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SGV Connect Interview 126: Damien interviews Jonah Kanner


Welcome to our interview. I am Damien Newton here with Jonah Kanner with the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition. He's been doing some research looking at the City of Pasadena and he says it is closing in on becoming one of America's first successful “15 minute cities.” So welcome to the podcast. 

I would guess about 80% of the people listening to the podcast know what a 15 minute city is, but I would say 20% might not. So let's start with that. What are we talking about when we talk about a 15 minute city?


Yeah, thanks Damien. Thank you for having me on. It's really nice to be here with you.

A 15-minute city, it's maybe not so well-defined, right? It's more of an idea or a concept. It's hard to say if any one city really is or is not a 15-minute city. it's It's more like something to strive for. But the idea is simple: most of the things that you need for your everyday life should be accessible via a 15-minute trip by walking, biking, or public transit. And and of course, in America, where we're we build these really car-centric cities, that's very often not the norm.


Now, Pasadena is served by at least three different transit agencies. Is that one of the reasons that you think that Pasadena is closing in or is it just the general efforts that have been happening the last five, 10 years to make Pasadena a more walkable, bikeable place, or some combination there in between?


It's all of the above, right? The main thing that brought me to this piece and thinking about it is my own experience. I started on this piece because what I wanted to share was my own experience of Pasadena as a 15-minute city on my electric bike. And so what got me started was thinking…was noticing that the things that I need every day - getting to work, getting my son to school, going to the store, going shopping, going to restaurants - that I was doing more and more of these things by bicycle. 

When I stopped and thought about it, I said, “well, you know most of my trips are only 15 minutes.” And I took out a map and sat down with it. If you take a street mapping tool and you ask, “what can you get to in Pasadena on a bike in about 15 minutes?” It's pretty much the whole city.

This is my experience: I'm biking everywhere and it's fast and it's easy. um But when you start to unpack that and say, well, what is it that makes Pasadena a 15 minute city or close to a 15 minute city? A lot of the things are really big things that are baked in. 

Pasadena has a nice street grid that's pretty easy to navigate. We have a dense shopping district, old Pasadena and people talk about Playhouse Village, that has some mixed-use zoning. There's some dense housing, there's restaurants, there's schools, there's a hospital; all these things are within a short physical distance. 

The whole city is something like four or five miles across, but then this dense core is maybe say a mile across. So there are a lot of things about the city that are just good design that are already present. And then yeah, when you start to layer that and add the options for transit and for walking,, that's where we have room to grow, right? 

We have some bus lines, but the headways could be a little bit more frequent. The A line comes through Pasadena, that's a tremendous asset, so that really opens up the rest of Los Angeles area for people who live here. 

But in general, the things that I think give Pasadena so much potential are the fact that the things that are really hard to change, the street grid, the shopping, the construction, a lot of those things are actually really well designed and in a really great state.


Pasadena is not a tiny city though. Oh, goodness. It's got 23 square miles. Almost 140,000 people live there. You're crediting the building out of a bicycle and pedestrian network for making it a place that can be a car free or car light city for people that live there.


It depends on which mode of transportation you're going for and exactly where you live. For folks who want to get around by walking (Pasadena itself is spread over, say, um you know something like three miles north-south or maybe five miles east-west) there is this dense core that people call the central district. That's old Pasadena and the Playhouse Village. And that area does have most services that most people need day to day. So there is an area that's something like a mile across.

There are folks who live car light or car free, that access to the A-line Metro. There's pretty good bus service in that part of town. Those folks are largely already experiencing Pasadena as a walkable, as a 15-minute city. 

For those of us who don't live in the Central District, and I don't, I live way out on the edge of town; it's too it is too big a place to walk across. But on an electric bike, three miles is about 15 minutes. And it's pretty easy. And I don't have to look for parking. And I ride door to door. And it's fun. 

I have this ongoing debate with my wife.I'll say,” oh, honey, I'm going to go out and get some takeout food or go to the hardware store.”

And then I'll say something about the bike and she'll say, “well, but why don't you just drive?” 

And that word “just” is doing a lot of work, right? That word just is saying, “oh, well, obviously driving would be something faster or easier or whatever.” 

And  what I think is hard for her to understand is that it’s faster on an electric bike, I think of it as just biking. I think of that as easier because you know I don't have to look for a parking spot.

I'm going to be outdoors. I'm going to be enjoying the ride. 

For me, getting inside the car, I have a car. I can do it. But that's what feels like a burden. That's what feels inconvenient is to have to put myself in the box because I'm only going across town. It's only two miles, three miles, four miles. 

For those kinds of trips, it's really just just biking. It's just easier. Of course, you know, there's places where Pasadena falls short, where there's room to improve. But for me, it's, it's really the fact that, you know, three, four miles by bicycle is very manageable.


The biggest barrier for most people being able to access a city like Pasadena that's a small, dense city that's got a lot of stuff you can get to reasonably easily, is either safety or perceived safety. I know this doesn't exactly apply, but there was just a fascinating USC study that showed that the more you take transit, the less likely you are to think that riding on transit is dangerous. 

And it's sort of the same with bicycle and pedestrian stuff. The more that you're out walking and biking, the less danger you feel from surrounding cars or traffic and all that. But it's getting the people on the bike, getting the people in the bus, that um starts to dilute that fear. So what can Pasadena be doing to get rid of that first barrier for people?


Yeah, I think it's great that you hit on that. andI agree, right? And certainly, as you say, there's lots of research to support the idea that the main thing that keeps people off of a bike is safety concerns. And that's also part of my experience. When I tell people that I'm getting around on a bike, more often than not, the first thing out of their mouths is, “oh, is that safe?” Or, “oh, that seems dangerous to me.” Or, maybe the worst. “Oh, be careful out there. You be careful”


Stay safe.


Yeah. Oh, “be safe.” 

So look, the concern is real, right? Cars can be dangerous and people do get hit, injured and and killed. So I don't think it's a crazy concern. I think it's a very valid concern. 

But of course you and I and probably most people listening to this podcast already know the answer, which is we need safe infrastructure. And so we're looking for protected bike lanes. We're looking for all ages and abilities, greenways. We're looking for routes where anyone…including my son, including my wife… can feel safe and comfortable on a bike or walking. We're in the process now of advocating for a number of infrastructure improvements in Pasadena. We did just get two new bike lanes from 2020-2023. One of them is our first protected bike lane. So that's a big milestone for the City of Pasadena. I use it all the time. It makes my ride safer and more enjoyable. I really appreciate it.

The city is is pursuing right now… the two bike lanes we got last year are both east-west bike routes…and the city right now is pursuing four north-south bike routes. Those are going to be bicycle boulevards or greenways. And we've been advocating that they be as safe and comfortable as possible. We've been advocating around the idea of them meeting all ages and abilities criteria as defined by professional agencies. So far that's going well. So far that project's moving forward. We're seeing a lot of public support for it. We're seeing that there's a lot of folks in Pasadena who either already are getting around by bike or by curious or who just want their neighborhoods to be quieter and safer and nicer to be out on the street and talk to their neighbors. 

So we're seeing a lot of public support and that project seems to be moving forward. 

One of the things that was really interesting for me writing this piece was I talked to a couple of urbanist-minded folks, Marsha Roode and also Tom Priestley, and I asked them about walkability in Pasadena. They both said similar things. They said,” yeah, there's this dense core where things are close and there's sidewalks and in principle you can walk to things.”

But the things that would really help walking, the things they listed are small things and they have a long list. It's things like continental crosswalks and crosswalks with flashing lights. The even smaller things like well placed trash can, well designed signage, just things to make the the sidewalk and the walking environment more inviting, more welcoming, more comfortable. 

And that's where we landed with the idea of Pasadena being almost a 15 minute city. The really hard stuff that's baked in, the street grid, the shopping, the services, that stuff is hard and expensive. And it's already here. We have great shopping. We have great restaurants, right? It's all here. But what is it like to navigate between those places and and trying to get that right?

It's relatively cheap to put in a trash can. It's relatively cheap to put in a continental crosswalk. And it's frankly, it's even relatively cheap to put in a quick build protected bike lane. 

So all these things can be done without a huge budget. And they make a big difference in the livability of the city and their proven safety measures. Doing these things we know reduces collisions, reduces collisions for drivers, reduces injuries.


I was hoping you were going to hit on that point that you really hit hard at the end: Pasadena is a city that has the big things that create walkability. And yet we're still like trying to get continental crosswalks put in, which is something I wrote about in Streetsblog in 2008/2009:  the efforts to get City of LA to make all crosswalks continental crosswalks as they repaint streets. And we're still talking about it 15 years later. 


There's a positive spin or a negative spin on that, right? 

The positive spin is that we're so close. One of my working titles for the piece was “Pasadena is already a 15-minute city for the brave or for the few.” 

For people who are willing to take their lives in their hands, it's a lot of fun.

But most people don't wanna feel like they're in danger every time they go out for a quart of milk. And so having that space is so important.  

I'm often amazed that these things that we know are beneficial in so many ways that maybe aren't so expensive or so hard to build, that it feels like we're constantly reevaluating them, re-discussing them, constantly treating them as experiments when they're not experiments. 

There are dozens of cities that have done this successfully. I found a list of cities ranked by what fraction of mode share is by bicycle. And if you look for cities where more than 10 percent of the mode share is by bicycle, it's over 100 cities. So there's 100 cities in the world that have already figured this out. And I don't think we have to reinvent most of those solutions.


That is a perfect ending because we are up against our artificially created time limit. 

Thank you so much for being with us. You keep mentioning the article, which I did not mention in the intro, but I will say a link to it is provided in the text that accompanies this podcast. 

If you've downloaded this to your Walkman? Dating myself. Downloaded this to your iPad. No, no one travels with an iPad. Downloaded this podcast and are listening to it remotely. If you go to, you should be able to find the podcast in the top of the website, or if it's been a little bit, just run a search for SGV Connect. Thank you so much for your time with us today, and we will talk again soon.


Great. Thank you, Damien. Really appreciate it.