The Architecture of Transportation Design Symposium -- Join the Discussion with Jill Stewart

Last Updated: May 10, 2011

The Architecture of Transportation Design Symposium -- Join the Discussion with Jill Stewart

"The Architecture of Transportation" Design Symposium
Friday, June 24 (9:00 AM - 5:00 PM)
Los Angeles Convention Center, West Hall

Please CLICK HERE TO REGISTER.

On June 24th, as part of the annual AIA|LA Design Conference at Dwell on Design, we are coordinating a series of candid discussions about how to design transportation systems that will support and strengthen healthier, more functional and more livable neighborhoods.

In an effort to inspire advance dialogue, Will Wright reached out to several of the participating speakers to hear their thoughts.

Here is an in-depth response from Jill Stewart who is the News Editor at the LA Weekly.

From a regulatory framework, what needs to change so that we can facilitate a transportation system that supports healthier, more functional and more livable neighborhoods?

First, the key definitions should be defined for the three terms cited above ("healthier", "more functional" and "more livable") in order to avoid the misunderstandings and mistakes that I see driving much of the transportation debate in Southern California.

"Healthier" to me means that no families with children live within 500 feet of a freeway or of a busy roadway, as is strongly recommended in the wake of the groundbreaking longitudinal studies by by UCLA and USC. But that means a rethinking of the very romantic, but unhealthy-for-humans, embrace of "elegant density" by the City of Los Angeles and others. Particularly for families, "elegant density" is a fantastic-sounding term that masks flawed thinking and too-cynical zoning and planning. Under the current government definition of "healthy," transportation-system planning in Southern California heavily relies on "transit-oriented districts" and mass transit. But it is not healthy. It serves land speculators, developers and mass transit advocates but does not create "healthier" living for the humans who are housed in such dense zones - particularly those under age 18 whose lungs are still developing, as USC and UCLA studies have shown. To offer one dramatically opposite idea, my "healthier" transportation system would include a regulatory framework that encourages telecommuting, perhaps through a mechanism such as tax credits. Telecommuting should be part of the transportation system. But of course this idea would reward living and working in your existing home, such as a home in the suburbs -- and thus is reviled by many transportation planners who want people to move into the cities.

"More functional" should mean that the transportation system in question makes sense not just within self-affirming urban planning and transit advocacy circles, but that it makes sense to the common man or woman who will either use it or reject it. As proof of the system's "functionality," one good measurement of success would be whether the system is or is not capturing a greater and greater share of the personal transportation market. For example, after spending tens of billions of dollars, MTA has slightly lost market share over the past couple of decades. More and more people in LA are choosing to drive their cars, as a percent of the population. This suggests that regional planners in Los Angeles County are very much on the wrong track when they define the term "functionality."

"More livable neighborhoods" means that these places are better places to live than they were before the transportation system changes were made. Again, one good test is how people vote with their feet before the transportation system changes, versus after. By this measure, the best example of a more livable neighborhood in Los Angeles after transportation system changes were made is downtown Los Angeles. The caveat is that downtown was wildly unlivable before the transportation fixes came along, so you could argue that downtown had only one way to go, and that was up. Billions spent in Hollywood have not made it more "livable" -- despite the lovely cafes and bars that are the key component to Hollywood redevelopment. Thousands of luxury apartments and condos units have been built in "transit-oriented" districts on the subway line to improve quality of life and reduce congestion. But instead, rather than drawing more people to move into Hollywood than move out, the opposite has occurred. The 2010 Census shows a loss of 18,000 people in City Council District 13, encompassing Hollywood, Silverlake and environs. Cafes and bars are nice, but intrusive new advertising clutter, worse schools, the city planners' abandonment of the many greenbelts and other humanized building "setbacks" of the 1990s, and other changes have made dense Hollywood less livable. Transportation plans are blind to, and in some cases have encouraged, these negative changes.

Before answering Question 1, the transportation community needs to have a major discussion about its own role in badly misusing these three terms. "Healthier" for whom? "More functional" in what sense? "More livable" compared to what? Because the transportation community does not very often give itself that uncomfortable self-exam, the word "livability," when uttered at a transportation event, has come to mean something negative to the average man or woman.

How can we maximize our investment in the next round of transportation improvements?

Stop spending hundreds of millions of dollars, and in some cases billions of dollars, to encourage social behaviors that have not, in the past decade or two, changed. Learning to admit defeat would be a refreshing change of pace within the broad transportation community, which is made up of people who cannot be voted out of office but perhaps should be. Commuting by sharing a ride with others in a private car has not increased more than fractionally, yet commuter lanes are sucking up vast amounts of time, space and money - such as the 405's three-year construction project. People have voted no, repeatedly, for decades, against sharing their cars with others. Bad, naughty people! But silly, ego-driven planners! Ego is one of the few explanations I can think of to explain spending billions on a social engineering theory that has massively failed, in that it never causes commuters to appreciably change their one-driver-per-car lifestyles no matter which decade you measure. The same money, spent over these past 20 years on transportation improvements that people really use - city buses and improved urban roadways come to mind -- could have given us a somewhat better world, transportation-wise.

From a global perspective, how far behind/ how far ahead is California?

In one sense we are decades behind the major international cities such as London, Tokyo, and so on -- in that our mass transit lags each of them. However, each of those cities has been radically transformed into an unaffordable, badly congested job/work center that I doubt planners today would suggest we build if they were beginning the process of building a city from scratch. In that sense, we have not yet made, in Los Angeles, the many errors made by the "planners" of such cities as London and Tokyo. The Tube and its related transit systems, having been in place for decades, have not made London less congested but instead have created quite the opposite problem, with gridlock unlike anything seen in LA. The bullet train and city and regional rail systems have not made Tokyo more human or more affordable for workers, but the very opposite, and thus far less livable than LA.

A number of these global cities seem to be acting as living warnings that the concept of huge urban cores, and the erecting of transportation and other systems designed to funnel hundreds of thousands of people into these massive city centers each day, inevitably creates 1.) severe land-value escalations (making residential rentals and street-level retail rents impossibly high in price, for all but a tiny slice of people), 2.) dramatically worsened congestion (by making urban centers such as London a destination point for far too many people who invariably must then leave the area each night because it is an impossibly unaffordable place in which to live) and 3.) a less pleasant world, by cramming too many people together in a noisy and not particularly safe urban core environment where most people do not want to raise their children.

Looked at from this perspective, Los Angeles is ahead of the game. LA is so far behind London and Tokyo in transportation planning and execution that it has not - yet - turned its downtown into a mega-city where all roads lead, and where hundreds of thousands of additional workers must go each day if they are to succeed and pay the bills.

What do you most enjoy right now, when it comes to our current transportation system? What's working well? What's the 'baby' you don't want to throw out with the murky bathwater?

I've abandoned the 405 freeway in favor of PCH, and it's a beautiful way to relax every morning and evening while driving to and from work, worth the extra minutes and less aggravating because you don't have to ride the brakes. I enjoy hopping on the Orange Line at Warner Center to visit friends in different parts of the Valley. The route through the green sod farms of the Valley is relaxing - and something you cannot see from a car. But I have been informed by leaders in the "transit community" that the Orange Line is a horrible travesty because it is a bus line instead of fixed rail - a technology with which LA transit advocates are obsessed, as if caught up in a fundamentalist religion. I suppose this is why throwing out the buses with the murky bathwater is already underway at MTA. It's slashing bus service while spending vast sums on fixed rail. Par for the course from an inefficient, poorly managed agency.

What is your vision for the year 2050? Share a glimpse of a day-in-your life as it relates to your personal mobility.

I'll live in a leafy suburb within 35 minutes of a major city here or elsewhere in the West, using a modern-day electric cart of some sort to zip about to a favorite grocery store, to that great little French bakery, and to visit close-in friends. I'll hire my own driver in 2050 to handle the car during the longer trek after dark, when I zip into town to grab a drink with my hardcore urbanist friends still living in the city proper. If I don't have a private driver because Social Security no longer exists and money is tight, then I'll lure my friends out to my 'burb with lemon shrimp angel hair pasta.

Describe one of your more memorable mobility experiences, i.e., a specific bike-ride, walk, train ride, urban hike, road-trip, plain-trip or sea-faring adventure that still resonates even after all these years. What made it special? How can we create equitable opportunities for others to enjoy these types of experiences?

Too many mobility experiences to list, but as to creating "equitable opportunities": The transportation community will not create very many such opportunities as long as it promotes transit systems that cost $5,000 or $15,000 per person to lure a single person out of a car, sucking up scarce public dollars for projects that look beautiful in design workshops but only appeal to stubbornly tiny slices of the population. Be more realistic about how people really live. Spend the public money more carefully, on transportation that more people really use. That's the most equitable way to provide memorable mobility experiences. I see too little evidence of that currently underway.

Join the Discussion, Share Your Perspective

You're encouraged to share your own perspective with AIA|LA. Answer the following six questions: (or feel free to add your own)

  1. From a regulatory framework, what needs to change so that we can facilitate a transportation system that supports healthier, more functional and more livable neighborhoods?

  2. How can we maximize our investment in the next round of transportation improvements?

  3. From a global perspective, how far behind/ how far ahead is California?

  4. What do you most enjoy right now, when it comes to our current transportation system? What's working well? What's the 'baby' you don't want to throw out with the murky bathwater?

  5. What is your vision for the year 2050? Share a glimpse of a day-in-your life as it relates to your personal mobility.

  6. Describe one of your more memorable mobility experiences, i.e., a specific bike-ride, walk, train ride, urban hike, road-trip, plain-trip or sea-faring adventure that still resonates even after all these years. What made it special? How can we create equitable opportunities for others to enjoy these types of experiences?

The author of the most compelling response will receive a complimentary pass to the "Architecture of Transportation" Design Symposium.

Share your perspective by writing Will Wright at will@aialosangeles.org with "The Architecture of Transportation" in the subject line.

"The Architecture of Transportation" Design Symposium
Friday, June 24 (9:00 AM - 5:00 PM)
Los Angeles Convention Center, West Hall

Please CLICK HERE TO REGISTER.

Last updated: 11-Dec-2012 09:14 AM
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