Every time I visit New York, I’m like a kid in a candy store. Why? I’m an urbanist at heart and New York is brimming with urbanism. No, it’s exploding with urbanism! I love walking and being a pedestrian free to roam the city, and whenever I’m here in New York (usually for a week at a time), I feel liberated and empowered as I dart through the energetic streets, slide my MetroCard on my way down into the ubiquitous subway stations, and jaywalk whenever and wherever I please. The way New York and other East Coast cities are built, compact and mixed-use, encourage a thriving pedestrian culture. What are some key ideas that we can bring back from a city like New York that can continue to help Los Angeles (and specifically Downtown LA) develop that wonderful pedestrian urban lifestyle and lessen our dependence (read: handicap) on automobiles?
One major difference between New York and Los Angeles that is immediately apparent, for me as a pedestrian, is the width of the streets. In New York, the streets are generally narrower than those in Los Angeles, which makes crossing the street a breeze because it’s a lot quicker to get across. For example, crossing a typical east-west numbered street in New York is less than 10 steps. While many streets in Downtown LA, say Figueroa at 7th, can take as much as 30 steps to cross. That’s three times as wide and takes three times as long to cross.
When you apply that extra width to all your streets — spreading everything out farther apart — it makes a huge difference on the way a city functions. In LA’s case, the extra wide streets dilute and even impede the potential for developing a pedestrian culture, which in turn, actually encourages people to drive because walking is just unpleasant, and quite frankly, not practical when things are so spread out. That is something we must change in LA, and especially in Downtown LA where the beginnings of a pedestrian culture are definitely taking root with more residents moving back into the city from the suburbs. So what can we do in Downtown LA to reverse the damage done by wide streets?
The quick, inexpensive, and easy answer is Road Diets.
Walking through Manhattan, the one thing you’ll notice is that more and more streets and intersections are getting narrower and narrower (public space, on the other hand, getting bigger and bigger) and some streets disappearing altogether, such as in Times Square and Herald Square where sections of Broadway have been completely closed off since 2009 and converted to pedestrian plazas strewn with tables, chairs, and planters blooming with flowers.
In the Meatpacking District at 14th St and 9th Ave, the Gansevoort Plaza, which actually stretches for many blocks, is carved out of the intersection by nothing more than some very simple and inexpensive means: painted lines delineate the plaza boundaries and large planters and bollards add increased protection against traffic. Again, plenty of tables and chairs are strewn across the plaza allowing for pedestrians to sit and relax.
I can think of a million places that could benefit from these pedestrian plazas and road diets in Downtown LA. After experiencing the wonderful virtues of urbanism at its best, I am less tolerant of the slow and pedantic bureaucracy (read: backward bullshit) that prevents LA from becoming a city less about cars and more about pedestrians. To reiterate, our streets are way too wide and way too car-oriented. Let’s stop finding a million reasons why we can’t do it here in LA, and find every reason why we can and should.
Herald Square at 34th St and Broadway
Flatiron District at 23rd St and Broadway
Meatpacking District at 14th St and 9th Ave
What are some ultra-wide streets in Downtown LA that we could easily apply these very simple and inexpensive pedestrian-friendly concepts to?
(All images from Google Maps)