spurred by recent developments such as CicLAvia, the expanding transit and bike network, and revitalized older neighborhoods.
In many ways, this is not so much the emergence of a “new city” but rather Los Angeles returning to its roots. Los Angeles did not develop around the automobile but around a massive intra-urban rail network the legacy of which still influences development. The city also has a rich history of walkable, commercial business districts along major boulevards as described in Richard Longstreth’s book “City Center to Regional Mall.”
The “good bones” are evident in neighborhoods across Los Angeles.
Many Los Angeles neighborhoods are laid out on a grid, have a mix of relatively dense housing types, and thoroughfares lined with vintage commercial storefronts. These qualities combined with the city’s Mediterranean climate should make it one of the finest places to walk in the country. So why in so many respects is Los Angeles such a terrible place to be a pedestrian?
The simple answer is that we have engineered our streets to be highways.
Over the decades, they have been widened to the point that the sidewalks are so anemic in some places that telephone poles and other utilities block them. What has made it easy for a person to drive on Sepulveda or Sunset as an alternate to the 405 or 101 has resulted in streets that are incredibly dangerous to pedestrians.
In no area is our streets lack of regard for pedestrians more apparent than in one of the most fundamental features of a walkable street: crosswalks.
Even in the densest, most amenity rich areas of Los Angeles, places that should be a walkers paradise, there is a startling lack of crosswalks. This is demonstrated by an analysis of a roughly 2.3 mile section of several streets to examine their crosswalks: Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima, Vermont Avenue from Koreatown to USC, and Sunset Boulevard and a portion of Hollywood Boulevard through Silver Lake and Los Feliz
These streets exemplify the city’s good bones. They have vibrant commercial districts and go through high density neighborhoods. Even Pacoima, an area thought of as the distant suburbs by many Angelinos, has a population density of over 10,000 people per square mile, higher than most neighborhoods in the famously walkable city of Portland, Oregon.
Most of these streets have a relatively high number of intersections, ranging from 28 on Sunset to 34 on Vermont. Many studies have concluded that the volume of intersections in a neighborhood is more important to walkability than even population density. Intersections provide a connectivity network making it easy for people to walk from point A to point B. They also break up streets into shorter segments which can help calm traffic. Imagine a medieval city, with its narrow warren of walkable streets and then think of Irvine with its super blocks. The amount of intersections along the streets examined is further proof that Los Angeles has the basic features of a walkable city, even in the Deep Valley.
The problem is that in many cases there is no way to cross at these intersections. Is there anything more frustrating than coming to a corner without a crosswalk and having to decide whether to risk your life crossing the street or picking a direction to walk in hopes there will be one nearby?
On Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake, only 57% of intersections have crosswalks, on Van Nuys in Pacoima only 43%. Each of these streets also has gaps between crosswalks that are over a quarter of a mile long.
A comparison between streets in Los Angeles and San Francisco sheds further light on the city’s lack of this basic feature. In order to use streets that were relative proxies to the ones in Los Angeles wide heavily trafficked through fairs were selected: Van Ness Avenue running from the Tenderloin to the Mission District and Geary Boulevard running through the Richmond District.
A portion of Geary was turned into a virtual freeway in one section thanks to a midcentury urban renewal project. Both of these streets have roughly the same amount of intersections as the Los Angeles streets. However, on both Geary and Van Ness, over 75% of the intersections have crosswalks. And the longest gap between crosswalks is significantly less than in Los Angeles. San Francisco, with its compact Victorian urban form has many attributes making it more walkable than Los Angeles.
While the crosswalk situation in Los Angeles is bleak, there is room for hope. We have engineered our streets to be freeways, but deep in their soul is a walkable boulevard. One of the longest gaps between crosswalks I found was on a chic section of Boulevard between Vermont and Lyman Place (which is not even a full crosswalk). This stretch epitomizes Los Angeles nascent walkability.
It is lined with one and two story commercial storefronts that have been reinvigorated with wine bars, restaurants, and even a $300 a night hotel themed around an Oklahoman writer as he ascends the ranks of the New York literati. These facilities have sprouted in spite of the fact that they face a virtual moat in Sunset Boulevard which functions as an Indy 500 where the prize is a $5 latte.
With the election of Eric Garcetti, we now have a mayor with an earnest commitment to improving the walkability and public realm of the city. He has backed up his rhetoric with the Great Streets Initiative, hiring Seleta Reynolds as DOT General Manager, and the introduction of a Vision Zero policy. This streets renaissance is further bolstered by the array of city departments and non-profits championing concepts ranging from bio-swales to parklets.
While these efforts are to be applauded, the true keys to walkability lie in policies that are both broader and more fundamental. Many of the mayor and the DOT’s proposals focus on discrete sections of streets or intersections. Meanwhile, the process to get a new crosswalk can take years, involving petitions, lobbying city council representative, and studies conducted by the Department of Transportation.
What if we instituted concrete policies around providing basic infrastructure across the city such as committing to giving 80% of intersections along major streets in residential neighborhoods crosswalks? A policy like this is not as sexy as the latest trend from the streets of Oslo and is also much more politically fraught. Trying to turn our streets back into places where drivers have to respect pedestrians and slow down so that they can cross is sure to anger many drivers.
However, by focusing on the bare basics of pedestrian infrastructure, like crosswalks, we could truly spur a mobility renaissance in Los Angeles. This could calm our boulevards and put pedestrians on a more equal footing. The potential of dormant commercial storefronts could be unlocked adding vibrancy. It would also make it much easier to cross the street.