As a long time New Yorker, I’ve had the privilege of traveling across the globe. I have some favorite cities – some predictable (San Francisco, Berlin) others not as much (Budapest, Washington, DC) – but what they all have in common are excellent public transportation networks. As someone who hasn’t owned a vehicle in 15 years – I’m particularly passionate about living where my bike can be my most reliable and enjoyable form of transportation. I also enjoy the scenery and reading time that train travel affords. Up until a year ago, Los Angeles was “the last place on earth” that I would ever consider living.
Friday’s “Adancemos!” is just that much more impressive and heartening. Attending the 5th annual Move LA conference on transportation in Los Angeles, (a giant hall filled with government, academic and policy professionals with a median age of 55) was a giant surprise in human awesomeness. It’s all too easy to dismiss things: the hugeness of the problem of car culture, the sheer size of LA, the drought of public works funding and perhaps most daunting: the fact that people get set in their ways and change almost always happens painfully slow in large organizations. And yet.
Dr. Robert Cervero, Professor of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley, had one of the most interesting anecdotes that illuminated a surprising approach to “connecting the dots” in effecting change in a complex social system. After the fall of communism, a soviet administrator asked who was in charge of the bread supply, only to have the westerner respond that no one was – that the entire system of bakeries, suppliers, delivery, retail, customers is self-regulating. In the same way that people need the government to act in order to create infrastructure, the government cannot act until there is enough already happening on the street with a huge population of people already aware and participating. It was that lack – of infrastructure, public and civic support for a diverse ‘multi-modal’ transportation network in Los Angeles county that made Dr. Cervero “give up” on LA after earning a Ph.D in urban planning from UCLA in 1980. Yet as someone who’s paid to consult on transforming urban transportation networks -globally- the #1 most asked about example of renewal is Los Angeles County. If it can happen here, with every possible road block, it can happen anywhere, at any time. My absolute favorite and most surprising example of urban revitalization through an updated transportation network is definitely Seoul, South Korea. In almost shocking slides you can see how in only 2 years (2004-2006) massive boulevards have become a river way for pedestrians, bicyclists and a high-speed bus line.
Retiring Zev Yaroslavsky, of Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, had an inspiring reminder of time scale: that change can happen rapidly, but also that a human’s perspective on time is nothing compared to larger society and history. Slides from 1906-1912 show how rapidly LA went from a pastoral place with few roads to an urban environment. By 1920 LA had one of the greatest public transport systems in the world. Two decades later that had completely changed. And it’s only in the last 15 years that LA has been able to successfully develop things like the Red Line Subway, The Orange Line bus route (currently rated the most efficient bus line in the world!), and other major projects. My favorite project has to be the JEM line: Valley-Westside Rail Line: potential of a tunnel connecting Van Nuys and Sepulveda Pass Corridors together to maximize benefits, ridership, funding sources, and connectivity. How epic! Yet rapid – these projects have always required density – which LA has previously lacked in the sprawl of housing and highways. Cities like Paris, London, New York all existed for far longer than 100 years before developing their major infrastructure.
[For a really inspiring time, check out LA Metro’s series of 3 transit maps: existing, +3 years & the grand plan (below)]
Examples, it seems are critical for change. So is participation. LA mayor Villaraigosa’s broken elbow from an accident on a bicycle completely changed his agenda in governing and put bicycling on the map in LA. Trips to Copenhagen lit the imagination and passion for what change could look like. The work of one person, inspired by Bogota, Columbia’s Ciclovia brought to the attention of the newly receptive mayor blossomed into the cultural movement now known as CicLAvia, an opportunity for Angelenos to ride car free through the streets. If there’s anything that people should know from the conference is that the people working on these giant projects are amazing people dedicated to making people’s lives better, creating an environmentally responsible system that allows people to increase their job opportunities (and easy access to the beach! or the airport!) And that the best way to support them is to participate. Get on a bike! Walk whenever you can. Take the bus, or the train and vote for a new mayor that cares about nurturing the progress that’s been made.
Mayoral Candidates at #moveLA that I was impressed with – Eric Garcetti & Wendy Greuel. It was great to see that several candidates are openly aware of and committed to the efforts of things like the Mayor’s Transit Corridors Cabinet, an effort to bring together people from housing, private business, transportation and other areas.