The Continuing Quest for a More Walkable Los Angeles

(AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Pedestrians at Union Station in March 2014 in Los Angeles

Angelenos spend unfathomable amounts of time in cars navigating traffic jams—ones that definitely don’t turn into La La Land-style dance parties. A recent study by INRIX, a transportation analytics company, found that Los Angeles residents spend 100 hours in traffic congestion, the worst in the United States. Despite L.A.’s car-centric reputation, walking and taking public transit is the norm for many Angelenos, especially people of color. According to Los Angeles Metro, the county’s transit agency, most of its passengers are African American or Latino.

Social inequality is baked into the regional land use laws characterized by low-density sprawl that has contributed to car dependence. Affluent, majority-white communities concentrated in the most desirable areas are effectively walled off by “redlining,” segregated housing policies that prevented low-income people and people of color from buying homes and living in white neighborhoods.

Before World War II, L.A. real-estate maps outlined a rating system for home loans based on mortgage risk and investment opportunity. Predominantly black, Latino, and Asian neighborhoods (as well as some white and working-class areas) ranked poorly, and residents had difficulty securing home loans or the funds for home improvements.

That rampant discrimination combined with a persistent shortage of housing near job centers that middle- and low-income people can afford, plus a lack of transit options, has produced the congestion that defines Los Angeles today. Long distances between home and work complicate walking and biking, while the absence of a high-frequency transit network also encourages driving. “Without an understanding of L.A.’s racialized history, we see cars, think it’s been this way and it’s always been this way,” says Monique López, founder of Pueblo, an urban planning firm specializing in social and environmental justice issues. “If we better understand that history, we’re able to dispel that narrative that this is L.A. and this is the way it always will be.”

Expensive housing and epic traffic congestion are the price Angelenos pay for decades of car-focused urban planning. The median income of bus passengers is $16,218 and for rail $24,390. In Los Angeles County, the average costs of housing and transportation amount to 57 percent of an individual’s income: 35 percent for housing and 22 percent for transportation. Low-income residents bear the biggest burden of limited housing supply and the cost of driving. Using that framework, a person making $50,500 or less, would spend about $900 per month on transportation. (A 2017 AAA report found that Americans spend an average of $8,469 per year on car ownership—or about $700 a month.)

Los Angeles County’s transportation choices more closely resemble those of the Midwest and the South than the Northeast: 77 percent of L.A. County residents commute to work by driving alone. In Harris County, Texas (Houston), 79 percent of commuters drive alone and in Wayne County, Michigan (Detroit), 81 percent of drivers do. (On the East Coast, it’s a different story: In Kings County, New York (Brooklyn), more than 60 percent of commuters take public transit.)

Los Angeles doesn’t have to imagine what would happen if the region doesn’t change its road-warrior ways. It’s already on display in Texas, where low-density land use and fast-paced population growth—4.3 million people moved to Texas between 2000 and 2010—has created an endless dependency on highways. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) expanded one Houston highway from eight to 23 lanes, but that project did not reduce driving times—yet TxDOT continues to pour millions of dollars into expanding its highways.

There has been an overall decline in L.A. transit ridership last peaking in 1985, which is partly attributable to dissatisfaction with available transit options, which in turn fuels rising car ownership. Meanwhile, people continue to move into L.A. County, which could spell even more intense gridlock unless the region re-thinks its destiny by planning for a more pedestrian-friendly future. A walkable city means building more workforce housing, a robust bike network, and reliable transit that puts homes and employment in closer proximity. There are huge benefits in denser, walkable places, including reduced stress, more physical fitness, and less pollution. Walking, biking, and transit also have significantly lower financial barriers to entry; they also offer greater independence for residents, including young people and the elderly.

L.A.’s diversity means walkability can have different meanings depending on the neighborhood. According to the 2016 American Communities Survey, 48 percent of Los Angeles County residents are Hispanic, with 27 percent are white, 8 percent African American, and 14 percent Asian. Some affluent, white neighborhoods foster walkability with farmers markets, coffee shops, and bike lanes: Those amenities are viewed as positive attributes. In black and Latino communities, however, walkability can take on a negative cast when linked to perceptions about personal safety or creeping gentrification. 

López studied the first/last-mile issue on the Blue Line, a light rail line that runs through African American neighborhoods like Watts and Compton. She found that many residents were less focused on issues like broken sidewalks that may concern wealthier neighborhoods and more focused on police patrols. She found that many residents avoided stations with a heavy police presence and walked to stations with fewer officers, due to their concerns about past negative encounters with law enforcement. Uneasy relationships between police and people of color affect perceptions about walkability across the country. ProPublica and The Florida Times-Union found that black people were three times as likely as white people to get a ticket for pedestrian violations in Jacksonville, Florida.

For some residents, promoting walkability can also send signals that they may be on the verge of being priced out of a community. “People have grown so accustomed to broken sidewalks, bad transit experiences, and car-driven planning,” says Alissa Walker, the urbanism editor at Curbed LA, which focuses on architecture and real estate. “When something good happens with transit or walking or getting people out of their cars, people see it as gentrification.”

How can the region break the cycle of car dependency, integrate new modes into its transportation mix, and make the entire package palatable to all Angelenos? Transit and planning officials can start by creating walkable communities around major transit corridors. Building grocery stores, shops, and schools within a smaller radius would encourage more regular walking trips. Residents also need to adjust their thinking. Walker suggests that residents should draw a two-mile circle around their homes, and try to walk, bike, or take transit within that circle. For people who are physically able, “even just a few trips during a week or the month that aren’t in a car add up in a big way,” she says.

Two programs in Los Angeles have helped shift the thinking on walking and transit. The Transit-Oriented Communities program provides guidelines to incentivize affordable housing near transit while the Great Streets initiative focuses on revitalizing commercial corridors. The city is also gradually adding more housing: The city planning department approved plans for nearly 20,000 more housing units in 2017. A new state law allows for additional housing, such as in-law units and backyard cottages, on single-family lots, which would promote walking in suburban neighborhoods by increasing density in these areas. But just how to create more density remains controversial. Democratic State Senators Scott Wiener of San Francisco and Nancy Skinner of Berkeley proposed Senate Bill 827, which would have allowed more housing near transit corridors. But the high-profile proposal recently failed to make it out of committee: It drew bipartisan opposition, especially from lawmakers representing wealthy low-density neighborhoods, and advocacy groups concerned about gentrification and the lack of protections for affordable housing.

(L.A. Metro)

Wilshire/La Brea station excavation for the L.A. Metro Purple Line

Meanwhile, to settle an accessibility lawsuit over sidewalks, crosswalks, and other walkways, the city launched Safe Sidewalks LA in 2015, a $1.4 billion, 30-year program expedites sidewalk repairs and new installations like curb ramps. Aiming for walkability also means constructing fewer parking lots, and land use that doesn’t prioritize cars can significantly lower housing construction costs. In one popular Reddit thread, an architect explained why parking makes it so expensive to build multifamily housing in Los Angeles. Removing existing parking is challenging, but there is still the opportunity to minimize it for new construction projects. There will still be a need for parking, but communities must balance space for cars against more space for housing. In 2017, Santa Monica voted to eliminate parking minimums in new developments in its downtown community plan—a decision that could influence other cities and towns in the region.

The success of the Expo Line, the newest light rail line connecting the city of Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles, shows that connecting a series of destinations, walkable areas, and bus routes can boost transit ridership. The line, which opened last May, has already exceeded its ridership projections for 2024. Two transit projects under construction, the Purple Line extension to the Westside and the Crenshaw Line in South L.A. present ample opportunities for more mixed-use and transit-oriented development along these corridors. “If we don’t do a good job ensuring affordable housing near transit hubs,” says López, “we’re not going to meet climate action goals.” She adds, “Actually quite the opposite is going to happen: You’ll be removing people and pushing them further away from walkable areas and areas with transit access, and see a decline in transit ridership in these areas.”

While there is plenty of excitement about Metro’s new slate of rail projects, the real potential in undoing gridlock lies in improving bus service. Buses do not require the complex infrastructure that rail does and can offer transportation to neighborhoods where rail is not feasible. Providing schedules that work is one key to boosting ridership where it’s needed most: Orange County, California, has experienced an overall decline in bus ridership but has seen a 20 percent increase in passengers on high-frequency bus routes. In Seattle, Washington, one out of every five commuters now rides buses. The increase in ridership followed a series of street improvements, including providing a bus-only transit mall downtown; establishing passenger pick-up areas that didn’t interfere with traffic; and giving buses green-light priority over cars.

Undoing the car-centric status quo also means getting a grip on issues that threaten pedestrians and cyclists, like speeding. Los Angeles transportation officials have instituted traffic-calming measures known as “road diets.” These road redesigns reduce pedestrian and cyclist traffic fatalities by slowing down fast-moving traffic. One project, in the Mar Vista neighborhood in L.A.’s Westside, focused on transforming a 0.8-mile stretch formerly dominated by speeding cars into a vibrant neighborhood hub: City transportation officials redesigned a major commercial thoroughfare for safer biking by removing one traffic lane and replacing it with a protected bike lane buffered by parked cars, and adding additional crosswalks. Another road diet in the town of Playa del Rey reduced the number of lanes on roads where speeding led to a high rate of traffic fatalities.

However, despite the fact that road diets reduce fatalities, these projects have also generated considerable political controversy. Some city councilmembers have either rejected road diets in their own districts or have come out against them. After only five months, the city returned the Playa del Rey road to its former configuration. (As strange as it sounds, the most vocal opponents to the redesign were residents who live in other cities south of Playa del Rey. They argued that the road diets significantly slowed their commutes.) Emilia Crotty, executive director of Los Angeles Walks, a pedestrian advocacy group, views the backlash this way: “If people thought they had a viable alternative, they wouldn’t drive,” she says.

Many Angelenos remain completely disengaged from the wider conversations about their mobility choices. “Most people don’t really understand how [planning processes work]; they’re busy living their lives. It’s pretty difficult to unpack where the decision points are, who the decision-makers are, what type of money is on the table,” says Jessica Meaney, the executive director of Investing in Place, a local advocacy group focused on equitable regional planning.

Yet all citizens must learn to appreciate the power they can wield in local transportation and housing decision-making. Increasing public input means not only educating local residents, especially in disadvantaged communities, about their transportation and housing choices, but also bringing more transparency to the kinds of decisions that communities can make. Transportation advocates and planners can work with residents to promote the benefits of getting out of cars by spotlighting those successful regional projects that have improved the pedestrian experience. Chipping away at car dominance one neighborhood at a time will help make L.A. a more walkable place to live and work.

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