A New Route to a Better LA

It took 100 years and a determined President to get a health care bill through Congress. In this young City of Angels and others it may take a bit longer to find the right mix of ingredients needed to create a transit-friendly environment and a feeling of community.

But lately it does seem as though LA has turned a corner in its quest to leave behind its car-obsessed past and become a city where community matters, residents ride mass transit and more of our neighborhoods develop their own distinctive vibe. Sunday's LA Marathon, in which 25,000 people ran the new route from Dodger Stadium to Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, gave the effort a good push along. Though I didn't (and probably couldn't) have run the 26 miles, biking with my son from our house to watch the runners was nearly as exciting. Seeing all those blocks of normally traffic-choked city shut down was a beautiful thing. The most distinctive sounds from our vantage point along the route were the rhythm of feet hitting the pavement and enthusiastic Angelenos cheering them on. These are the sorts of sounds we should all here more often throughout LA.

The marathoners were a colorful bunch, duded out in all sorts of running outfits. Just about the only t-shirt I didn't see was the one that the insurance industry folks are wearing on the day after, which reads, "I voted for Obama and all I got was this historic victory on health care."

The Marathon in LA was a chance for many of us to rethink the Sunday routine of a drive to Target, Costco, the Santa Monicas or the Farmer's Market at Third and Fairfax. With too many streets closed off, it wasn't worth it.

It was liberating really, or rather, really liberating. Since many of us couldn't get anywhere anyway we stayed close to home or ventured out on foot or bike.

But even before the marathon LA had achieved some important home-grown pro-community success. If you don't live near it or take it regularly for example you may not be aware of just how good Metro's Orange Line Busway has been for both commuters and bikers and how it has become a bus rapid transit (BRT) model of sorts for the country. If not for the NIMBYs and yesterday's thinking about ridership the Orange Line would have been (and hopefully will still someday be) a seamlessly linked rail line to the Red Line subway at North Hollywood. Nonetheless, the BRT is a win nicely profiled in the year-old but still fresh film from Street Films.

Now, if reason can only triumph, the Orange Line's accompanying bike path will be replicated on the Westside in Expo phase two.

Ah the NIMBYs. With Orange, Blue, Gold and now Expo they just love to bring up safety, that evergreen boogeyman. They ignore the facts and say light rail just isn't safe. And they point repeatedly to the Blue Line, where, over the last 20 years, 51 people have been killed, hit by a train on the tracks. Well, as my high school English teacher would have said, "It is sad, it is too bad, but it is not (in the Greek or Shakespearean sense) a tragedy." Just read Fred Camino's excellent piece, A Pedestrian's View of the Blue Line complete with photos and clips of all the safety barriers and signage Metro has installed to protect the public, and you may agree that there's a less flattering word for anyone killed by a Blue Line train.

That Camino's piece should appear on the same day as David Lazarus' snarky article in the LA Times entitled, L.A. Mass Transit Agencies Make Only a Token Effort to Get People Onboard, underscores the divide in this town between believers and cynics who don't get the challenges Metro, Move LA, and groups like Fixing Angelenos Stuck in Traffic (FAST) still face in trying to change attitudes about mass transit. Granted, Lazarus makes some good points about the need for better integration between Metro and the other neighboring transportation systems. And, it is absurd that riders can't get a transfer to switch from one Metro route to another, or from a bus to a subway. But if he's so right, how come Lazarus' piece grates on me like another Times reporter's recent piece on the snob on the bus?

It's all about the starting line and context -- and let's not forget that this is LA. It wasn't very long ago that many otherwise reasonable Angelenos said, in all seriousness, things like, "We don't want mass transit here. This isn't New York."

Paired with the 30/10 transit/jobs plan, the marathon and programs like CicLAvia, which would periodically convert some of LA's streets to parks, are modifying our ideas about public space and life in the city. All of these changes make Los Angeles a more vibrant and community-oriented place to live.

Mindful of the impact on businesses along the routes and on commuters, the city will need to carefully plan and coordinate CicLAvia events and future marathons. But these are the sorts of things smart planners in coordination with police, fire, risk management and neighborhood associations do every day.

For those who say we can't, I say we can. And for cred my reference is a lecture last week at Occidental College by New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. In her talk to several hundred public space enthusiasts, the LA-educated commish wowed the audience with a description of efforts by New York to re-purpose its streets. These asphalt/concrete illustrations of what LA might do include the pedestrianization of Times Square and New York's construction of 200 miles of new bike facilities.

Sadik-Khan's at-once bold and commonsense vision has helped New York reimagine its public space, including formerly traffic-clogged Broadway in Times Square decked out with lawn chairs, and bike- and pedestrian-only Summer Streets on Park Avenue on a quiet weekend morning.

The Commissioner also made follow-up LA appearances on KPCC's Airtalk with Larry Mantle and at the 2010 StreetSummit. She used all three occasions to talk about NYC projects big and small, but also to inspire Angelenos to keep working to achieve the same.

Without question, changing LA is a give-and-take with city agencies like LADOT challenged by all sides to make the streets into what each competing constituency wants them to be. These visions are as contradictory as another freeway to downtown (one way on Pico and Olympic Blvds) and a temporary park and bikeway where motorized traffic normally idles (CicLAvia).

Not coincidentally, with the needle moving on mass transit and new ideas about public space in LA gaining ground, the City Planning Commission will vote this Thursday (March 25th) on the Food and Flowers Freedom Act. The straightforward Act would allow "the cultivation of flowers, fruits, nuts or vegetables defined as the product of any tree, vine or plant, and that these products be allowed for use on-site or sale off-site." It would overturn LA's antiquated ban on selling flowers and produce grown in the city. Championed by Urban Farming Advocates and City Council President Eric Garcetti, the Food and Flowers Act will be a test of new thinking about how more and more Angelenos want to live and how some in the city will make a living.

Unless you're a shut-in, 30/10, the new marathon route, the blossoming of LA's bike culture and the explosion in the number of neighborhood farmers markets, gardens, and even urban chickens are changes to LA that reveal how Angelenos are revamping the way they think about their neighborhoods and city at large.

If New York, America's most quarrelsome town, can change, then we too can transform how we get around and use our city's open and public space. In fact we can do it better, given our collegiality, climate, landscape and talent.

With the LA Marathon, CicLAvia and other changes afoot, I hope City departments weakened by the layoffs have the vision, flexibility and commitment to respond. If not then maybe it's time to bring leaders like Sadik-Khan back to LA to help us get it done. That is so long as she'll be riding Metro or biking to work.