Trying to move Los Angeles toward a less auto-dependent, greener, more sustainable city

To say the least, Los Angeles has a reputation as a car-friendly (and/or dominated) city. Some people are hoping to change that:

The most explicit attempt to capture the shift in the zeitgeist is the notion of the “Third Los Angeles,” a term coined by Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne. In an ongoing series of public events, Hawthorne has proposed that L.A. is moving into a new phase of its civic life. In his formulation, the first Los Angeles, a semi-forgotten prewar city, boasted a streetcar, active street life, and cutting-edge architecture. The second Los Angeles is the familiar auto-dystopia that resulted from the nearly bacterial postwar growth of subdivisions and the construction of the freeway system. Now, Hawthorne argues, this third and latest phase harks in some ways back to the first, in its embrace of public transit and public space (notably the billion-dollar revitalization of the concrete-covered Los Angeles River). Hawthorne’s focus is not specifically environmental. But a more publicly oriented city also tends to be a greener one. This is partly because mass transit and walking mean lower carbon emissions. And more broadly, willingness to invest in the public realm tends to coincide with political decisions that prioritize the public good, including ecological sustainability…

On all of those fronts, there are signs of change. One of the most obvious counter-examples is CicLAvia, the kind of phenomenon that makes Jacobs acolytes swoon. Launched in 2010, it’s a festive event during which miles of streets are closed to cars and swarmed by bikes. Taking place every two to three months, and rotating among different neighborhoods (Echo Park, the Valley, South L.A., etc.), each occasion attracts a diverse crowd of tens of thousands of people. They are the type of feel-good events—some might even call them utopian moments—where strangers smile at each other and ordinary life feels suspended. Traffic lights blink, and even cops whiz by on two wheels, wearing endearingly dorky helmets. In every sense—the car-shunning, the enthusiastic proximity to strangers, the exploration of different parts of the city—CicLAvia is antithetical to the guarded, privatized, auto-carved Los Angeles of lore.

CicLAvia remains a special occasion, but everyday transit is slowly improving as well. Banham wrote that the freeway “is where the Angeleno is most himself, most integrally identified with his great city,” and he predicted that “no Angeleno will be in a hurry to sacrifice it for the higher efficiency but drastically lowered convenience and freedom of choice of any high-density public rapid-transit system.” In 2008—pushed in part by unbearable traffic—Angelenos proved him wrong. On that Election Day, citizens of Los Angeles County voted for Measure R, which imposed a half-cent sales tax to support funding for transportation projects, including the expansion or construction of 12 rail and bus rapid transit lines. It is expected to generate $40 billion in revenue over 30 years. This choice stands in stark contrast to the famous Proposition 13, the 1978 California anti-property-tax law which has wreaked havoc on the state’s budget for public investment ever since. Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of the L.A.–based organization Climate Resolve and a former commissioner at the Department of Water and Power, told me, “The day we voted for Measure R, we voted for a new Los Angeles.”…

Starting in the early ’80s, the city got more serious about conservation, as seen in its mass conversion to low-flow toilets. The city has been responding to the current drought on a number of fronts. It has significantly reduced its own water use, especially in the Parks Department. It has offered a rebate to homeowners who replace their lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping, as well as rebates for installing rain barrels, among a variety of other measures. (It remains to be seen how the city will implement the new mandatory state restrictions.) The Department of Water and Power is also preparing a new Stormwater Capture Master Plan, and L.A. has a target of reducing imported water use by 50 percent by 2025. According to Andy Lipkis, executive director of the influential nonprofit Tree People, even in a drought, the proper technology can capture significant amounts of water—3.8 billion gallons per inch of rainfall. Mayor Garcetti just launched a corny public awareness campaign urging conservation. Contra Mulholland, the new slogan is “Save the drop.”

Early Los Angeles was a streetcar leader and the metropolitan region today is the densest in the United States (meaning that it is spread out but it is pretty dense in its spread). Yet, truly transforming the region away from reliance on cars requires a lot of work including: building mass transit (buses might be best given the roads but building light rail and subways could be more powerful in the long run even if they are incredibly expensive at this stage), approving denser development (not an easy task in a region where property values are incredibly important), developing a vibrant downtown that also includes housing units, and perhaps finding ways to deincentivize development on the metropolitan fringes.

Perhaps the best thing that could happen to Los Angeles in this area of green sustainability is the continued improvement in vehicles. Radically transforming Los Angeles may be a hard sell but slowly increasing MPG, introducing new power sources (fuel cells, hydrogen, etc), getting older cars off the road, and eventually having autonomous cars could be very helpful. Of course, those changes are not ones really made at the city or metropolitan region level but the guidelines of the state of California and the federal government may just go a long way.

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