It took 100 years and a determined president to get a health care bill through Congress. In this young City of Angels and others, it may take a bit longer to find the right mix of ingredients needed to create a transit-friendly environment and a feeling of community.
But lately it does seem as though Los Angeles has turned a corner in its quest to leave behind its car-obsessed past and become a city where community matters, residents ride mass transit and more of our neighborhoods develop their own distinctive vibe.
The March 21 L.A. Marathon, in which 25,000 people ran the new route from Dodger Stadium to Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, gave the effort a good push along. Though I didn’t (and probably couldn’t) run the 26 miles, biking with my son from our house to watch the runners was nearly as exciting. Seeing all those blocks of normally traffic-choked city shut down was a beautiful thing.
The marathoners were a colorful bunch, duded out in all sorts of running outfits. Just about the only T-shirt I didn’t see was the one that the insurance industry folks are wearing the day after, which reads, “I voted for Obama and all I got was this historic victory on health care.”
The marathon was a chance for us to rethink the Sunday routine of a drive to Target, Costco, the Santa Monicas or the Farmers Market. Since we couldn’t get anywhere anyway, we stayed close to home or ventured out on foot or bike. And what a liberating feeling that is.
But even before the marathon, Los Angeles had achieved some important homegrown pro-community success. If you don’t live near it or take it regularly, for example, you may not be aware of just how good Metro’s Orange Line Busway has been for both commuters and bikers. If not for the NIMBYs and yesterday’s thinking about ridership, the Orange Line would have been (and hopefully will still someday be) a rail line seamlessly linked to the Red Line subway at North Hollywood. Nonetheless, the busway is a win, and with any luck, its accompanying bike path will be replicated on the Westside in Expo phase two.
Ah, the NIMBYs. With Orange, Blue, Gold and now Expo, they just love to bring up safety, that evergreen boogeyman. Ignoring the facts, they say light rail just isn’t safe. Well, I say with the good signage and barriers Metro has installed on its light rail, one has to wonder how anyone obeying the law could end up on the tracks.
Paired with the Mayor’s 30/10 transit/jobs plan, the marathon and programs like CicLAvia, which would periodically convert some streets to parks, are modifying our ideas about public space. These changes make Los Angeles a more vibrant and community-oriented place to live. Of course the city needs to work with businesses and educate commuters about CicLAvia and related events. But these are the sorts of things planners, police, fire, risk management and neighborhood associations do every day.
For those who say we can’t, I say we can. Just ask anyone who heard New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan’s recent lecture at Occidental College. In her talk, the L.A.-raised commish described how New York repurposes its streets. Sadik-Kahn’s asphalt/concrete illustrations of what Los Angeles might do include the pedestrianization of Times Square and New York’s construction of 200 miles of new bike facilities. Her at-once bold and commonsense vision has helped New York reimagine its public space with lawn chairs in Times Square and a bike- and pedestrian-only weekend morning on Park Avenue.
Without question, changing Los Angeles is a give-and-take with city agencies like the Department of Transportation challenged by all sides to make the streets into what each competing constituency wants them to be. These visions are as contradictory as another freeway to downtown (one way on Pico and Olympic boulevards) and a temporary park and bikeway where motorized traffic normally idles (CicLAvia).
Unless you are a shut-in, 30/10, the new marathon route, the blossoming of Los Angeles’ bike culture and the explosion in the number of neighborhood farmers markets, gardens and even urban chickens are changes to Los Angeles that reveal how Angelenos are revamping the way they think about their neighborhoods and city.
With changes afoot, I hope city departments weakened by the layoffs have the vision, flexibility and commitment to respond. If New York, America’s most quarrelsome town, can change, then we, too, can transform how we get around and use our open and public space. In fact, we can do it better, given our collegiality, climate, landscape and talent.
Joel Epstein is a Huffington Post blogger and a consultant to the Annenberg Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this piece appeared in the Huffington Post.