The city of Lancaster, population 160,000, is the fifth most populous city in L.A. County. It occupies about one hundred square miles in the Antelope Valley, separated from the L.A. Basin by the San Gabriel Mountains. Lancaster is at the northern terminus of Metrolink’s Antelope Valley line, a two-hour train ride from downtown Los Angeles.
Though it is arguably more commonly associated with people getting out of the city into the suburbs, Lancaster is among a handful of Los Angeles County cities that are leading efforts to re-imagine and retrofit car-oriented streets to be safer, healthier, livable, and multi-modal.
Brian Ludicke is the city of Lancaster’s Planning Director, a position he has held since 2001. Prior to that he served in various Lancaster planning positions since 1984. Ludicke’s Lancaster roots go back to 1958, when he and his parents moved there. He graduated from Antelope Valley High School and Antelope Valley Community College, and holds a BS in Urban Planning from Cal Poly Pomona.
This interview took place at Lancaster City Hall on June 2, 2016.
Brian Ludicke: Several years back we had a person in the city who was working on his master’s degree. He asked if I had information on how much sprawl costs. Instinctively, we know that it’s more expensive to maintain sprawl. The city had tried several years earlier to come up with a way of clarifying this. In the attempt to help him on that, the search engine kicked up one of Chuck’s blogs. That led me to the site and I was absolutely enthralled.
Here was a guy who I felt I could relate to. I’ve only had that experience a couple times in my professional career. One was when I heard [Congress for New Urbanism founder] Andrés Duany talk back in 1991.
Reading Chuck’s stuff, I said, “this guy is talking about the very things we’re dealing with.” We’re talking about 2010-2011 here. The city had just gone through its downtown revitalization effort. We had done a lot of work trying to understand street design. We had just focused on what made a better environment.
What Chuck brought into the discussion was: what’s the real purpose of a street? If the purpose of a street is to be a platform for wealth, what you’re doing here is more than just making a nice place to be. What is the benefit of that to the surrounding property and to the city?
There are more now, but at that time, Chuck was one of the few people who said that there’s a very real municipal revenue issue here. You have a lot of municipalities that are going broke. They’re going broke because [of] the very things that you’ve intuitively understood, which is that this infrastructure is far too expensive to maintain for what you’re getting back for it.
That tied to something that Dan Burden had said when we were doing our Master Plan of Trails and Bikeways. He made a statement that you as a city should never make an investment that doesn’t return you a high yield. You can no longer afford to just make poor investments. You can never again invest in infrastructure that degrades the property around it.
I can look at where we’ve done that. Where we’ve widened streets, where the whole idea was to save people 30 seconds of time, but what it did is it started just degrading the property along it.
On Lancaster Boulevard you can see the results of widening. Lancaster Boulevard, west of here, was a street that went from a two-lane street to a four-lane street. The city made it better, easier to drive down. Speeds slowly picked up. What you can see there today are places where, slowly, not everybody, but slowly over time they’ve erected walls and fences and things to separate their front yards from that street.
The city is going to right-size that street back to two lanes, one lane in each direction. It’s going to be interesting to see if this process reverses. But you can see the loss of the value. That’s a specific example where, in the attempt to design a street for the sole purpose of moving as much traffic as fast as possible, we ended up degrading perfectly good areas along either side of it.
Along with that, what are some of the issues that the city of Lancaster is facing?
I think the biggest issue is that we have a development pattern that is dominated by low density, scattered, single-family residential development. Unlike a denser, more developed city that may have single-family that connects to other stuff, we tend to have these isolated, separate-from-each-other areas. The infrastructure [needed] to string that together is expensive to maintain.
We inherited the county of Los Angeles’ master plan of highways. Their master plan is very simple. You’ve seen it in the San Fernando Valley with more development in it. It’s basically every mile street is a hundred foot right of way, and every half-mile street is eighty, or we made it eighty-four.
The goal of that was to create this large-scale grid. Then everything would develop inside it. You can see that pattern out on the outlying areas to the east and west of the city. That’s what we thought was the proper way to be doing things because, as a former city manager once said, that’s what every planned community does, so that’s what we should be doing. We did it with the best of intentions. You don’t want people to have to sit in congestion. They didn’t come here to live in congestion. You wanted to be able to get quickly safely everywhere.
That street pattern not only carries with it a long term financial burden, but we are reaping the rewards in terms of what I would call outright carnage on our streets.
We had, last year, 23 people killed in vehicle collisions. That’s a combination of people killed in cars, pedestrians, people on bikes. That may not sound like a large number, but on a basis of how many people per 100,000 in your city are getting killed every year, our number is like 14. Compare that to other major cities. I have a son in San Francisco; theirs is 3.5. Las Vegas, no walker’s paradise, is only seven. Atlanta, which is a pretty sprawled metropolitan area, is like nine. Even L.A.’s is [6.27] and the mayor said this was too many.
A lot of the reason for that goes back to speed and the perception that it’s safe to go fast. We’ve tried to design that for years through all parts of our city. Read more…