Greening Los Angeles – Filling the Mostly Empty Glass

LA CLIMATE CHANGE - In the field of city planning there is little mystery about the relationship between urban land use patterns and climate change.

Los Angeles’s auto-centric design forces automobile travel, and therefore locks most residents into extensive use of greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels.  These emissions have immensely contributed to SMOG and now to climate change; have pushed the atmosphere’s carbon content to dangerous levels, with some outcomes, such as this summer’s extreme weather events, already observable.

Los Angeles’s Auto-Centric Design:
In Los Angeles, auto-centric development blankets the metropolis from the foothills of the San Gabriel, San Bernardino, and Verdugo mountains to the Pacific coastline.  An extensive freeway network connects this urban quilt, now over 70 years old.  Horizontal, automobile-centered development has made Los Angeles an icon for urban sprawl, traffic congestion, and air and water pollution.  What were once primarily local issues of SMOG, have now become a global concern over the green house gases responsible for climate change.

A recent study by UCLA researchers and a newly released scientific report commissioned by numerous state and federal agencies emphasize the costly and deadly implications of climate change for Southern California.  According to the UCLA report, conducted by climatologist Alex Hall, temperatures in the Los Angeles region are expected to increase four to five degrees Fahrenheit within this century. The number of days above 95 degrees will dramatically increase.  

Meanwhile, California’s sea level, which has risen seven inches over the past hundred years, is predicted to rise as much as 5 ½ feet by the end of this century.   When today’s kids are nearing retirement age, California’s climate and coastline will be completely transformed.

Needless to say, these shocking changes will inevitably impose great costs upon the local energy infrastructure and endanger the safety of everyone living along the California coast and within the Los Angeles basin.  

These harrowing outcomes are, in part, the results of excessive greenhouse emissions due to citywide unsustainable practices, designs, and technology.  

It is our contention that the only road leading out of these conditions is not paved with asphalt and populated by automobiles, but instead a mindful combination of sustainability-oriented adjustments to public policy and the implementation of eco-friendly urban design principles.

These problems are compounded by Los Angeles’s vast, non-ecological legacy of land use policies and transportation infrastructure.  Currently, separated land uses, extensive freeway networks, and limited pedestrian and public transportation services compel most residents and visitors to rely on cars for mobility.  

Frequently these journeys are lengthened by freeway congestion.  The need to travel long distances and the excessive time required to make those trips contribute to Los Angeles’ reputation as one of this planet’s least sustainable cities.  

While this situation is grim, there are clearly many policy and programs options to transform the Los Angeles metropolitan area.  The purpose of this essay is to explain how this could be done through existing programs and practices.  They are already working in other cities and could be readily grafted onto Los Angeles.  In other words, there are no technological barriers, only the political and economic ones maintained by the city’s elected officials and special interests.

The city’s potential makeover is based on a straightforward principle: to make Los Angeles a more compact and less auto-centric city, new development and infrastructure must be designed so residents can comfortably and sustainably live within a smaller area.

Officially Adopted Policies to Promote Sustainability: On paper Los Angeles has begun to address sprawl through multiple approaches, including many formally adopted policies in the General Plan’s Land Use, Air Quality, Transportation, and Framework Elements.  They contain many goals and programs that – if implemented -- would reduce congestion and promote more sustainable development.  

For example, one General Plan Framework goal, adopted in 1996, is “to create safe, livable and sustainable neighborhoods.”  This section explains that “mixing uses within projects, […] locating housing in proximity to a mix of uses, and developing Transit Oriented District plans” are some of the methods by which neighborhoods can become more sustainable.  The General Plan specifically commits the Los Angeles to the development of mixed-use boulevards, pedestrian- and transit-priority districts, and multi-family developments to reduce sprawl and automobile use.  

Furthermore, the General Plan’s Transportation Element clearly supports the improvement of transit services and transit- and pedestrian-friendly site designs, including an expansion of bus services, transit-oriented development, curb management for pedestrian areas, and the use of alternative fuels (and eventually zero-emission) in fleet vehicles.  

Furthermore, the recently adopted Los Angeles Bicycle Plan represents still another planning effort to “transform Los Angeles from an auto-centric city to one with a multi-modal transportation system that includes not only cars and trucks, but also buses, trains, pedestrians, and cyclists”

On paper these General Plan policies and programs offer a solution to sprawl, congestion, and pollution.  If properly adopted and enhanced by a full range of actual public improvements, the dense, mixed-use development and alternative mode infrastructure proposed by the General Plan would substantially alter Los Angeles’s physical design and reduce travel time, the need for extensive travel, automobile reliance, and associated greenhouse gas emissions.  

Of course, the emphasis is on proper adoption because so far there is little evidence that the City’s official policies correspond to actual funded programs.  Furthermore, the City of Los Angeles has abandoned all monitoring programs to measure and assess the implementation of these well-intentioned policies.  As a result, much of the City’s adopted sustainability agenda remains unimplemented.  

Recommendations for making Los Angeles less Auto-Centric:
In Green Metropolis, David Owen argues that New York City’s combination of mass transit and compact and pedestrian-friendly urban design imposes sustainable behaviors on its residents.  

Conversely then, Los Angeles’s automobile-oriented infrastructure and private development promote unsustainable personal behavior.  In both cities, residents and visitors have no choice but to live within the limitations of the built environment.  

Therefore, creating a more sustainable and less-sprawled Los Angeles requires multiple changes in urban design and infrastructure that will, in turn, transform individual patterns on a citywide scale.  What would this entail?

First, land use policies must be revised to diminish the need for long-distance travel.  Despite its General Plan, Los Angeles still suffers from dramatic separations of land uses.  Residents and visitors must utilize their cars and the freeways to access to the City’s widely dispersed commercial and residential destinations.  

The best solution to this dilemma is mixed-use development.  A concentration of diverse uses at a single site enables a more sustainable outcome.  Quite simply, an individual does not need to go far if his or her needs are met within walking distance.  Mixed-use development creates a more compact neighborhood, less automobile congestion, and less greenhouse gas emissions, because of reduced car use.

Similarly, transit-oriented development (TOD) places residential and commercial activities near major public transit hubs.  TOD further reduces automobile reliance by providing easy access to public transportation for visitors and residents.  To be effective, however, TOD must incorporate a full range of complimentary on and off-site improvements, such as street furniture, newspaper vending machines and pay phones, street vendors and kiosks, ADA curb-cuts and widened walkways, tree canopies, street lighting, and bike lanes.  

Based on Owen’s analysis, they all comprise the walkable street environment needed to scale-down the auto-centric urban environment.  By refocusing urban design away from the convenience of the automobile and toward the bicyclist, transit rider, and pedestrian, a more sustainable Los Angeles could be systematically built.  

Furthermore, the State of California adopted the AB 1358, the Complete Streets Act, in 2008, and all California cities, including Los Angeles, have a mandate to fully consider transit riders, bicyclists, pedestrians, and the handicapped in all planning-related actions.

While this comprehensive makeover of Los Angeles sounds like a fantasy, other than New York, these techniques have already been partially achieved in Vancouver, San Francisco, Portland, and Boston.  

While, old habits may be hard to break, David Owens has demonstrated how alterations in urban design cause far-reaching changes in personal behavior.  Even some portions of Los Angeles successfully demonstrate the transformative effects of such policies.  For example, Old Pasadena and Larchmont Boulevard are examples of thriving business districts that have implemented pedestrian-oriented principles.  

In addition to whittling away at automobile use, walkability presents unique economic opportunities for these communities.  Their pedestrian-friendly design enhances the appeal of these local commercial hubs, and provides clear example of successful pedestrian principles that could be rolled-out on a citywide basis.

Another critical aspect of Los Angeles’s comprehensive transformation revolves around the quality and extent of its public transportation system.  Public transportation must be improved to satisfy demand and simultaneously address the negative effects of urban sprawl.  

An expanded transit system based on heavy rail, light rail, bus rapid transit, and traditional buses would establish a dense enough transit system to reduce traffic congestion.  More specifically, METRO and LADOT must increase the number and size of their public transit service vehicles to encourage and accommodate larger numbers of passengers.  

Articulated buses should be employed in increasing number.  Light rail development should continue, as well as the expansion of the current heavy rail subway system.  In essence, Los Angeles’s public transportation system must become bigger and better, so that it can actually meet the needs of a dispersed public.  

In addition, the quality of service must improve dramatically.  For example, every bus stop should feature a covered shelter with real time signage indicating bus arrival and departure times.  More importantly, public transportation needs to have shorter headways, reduced fares, and arrive and depart according to schedule.  

Furthermore, public transportation should be given priority access on streets and freeways, such as Wilshire Boulevard’s proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system.  Public transit deserves exclusive right-of-way lanes; the vehicle-traffic signal coordinating systems employed currently by BRT should be applied to all public transportation vehicles.  Every measure must be taken to make public transportation the fastest, safest, and most convenient travel option.  

In this manner Los Angeles could mitigate traffic congestion and address environmental concerns associated with high levels of automobile emissions.  Furthermore, all of this is based on existing technology and infrastructure whose design and effectiveness has been developed and demonstrated in many other urban areas, and, in some cases, locally.  

Conclusions: Reversing Los Angeles’s auto-centric urban design and infrastructure is a key component of its General Plan.  Furthermore, the General Plan identifies many key strategies for transforming Los Angeles into a more sustainable, less automobile-dependent city.  However, this document is not comprehensive enough to offset many decades of unsustainable growth.  

In addition to promoting carefully designed mixed-use and transit-oriented development, the city’s streets and sidewalks must be redeveloped for walkability and bikeability.  The City must make every effort to shift development away from the convenience of the car towards pedestrians, transit riders, and bicyclists.  

Then, the City must work to improve and expand the public transportation system within its existing boundaries.  The accompanying reductions in car use, roadway congestion, travel time, and pollution will begin to reverse the effects of urban sprawl, and could transform Los Angeles’ into a highly sustainable city.

(Max Tomaszewski graduated from USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy in May 2012 and looks forward to pursuing graduate work in urban planning. Dick Platkin teaches courses on sustainable city planning at USC and is a CityWatch contributor. He can be reached at:

Vol 10 Issue 62
Pub: Aug 3, 2012