Ideas for Downtown LA: What We Can Learn from NYC with Road Diets, Ped Plazas, Etc

This snapshot I took in New York is the single most powerful visually compelling reason why a city should be more about pedestrians and less about cars

This snapshot I took in Chelsea of a typical scene in New York shows how wonderful a city can be when it is pedestrian oriented

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 millions 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

This section of Broadway was completely closed off in 2009 and converted to a pedestrian plaza

This section of Broadway by 34th Street (in front of Macy’s) was completely closed off in 2009 and converted to a pedestrian plaza

Pedestrians now roam on what was once Broadway

Pedestrians now roam on what was once Broadway

More pedestrian plazas extend beyond Macy's on what was once Broadway as well

More pedestrian plazas extend beyond Macy’s on what was once Broadway as well

This railing separates pedestrians from the traffic

This railing separates pedestrians from the traffic

Tables and chairs are placed in the pedestrian plaza allow people to sit and relax

Tables and chairs are placed in the pedestrian plaza allowing for people to sit and relax

Using planters and paint on the ground are just some of the inexpensive ways of expanding public space on what was once an asphalt street

Using planters and paint on the ground are just some of the inexpensive ways of expanding public space on what was once an asphalt street

Flatiron District at 23rd St and Broadway

The expansion of the pedestrian plaza extends from beyond the curb into what was once Broadway on the right

The expansion of the pedestrian plaza extends from beyond the curb into what was once Broadway on the right

Further traffic calming measures are taken to narrow the streets by the Flatiron District pedestrian plaza

The double line essentially extends the curb out further, increasing public space, narrowing the road, and the use of these large boulders for increased pedestrian protection

Inexpensive paint and planters are used to create this large and very pedestrian friendly bump out to shorten the distance it takes to cross a street

Inexpensive paint and planters are used to create this large and very pedestrian friendly bump out to drastically shorten the distance it takes to cross a street

Meatpacking District at 14th St and 9th Ave

The Gansevoort Plaza at 14th St and 9th Ave is another example of a pedestrian plaza in New York

The Gansevoort Plaza at 14th St and 9th Ave is another example of a pedestrian plaza in New York

Tables and chairs sit beyond the curb on what was once a very wide intersection

Tables and chairs sit beyond the sidewalk curb in a pedestrian plaza on what was once a very wide intersection for cars

Another view of the pedestrian plaza that has taken space away from the intersection and given it back to people

Another view of the pedestrian plaza that has taken space away from the intersection and given it back to people

More tables and chairs on what was once part of the road

More tables and chairs on what was once part of the road with large planters separating people from traffic

The bump outs at the intersection narrows the streets and shortens the distance for pedestrians to cross

The bump outs at the intersection narrow the streets and shortens the distance for pedestrians to cross

These bollards create a bump out extension from the original curb

Inexpensive and easy to install, these bollards create a bump out extension from the original curb

Another view of the bollards in action

Another view of the bollards in action

And another

And another

A food kiosk can be inserted into these pedestrian plazas as well

A food kiosk can be inserted into these pedestrian plazas as well

More planters and bollards in another section of the Gansevoort Plaza illustrate how easy it is to reclaim space from streets for people

More planters and bollards in another section of the Gansevoort Plaza illustrate how easy it is to reclaim space from streets for people

The majority of space in this intersection is now dedicated to people and less for cars

The majority of space in this intersection is now dedicated to people and less for cars

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)

Second and Spring

Second and Spring in Civic Center

Second and San Pedro in Little Tokyo

Second and San Pedro in Little Tokyo

Third and Hewitt in Arts District

Third and Hewitt in Arts District

Colyton and Fourth in Arts District

Colyton and Fourth in Arts District

Ninth and Grand in South Park

Ninth and Grand in South Park

32 Responses to Ideas for Downtown LA: What We Can Learn from NYC with Road Diets, Ped Plazas, Etc

  1. More road diets! Less cars! :)

  2. Very compelling coverage. I especially like the Le Pain Q. kiosk.

  3. These suggestions are great! I think DTLA can do a lot more to encourage pedestrian activity. I really like how you incorporated images of streets that would benefit from your recommendations.

    One thing that needs desperate attention is the stench along some of the major streets like Spring. Sometimes, the smell of dog feces is unbearable and it’s pretty disgusting for those of us who enjoy eating outdoors at locations like LA Cafe, Syrup and Spring for Coffee. I was in Chicago last year and one of the things I noticed is that they pressure wash downtown streets in the mornings, before all of the foot traffic; I’ve seen similar approaches in Downtown Long Beach. I hope the DCBID is planning to address this issue in the near future…

    • Mayra, great point about the pressure watching. The main stretch of Spring between 5th and 7th seems to be getting progressively worse. The smell this past weekend was almost unbearable and the flies were everywhere!

  4. Great article, Brigham. That picture of the Pain Quotidien kiosk made me think that perhaps it could work for Macy’s Plaza’s empty spaces on Flower St., etc. Another challenge in L.A. is how construction sites take over sidewalks. This is the case of SW corner of Hope & 8th, where the entire block is virtually useless for pedestrians for as long as construction is going on. If this blockage cannot be avoided, then one lane of each street should be rededicated for people who need or prefer to get around on foot. But who do we contact to propose this?

  5. Hi agree so much on your points Brigham! I just returned from New York City where I lived most my life. I think the pedestrian culture is not only healthier than driving but also encourages community involvement and a very broad awareness on so many levels. This is definitely missing in Los Angeles but I glad to be a part of the seeds of Downtown LA.

  6. Good news – they’re doing just that – http://myfigueroa.nationbuilder.com/

  7. I certainly like what’s being done in NYC. But the thing is that in New York there are many pedestrians around who will take advantage of such plazas and their amenities. The photos you have of possible sites in LA are virtually deserted. There have to be more reasons to walk around before this will work.

    • @YA one of the intersections pictured is at 2nd and San Pedro in Little Tokyo which is right in the heart of what is an increasingly busy neighborhood. I wouldn’t classify it as somewhere that’s devoid of people and this intersection has destinations of interest on both sides including Weller Court and the Little Tokyo Village Plaza just down the street. The key here is the width of these streets – they’re simply too wide and are not human in scale. With so much space dedicated to the automobile, pedestrians feel unwelcome, which is the complete opposite of the NYC photos in which pedestrian are an active part of the street scene. Why should we attempt to wait for some magic number of pedestrians before investing in long term infrastructure improvements that could make life better for everyone in downtown and prepare for growth? These are relatively easy fixes that can make a huge difference.

      • Lawrence,

        I agree with YA and respectfully disagree with you. You point out the street characteristics of 2nd/San Pedro which I do agree, but if you notice only certain segments of the street grids in Little Tokyo take up the main activities. There are many areas that are virtually deserted as YA points out. Again, you point out good busy streets but that’s because people have a reason to walk in those areas. The width of the streets is a reflection of yesterday’s and today’s traffic needs. Making them more skinny or removing them won’t change the urban fabric until the structural density around these streets incorporate more density and walkable amenities.

        • John,

          Sorry have to disagree with you. As a commenter notes below, The notion of waiting for people to walk to implement road diets and pedestrian oriented infrastructure is counterintuitive and becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. If the pieces aren’t in place to create an environment that’s pleasantly walkable, people will not walk.

          Also – not pictured in this 2nd/San Pedro photo is the large plot of land on the other side where the block 8 development is under construction, adding hundreds of new housing units and retail. To have an intersection this wide nearby is counterproductive to the creation of a truly mixed used, pedestrian friendly neighborhood. The width of 2nd street though this section and the remainder of Little Tokyo, however, is quite good and what we should strive for throughout more of downtown.

          Also – having walked through many of these areas during rush hour, I don’t agree that the width of these streets is a reflection of traffic needs. Few of the streets noted in the photos are ever that busy and studies have shown that adding lanes to streets or highways does little to mitigate traffic. In fact, it has the opposite effect and encourages traffic: http://www.npr.org/2011/07/09/137708751/more-roads-may-pave-way-to-more-traffic

          The width of most of our streets is simply overkill, especially in downtown L.A.

          The pavement plazas in NYC didn’t go through without controversy either and are in areas that have been densely populated for decades. Taxi drivers pushed back hard, complaining about possible traffic gridlock etc. but it never really materialized. Meanwhile the quality of life for many New Yorkers improved with the addition of much needed public space and pedestrian focused amenities.

          • Thanks Lawrence for the interesting feedback.

            Although you make good points, I think its not really about “waiting” for people to walk to implement road diets. People won’t walk if period if there is no reason to walk in a certain area, regardless how skinny or wide a street is. The true incubators of pedestrian culture are what goes on, on the sides of the streets. Sometimes we have to think why are these streets so wide in the first place. Could it be because previously there was no life in these areas and hence no need to implement “diets” in these street areas? In my opinion, NYC works and we shouldn’t be prematurely comparing ourselves to them because their downtown is MUCH MORE dense…

  8. One of the major problems with DTLA is the lack of real shopping areas.

  9. S. Williams is right. We lack a lot of retail and clothing stores not to mention residents. Before this can happen they need to bring in more retail and residents. I spoke with someone that lives in downtown, and he mentioned how many apartments and condos are being rented or sold, but people from overseas use it as a second home. My opinion is they should put more parklets in front of restaurants to add more seating options for customers. With parklets and a permanent bike lanes this will definetely make the streets in downtown more skinnier. They should definetely start on streets that are very dense like Spring, Broadway, 7th street and slowly work their way out. My other concern is they need to remove the outside seating law they have in downtown and give everyone access to be able to put tables and seats for people. I hope this helps open some ideas to people.

  10. A lot of these treatments seem like they would work best at the sort of diagonal intersections that we get where different street grids come together. (When there’s a consistent grid, taking part of a lane at one place won’t really work unless you take that part of the lane for the entire length of the street.) In downtown, that would mainly be in the Arts District I think, but I think a lot of Silver Lake, Westlake, and University Park could probably benefit from this sort of thing. They already did it at Sunset and Griffith Park in Silver Lake. I think there are a few intersections along Hoover that might benefit from this – perhaps at Union or Alvarado.

    And I think the MyFigueroa project will help immensely.

  11. As a recent transplant to LA from the East Coast, the width of the streets here and the enforcement of jaywalking seems absolutely outrageous, while the amount of underutilized paved road space is ridiculous. Biking south on Grand most days from 7th street, it’s clear that two lanes of traffic could easily be taken out without impeding traffic flow really at all. Agreed that MyFigueroa will be great beginning, but many more road diets than are even mentioned above could be implemented significant impact on downtown traffic.

    Also, to say that people don’t walk so we shouldn’t have road diets becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Create spaces where people will enjoy walking and feel safe doing so, more people will walk and then that helps drive business and makes the area attract even more pedestrians. Downtown is the place in LA to make these changes.

    • Jeremy,

      Completely agree with you. Many of the streets in downtown are far too wide and there is rarely enough traffic to even take up the number of lanes these streets have. I too am hopeful that the MyFigueroa project will be the beginning of a movement toward road diets, which our city desperately needs.

      Also agree that Downtown L.A is the perfect place to implement these changes as it already has the infrastructure and bones in place to support them.

  12. Another point to skinny-ing down the streets is that it gives a chance to broaden the sidewalks. LA, even DTLA, has a lot of really narrow sidewalks relative to the size of the respective street. In NYC, the major streets are narrower but add more sidewalk space to accommodate more pedestrians and kiosks/food stands. DTLA shopping districts on the weekends are swamped in the Fashion District/Historic Core with people due to the narrow sidewalks…. especially when there’s major bus stops of those streets as well. Even large streets like Broadway and 7th suffer this fate. I like the idea of expanding sidewalks out to the bike lanes and incorporating the bike lanes within the sidewalk area (I’ve seen this done in Tokyo and it allows both pedestrians and bikers the option to use the lanes as necessary). Another reason why spring is so “clogged” with pedestrians on Art Walk nights and weekends.

  13. An interesting article Brigham, but I think there are some points that need to be addressed here.

    1. The density of those NY places you show is MUCH higher.

    2. Accessibility to mass transit in NYC is also higher.

    3.Residential/Employement centers and retail/entertainment areas (the spatial arrangements of primary and secondary uses) in those NY pics are closer, walkable, and hence much more conducive to public discourse.

    Having said these things, the streets in any urban environment is only ONE component, and in my personal opinion, plays more of a supporting role in enticing pedestrian activity.

    Like what you say, we are too car-oriented, such as wide streets. But that is NOT THE ROOT CAUSE of our car culture. In my opinion, the root cause is segregated land-use zoning that has exacerbated the need for long-distance driving. Thus, it’s not that walking is unpleasant (and perhaps your suggestion to make our urban landscape more attractive), no, it’s really because of our necessity to drive due to our limited options of employment centers and where we can live based on housing costs. We drive mainly not because of chosen habit, but because of our limited choices and the development patterns of sprawl that has been ingrained in our past environment.

    For real change, we need more mixed-use, denser development patterns, and the focus on job growth (instead of chasing away businesses out of our state). These things will do much more to incubate our pedestrian culture. And as a byproduct, the streets will transform naturally as the environment around them changes.

  14. Brigham, those white chairs and tables in the photos look pretty lightweight. What do they do with them at nite to keep them from getting stolen? Do you know? They don’t look like they are secured to the pavement.

    I liked the materials they used to separate the ‘plazas’ from the traffic. While maybe not overly expensive to install, they did use quality materials like the wrought iron fencing and planters that are durable as well as attractive. Well done.

  15. Good work Brig….Now get your walking feet back to LA on the double and lets make it happen…I’m a die hard New Yorker too, but for some reason we now find ourselves living in DTLA..its exciting what can happen here…the other day I walked all over DTLA, ate lunch at St. Vincents Court (trying to understand whats going on there)…stumbled on the great Den.M Bar, a soccer fanatic store, a great new funky gift store called LAB 3…and in true NYC style….I ate a hotdog! Thats what we need first – hotdog and pretzel stands…See you soon Brig and thank you for your enthusiasm…
    we got our first commercial lease in DTLA :))))
    I’m officially starting a DTLA WALKING PROGRAM – details to follow….
    no time like the present Brig….

  16. @ Alki, I’m sure they leave the chairs there all night since Times Square is a 24 hour district. I got to tell you the residents from Downtown L.A. are something special. I love it how most of them are transplants from back east, but they love downtown so much that they want to see change happen. I spoke to a few residents both from back east on my lunch break yesterday while overlooking the construction site of the new condo tower being built on Grand, and they both seemed so enthusiastic about all the changes going on here, and that’s exactly what we need, people to have so much love for downtown that they themselves create a change. I say we who have connections in the retail world bring attention and interest to downtown, and along with that shoppers will come, and spend money here. It’s all a chain reaction.

  17. I actually am surprised how many Southern Cal natives are Downtown residents. Locals who grew up here seem to love NYC, but perhaps not the weather or the cost of living. I find so many locals are moving Downtown and want to see changes as we see in the above photos. We do need more parks and public plazas in the Historic Core, Little Tokyo and South Park…..and how about a few impressive fountains!

  18. Would love to have plazas and outdoor cafe areas! In a climate like ours this sort of thing is a no brainer. St Vincent court was one great example until the recent Delijani family/city crack down.

  19. Wow. Really? You think DTLA can ever be anything like NY?!

    You’re fighting a losing battle.

    Try POWER WASHING the sickening sidewalks.

    Try getting the city to CARE ABOUT ITSELF.

    This place is a mess. WHERE’S THE PRIDE?

  20. ^ Because New York is clean? I’m all about urbanism, and I hate cars, but NYC is too much. For all the density and use of public transportation, quality of life still sucks there. While I want LA to be more dense and pedestrian friendly, I don’t want it to be NY. I just moved from NY, and I find that city horrendous.

  21. I’m pretty sure the stench in LA is more human than canine.

  22. I think its way more canine. People let their precious dogs crap and piss anywhere.

  23. I’ve always maintained that the section of Hollywood blvd. between Highland and Orange would make an amazing plaza. It’s a hub for tourists, and think how much the local vendors would benefit!

  24. Pingback: Morning Links: What DTLA can learn from NYC, guilty plea in Fallbrook hit-and-run, new distracted driving app | BikinginLA

  25. No turn on red. As a pedestrian in NYC the respect of no turn on red makes for confident crossing.

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