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Critic's Notebook

Mobility Plan 2035 may be the cornerstone of a new L.A.

Christopher Hawthorne
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Architecture Critic

The Los Angeles City Council last month approved a sweeping new framework, known as Mobility Plan 2035, for the design of the city's major streets. Twelve council members voted for the plan — which will add scores of new bike and bus-only lanes, among other changes — and two against it.

Even accounting for the wiggle room some of the plan's supporters on the council managed to reserve for themselves, saying they might try to exempt certain streets in their districts, 12 to 2 is a remarkable and suggestive margin.

The City Council, after all, is not filled with urban designers who enjoy stepping way out in front of the curve of public opinion. It is filled with politicians exquisitely sensitive to constituent feeling.

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Still, there may be people in your life who have grave doubts about the mobility plan. These people might be your colleagues, your relatives, your neighbors, the writers of the blogs you read or the hosts of the radio programs you listen to.

If the subject of the mobility plan comes up, these people are likely to frown. They are likely to say that the plan is based on a kind of social engineering.

This plan is trying to force people out of their cars! is something they might say, while frowning. Its entire goal is to make life so difficult for drivers that they will give up driving in utter frustration!

Or: What about groceries? Who is going to go to the grocery store on a bicycle?

Also: What about getting the kids to soccer practice?

Soccer practice comes up a lot, maybe because getting there often requires muscling through rush-hour traffic.

Here are a few things you can mention in a conversation about the mobility plan. In Los Angeles these days it's a bit of a third-rail subject, so it's not a bad idea to be prepared.

For starters, people who live in Chicago (or Seattle or New York or Philadelphia) don't consider taking their kids to soccer practice some distance away, via private car, the sort of basic right that their elected representatives should spend a lot of time helping them protect.

In Los Angeles we have come to view things differently. We've convinced ourselves that we are the only big city in the country where we can have all the great things that come with urbanization and, remarkably, none of the eternal and endless traffic congestion. We want the cultural amenities and economic clout of a major metropolis but the traffic patterns of a garden-variety suburb.

This is a kind of magical thinking.

To be fair, we've had perfectly good reasons for looking at the city this way. In fact it would have been very surprising if we hadn't learned to look at the city this way.

For nearly a century, the elected officials and the transportation planners responsible for shaping L.A. streets, buoyed by a range of subsidies from Washington connected to homeownership and road building, have made it clear that the priorities of drivers and private car traffic should be protected at all costs.

(Remember that phrase, "at all costs." We'll come back to it.)

As a result of this point of view, as we asked a number of minor and major civic questions over the years — about whether to build a new school here or new apartment building there, try to land an NFL team or tax ourselves to expand the region's public transit network — the initial response has always been the same.

What does it mean for the drivers? For God's sake, will somebody think of the drivers?!

Sometimes we tell ourselves it has been this way for all time. Recently a reader sent me an email that included this line: "Driving by car is how it's done here." (The word "son" at the end of the sentence was implied.)

But that's not really true — not if you take a broad view of Los Angeles history. Look at a photograph of, say, Broadway in downtown L.A. in the late 1920s. It is full of people walking. But it is also full of people in cars, on bikes and on streetcars.

It looks vital. And guess what? It also looks very congested. In the decades that followed, in our tireless efforts to stamp out the congestion — something we became truly expert at — we wound up stamping out the vitality too.

Over time, some Angelenos, later many Angelenos and now maybe a majority of Angelenos — at least to judge from the City Council vote on the mobility plan — have begun to believe that the price we pay for this kind of urban design and city planning is too high.

Remember "at all costs"? The costs, finally, are striking us as too dear.

What are those costs? Here are some:

• We've killed a lot of pedestrians and cyclists. That verb may sound harsh, but it's the right one. The number of pedestrian fatalities in Los Angeles has topped 100 in several recent years.

• We have built far too little housing, and as a result housing prices have risen dramatically. Concerns about congestion are not the only fears that have helped depress the housing stock in Los Angeles, but they have played a significant part, since every planning and land-use decision has to be run through several traffic-flow wringers.

• We've embraced a warped view of our own civic history. Gil Cedillo, one of the two council members to vote against the plan, told the New York Times, "The reality is that Southern California is built around the automobile." This is patently false. Southern California, in the late 19th century, grew thanks to a very productive alliance between the streetcar and speculative real estate, rising on the hot air of persistent boosterism.

• We've shaped and then perfected, like potters at the wheel, a punishingly efficient downward cycle for the city's public spaces. As lanes for cars grew, space for everybody else shrank. Sidewalks got narrower. The public realm, whose basic armature is the sidewalk, shriveled. We required architects to push back their buildings from the street to make room for parking lots (and for other reasons), which made sidewalks less shaded and more exposed.

Over time it became far less pleasant to walk than it had been, as pedestrians negotiated an increasingly narrow strip of pavement with car traffic on one side and parking lots on the other. Fewer people walked. It became easier to widen the streets even more, because there were fewer walkers to object, and those who did walk had less political clout. And so on.

But let's get back to soccer practice. In some ways I think it's the heart of the matter.

I have two kids, one of whom I've ferried to soccer practice in a car and one who wants to start playing soccer soon. And I too have fallen into the trap that it would be a genuine crisis if it started taking, say, 30 minutes instead of 15 to get from my house to the soccer field by car.

What if it did? And what if not long from now it starting taking me 45 minutes?

There are a few ways in which I could respond to this personal after-school apocalypse. I could petition public officials to widen the roads to ease my route to the far-away soccer field. This is the response we have been conditioned to provide in Southern California: As soon as it becomes difficult or time-consuming to drive somewhere, start thinking about ways to make that drive quicker and easier.

I could carpool or use public transportation.

I could think about moving to a house or apartment close enough to a park that I could walk there. This, in fact, is how many friends and colleagues of mine have rearranged their lives to deal with thickening traffic, pulling the circle of daily life more tightly around them. (It's what I've done too, so my kids can walk or bike to school.) But recommending that as a broad-based solution for L.A. assumes a kind of economic mobility that is far from universal.

There is one more option, though: I could ask those public officials to build a new field closer to where I live — and closer to where my daughters' teammates live too.

This is in fact the larger shift that the vote on the mobility plan reflects, even as the plan itself has flaws and remains very much a work in progress. There is a growing constituency for improvements to the civic realm that take a newly nuanced view of the relationship between the car and public amenities. No longer do we have the luxury of thinking of the whole city as reachable by car at all times. Sometimes the public amenity — the park, in this case — needs to come to us.

Sometimes, to be more specific, we need to decide to tax ourselves and pay for it to come to us.

Over time in Los Angeles we have become so anxious about and fixated on congestion, so compelled to design and redesign the whole city to prevent or ease it, that we have failed to see that although in a policy vacuum is it quite rationally something to fear, it has the potential to bring with it a host of other changes we have been eager, even desperate, to see.

In other words: Nobody is arguing that congestion is something we have to celebrate. But here as in every other big city in the world it is a product — a measure — of economic and urban vitality. And among its byproducts may be the building blocks for a new Los Angeles.

Twitter: @HawthorneLAT

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