Transit Envy and Other Thoughts on Making L.A. the City It Can Be

This week the world lost a close friend and a man who would have loved what is happening on L.A.'s streets, along the Los Angeles River and in terms of public transportation.

Al Selvin died while out on one of his regular weekend bike trips. I got to know Al at the University of Michigan but we really connected exploring Woodside and Jackson Heights together in the mid 1980s. Al brought to his exploration of Queens, New York, the same passion, wisdom and commitment he demonstrated in his music, biking, work and family. My thoughts this week and always are for his widow and their kids.

I thought of Al alot as I traveled to some great cities over the past couple of months. This Fall took me to Mexico City, Montreal, New York and Miami. And traveling as it always does, gets me thinking about what Los Angeles is doing right and where we can use some work. Since my last piece explored Mexico City, today I am keeping the focus on L.A., Montreal, New York and Miami. It may not be pretty.

I hate to say it but why aren't we universally embracing our overdue mobility plan, bike infrastructure and public transportation the way these other cities have?

Montreal of course is a world leader in complete streets. Parts of the city including Le Plateau and Mile End are practical meccas for bike riders and pedestrians who enjoy grade separated, protected bike lanes and crossings. And then there are the buses and quiet, rubber-tired trains to match. If only the Winter didn't last eight to ten months of the year.

Following closely on Montreal's heels is New York with its growing network of bike lanes, a nearly complete emerald necklace around Manhattan, and big strides and future plans for the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn waterfront. And, the completion of the Number 7 Line extension and the progress on the Second Avenue Subway
are projects that give me transit envy.

Even Miami and Miami Beach have embraced complete streets, bike lanes and Citibike. How come Metro hasn't found a similar, smart corporate sponsor yet for our bikeshare program? It begs the question whether the partnership people at L.A.'s transportation agency have cast a wide enough net targeting the right prospects?

True, the air conditioned car is still king in south Florida but there too planners and civic leaders appear to have recognized that every bike means one less car and that taking in the city by bike, on foot or by bus lets you actually savor South Beach's deco palaces, Wynwood's countless murals, Brickell and Collins Avenues' modern architecture and the beautiful private homes and tropical flora in Coconut Grove, Coral Gables and along the Intracoastal.

When did some Angelenos become such whiners? We have long had a handful of vocal beyond their numbers Beverly Hills and San Fernando Valley NIMBYs. But when and why have we gotten so provincial as to be swimming against the tide on complete streets, Vision Zero and the mobility plan?

California, including L.A., has always been a leader on so much from technology to entertainment and the environment. Which is why it is disappointing to see three cities on the East Coast lap us in terms of streetscape and transit improvements that will make us safer and improve the way we all live.

In New York for example, I biked from West 72nd Street on the Upper West Side to High Bridge Park at 170th Street in Washington Heights, along dedicated bike lanes envisioned under NYCDOT's Janette Sadik-Khan and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The High Bridge, atop an old aqueduct I grew up admiring from the Major Deegan, is a recently created link in New York's reimagining. Los Angeles of course has its own stellar opportunity to enrich the lives of countless Angelenos by moving full steam ahead with the restoration of the Los Angeles River to a recreational Eden for the millions of us who call the region home.

I know we are on it with notable support from Mayor Garcetti, state politicians like Kevin DeLeon and environmental, business and other civic leaders, but I am also impatient to see Los Angeles be within my lifetime the world class city in transit, complete streets and recreationally that we can and should be.

So what next? Those who love Los Angeles should be encouraged by Governor Jerry Brown's recent signing of Senate Bill 767 which authorizes Metro to put a half-cent sales tax on the ballot to fund transportation.

Watch for more on the likely Fall 2016 ballot measure and vote YES on Measure R2 or whatever it is to be called, ensuring adequate funding for the public transportation Los Angeles needs now and well into the future. But don't just vote, something many of us don't seem to recognize as our civic duty. Also ride the existing buses and trains that crisscross the region and watch for the long-awaited Expo Line and Gold Line Foothill extensions scheduled to open next year. And bike, walk or skate through downtown L.A., Chinatown, Boyle Heights and Westlake this Sunday at car-free CicLAvia and everyday on the LA River's bike/pedestrian path.

Al Selvin knew a great city, train line, bike path, restaurant and musician when he saw it. I hope we will continue to make L.A. a city worthy of his blessed memory.

Yours in transit,
Joel Epstein