Measure R is more than roads and rails

This is the first of two articles on the intersection of public transit, urbanism and architecture on next week's ballot.

There is a pedestrian path -- maintained, if that is not too generous a word, by the city of Los Angeles -- near my house in Eagle Rock. Parents use it to walk their kids to the neighborhood elementary school down the hill. Teenagers sometimes take advantage of its steepest sections to test out harebrained new skateboarding tricks. On occasion I've seen personal trainers marching up and down it, putting exhausted-looking clients through their paces.

What few of my neighbors seem to realize -- and why would they? -- is that the path, its concrete stamped in one spot with the date 1927, is a remnant of an era when Los Angeles was laced with an extensive network of streetcars. It was built as a way to bring people over the hill to reach a stop on Colorado Boulevard. Though the streetcar tracks were torn out by the 1940s, the path remains -- a phantom limb of an older, more connected city.

On Tuesday, voters in L.A. County will decide the fate of Measure R, which proposes raising the sales tax by a half-penny to pay for new subway and light-rail lines, along with some roadway improvements. (In all, 65% of its proceeds, pegged at roughly $40 billion over 30 years, would go to public transit.) It faces an uphill battle, primarily because it requires two-thirds approval to pass but also because it has divided politicians around the county. Those on the Westside, which would benefit most directly from Measure R dollars -- particularly for a subway extension along or near Wilshire Boulevard -- tend to favor it. Those in areas set to receive less funding, including Long Beach and Pasadena, have strongly opposed it.

From a political as well as fiscal point of view, to be sure, the measure might have been more stragetically written. Still, its implications for urbanism -- beyond the question of how to move people around the city and get them out of their cars -- have not received nearly enough attention.

Since World War II and the death of the streetcar system, the mobility that has always helped define Los Angeles in the public imagination has turned almost entirely private. It is made possible not by streetcars but by roads, boulevards and freeways carrying individual cars and trucks. In recent years, of course, that mobility has been severely curtailed by thickening traffic, particularly on the Westside. Traffic, in turn, has begun to chip away at the very idea of a unified Los Angeles, of a single place that comfortably contains both beaches and mountains, both the Getty and the Norton Simon.

If I want to travel from my neighborhood in northeast L.A. to UCLA in time for an evening lecture at the architecture school, for example, I have to give myself at least two hours to get there by car. Using existing public transportation routes would require an even longer trip: a bus-train-bus slog through the gridlocked heart of the city.

Mind the gap

The temporal distance traffic creates between one part of the region and another is also a psychological distance. For me, on a weekday evening, UCLA seems to exist in another state rather than across town: For all the good it does my neighborhood, it might as well be in Seattle or Phoenix. Measure R is an effort to help subsidize a transition in L.A. back to an earlier model of public-transit mobility and perhaps a return to a broader, more comprehensive urban universe as well.

Just as important, it is also a referendum on the future shape of the city. Typically, the changes to the cityscape that accompany new transit lines are grouped in the catch-all category of "smart growth." The basic idea of smart growth is to pursue dense, mixed-use development along subway, bus and light-rail corridors. Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard is an example of how this approach usually plays out. So are parts of Hollywood near the Metro Red Line. Architecturally, the results are rarely very exciting. Smart growth usually produces mid-size condo and apartment buildings, with retail at ground level, that are constructed with a minimum of design ingenuity.

More intriguing, and maybe more promising for the future of Los Angeles, is the web of well-trod collective spaces that grow up around any popular transit stop. As L.A. residents know all too well, when we build networks for cars, we divide and separate the city. We create dead zones along the perimeter of freeways and roaring boulevards that make walking less than enjoyable, if not downright dangerous or unhealthy.

Transit networks, on the other hand, promote all kinds of positive changes to the cityscape that occupy a category of urban evolution entirely distinct from new real estate development. Putting in a new subway line is like smacking the ice on a frozen lake with your hand. When you hit the ice you make one large mark. But then, after you've taken your hand away, little lines and fissures continue to crawl across the surface.

Every trip on a subway or bus also produces, on one or both ends, a trip on foot. Every train rider constructs his or her own path to various stations, and those paths add up to collective pedestrian activity that can animate an entire neighborhood. Streets not only immediately adjacent to a subway stop but three and four blocks away gain new vitality. The benefits of this urban feedback loop -- a million footsteps around a train station adding up to increased cosmopolitanism -- is plainly evident around the Gold Line's Mission Station in South Pasadena, to pick just one example.

Users of public transit are also users of sidewalks, benches and staircases -- not to mention pedestrian paths like the one near my house. And over time, users of public space become advocates for it. They care about how it is designed and about its upkeep in ways drivers simply don't. It matters to them if the sidewalks are wide enough or if they're shaded with a sufficient number of trees. They talk to their neighbors about these issues, or to the politicians who represent them.

Moving ahead

It is all too clear that Los Angeles won't be able to take the next steps in its development without significant investment in new transit. A decade or two from now, no city without an extensive public transportation network, without light-rail access to its airports and employment hubs, will be able to compete economically with its national or global peers.

The challenge is how to build support for transit among this region's millions of dedicated drivers, many of whom still see public transit as a last resort for Angelenos who can't afford their own cars. One very direct way, it seems to me, is to remind voters that a subway or a light-rail line can do a lot more than merely take them from point A to point B or ease the stresses of sitting in traffic. It can also bring their neighborhoods to life -- or back to life, as the case may be.