L.A.'s One Way Proposal Goes The Wrong Way

While there's no doubt Los Angeles has a traffic problem, it would be a mistake to put congestion relief over neighborhood revitalization.

 James RojasLos Angeles is infamous for its traffic problems. With the city's population having surpassed 4 million, the streets and freeways are more clogged than ever, and motorists and bus riders alike are increasingly fed up with the situation.

In response, politicians are trying to show that they are working on the problem. A recently passed state bond measure will feed billions into new transportation projects. The city council is cautiously considering dedicating bus-only lanes on some major streets. And Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hardly misses an opportunity to tout his support for the expansion of the city's subway.

Meanwhile, hoping to provide a more immediate and practical solution, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslovsky has floated a proposal to transform two major east-west boulevards -- Olympic Boulevard and Pico Boulevard -- into a pair of one-way thoroughfares that could provide commuters with an alternative to the congested Santa Monica freeway.

 Section of Olympic Boulevard
A heavily traveled section of Olympic Boulevard in Mid-City Los Angeles. (Photo: Nate Berg)

However well intentioned, the truth is that such a proposal is misguided and could not have come at a worse time. Los Angeles is in the midst of finally growing up and understanding the importance of place-based and neighborhood-oriented planning. Good things are happening. Yet, the idea of slicing the city with two freeway-like arterials simply flies in the face of these positive changes and will seriously set back neighborhood revitalization efforts underway Downtown, in Westlake, Pico-Union, Mid-City, and beyond.

The problem quite simply is speed. Motorists want more of it, while revitalizing neighborhoods need less of it. In other words, motorists simply want to pass on by, whereas revitalizing neighborhoods want people to stop by, and to stay a while. Great neighborhoods are not built out of six-lane arterials that allow one to drive at upwards of 45 mph; rather, great neighborhoods are made up of destinations and places you would like to be and spend time in.

At one time, Pico and Olympic Boulevards actually contained quite a few discernible neighborhoods you wanted to spend time in, complete with pedestrian life and neighborhood-serving commercial uses. The demise of these hubs of activity coincided with, among other things, the decline of the streetcar and the transition of these boulevards into strictly traffic arterials. To traffic engineers, these streets became the perfect east-west corridors for connecting motorists from more affluent West-Side communities to Downtown. Suddenly no one wanted to or needed to stay and could simply pass on by, and the neighborhoods went into decline.

 Section of Pico Boulevard
A busy intersection along Pico Boulevard in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles. (Photo: Nate Berg)

It should come as no surprise then that Pico and Olympic Boulevards now cut through some of L.A.'s most disenfranchised communities, such as Pico-Union, Westlake, and Koreatown. In fact traffic-related poor air quality, noise pollution, pedestrian hazards and a generally degraded environment now plague almost all of L.A.'s low-income communities. East Los Angeles, Pico Union, Lincoln Heights and many other low-income communities are still suffering the effects of LA's infamous freeway system, much of it built over 30 years ago. The irony of this inequity is that by and large car ownership is low while pedestrian volumes are high in these neighborhoods, yet the physical environment simply ignores this reality. Pedestrian fatality rates in the City of Los Angeles now run highest among Latinos, largely because many Latinos are car-less but must walk across streets, intersections, and driveways that have been widened ad infinitum to serve impatient commuters and at the behest of traffic engineers.

Map of Los Angeles showing Pico and Olympic Boulevards

Despite Los Angeles' dismal track record on pedestrian-friendliness, things have been looking up for many Los Angeles neighborhoods. Neighborhood Initiative (LANI), has invested millions of public dollars on urban design improvements along Pico Boulevard to improve livability in this low-income community. New medians and mid-block crossings in Larchmont Village have helped make this neighborhood a model for pedestrian-friendly design. And the Los Angeles City Planning Department has just released its "Do Real Planning" manifesto, which includes, among other things, a call to limit road-widenings and to promote pedestrian-friendly urban design.

Thus, the Olympic-Pico one-way proposal really could not have come at a worse time and is altogether old-fashioned. Rather than further transform Pico and Olympic into urban freeways, we should use this opportunity to transform them into "complete streets" -- roads designed to accommodate all users: pedestrians, bicyclists transit riders, and, yes, motorists. This means allowing for bi-directional travel for bicycles and transit vehicles, safe crossings and inviting sidewalks for pedestrians, bus-only lanes, and techniques to moderate the speeds of motor vehicles. This also means modifying zoning at key points along these boulevards to encourage new housing, mixed-use, and commercial development. It's this approach that will truly propel LA properly into the 21st century, towards a more pedestrian-friendly, sustainable, and neighborhood-oriented future.

James Rojas is a transportation planner in Los Angeles County. He is the founder of the Latino Urban Forum (LUF), a group dedicated to improving the Latino built environment through urban planning and advocacy.



Ought to plan for autos?

We are in the midst of a transition from auto dependancy to multi-modal alternatives. Now is the best time to advocate for more pedestrian linkages, and not continue down this vicious cycle of auto-dependancy. Sure we might be able to increase speeds with lane widenings, or consecrating streets to one-way highways. But what's the solution after 10 years and 2 million more people, depleted tax bases, and different climate conditions? I urge all planners to unite and voice your opinion for what we know: smart planning!


Right but old fashioned

Hopefully, James is aware the Federal Vehicle Infrastructure Integration progrom has selected the Linux operating system and expects to have safer congestion-relieving vehicles on the road by 2017.

Unfortunately, I'm not detecting the VII system will adequately protect pedestrians and bicyclists.

If VII is steered to protect bicyclists and pedestrians (as explained at GuardianAngelCars.org), then James' vision of blending pedestrians, bicyclists, and motor vehicles on Pico and Olympic could be realized.


Great post

Totally agree.

The LA basin between downtown and West LA is a complete wasteland. Converting two more boulevards into high traffic arterials will only further degrade the area.

Here's a thought: bring back the Pacific Electric and designate oen of these streets for rail only.

How crazy is it that people could zip to Santa Monica by rail in 1905 but today it is for some reason impossible??

Accessibility v. Mobility

A planner friend of mine recently commented that a lot of issues we are dealing with (environmental, equity)are not going to be dealt with until we change the way we look at mobility. It is still unequivocally viewed as a positive, and that needs to change. Mobility has benefits but also has problems. Transportation engineers, and economists are not trained to deal with problematic aspects of numbers based data. They are given current situations, develop a way to quantify measurements of the problem, then they develop a numbers based way to measure "progress" towards a solution.

LA and London are similar in a surprising number of ways, and one of those ways is that they are both laid out like a "city of villages." When I lived in London after a while I realized I really didn't get out of a 10 square mile area very often. My friends were near. I had my watering hole, movie theater, shops, and parks. However from a pure mobility viewpoint it was inconvenient, even with an excellent transit system, to travel long distances to other parts of town. A Reason foundation type (like Staley) would say that I was limited in my economic opportunities to work, and to spend money, but it didn't feel that way. rather I felt like I had access to everything that I needed, and when I truly felt like going across town, it was still possible, but far from necessary to do so without a car.

Accessibility -vs- Mobility

As someone who is active in field of transportation modelling, I beg to differ in your interpretation of quantitative analysis. Mobility is not a goal in and of itself. We tend to be more concerned with "travel-time savings" or "emissions reductions" and things of that nature. As you noted, "good city form" does not exactly lend itself to quantitative analysis.

My own personal feeling is that while good modelling is important, it certainly is no replacement for good vision and leadership. The role of a model should be to explore what will happen if various scenarios come to pass; a model does not in and off itself propose solutions to problems.

Furthermore, many cities which are strong in quantitative modelling are also quite pleasant places to live in. Quantitative modelling may not be a necessary condition to create a livable city, but it certainly cannot be claimed that it is the root of all evil! As for creating urban boulevards through cities - if they are done with care and attention like in many European cities, they may not necessarily be detrimental. I have no idea what is being proposed for LA.

Accessibility v. Mobility

I appreciate your comments, and I agree that is how the modeling process is supposed to work. My limited experiences though suggest that in some places the modeling process is often framed in such a way to justify only one alternative. This is probably an example of a bad vision being railroaded through the political process.

Though thank you for reminding me of the urban boulevard idea. The recent example in San Francisco comes to mind. Unfortunately in this particular example that too would have a disastrous effect. If properly done the boulevards would add street-scaping, trees, and parking for local businesses. But in neither of these streets are wide enough, and LA has a bad history of promising things like this to disadvantaged neighbor hoods and not delivering. So instead they would probably end up with the high speed one ways instead.

Totally Agree

There should be comprehensive and equal transportation planning for LA's transportation needs. Its not just LA its other cities and towns too; big, small and all those in between. Is it really so bad to have our cars driving at lower(safer!) speeds, our pedestrians with safe sidewalks and crossings, and adequate public transit?

Michael Lewyn's picture

First, let's change the vocabulary

Those of us who care about nondrivers should stop using terms such as "mobility" and "auto-mobility" to describe policies that create automobile dependency. To say that policies that immobilize nondrivers create "mobility" is as Orwellian as Communist dictatorships calling themselves "Democratic Republics"- just as communism is NOT democracy, automobile dependency is NOT true mobility.

Instead, we should use more accurate vocabulary: the issue isn't mobility vs. something else, its mobility for long-distance commuters vs. mobility for all. If you favor the status quo, you are for the first. If not, you are for real mobility.

Some of us actually live on Olympic!

I actually live on Olympic in downtown (South Park). The thought of the city converting Olympic to a one way street, with even greater speeds and higher volumes than already exist, really drives me up the wall. I just signed a six month lease in the South Park neighborhood, but if this proposal goes forward I might consider taking my money elsewhere in the future. I think the city has forgotten that they have just spent the past decade trying to build an image of the downtown as a neighborhood, and now people even live there!!! Actually a whole bunch of people are moving here. However, some of that momentum might be lost (especially in South Park) if our neighborhood is divided in thirds by a ground level mini freeway. The city should rethink its priorities. People and neighborhoods should come first (especially when you've spent hundreds of millions of dollars in public investments in the area recently to spur revitalization). If the goal is to reduce congestion on the 10 then the city should look into converting a lane or two on the 10 into HOT lanes or some other form of congestion pricing mechanism. It is my understanding that the reason LA lost out on federal transportation money in the first place was because its proposal didn’t consider the use of congestion pricing mechanisms. That money would have been helpful to bolster the MTA or help extend the purple line to Santa Monica. However it’s not too late, the city should use a congestion pricing mechanism on the 10 and then use the proceeds to ensure that the new Expo line under construction reaches its phase 2 destination, Santa Monica. Then the city would truly have a long term alternative to the 10, not just a quick fix/Band-Aid! I just hope that with all of these new expensive condos going up in South Park there will be enough political power and organization to stop this proposal dead in its tracks.


Mr. Rojas' comments have a great deal of validity and extend well beyond Los Angeles and Southern California. Urban Planning and Econonmic Development are becoming more and more reactive to the concept of the day.

Anytime a planner can propose a project that they can sell as "Smart Growth" or "New Urbanism" common sense be damned. It is time for communities to adopt Comprehensive Plans that define once and for all Smart Grwoth, Traditional Neighborhood Development, New Urbanism and the related traffic precepts that accompany those concepts.

Good for Mr. Rojas and other planners who have the common sense to see that some planners operate in a vacuum.

Chuck D'Aprix [Charles D'Aprix]
Economic Development Visions
The Downtown Entrepreneurship Project

Operating in a vacuum.

Urban Planning and Econonmic Development are becoming more and more reactive to the concept of the day...[a]nytime a planner can propose a project that they can sell as "Smart Growth" or "New Urbanism" common sense be damned...[g]ood for Mr. Rojas and other planners who have the common sense to see that some planners operate in a vacuum.

Charles, I think you replied to the wrong post. This one addresses politicians' schemes, not planner's plans nor Smart Growth, TND, NU, etc. Certainly any group can be characterized as having members operating in a vacuum, but to accuse the many by the actions of a few is problematic (to be charitable).




One way? No way!

In my dense neighborhood here in San Francisco, we have two (formerly 2-way) 3-lane one-way streets that bisect our neighborhood. I live adjacent on a regular 2-way street. Our neighborhood association has observed that the 2 one-way arterials are detrimental to cohesion of the area.
If one takes a casual look, comparing the one-way and a two way street, neighbors living on the arterials are much less likely to be acquainted with their neighbors, spend almost no time on their stoops, often don't know who lives across the street, can't let their children out onto the sidewalks, have more auto break-ins, and suffer more lung ailments breathing increased particulate matter, but put up with grimy facades and traffic noise.
On my block, most of the neighbors are friendly, kids play on the sidewalks, and there are always pedestrians and cyclists sharing the puiblic easement.
The two arterials were converted in the late 50's to make up for the freeway that was never built through Golden Gate park. Since then, the fabric of our Victorian neighborhood, once seamless, is split by these fast moving rivers of cars. What once was a tight, ped friendly community now feels like 3 distint districts, and neighbors have anxeity about crossing these streets, even with the light.
One would think that in our "pedestrian first" city, planners would sacrifice moving autos for complete, friendly streets, but it hasn't happened here yet.

rob bregoff

It works fine throughout Latin America...

Numerous cities in Latin America, Mexico City and Buenos Aires in particular, plus the so-obvious-I-missed-it example of New York City, work very well with a similar system of large, one-way avenues. I don't really see that six lanes one way is any worse for pedestrians and neighborhoods than three lanes each way. If anything, there's only one direction you have to watch.

I think a sense of neighborhood would be better accomplished by having denser construction, sidewalk-fronting uses, and better-maintained sidewalks. The traffic lanes are a secondary issue.

One And Two-Way Streets

Jane Jacobs wrote about the damage that one-way streets in Manhattan did to neighborhoods (and to convenient bus service).

New Urbanist traffic engineer Walter Kulash has revitalized neighborhoods by converting streets from two-way to one-way (as one of his most important tactics).

The high-speed traffic on one-way streets clearly makes a neighborhood less appealing to pedestrians.

The latest proposal in LA (http://www.planetizen.com/node/28738) is particularly bad, because it starts off by removing parking during rush hour. The high-speed traffic right next to the sidewalk, without parking to buffer it, makes the sidewalk less comfortable for pedestrians, and of course, the lack of parking in front hurts businesses.

Charles Siegel

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