The “Big Parade” in Los Angeles really highlights the city’s lack of walkability

A Los Angeles writer started an event called the “Big Parade” that makes use of a number of staircases in the city. But, this event serves to highlight the city’s overall lack of walkability compared to other big cities around the world:

Koeppel’s early obsession evolved into a piece for Backpacker magazine called “I Climbed Los Angeles” that ran in June 2004. It’s since developed into an annual event called the Big Parade — a two-day, 40-mile urban hike from downtown Los Angeles to the Hollywood sign that covers 100 public stairways along the way. For this year’s parade, the fifth, Koeppel expects several hundred people to join him from around the country…

The parade’s secondary mission is to encourage a sense of community. Koeppel says the parade keeps pace with the slowest walker; he describes it as a simple “walk with neighbors.” The event is free, and Koeppel has even rejected sponsors to keep things as casual as possible. Each day’s walk is divided into segments, with a main loop of five or six miles, and participants are invited to come and go as they please.

“The majority are people who have not walked more than five or six miles in L.A. in the streets in their entire lives,” he says. “Taking them and showing them what L.A. is like on foot — showing them secret passages and landmarks and things they never see from outside the window of their car — has been just really fun.”

Koeppel, who’s known beyond Los Angeles for his celebrated book on the history of bananas, maintains that his purpose in starting the Big Parade isn’t to prove that Los Angeles is a walkable place. He denies the axiom that nobody there walks — rather, he says, nobody seems to walk when you’re looking out from a car window — and sees the city’s infamous sprawl as simply an opportunity for pedestrian exploration. The Big Parade, he says, “is a way to reestablish the presence of individual propulsion within that sprawl.”

So the “Big Parade” is a pedestrian cry in a wilderness of cars and vehicles…

Two things in particular intrigued me in this story:

1. Walking can involve building community. This reminds me of Jane Jacobs’ famous axiom about “eyes on the street” or her thoughts about “public characters” who are out and about and known in neighborhoods. Places like Los Angeles simply don’t allow for much informal encounters on the street level. But, a group of people walking together or near each other can engage in conversations in ways that are very difficult to do in cars. (This also reminds me of an idea my dad had years ago about putting scrolling sign boards in the back windshields of cars so drivers could deliver messages to each other. I imagine the ratio of destructive versus encouraging messages would get high pretty quickly…)

2. The article suggests a number of the staircases were constructed for homeowners who wanted to get off the streetcar and make the trek up to their house. This is a reminder of the extensive streetcar system that Los Angeles once had. How might the city be different today if those streetcars had survived or had been replaced by a similarly spread-out system of mass transit? As historian Kenneth Jackson explains in Crabgrass Frontiers, streetcars had a number of factors working against them. However, these staircases are a suggestion of what Los Angeles might have been.

Argument: current and proposed streetcar projects are a “swindle”

Samuel Schieb argues that the resurgent popularity of the urban streetcar is a swindle that doesn’t live up to its promotion:

There are currently 16 streetcar lines operating as public transit in the United States, but depending on how you count there are as many as 80 cities with streetcars in the planning or development phase. Far from the dominant form of urban transport they once were, streetcars have become prestige projects celebrated for their history, beauty, and alleged ability to promote development.

But the sad secret is that streetcars of all descriptions and vintages are at best modestly successful transportation projects, at worst expensive objets d’art that very few people use. Demand for the vehicles is driven not by the public but by the dreams of land-use planners and downtown boosters who imagine that aesthetically pleasing vehicles lumbering in slow circles through walkable areas will somehow prompt a boom in economic activity. Streetcar booster Gloria Ohland has often written that streetcars should be considered “economic development projects with transportation benefits.”…

The highest and best use for a streetcar system is to connect dense student housing, a university, a functioning downtown, and a regional shopping venue, hospital, or other large attractor in a community of around 100,000 people. Athens, Gainesville, Norman, and Bloomington are ideal for this type of alignment (as is Lansing, which has opted to build a bus rapid transit system). We already have models for how to do this. Three systems in France provide exactly this kind of service: LeMans, Orleans, and Reims carry between 35,000 and 48,000 trips daily on systems that have between 6.9 and 11.2 miles of track. These streetcars—called tramways there—not only serve universities and downtowns but also take advantage of the tram’s small footprint by wending between buildings, using rights of way that are useless to larger mass transit vehicles or automobiles.

Planners in Tampa and other streetcar cities have been betting on modal magnetism, the notion that the inherent attractiveness of rail will get people to use it even if there is not an existing demand for the service. This idea is wrong, and it has not worked. Transit projects should be built not to create demand but to serve the demonstrated needs of the public.

Read the whole thing to get an overview of the streetcar’s history as well as its reintroduction to American cities.

I think Schieb is making a larger point: projects built for nostalgic or historic purposes may not be enough to justify their cost or to expect that they will generate more traffic and revenues by themselves. Such projects still need to be designed well and take advantage of existing patterns, not just hope for new social patterns to emerge. Related to the streetcar, Schieb also discusses the pedestrian mall, a technique tried in a number of communities across the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. (A note: this was tried in Chicago on State Street and proposed in Wheaton for Hale Street but both streets returned to roadways.) While these pedestrian malls might harken back to a day without cars (though urban streets were possibly more chaotic before cars), simply putting one in is not enough in itself to attract people. In conjunction with other helpful factors, streetcars and pedestrian malls can be successful but they are not quick fixes that can simply be plopped into places.

h/t Instapundit

A mass transit revolution in Los Angeles?

Matt Yglesias argues that Los Angeles has turned the corner in promoting mass transit and is poised to become “America’s next great mass-transit city”:

The process started in earnest with the construction of the often-scoffed-about Red and Purple subway lines in the 1990s. This began to create the bones of a major rapid transit system. But it’s kicked into overdrive in the 21st-century thanks to the confluence of three separate incidents. First, Rep. Henry Waxman, the powerful House Democrat who represents L.A.’s Westside, went from being a NIMBY opponent of transit construction to an environmentalist booster. Second, Antonio Villaraigosa  was elected mayor in 2004. Third, in 2008, L.A. County voters passed Measure R, a ballot proposition that raised sales taxes to create a dedicated funding stream for new transit. Thanks to Measure R and Waxman, a new Expo Line connecting downtown to some of the Westside is already open, and work will begin on a “subway to the sea” beneath Beverly Hills soon. The same pool of money also finances expansion of the light rail Gold Line and the rapid-bus Orange Line while helping hold bus fares down…

Perhaps most importantly of all, the city is acting to transform the built environment to match the new infrastructure. A controversial plan to rezone the Hollywood area for more density has passed. The city has also moved to reduce the number of parking spaces developers need to provide with new projects, following the lead of the smaller adjacent cities of Santa Monica and West Hollywood. A project to reconfigure Figueroa Boulevard running south from downtown toward Exposition Park as a bike-and-pedestrian friendly byway is in the works, and pending the outcome of a November ballot initiative, a streetcar may be added to the mix. At the northern end is the massive L.A. Live complex of movie theaters, restaurants, arenas, hotels, condos, and apartments—the biggest downtown investment the city had seen in decades, constructed between 2005 and 2010. At the southern end of the corridor is the University of Southern California, which is planning to redevelop its own backyard to look a bit more like a traditional urban university village.

Los Angeles continues, like almost all American cities, to be primarily automobile oriented. But the policy shift is having a real impact on the ground. The most recent American Community Survey showed a 10.7 percent increase in the share of the metro area’s population that relies on mass transit to get to work, matched with a 3.6 percent increase in driving. And that’s before several of the key Metro projects have been completed or the waning of the recession can drive new transit-oriented development.

As work continues, people will find that Los Angeles has some attributes that make it an ideal transit city. Consultant and planner Jarrett Walker notes that the city’s long straight boulevards make it perfect for high-quality express bus service. And then, of course, there’s the weather. Something like a nine-minute wait for a bus, a 15-minute walk to your destination, or an afternoon bike ride are all more pleasant in Southern California than in a Boston winter or a sweltering Washington August. As a quirk of fate, the East Coast of the United States was settled first, so cities with large pre-automobile urban cores are clustered there. But the fundamentals of climate and terrain are more favorable to walking and transit in Los Angeles than in New York. The city could have simply stuck with tradition and stayed as the first great metropolis of the automobile era. But it’s chosen instead to embrace the goal of growing even greater, which will necessarily mean denser and less auto-focused. While the Bay Area and many Northeastern cities stagnate under the weight of oppressive zoning codes, L.A. is changing—by design—into something even bigger and better than it already is.

Three other factors I think are in Los Angeles’ favor:

1. The metropolitan region is actually denser than all others in the United States:

The nation’s most densely populated urbanized area is Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, Calif., with nearly 7,000 people per square mile. The San Francisco-Oakland, Calif., area is the second most densely populated at 6,266 people per square mile, followed by San Jose, Calif. (5,820 people per square mile) and Delano, Calif. (5,483 people per square mile). The New York-Newark, N.J., area is fifth, with an overall density of 5,319 people per square mile

Mass transit works best in denser conditions when more people are within reach of mass transit stops/stations and it is more difficult to maintain and park a car. Los Angeles is rightfully known for sprawl but it is denser sprawl.

2. Los Angeles does have an earlier history of mass transit: streetcars were widely used in the early 1900s.

During the early and mid-1900?s the historic streetcar served as a popular mode of transportation along Broadway.  The Los Angeles Streetcar system was primarily operated by Pacific Electric (1901-1961) and developed into the largest trolley system in the world by the 1920?s. This breath of scale enabled residents and visitors alike to routinely traverse the Los Angeles region, and connected many of Southern California’s communities. The system operated for over half a century, and at its peak traversed over 1,100 miles of track with  900 electric trolley cars; this dense network produced a rate of public transit usage higher than San Francisco does today on a per capita basis.

For years the system was considered by many to be “the vital cog in the city’s transportation system,” and according to author Steven Ealson, provided transportation for millions who enjoyed the streetcar so much they would “ride for miles simply for fun or for transportation to places of amusement.” The demise of the streetcar began with the unprecedented development of single-family tract housing designed and built to accommodate automobiles. This pattern of development quickened during post-war housing construction, and accelerated the demise of the streetcar system as the region became dependent on private transportation.

Read more about how General Motors was involved in dismantling the streetcar system in many large cities, including LA.

3. I wonder if a larger proportions of Los Angeles residents and leaders are simply fed up with highway traffic and want to now look at different options. Remember “Carmageddon“?

h/t Instapundit

The return of electric streetcars to American cities

USA Today reports that electric streetcars may be on the comeback in American cities. Because of a successful line introduced in Portland in the early 2000s, other cities, such as Dallas, Cincinnati, and Charlotte, are looking to build new streetcar lines with the help of federal dollars.

The irony of these new streetcar lines is that many American cities had effective electric streetcar systems in the past. The article provides a little of the history:

Horse-drawn streetcars appeared on urban streets in the early 1800s and were replaced by electric versions in the 1880s and 1890s, says Jerry Kelly of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. In the 1930s, when the Great Depression put many people out of work, ridership fell. After a brief revival during World War II, affordable automobiles and cheap gas prompted many cities to pave over streetcar tracks, he says.

According to Kenneth Jackson in Crabgrass Frontier, the streetcars declined rapidly for several reasons:

1. The rise of the automobile, particularly in the 1920s. Millions of Americans bought cars.

2. Many streetcar lines were locked into cheap fares. Because many of the lines had been granted government licenses to operate, the fares were locked in for long periods. By the 1920s, many lines could only charge five cent fares when the costs of operating had risen. This led to less profit for the streetcar operators.

3. Public opposition to public subsidies for electric streetcar lines. While roads were viewed as a public good and deserving of government money, electric streetcars were viewed as private enterprises.

4. General Motors bought up a number of bankrupt or near bankrupt lines in the 1930s-1940s and replaced the streetcars with buses. While some see this as a conspiracy against mass transit, Jackson suggests streetcar lines were already in serious trouble and GM hastened their demise.

Overall, Jackson suggests the declining ridership plus the low fares and lack of government money meant that streetcar lines could not keep up: less riders meant less profit which meant fewer modernization efforts which lowered ridership further and so on.