Over the next few decades, 40 major public transportation projects will be opening across Los Angeles County. This broad expansion of access to mass transportation will change the way Angelenos live and move around Southern California. From the Appian Way to the Erie Canal, transit has always been the most important catalyst for urban development, and Los Angeles is no exception. The city is already in the midst of a major transformation in how it approaches urban design.
This unprecedented commitment to public transit was the subject of a recent symposium held by the Urban Land Institute. Designers, developers, and policy-makers all came together to discuss the potential of transit-oriented development for Los Angeles in the coming century.
One of the most surprising revelations from this event was the myth of the half-mile radius. Traditionally, urban planners assume that people who are most likely to use public transit are those who live within walking distance of a station, or roughly a half-mile. But The Corridor Project, a study of actual transit users, found unequal distributions of users in that half-mile walkability radius. Ridership patterns at the Expo Line’s Crenshaw station, the Red Line’s Vermont/Beverly station, and the Orange Line’s Sepulveda/ Van Nuys station demonstrated that people are willing to travel more than a half-mile to a transit station if it is located near the neighborhood’s cultural hubs and public spaces (but less willing if it is not). Coffee shops, parks, drugstores, and other local institutions that people frequent even when they’re not taking public transit are critical to making a train or bus station the focal point of a vibrant and successful community.
The implications of this discovery aren’t limited to the locations of future transit stations. By starting the discussion of transit with a deep cultural reading of place, designers are better equipped to design and re-design the street infrastructure itself. Trains and buses are just one step toward relieving congestion along crowded urban corridors. To fully solve the problem, however, we need to building complete streets that serve pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers more equitably.
The post World-War II auto-centric urbanism of Los Angeles continues to limit mobility to the car. Driving is an excellent means of reaching distinct points strewn about a giant megalopolis like Los Angeles. But it’s inferior to walking or biking when it comes to negotiating the corridors that make each of these points a destination worth visiting. Building streets that give equal weight to the driver, cyclist, and pedestrian will make it easier to experience everything L.A.’s amazing neighborhoods have to offer.
For the past half-century, Los Angeles has tried to play catch-up with the visions for public transit articulated by cities in Europe and the east coast of North America. The next half-century can be the time for L.A. to take the lead on this front. The transit needs of the future are sure to require solutions as diverse as the city itself. From the ethnic enclaves east of downtown’s newly hip lofts to the canyon mansions and the beach communities, Los Angeles is the ultimate 21st century urban experiment. As such, the city must project an identifiable sense of place for each neighborhood, and promote easily legible paths between them.