Visionary transportation planner Janette Sadik-Khan was the special guest of L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne at the Hammer Museum in Westwood last evening. I was looking forward to a smart conversation about street space as public space and I wasn’t disappointed. Sadik-Khan, the inspiring NYC transportation commissioner under former mayor Michael Bloomberg, was instrumental in remaking New York’s streets to be more people-friendly and safer, adding hundreds of miles of bike lanes (many of them protected bike lanes) and creating pedestrian plazas that have become destinations for New Yorkers and tourists alike. Her new book, Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution (Viking, 2016), tells the story of how she did it. Hawthorne is one of our most perceptive observers of LA’s public spaces who has a keen eye for the way designing the built environment around the automobile has impoverished our architecture and our civic life alike. His eloquence and architectural vision have made him one of my favorite contemporary writers about LA. Together their writings make a powerful case for the need to transform our city streets, and in so doing transform the way people experience city life.
In the old days when I used to drive everywhere, I would not have attended the lecture, since getting to Westwood from my home in the San Gabriel Valley would entail a teeth-gnashing drive through rush-hour (i.e., any time after 3:00pm) LA traffic and a hefty parking charge in Westwood. Thanks, but no thanks. Recent progress in LA Metro’s transit system, however, made it possible for me to take transit to the Westside. I rode my bike from home to the new Arcadia Gold Line station and locked up my bike on one of the conveniently located bike racks there. I then rode the Gold Line to Union Station, transferred to the Purple Line to Wilshire/Western, then took the Metro 720 Rapid bus down Wilshire to Westwood. Total cost: $1.75 each way. The total trip time door-to-door was about 2 hours, but unlike being stuck in the car, I could read, catch up on email, check social media, etc. And it was much more relaxing than driving.
(Side note: the only downside to an otherwise pleasant round trip was a homeless guy who got on the Gold Line near Downtown on my late night return trip. The poor guy smelled. Really bad. Here’s the thing: this is not Metro’s fault, and simply kicking homeless people off public transportation is neither humane, nor is it the answer. Shutting yourself off from homelessness by driving your private metal box may spare you the smell, but it won’t solve the problem–in fact, it enables people to ignore it, to pretend it’s not their problem. Reviving public transportation doesn’t allow us to turn our backs on social problems like private automobility does. We as a society must find a way to provide basic housing, medical, and social services for all. Other countries do it. We can too.)
Back at the lecture, Sadik-Khan offered an inspiring, optimistic message about the transformative possibilities of remaking our street space, offering examples from her book, like the creation of the Pearl Street plaza, the pedestrianization of Times Square, and the installation of parking protected bike lanes on numerous streets. She discussed the ways cities can and should shift from seeing streets merely as corridors for the movement of cars and more as places for the movement and social interaction of people. She made a point of highlighting how unsafe our current car-centric design is, causing an average of 34,ooo deaths in the US per year. We should no longer tolerate such an appalling human cost, and remake our streets accordingly.
For anyone paying attention in LA, the problem here is not vision. LA has a good bike plan, and its updated Mobility 2035 plan is even better. Our problem is implementation and lack of political will. When asked how she overcame political and community intransigence, she said the keys were to (a) have a plan; (b) rapidly implement temporary, or pilot projects to show people how they work, and (c) have data to show safety and economic improvements that result. Here in LA, long, drawn-out processes and political short-sightedness have stalled several important street improvement projects, including North Figueroa and Westwood Bl. Her underlying argument, however, is that change is coming and it is good. Car-centric planning and design is a relic of the past, safety, revived public space, and mobility choices are the future. “Inaction is inexcusable,” she writes in her book. To my fellow advocates, that means we must not give up.
One final point worth mention, is the subject of self-driving cars. This topic makes some of my fellow bike advocates slobber all over themselves with techno-utopian glee. Sure, they have the potential to make streets safer and possibly result in more efficient use of urban space if–and this is key–only if they are not used in such a way to allow automobiles to “re-invade” city space that we’re working so hard to make car free. As both Hawthorne and Sadik-Khan pointed out, they also have the potential to increase sprawl and traffic. Self-driving cars may address the safety issue, but not necessarily any of the other issues related to public space and people-centered design. The point is to de-center the private automobile from our design priorities, whether it’s self-driving or not.