Contrary to popular belief, Los Angeles is not an auto-oriented city by design. It developed around a massive intra-urban rail network that resulted in many neighborhoods being laid out on a grid, with a mix of relatively dense housing types and thoroughfares lined with storefronts. These qualities, combined with the city's Mediterranean climate, should make it one of the finest places to walk in the country. But as anyone who's tried to cross a street here knows, it isn't. Los Angeles is in many respects a terrible place to be a pedestrian.
That's in large part because we have engineered our streets to function like highways, widening them over the decades at the expense of sidewalks, which are so anemic in some places that telephone poles and other utilities block them. We've made it easy to drive on Sepulveda Boulevard or Sunset Boulevard as an alternative to the 405 or the 101, and, as a result, made it dangerous to traverse those streets by foot.
The city's lack of regard for pedestrians is nowhere more apparent than in the shortage of marked crosswalks. Although technically pedestrians have the right of way at any intersection, drivers don't generally slow down or look around unless there's paint on the ground. Is there anything more frustrating for a pedestrian than arriving at a corner without white lines? You have to choose between risking your life by darting across the street and walking out of your way in the hope of finding a safe crossing nearby.
Recently I counted all the crosswalks bisecting a roughly 2.5-mile section of several streets: Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima, Vermont Avenue from Koreatown to USC, and Sunset (plus a sliver of Hollywood Boulevard) through Silver Lake and Los Feliz.
These streets have “good bones.” They go through vibrant commercial districts and high-density neighborhoods. Even Pacoima, an area thought of as a distant suburb by many Angelenos, has a population density of more than 10,000 people per square mile, higher than most neighborhoods in Portland, Ore. — a famously walkable city.
The street parcels in question also have a relatively high number of intersections, ranging from 28 on Sunset to 34 on Vermont, which works out to an average of one intersection every 416 feet. The volume of intersections in a neighborhood is crucial to walkability. They provide a connectivity network, making it easy for people to walk from point A to point B. They also break up streets into shorter segments, which can help calm traffic.
But many of these intersections were not built with pedestrians in mind. On Sunset in Silver Lake, just 57% of intersections have crosswalks; on Vermont, 50%; and on Van Nuys in Pacoima, only 43%. Moreover, the distance between crosswalks on each of these streets can be sizable: more than a quarter of a mile long in some places.
Comparing crosswalk frequency in Los Angeles and San Francisco should help put this city's shortcomings in perspective.
I tried to compare like with like, selecting San Francisco streets that were similar to the ones I'd chosen in Los Angeles: wide, heavily trafficked thoroughfares. Specifically: Van Ness Avenue running from the Tenderloin to the Mission District, and Geary Boulevard running through the Richmond District. (A midcentury urban renewal project turned a portion of Geary into a virtual freeway.)
Both Van Ness and Geary have roughly the same proportion of intersections as the Los Angeles streets I studied. On both Geary and Van Ness, however, more than 75% of the intersections have crosswalks. And the longest gaps between crosswalks are significantly shorter than in Los Angeles, at 1,095 feet on Van Ness and 876 feet on Geary.
San Francisco has a compact urban form, giving it many attributes that make it more walkable than Los Angeles. But while it may be difficult to start throwing up gingerbread Victorians, it is relatively easy to stripe a few more crosswalks.
With the election of Eric Garcetti, we have a mayor who's committed to improving walkability. He has backed up his pro-pedestrian rhetoric with several important new policies. The Great Streets Initiative seeks to improve one street in each of the 15 council districts. The Vision Zero program aims to eliminate all traffic deaths by 2025.
Many of the mayor's walkability proposals involve improving discrete areas. Great Streets focuses on stretches less than a mile long, while Vision Zero targets specific parts of the city with high rates of collisions. These initiatives are praiseworthy. But to achieve the goal of walkability, the mayor should also consider basic infrastructure upgrades across the city.
Currently, the process for getting a new crosswalk can take years. If you want a crosswalk where you work or live, you have to lobby your City Council representative and wait for the Department of Transportation to conduct a study.
What if the mayor made new crosswalk construction a city priority, and explicit policy? He could set a goal of having crosswalks at, say, 80% of intersections along major streets in residential neighborhoods by 2020.
Drivers may not like encountering more crosswalks, where they have to slow down. But Los Angeles' maturation as a less car-dependent city will require trade-offs.
Max Podemski is the planning director at Pacoima Beautiful. He serves on the Los Angeles Pedestrian Advisory Committee.