Redeeming Los Angeles’ Urban Form

View from Griffith Observatory on a Clear Night, from Wikipedia

Until very recently, the only jobs I held that required a commute were located in Downtown San Francisco. Say what you want about the Bay Area’s development patterns, but Downtown San Francisco is the best place on the West Coast to work if you prefer to make your commute via transit. I had a choice between a speedy AC Transit Transbay bus and BART’s rapid, convenient service. I could even casual carpool. These downtown jobs allowed me to fulfill a promise I made when I was in high school – to never drive alone to work. Living in Los Angeles has made this promise much more difficult to keep.

The Western part of Los Angeles County, from Brentwood to Torrance, is the most job-rich area in the Western United States. Unfortunately, most of these jobs are dispersed among suburban-style 4-5 story buildings, making transit service to job centers mostly infeasible. To make matters worse, Los Angeles has a very unique urban form – surprisingly uniform density between city and suburbs, with the city being less dense than average, and suburbs more dense. Uniform density means that the trip patterns for Los Angeles are truly unidirectional. Whereas New York City has a strongly defined suburb to city morning commute, and the reverse in the evening, in Los Angeles commute patterns are generally in all directions in both peak periods.  Now, the City of Paris largely shares this pattern and is able to effectively use transit to move people between home and work, but Los Angeles’ lower density and the lack of political support for major infrastructure investment in the United States means that Los Angeles will likely never be served by a rail transit system as effective as Paris’ Metro, RER and Trams.

So with uniform, but fairly low, density, Los Angeles presents a conundrum – how can the region continue to grow when crippling traffic congestion severely limits the mobility of its residents and development patterns are not conclusive to transit or pedestrian modes? The answer for Los Angeles, and suburban office space anywhere is to fully embrace cycle commuting. When I say fully embrace, I do not mean the severely watered-down City Bicycle Plan or the even worse County Bicycle Plan. I mean a  multi-agency and multi-disciplinary approach to challenging American conceptions of cycling.

The cultural impacts of cycle commuting have never been addressed in the United States (or the UK for that matter). A significant barrier to cycle commuting for many in Los Angeles is the perceived danger of riding a bicycle on the street. Yes, you are more likely to be injured cycling than driving, but even in the existing condition of LA’s streets, I have ridden over 3000 miles in the last year without a collision. Unlike most proposals to increase the viability of cycling, I am not going to argue that new infrastructure should be the solution. New cycling infrastructure is great, but the Los Angeles Region has already made a massive investment in a gridded system of wide arterial roads, with ample room for cyclists in the right lane. Instead, this perceived danger of riding should not be addressed by building exclusive bicycle facilities, but rather should be eliminated through driver and cyclist education.

The California Vehicle Code and the VC for most other states treat bicycles and automobiles as equals, hence the term “share the road”. This principle is not effectuated in real life conditions. First, to be licensed, all drivers should be required to answer a supplement about the laws of cycling. Nearly all drivers with whom I have spoken, and even a majority of the law enforcement officers with whom I have spoken have been ignorant of the cycling-specific portions of the California Vehicle Code. How many of you knew that if a lane is of substandard width (less than 14ft), cyclists are permitted to take the lane, and that there is no law on the books forbidding two or more cyclists from riding side by side?

The Ad Council has spent millions on anti-drug and anti-tobacco commercials, but on average 93 people in the US die from traffic collisions every day. An extensive public relations campaign by the Ad Council or another government agency to promote cycling as a means of transportation would go a long way to breaking down the cultural barriers preventing many from biking. Cycling reduces carbon emissions, could reduce the obesity rate and takes cars off the road. What’s not to love?

Although it may be controversial, I think that cyclists should be held to the same standard as motorists. Violations such as running red lights, turning without signaling and riding on the wrong side of the street should be regularly enforced. In this vein, cyclists should also recieve some sort of training on the rules of the road, although requiring cycling licenses for all riders has proven ineffective in the past. More thought is merited on this topic.

The critical infrastructure improvement for improving cycle commuting is a responsibility of employers – providing appropriate shower and locker facilities so workers can feasibly commute via bicycle is critical. It is also relatively cheap and easy.

Bottom line is, I have kept my promise. I cycle commute the 12 miles from Downtown LA to a suburban office park in Playa Del Rey, and don’t drive like most of my coworkers. Why don’t you?


About Karl Tingwald

Civil engineering student at the University of Southern California with a severe transportation compulsion.

Posted on September 20, 2011, in Cycling, Los Angeles, Policy and Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Supporting cycling in the multi-centric environment of Los Angeles makes a lot of sense. The climate is usually cooperative, especially on the Westside, and much of the city is relatively flat. The big scale street grid means that there are through streets, or near through streets, that cyclists could use without being exposed to high volume traffic or potentially creating conflicts with buses. LADOT’s 7th St. project is an example of this approach.

    But a multicentric city also cries out for a robust bus network. As you said, there isn’t enough density or political will for universal rail. The city of Paris has a density of over 60,000 people per square mile, in Los Angeles it’s about 8,000. That’s actually higher than a lot of American cities, and as you noted, it doesn’t drop off steeply in suburbs.

    So you’ve got a relatively uniform moderate density field. So deploy the vehicle best suited to multiple moderate density routes–buses. Metro has certainly made a good effort on this with the Rapid bus network. The big problem with the Rapid bus network is that it’s not rapid enough–there will probably need to be more treatments like the Wilshire bus lane. If you were to map the really fast bus routes now they’d probably be limited to the Orange Line, the Silver Line, and express buses using freeways.

    It would also help if all those suburban office buildings weren’t surrounded by acres of free parking. If employers cashed out the parking and let people use the money for parking or transit (or to a buy a bicycle, for that matter) it would at least help to level the playing field.

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