A City in Bloom

Anyone who knows me, knows how excited I am about the L.A. Metro Expo Line opening to Santa Monica next month. Still, this week I am feeling lucky to have some time in New York, America's transportation mecca. I am here soaking up the springtime and studying the countless lessons the city has to offer Los Angeles and the rest of the country when it come to transit, active transportation and more.

I am also here to help out my father recovering from back surgery (he's doing fine!). Between my time with him, other family members and friends, there has been ample time to take in the good of what is happening here.

It hasn't hurt that for the past few days it has been warm and the flowering trees are in full bloom. Along with all of the other things that have changed so since I last lived here in 1987, the explosion in the number of trees planted on the streets and in new pocket parks has helped make the city that much more livable.

The dogwoods, magnolias, cherry blossoms and eastern redbuds in all their springtime glory are almost enough to make anyone forget it is not like this here all of the time.

But there are other, mostly positive things happening in New York that other cities across the country would be well-served to heed. The availability of ubiquitous public transportation, new bike lanes and wide, mostly well maintained sidewalks foster a dense urban experience that attests to the fact that Jane Jacobs is still alive and well in the city she left for Toronto in 1968.

Granted it is better for transit riders, bikers and pedestrians in Park Slope and on the Upper West Side than in places like Richmond Hill and Allerton, but the widespread embrace of these means of getting around mean everything to the city's economic vitality and make being here a feast for the eyes and a welcome alternative to the dashboard and taillights.

Old enough to remember when only the bike messengers were brave, or stupid, enough to ride through midtown Manhattan, it is inspiring to see so many adults and children plying New York's streets, protected bike lanes and parks on their own wheels or on Citi Bikes.

It is why LADOT's plans for more bike lanes and Metro's roll out of bike share
in downtown Los Angeles are so exciting to this Angeleno. I just hope Metro can land a sponsor to help pay for the program the way they have in New York.

Being here in the advertising capital of the world has underscored for me how wise it is for Metro to partner with companies looking to put their name on our buses, bikes, trains and transit stations in exchange for cash. It costs money to build and run these critical public amenities and it is high time we cut more favorable deals that can help pay for operations. Take for example the Barclays arrangement with the MTA at the sprawling Flatbush Avenue subway station in Brooklyn. Transit riders certainly don't suffer from the $4 million naming rights deal the MTA made with Barclays ($200,000 a year for 20 years) to have its name on one of busiest stations in Brooklyn.

A couple of other striking things I am seeing in New York:

Homelessness: How under control homelessness seems to be here relative to Los Angeles and Santa Monica. So far, I can count the number of people I have seen sleeping on the street versus the unacceptable explosion of homeless encampments one finds all over downtown L.A., in Koreatown, Hollywood and on and under freeway overpasses across the city. L.A.'s failure, and the courts' foolhardy siding with so-called homeless advocates, is hurting the homeless most of all but the rest of us as well as our neighborhoods turn into unsightly and unsanitary shantytowns. A friend visiting recently from Shanghai expressed shock at our homeless epidemic saying he sees nothing like this in his travels across Asia.

Given L.A.'s homelessness and affordable housing crisis, it is exciting to see that on Friday, May 6th, the AIA|LA will be convening Design for Dignity, an all-day forum aimed at developing actionable plans to address these challenges.

Sidewalks: Also striking is how New York has somehow managed to keep its sidewalks in decent repair in spite of a climate whose temperature extremes presents a challenge to asphalt. While I am happy to see a new plan for repairing L.A.'s sidewalks, it's unacceptable that city government ever let things get this bad. Walking the streets with my father and his cane I shudder to think what it would be like for him to get around L.A. right now.

Illegal Dumping: As for our limp response to illegal dumping and street cleaning, L.A. remains a city that is still largely failing with respect to the most basic of city services. I believe in data and research as much as the next geek but $805,000 for Cleanstat, a survey and website that lets Angelenos look up their block's grade for cleanliness.

Fuhgeddaboudit!

As a Koreatown resident, all I need to do is look out my window to see what a failing grade we've earned.

Public Private Partnerships (P3s) & Philanthropy: With both L.A. and New York experiencing rapid change due to gentrification and economic displacement, it has been striking to see the things that New York seems to have gotten right. Part of its relative success probably stems from a stronger tax base and an embrace of P3s and philanthropy designed to pick up where government has fallen down on the job. While it would be nice if taxes were enough to provide for all of our needed city services, since they are not, it is past time that L.A. accelerated the pace of partnerships with businesses and private foundations to keep the streets clean and in good repair, build and maintain transit and green our streets. That's what makes Metro's plans for Measure R2 so exciting, but countless other opportunities, including business improvement districts (BIDs) to improve the quality of life for all seem to remain unexplored.

Transit: Riding the trains here, I keep thinking of Hillary Clinton on the subway in the Bronx during the primary campaign. With her victory in the Democratic contest looking pretty likely I hope she doesn't forget just how critical trains and buses are to the economic vitality of our cities.

The next president of the free world needs to be someone who rides the train and gets out often enough to know that not everyone eats with a silver spoon.

There is so much more to see here, including the new No. 7 train extension to the Hudson Yards and the MTA's progress on the Second Avenue subway. But even without visits to those projects yet, it has been great revisiting the Prospect Park West protected bike lane, the vibrant farmers market at Grand Army Plaza, the hoppin' street life along Flatbush Avenue in downtown Brooklyn and to take in the lively scene in Prospect Park and on the streets in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. The city is packed with locals and tourists making New York a dense urban experience considerably more livable than when I lived here back in the 80s. Thanks to the foresight of New York's planners and leaders and smart active transportation advocates at places like Transportation Alternatives this city of considerable density works pretty well.

A great film, New York Story, showing at the New York Historical Society explains how a profoundly diverse and mostly religiously tolerant New York developed (albeit with the labor of African slaves) into the world class city that it has become. Living in an equally diverse Best Coast city, I have high hopes that we too will continue to become a more livable city with extensive transit, complete streets, high performing schools, affordable housing and opportunity for all. To the luddites who whine, "Stop Manhattanwood," I say, "Bring it on!"

Yours in transit,
Joel