Ten Reasons L.A.’s Mobility Plan Needs to End Road Widening

The Department of City Planning thinks that Beverly Boulevard needs to be 32 feet wider. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.
The Department of City Planning thinks that Beverly Boulevard needs to be 32 feet wider. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

The City of Los Angeles is updating its primary transportation plan, something it hasn’t done since 1999. The new Mobility Plan 2035, authored by the City Planning Department (DCP), will be before the city’s Planning Commission tomorrow.

There is some welcome stuff — especially in the vision statements — in the latest draft Mobility Plan. It is better than 1999’s plan. But what gets most stuck in my personal craw is road-widening.

This is 2014. Vehicle miles driven are declining. We’re building five rail lines. We spent a billion dollars widening the 405 Freeway only to experience slower commute times. Greenhouse gas reduction legislation is mandating sustainable communities. And Los Angeles is about to reaffirm its self-destructive policy of continuing to widen the crap out of the majority of our already built-out road network.

Briefly, how street-widening plans work in L.A.: Perhaps 100 years ago, someone (usually the city or developers) built a street. Let’s say said street was and is 50 feet wide. During the post-WWII car-centric planning era, following the latest car-centric traffic engineering standards, DCP decided that the 50-foot wide road should really be 60 feet wide. Someone buys a property on this street with the intention of tearing down the existing building and replacing it with a new one. DCP mandates that when that new building goes up, the developer must pay to widen the street to some or all of that now “missing” 10 feet, typically half of it, sometimes more. So, in this case, the developer loses a 5-foot strip of land which goes toward widening the street. Corner lots, perhaps the most desirable for visibility and foot traffic, often lose two strips of land, one for each street that they front. In theory, all of the properties on the street would be redeveloped and the whole length of the street would be up to the new standard, but that could take hundreds of years.

Civilized nations like Pasadena and even Downtown Los Angeles ended street widening practices a while ago.

Some folks already read this when I opined about it this past May, but one especially heinous example just three blocks from where I live, walk, and bike is Beverly Boulevard. In L.A.’s most population-dense neighborhood, alongside the Metro Red Line subway station, Beverly would be widened from 78 feet to 110 feet. Really. Beverly is just one of many streets that DCP wants to widen.

I urge the Planning Commission to reject the Mobility Plan unless it explicitly ends road widening.

Here are my top ten reasons to end road widening:

1. The City Can’t Afford to Maintain Wider Streets – Wider roads are more expensive for the city to maintain. With gas tax revenues at their lowest inflation-adjusted levels ever, transportation funding is scarce at the federal, state, and local level. The feds resorted to budget gimmicks, including “pension-smoothing,” to make up for huge transportation funding shortfalls. Los Angeles is looking to its own budget gimmicks, including closing parking tax loopholes, to fund street resurfacing, which L.A. already has trouble keeping up with. Though it is apparently on hold, L.A. was also looking to float a $3+ billion road repair bond.

The first thing we should be doing when we find ourselves in a hole like this is to stop digging. Stop the bleeding. Stop the road widening. Though roads seem cheap when the feds or developers pay to build or widen them, excessively unnecessarily wide roads come with excessive maintenance costs. They are ticking fiscal time-bombs for cities. (Thanks to Strong Towns for getting me thinking about this in this way.)

2. Widening Hurts the Local Economy – Street-widening requirements drive up the cost of new development. New housing, retail, etc., is not only required to pay to build a chunk of new street (up to 32 feet wide in the Beverly example above), but that development also loses that strip from what can be developed, meaning a smaller building footprint, so less housing, less retail… not to mention impacts on public projects: less park, less school, less library, less transit station, etc. 

3. Widening Hurts Affordable Housing – A noteworthy subset of item 2 above, shaving that road-widening dedication off of housing parcels drives up the cost of housing. This is especially true in core older neighborhoods where streets are at sane dimensions but not up to the latest car-centric standards. As Mayor Garcetti pushes Metro to step up joint development of affordable housing at transit stations, let’s not dedicate a bunch more of that land to streets when it should go to housing.

4. Widening Hurts Historic Preservation – There are some great old apartment buildings along that stretch of Beverly that DCP plans to widen. Preserving these historic buildings will preserve the character of the neighborhood, as well as preserving existing affordable housing. My personal anger concerning widening and historic preservation is the way the city widens roads leading to great historic bridges, then it declares those bridges, plus buildings adjacent to them, as obsolete. Then it demolishes the bridges and the buildings. See my earlier opinion pieces about the Riverside-Figueroa Bridge and the North Main Street Bridge.

5. Scale Matters – As the classic Donald Appleyard study showed, people who live on narrower streets tend to interact more with their neighbors. Wider and wider streets degrade the fabric of urban communities.

6. Lane Width MattersJeff Speck, writing at CityLab, makes the case that one of the most important safety changes we need to make is to end excessive-width lanes — to abandon the 12-foot lane standard enshrined in L.A.’s past street practices in favor of a 10-foot lane standard. Ending road widening would curb L.A. traffic engineers’ preference for 12+foot wide traffic lanes.

7. Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) are Declining – For the past ten years, per-person driving has declined in CA and nationwide. Excessive-width street standards are an artifact of the now-proven-wrong 20th century projections that showed limitless traffic growth. Turns out the predictions were wrong and it is time to undo the seemingly-limitless widening the flawed predictions engendered.

8. Widening Degrades Street Safety – Generally, the wider the street, the faster people drive. The greater the speed, the more deadly and harmful the collision. See the Jeff Speck article referenced above for studies and explanation if you doubt this. Wider streets endanger pedestrians when they have to cross more and wider lanes. This discourages walking and bicycling, undermining safety-in-numbers effects.

9. Widening Degrades the EnvironmentWider streets mean more car traffic generating greater air, water, and noise pollution.

10. Ending Widening Could Include Rare Exceptions –  Where it’s absolutely necessary, streets can still be widened. Imagine that Beverly Boulevard is really needed for transporting large rocks and space shuttles… or more realistically, if a narrow area becomes an exceptional bottleneck for Bus Rapid Transit, drivers, and cyclists, then widening could be approved. Explicitly ending widening in the city Mobility Plan would basically set the default to “no widening.” Widening could still go through a variance process (the way not-widening does today). It should be cumbersome to widen and easy and convenient not to widen.

I urge the Los Angeles Planning Commission to reject any Mobility Plan that continues destructive street-widening! And I encourage readers to join me in letting the Commission know at their 8:30 a.m. meeting tomorrow.

  • patrick

    I (cynically) suspect that it also has to do with additional revenues for the city. This policy basically requires a variance for every new project on these streets. For some time now, they have been routinely approved, but only after the builder pays needless fees which only makes housing less affordable.

  • GlobalLA

    Agree with Joe 100%!

    It’s time we get rid of these traditional LA planners who are still stuck in suburbia and can’t adapt to our changing environment.

    Using suburban methods to solve urban problems is a recipe for disaster!!!

  • Alex Brideau III

    Hear, hear!

    I’d also add that the incremental widening process in most respects is ultimately an exercise in futility as it only widens short portions of road at a time. As cited by Joe, in most cases it will take many decades (or a century or more) to widen an uninterrupted stretch of road. (Will our descendants even need that street width a century from now?) In the meantime, we’re left with confusing, “wide/narrow/half-wide/narrow” road dimensions that offer extra space that has no practical use, save for encouraging driver weaving and late-night donut creation.

    And to add to #8, these confusingly configured streets force cyclists to constantly shift their position in traffic or be subject to motorist road rage. And when one side of an intersection is widened, the City rarely paints a crosswalk on that side, which further encourages speeding and makes crossing there a (scary and dangerous) chore.

    (I’m sure there are more egregious examples, but Barrington Ave between Santa Monica Blvd & Olympic Blvd in West LA is worth looking at.)

  • Joe Linton

    But, as Strong Towns points out – in the case of road-building that revenue is illusory. The city is on the hook for maintenance.

  • Joe Linton

    Very true (I was gonna include some of that – and the article started getting long – there are street boluses that I dread – on Virgil, even at Wilshire/Vermont Metro station that I dread because they suddenly put me, on my bike, into a heavier traffic lane.)

  • There is also the question as to why the agency wants to widen.

  • Joe Linton

    I suspect that “It’s how we’ve always done it” (since the mid-20th century)

  • LAifer

    All very good reasons not to widen roads; and many of those same points are made in the Mobility Plan. Can you cite any specific language that calls for widening roads like Beverly? I’m not finding it and otherwise am only finding language cautioning against any further road widening and actually in favor of complete streets.
    Thanks!

  • salts

    A photo-essay looking at historic buildings that would need to be demolished for this to be accomplished would be powerful. Beverly is a joke and widening it will not benefit anyone.

  • 405er

    The “405 widening did not decrease delays” is based on a bulls–t study. Shame on you for perpetuating that lie.

  • ed

    Where in the updated 2035 mobility plan is widening promoted? I can count three references to widening mentioned in the plan, two of which speak about it negatively by mentioning the long term costs and futility of widening roads. The third mention states that if widening should occur, it should balance it with consideration of alternative modes (peds/bike/etc)

  • Joe Linton

    The Beverly example:
    – existing conditions on Beverly between New Hampshire and Vermont: 78 feet right-of-way width (Joe measuring on the ground – you can estimate via Google street view)
    – on page 3 of the map atlas it shows Beverly as red = Boulevard II
    – on page 21 of the complete street guide it shows Boulevard II as a 110 feet right-of-way width

    What’s disappointing is that there is a lot of rhetoric in the plan about not widening, but then, at least for Beverly, there’s excessive widening designated.

  • Joe Linton

    Here’s where I got my data for the Beverly Blvd example:
    – existing conditions on Beverly between New Hampshire and Vermont: 78 feet right-of-way width (via Google maps, verified on the ground)
    – on page 3 of the map atlas it shows Beverly as red = Boulevard II
    – on page 21 of the complete street guide it shows Boulevard II as a 110 feet right-of-way width

    I mentioned this in the May 7 editorial that’s linked – there are a class of street called “Avenue III” where the city states it’s designating a narrower width, so apparently not widening… but it looks like that’s on around 50 streets [there’s no list, so I am guessing looking at map] that’s good… but there still appears to be a lot of widening.

    I think that the plan should have a binding policy statement that says more-or-less: “We used to widen. We don’t anymore.”

  • Salts

    “We don’t widen but we can’t help it if policy forces developers to widen…”

  • Josh

    Reason #11: wider streets means resident will fare worse in a natural disaster. neighborhoods with narrower streets create more resilient communities during emergencies (earthquake, flood, etc) Just read that in the Rockefeller 100 resilient cities movement. LA is one of those cities. The suburban model of thinking is that we will need wide roads for mass exodus or to send in big help. Yet we’ve found recently that a community’s success in a disaster depends on their own ability to be self sustaining. Narrower streets means resilient communities.

  • Wanderer

    Buses need lanes that are at least 11 feet wide to function safely, lanes on transit corridors should not be narrowed to 10 feet.

  • Lameese

    I know this discussion is a few weeks old, but I just came across it and wanted to clarify something. The intention of the apparent “widening” of Beverly Blvd, the example used here, through the new street standards in the Mobility Plan is not to create additional vehicular travel lanes or wider travel lanes, which as mentioned could cause increased air pollution, dangerous speeds, etc. The increased right-of-way is intended to be used to make the street more “complete” with wider sidewalks and room to incorporate things like protected bike lanes/cycle tracks and/or dedicated transit lanes (Beverly is on the Transit Enhanced Network and the Bicycle Enhanced Network). If you look at the Complete Streets Guide you can see the possible configurations for a Boulevard II such as Beverly – none of which involve adding more cars to the street. I believe it’s deceptive to compare potential changes on Beverly to the 405 widening project, which was purely a project intended to make more room for cars and nothing else.

  • Gerhard W. Mayer

    Awesome article Joe – agree 100%. I just read that Norway is working to make gas or diesel cars illegal in 10 years; compared to that, reducing lane width with so much evidence to support it seems to be low hanging fruit.

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