Transforming the LA Streets

The StreetSummit started out last year as a cycling-focused BikeSummit but has since expanded to include walking, transportation, and livable streets in general. The event, sponsored by the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College, Kaiser Permanente, The California Endowment, and LA Trade Tech College, drew crowd of 500 passionate activists from many walks of life: cyclists, policymakers, artists, advocates, and community leaders.

The Summit was all about promoting non-car (e.g. “alternative”) transportation with festivity and fun, with bike valets, free T-shirts, and free lunch for registrants at food trucks prepared for the event. A photo exhibit also featured urban visualization work by Narrow Streets: Los Angeles, Diane Meyer’s Without a Car in the World portraits of Angelenos living car-free, GOOD Magazine’s Redesign Your Street Contest participants, and visualizations by CicLAvía, LA’s best hope at achieving car-free “Sunday Streets.”

Plenary speakers included:

  • A keynote by the boundlessly energetic NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan (right), describing her city’s monumental catalog of leading-edge improvements, including the astonishing pedestrianization of Times Square, to an awestruck audience;
  • Carl Anthony of Breakthrough Communities, with a provocatively brief talk on the racial apartheid of highway planning;
  • The twangy ex-Texan Charles Gandy, Mobility Coordinator for the City of Long Beach, declaring in thrilling tent-revival style his city’s mission to become the most bike-friendly city in the country;
  • East LA, Boyle Heights community organizer Lydia Avila-Hernandez, with a pragmatic look at the real and immediate transportation needs for lower income communities in her area — plus a refreshingly honest take on how LA Metro’s Gold Line runs through East LA but doesn’t actually serve its residents;
  • Ryan Snyder, transportation planning consultant with an inspiring history of just how far activism has come — from its early cycling-centric days to a more comprehensive philosophy of first complete streets, then living streets, and now public spaces.

I was invited to give a workshop at the StreetSummit by the incredibly dedicated Ramon Martinez, Summit coordinator, creator of Bike Oven, a free bicycle repair co-op, and a reader of my Narrow Streets: Los Angeles blog. But if a single criticism can be leveled at this otherwise impressively smoothly run event, it’s that there were too many great workshops to choose from — 36! — crammed into only three one-hour time slots, with topics ranging from policy politics, public health, crowdsourced bike mapping, walking clubs, alleyway reclamation, the perils of free parking, and even food truck culture.

As a presenter myself (above!), I was only able to attend two seminars and was left hungry for more; I wished the Summit could be extended for the whole weekend. Aside from the usual (but no less important) mentions of the environment, social justice, and health, a few surprising lessons emerged from the impassioned whirlwind of discussion —  lessons that I bet are relevant to almost any car-centered city that is trying to open up its streets to everyone.

  • Let’s make it about fun! Sure, greenhouse gasses are important — but a more immediate goal that people can really grasp is to give Los Angeles the free-spirited spontaneity it so desperately needs, with space for cycling, jogging, people watching, and public events.  
  • The DOT needs a cultural change. For too long, city planners have deferred to traffic engineers obsessed with one thing only: moving as many cars as quickly as possible, 24/7. Streets need to be planned not by the fluid dynamics of auto traffic, but also by community leaders, businesses, and civic cultural affairs. It’s time to start thinking of our streets not as regional conduits but as outdoor living rooms.
  • City planners must collaborate. A single building can be an exercise in compartmentalized thinking: the building itself is regulated by the Housing Department, the sidewalk by the Department of Public Works, and the street by the Department of Transportation — a recipe for political stalemate that effectively prevents street life from budding. City departments need to communicate better in order to build a city that’s worth caring about.
  • Everyone needs to stop being so timid. For too long, people have painted a vision of complete streets in broad, utopian strokes. It’s an intimidating approach that can lead to apprehension about change and cost — understandably so, especially in this recession. A better way is to make small trial improvements on the cheap (with just a little paint and a lot of imagination) and test the effectiveness of those improvements with data driven analysis. If things don’t work out, abandon it; if it does, make it permanent.
  • There’s strength in numbers. LA politicians are notoriously indecisive. That means if a single advocate for a new bike lane is shouted down during a public hearing by one other person, no matter how insane and paranoid contingent their reasoning, city officials will call it a stalemate and dismiss the proposal. It’s important to show up to public hearings in significant enough numbers, to present an overwhelming majority of support.
  • There’s never been a better time to get involved. So much has been accomplished since those early efforts by a few lonely cycling activists. LA has run out of excuses, especially now that other cities — including not just New York but Minneapolis, Seattle, and Tucson — have quickly surpassed our City of Angels in the Great Public Space Race. To paraphrase UEPI’s Robert Gottlieb, the complete streets movement has completed its uphill struggle, and it’s all downhill from here on out. It’s not just about bicycles anymore — it’s about all of us. So get active!

From 9:30am to 5:00pm, activists young and old gathered in hallways, under trees, and by bike racks to discuss everything from City Hall war stories to the Wolfpack’s guerrilla bike tour of the LA Marathon route. Huge congratulations have to go out to Occidental College’s UEPI, the presenters, and all the participants who made this year’s Summit an even bigger success than the one before — and by doing so ensure an even better one next year. Looks like LA’s on a roll!

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