Better Transportation Needs Better Cities

A new design competition is seeking solutions to L.A.'s transportation problems. But the real solution may not have anything to do with transportation at all.

Sometimes it's good to be a city. If there's a problem, and that problem is really bad, and it won't go away, somebody at some point will buckle and go beyond the traditional procedure to try to do something about it -- or at least get somebody else to do it. This is the amazing model of the design competition. People pay to enter, other people pay to award the winner, and the city pays little or nothing. It just sits on the receiving end of an intelligent and detailed solution to its problem.

It's a good thing this model exists, because there is a city with one major problem and very little cash available for solving it. Right on time is "A New Infrastructure: Innovative Transit Solutions for Los Angeles", an open ideas competition sponsored by the Southern California Institute for Future Initiatives (SCIFI) at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and The Architect's Newspaper. The competition calls for new ideas to make L.A. County's transportation infrastructure better. It's a great premise for a competition because getting around L.A. is horrible. And there is no shortage of ideas on what to do about it.

An effective mix of land uses that enable a variety of transportation options. Photo courtesy Planetizen Flickr Pool member CarfreeWorldview.

Transportation is a subject that comes up a lot around here, especially in formal discussions about the city. I've been to a lot of talks and lectures focused on cities or L.A. over the last few months, and invariably the topic of mobility comes up -- whether it's on the agenda or not.

There's always that point at the end of these types of discussions, especially in L.A., when the audience's questions drift towards how planners or architects or designers or politicians can make it easier to get around. I guess this makes sense: transportation issues are what people typically experience most often in this city, making it probably the most approachable planning topic for non-planner types. And the conversation is almost always the same. They all want to know how to get from point A to point B faster, more efficiently, and with less traffic. The likely solution, it seems, is to reduce congestion and increase transit; achieving these two fronts will make the city better. Or at least that's the assumption.

But really, it's the other way around: make the city better, and as a result transit use will increase and congestion won't even be a problem. Not that congestion won't be there, as it certainly will, but it will be less of an issue because people will experience it less. Essentially, L.A.'s traffic problems (and those of any other city) are experiential – traffic is only a problem when you're stuck in it. This might seem selfish, but traffic is, at its core, a selfish issue. People don't complain about traffic because everyone is stuck in traffic. They complain because they are stuck, and it's making them late or making their ride much longer than their patience.

Improving transportation in L.A. is really a matter of reducing the need to be in a car. Or even a bus, for that matter. If it were easier to do all the things people need to do within a closer proximity, people wouldn't have to go across town and back over and over again.

But let's be clear: L.A. will always be a driving city.

It's unfortunate, but it's true. There's always going to be millions of people driving in, around and through L.A. As a vibrant city in a geographically dispersed metropolis, L.A. will consistently draw people -- for jobs, tourism and lifestyle reasons, but due to its polycentric destination-based layout, the car will remain the most reliable way to travel long distances between many places. And it's likely to be the dominant transportation mode for the city as a whole for a long time. But for individuals, it doesn't have to be. L.A. is (despite common perception) a very dense city. But it's a density that's incredibly compartmentalized. Each land use has its place, and the places where these uses mix effectively are far too few. What the city needs is a better mix that's better distributed.

If it were possible in every neighborhood in the city to walk 20 minutes and pass a grocery store, a child care facility, a restaurant, a park, a bar, and a transit hub, the whole city would be walking -- or at least not driving as much. A 1996 report on National Personal Transportation Survey data found that doubling density brought down VMT by 38%. I know driving is deeply ingrained in the American identity, but as costs rise, parking gets worse and congestion sees only slight reductions, walking will start to seem like the smart thing to do. But to get people walking, neighborhoods need places people can walk to: goods, services, and amenities.

I'll be curious to see what types of proposals are submitted for the L.A. transportation infrastructure design competition. I'll be even more curious to see which proposal is chosen to solve the problem when the winner is announced on March 21. No doubt there will be some incredibly interesting transit systems and corridors proposed. But as competition entrants, planners and the public in general try to develop ideas about how to make better transportation infrastructure, we really should be thinking more about how to make the city a better place to hold it.

Nate Berg is assistant editor of Planetizen.



agreement with clarification

I agree with all of your reasoning here, except one thing. Traffic is not just a problem for those that are stuck in it. The time that each individual person spends doing nothing in traffic accumulates into a MASSIVE amount of unproductive time. Releasing people from this burden does more than simply make them happier people or reduce the effect on the environment - it makes them a more productive citizenry, both economically and socially. Time commuting is time that could be spent sleeping, working, exercising, learning, volunteering, time with your children (or someone else's), participating in public processes - ok, now I'm reaching, but you get the point. THINK OF ALL THOSE HOURS. That is what makes it much more than an experiential problem.

Here we go again.

Don't we love to beat that dead horse in LA. How many of these design competitions are we going to go through before we get someone with the political guts to make them happen? Until we get some politicians that stand up and say we're not gong to grow that way anymore, this is nothing but a dog and pony show. Everyone knows we need to build denser mixed-use land-uses here in LA. I wish they would build some here in my district of Echo Park. How about a rail line down Sunset to Hollywood? If planning is an issue, I'll do it all for free. I have a BA is Urban Planning and soon a masters in it as well. I'll be glad to move back into my parents house so that I can do this work for the city. Here is a free consultation. Change zoning where appropriate to allow denser mixed-use building to occur. Make sure businesses orient entrances towards sidewalks instead of parking lots. Widen sidewalks and plant lots of leafy trees along them, it get hot in LA you know and we need plenty of shade to walk under. Put some of these streets on a road diet, they've done this to Valencia in San Francisco. We need more town-homes in LA too. In the older parts of LA like were I live, there is no room for a single family house on a lot. Plus town-homes can be just as private as detach homes and still have a backyard or rooftop yard. Rooftop yards in LA would be better, because it would keep homes cool during the summer. These rooftop yards would also decrees the heat island effect that makes LA a lot hotter then it naturally would be. For get about the front yard. A row of attached town-homes is far more interesting to look at then a front yard, even if well maintained. If you guys need any more ideas let me know.


Flexible Infrastructure

Traditionally, the issue of transportation in Los Angeles has been addressed by widening freeways or adding more efficient busses. However, I agree that they only way to diminish traffic is to reduce the need to drive a car across the city. On a small scale, traffic proves to be a huge annoyance, and it impacts the local economy in a myriad of ways. Ultimately, traffic is deleterious for workers’ productivity, promotes the noxious consumption of gasoline, and furthers air pollution. These issues prove to transcend the need to get to work in a timely fashion. In a fast-paced and spread out city such as Los Angeles, it will be impossible to totally eliminate the need for cars. Improving Los Angeles is a broad subject and it is difficult to conclude which neighborhood or district merit further development. Should we consider the cities on the outer boarder of Los Angeles since many commuters come from this area? I believe that we must emphasize interstitial space, which would involve making the roads, bridges, and traffic lights smarter. The Wall Street Journal recently featured “highways that alert motorists of a traffic jam before it forms…[and] bridges that report when they’re at risk of collapse.” In an attempt to eschew the serious implications of traffic, the future of L.A.’s transportation system depends on the system becoming more intelligent. Technology giant IBM desires to pioneer systems that make transportation infrastructure shrewder, and they should consequently partake in SchiArch’s competition. They are developing software that is capable of accurately predicting traffic jams before they occur 90% of the time and up to 45 minutes ahead. Furthermore, this software adjusts the traffic lights accordingly. Imagine a science fiction story: this progress may pave the way for a system that actually controls vehicles and, astonishingly enough, IBM is “in discussions with a small city to build a completely automated transportation system.” Today’s technology designed to control traffic lights has been very limited due to a lack of funding, which leads me to predict that IBM’s impressive advancements will take copious amounts of time and energy. The potential ideas related to this competition will stimulate conversation about how to improve systems. Ultimately, the winner of this contest must integrate all aspects of technology and establish programs that talk and share information. Perhaps architects possess the innovative competency to design buildings that slide out of the way during rush hour. I worry that the project will become a Le Corbusier inspired city of skyscrapers, which ignores Jane Jacobs, and reverts to traditional large-scale developments.

Better cities

I am glad that somebody else recognized that the grand idea is not only to start mass transit projects with expectations that congestion from cars will be reduced and transit will increase. I agree with you that the first task is to build a city where there is no need for cars. You touch on this point by stating that the city needs a better mix that’s better distributed. Further more you state that we would start walking if it were possible to walk 20 minutes and pass a grocery store, a childcare facility, a restaurant, a pub a park and so forth. This is a great initiative and a closer look at other cities such the ones in Europe is a proof of a functioning model (see left). The real issue to me seems to be the complexity with land use policies and the zoning laws that cause a setback in changing the structure of the old. Having lived in Sweden for many years, I have had the benefits of both great mass transit system and also a community that caters to all my consumer needs within a close range in proximity to where I live. The problem the people of Los Angeles face is that they make a great distinction between where they live and where they fulfill their daily needs such as shopping, running errands as such. Thus I am curious to ask you whether you suggest this model solely for the city or the “suburbia” as well. It seems to me that many people are rather comfortable with housing in the residential area being separated to the shopping and business in the commercial area. Do you think that the people of Los Angeles are susceptible to the idea of integrating all these various businesses into their communities? In addition, I am interested to see if you think that it is possible to take it a step further and actually associate the commercial side to a closer range of proximity to where we live. Such example being to incorporate these businesses like a modern grocery store or other appropriate entities as close as beneath or between housing structures. Yet as the idea may appear unattractive and unpleasant to many urban and suburban dwellers, it can actually be very practical and by architectural means approved in terms of design and functionality as it conforms to the rest of the structure. Knowing that Californians are not accustomed to this type of model, it would be great to see what you think about a similar idea in the future being implanted in the urban planning of Los Angeles.


While I agree with pretty much everything being said in the article and comments (esp. Paul!), there is one more issue. I lived all over the city (including West LA, Mid-City, and Downtown) and I could always walk within 20 minutes to a grocery store, dry cleaner, bank, restaurants, and pretty much everything else I needed for my day-to-day life. Although LA does not have large typical mixed-use districts, it is mixed enough that you CAN walk to most places in 20 minutes - but people just won't do it. Most of my friends drive three blocks to go shopping.

I read on some blog the other day about this guy who moved from to NYC to LA. In typical LA fashion, he drove everywhere without thinking about it. Because that's what you do in LA. Then one day, he adopted a new rule: If I would have walked this distance in NYC, I will walk it in LA. As it turns out, nearly all places he drove to on a regular basis are within walking distance.

Admittedly, this will not be true for most people's commute to work. However, next time you hop in your car to drive to Pinkberry, you might discover that you could walk there in under 15 minutes. Just like people do in all those magical dense cities we always talk about.

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