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.

Paris bans half of its cars from the streets in attempt to reduce smog

Certain places like Chinese cities or Los Angeles might have reputations for smog but Paris had to take drastic measures this week to try to reduce smog levels:

Paris on Monday banned all cars with even number plates for the first time in nearly 20 years to fight sky-high pollution but opted not to extend the measure after an improvement in air quality.

About 700 police officers were deployed to man 60 checkpoints around the French capital to ensure only cars with plates where numbers end with an odd digit were out on the streets, infuriating motorist organisations.

Public transport has been free since Friday to persuade Parisians to leave their cars at home, and at rush hour on Monday morning, authorities noted there were half the usual number of traffic jams as drivers grudgingly conformed to the ruling…

The government decided to implement the ban on Saturday after pollution particulates in the air exceeded safe levels for five straight days in Paris and neighbouring areas, enveloping the Eiffel Tower in a murky haze.

As the article goes on to note, this is likely a longer-term issue. Just how many cars and factories and other sources of air pollution can a large modern city handle before smog is inevitable? With over 12 million residents in the metro area, Paris has a lot of potential car owners.

It is interesting to note that there are motorist organizations in Europe. Such groups were particularly influential in the United States in the first half of the 1900s by advocating for the construction of roads and highways. In an era before the federal government was involved much in highway construction, some local governments responded more to motorists groups.

Beijing air pollution said to be “barely suitable for life”

Bad pollution in Beijing is nothing new but a new report sounds a dire note:

Severe pollution in Beijing has made the Chinese capital “barely suitable” for living, according to an official Chinese report, as the world’s second-largest economy tries to reduce often hazardous levels of smog caused by decades of rapid growth…

The report, by the Beijing-based Social Science Academic Press and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, ranked the Chinese capital second worst out of 40 global cities for its environmental conditions, official media reported on Thursday.

China’s smog has brought some Chinese cities to a near standstill, caused flight delays and forced schools to shut.

Beijing was hit by severe levels of pollution at least once every week, according to the 2012 Blue Paper for World Cities report. That was on top of a significant level of air pollution covering the capital for 189 days in 2013, according to city’s Environmental Protection Bureau.

While U.S. readers might marvel at this, it wasn’t too long ago that some American cities had a similar problem. Check out some of the pictures of 1940s Pittsburgh or read about the Donora Smog incident near Pittsburgh that killed 22 in 1948. Some of these issues persist today: Los Angeles, and other cities in California, still have persistent smog and particulate issues.

Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest city, again topped the charts for ozone pollution, and finished fourth for particulate pollution such as dust and soot, in the American Lung Association’s annual national air quality report card, released on Wednesday…

In terms of air quality, California as a whole dominated the list of the most polluted U.S. cities, accounting for seven of the top 10 for ozone and eight of the top 10 for annual levels of particulate pollution, the American Lung Association said.

Nearly 90 percent of Californians, or 33.5 million people, live in areas plagued by unhealthy air, especially in Los Angeles, the so-called Inland Empire region east of the city, the state capital of Sacramento, and the agricultural heartland of the San Joaquin Valley, the group’s study found…

However, many California cities have shown steady progress on improving air quality, particularly the Los Angeles region, whose ozone levels have fallen by 36 percent since the organization’s first State of the Air report card in 2000.

See some pictures of smog in Los Angeles over the years here.

Natural gas bus commercial misses that riding the bus is already helping the environment

This commercial from America’s Natural Gas Alliance highlights natural gas buses in Los Angeles. The message is that the natural gas buses are better for the environment. They may be – but it misses the point that individuals using mass transit are already helping the environment (let alone traffic congestion). So having a natural gas bus is a bonus. Perhaps we would all be better off if more people were willing to ride any kind of bus in the first place.

However, given that it is difficult to get wealthier people to ride buses, we should then ask when we might have cars powered by natural gas. If natural gas is cleaner to burn, why not reduce the emissions from cars rather than focusing on the limited number of Americans who regularly ride the bus?

(I realize the natural gas buses may just be a marketing ploy. However, it is really about helping the environment, not good PR or trying to sell more natural gas, why not use natural gas to power more things?)

NIMBY strategy: no new gas station near park because of air pollution

NIMBY strategies often include discussing traffic and noise. Here is another tactic: increased air pollution for a nearby park.

The DuPage County Board’s development committee on Tuesday morning is scheduled to review a conditional-use permit request for the proposed Mobil station and Bucky’s convenience store at the northeast corner of Route 53 and Butterfield Road. The review comes after the county’s zoning board of appeals recommended granting the permit.

The meeting is expected to draw a number of opponents who claim the gas station and convenience store would attract so many cars and trucks that toxic air pollutants would increase. The pollutants, they argue, could pose a health risk for children using neighboring Butterfield Park District facilities…

While Reiner says he’s “disappointed” the air pollution concerns didn’t influence the zoning board’s recommendation, opponents still plan to raise the issue to county board members. Ultimately, it will be up to the county board to decide whether the permit is granted…

But an expert representing Buchanan Energy of Omaha, Neb., the company seeking the conditional-use permit, countered that there’s no environmental impact due to tougher emission controls and better gas station technology.

If they argue air pollution will increase, isn’t there some way to scientifically determine this?

This is an already busy intersection. The four corners include this empty lot (looking pretty ugly at this point), the Morton Arboretum at the southeast corner, a gas station backed up by a McDonald’s and a Walmart on the southwest corner, and another gas station at the northwest corner. In other words, this is a prime place for business and gas stations, since there are two already. If a gas station can’t go at this intersection (and presuming it doesn’t add much to the environmental impact), where exactly can it go nearby?

It will be interesting to see how DuPage County handles this as the article claims they haven’t seen this argument before for a gas station.