Transportation has always played a dominant role in shaping our urban environment. Historically, cities were built around the basis of everyday activities on foot; consequently, the prominent urban form was dense, compact, with high concentration of mixed-use development. As transportation technology progressed, the design of cities dramatically changed, in many ways to the detriment of the pedestrian. In Los Angeles, nothing has had a greater impact on the landscape than the car. Widened lanes, expansive freeways, large multi-lane systems, sprawling parking lots, and other amenities built around the needs of the car have resulted in a public realm that is often unsafe, unappealing, and stressful for the public.
These issues have created challenges for L.A. planning professionals who want to enhance and balance our transportation infrastructure. How can we retrofit the existing urban fabric to meet the needs of multi-modal transportation? We have already experienced a response to this with a rise in the number of projects aimed at implementing more progressive transportation planning practices within the last decade. Bike lanes are being installed, sidewalks widened, and public transit lines expanded. The May approval of the Mobility Plan 2035 by the L.A. City Council is a clear sign that a majority of our city’s leadership shares in a vision for creating a more livable city. Before this, the city lacked a cohesive vision or framework to institute these changes. How effective this plan will be remains to be seen, but in the least it is a step forward.
Of all the different forms of transportation to be focused on, walking is one of the most neglected in terms of infrastructure and policy development, but holds the most potential to enhance livability.
Increasing walkability should be a main focus of urban design and policy because it is the solution to many problems that plague our city including pollution, congestion, and obesity. It serves as a catalyst for increased physical activity, commerce, social interaction, and environmental sustainability. This past year, as a senior at Occidental College, I completed a yearlong research project aimed at identifying the best strategies for enhancing walkability in downtown Los Angeles. Within this project I compiled a twelve-step guide with the help of city planners, residents, business owners, architects, walking advocates, and more. Most guides to improve walkability include the big suggestions such as expanding mass transit, reducing parking, widening sidewalks, etc. Below I will list three of my steps that do not receive enough attention despite the fact that they have the power to dramatically improve walkability with minimal time and effort.
1. Plant More Trees
Planting trees is one of the most simple and cost effective ways of attracting pedestrians. Advantages include shade, reduction of ambient temperature in hot weather, absorption of pollution, reducing car speeds, and the creation of a barrier between people on the sidewalk and traffic. However, perhaps the most important benefit of planting trees is their contribution to aesthetics and creation of street character.