By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Needless to say, participants in the New Partners for Smart Growth annual conference aren’t happy. Chatting over the hiss of the Bonaventure’s indoor fountain, they are mortified by the location, long derided for its fortresslike urban design. Still, they have other worries. One panelist at an evening session warns that the public is failing to make the link between sprawl and global warming. Another earnestly declares that the movement has failed to show how pedestrian-oriented designs can address obesity. If the makers of Waiting for Guffman find out about this event, they are going to have a field day.
One session features an employee of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, who tells the overeducated, extremely middle-class audience how to live here without owning a car. (He used a Global Positioning System to determine where he would have the most shops and services, then moved to congested West Hollywood.)
The session that most clearly signals the future of Los Angeles is led by Rex Gephart, a regional planning director for the MTA. He tells audience members the history of the red Metro Rapid bus, created seven years ago to address the city’s declining bus speeds. The Rapid bus is an elongated vehicle that stops infrequently, moves passengers in and out more quickly, and alters traffic signals by keeping green lights green.
The system was deemed a huge success and expanded from two routes in 2000 to 16 last year. It is cheaper to install than light rail, or heavy commuter rails like Metrolink, or even dedicated bus corridors like San Fernando Valley’s popular Metro Orange Line, built solely for buses.
But the so-called Rapid system is also slower than each of those other options, and getting slower every year.
In 2007, the average speed of a Rapid bus is 13.7 miles per hour. That makes the special, bright-red Rapid bus just 2 miles per hour faster than the citywide orange buses that stop constantly.
Among the most lethargic Rapid routes is the Metro Rapid on Western Avenue, which averages 10.9 miles per hour. That line slows as it heads toward the purported smart-growth village being created around the subway in Hollywood. Buses on Western and Vermont avenues — two key north-south routes that lead directly to subway stations — are so slow that they are dragging down the speed of the entire Metro Rapid system, Gephart says.
Eventually, the city will be forced to build special bus lanes on the big boulevards, says Gephart. And on that score, Gephart is thrilled with Villaraigosa’s leadership. “The mayor’s stepping up and saying, ‘I want a bus-only lane plan,’ ” Gephart declared during his talk.
To create a bus-only lane, Los Angeles has only two choices: either shave off 5 feet of sidewalk on each side of the street, a move that would infuriate smart-growth/pro-walking advocates, or gobble up one lane of traffic, almost certainly earning the wrath of angry motorists.
So far, the only street slated to have a bus-only lane is Wilshire Boulevard, the subject of two years of bickering between Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. Two other possibilities are Pico and Olympic boulevards. But for now, city and county officials disagree about how to reconfigure those streets.
Villaraigosa sent an envoy to the smart-growth conference — Mike Woo, a former mayoral candidate who served on the Los Angeles City Council from 1985 to 1993. Now a city planning commissioner, Woo founded the Smart Growth China Institute so that he could export the new urbanism to China, the largest developing nation on the globe.
Like many advocates of smart growth, Woo sounds like he is pinning most of his hopes on rail, not buses. Asked whether condos in Century City constitute smart growth, he voices doubts, saying that people with decent incomes, especially on the Westside, usually don’t take the bus. “Historically, it’s been harder for the MTA to win over a middle-class or upper-middle-class ridership — people who have the discretion to choose to take transit or drive a car,” Woo says.
Woo adds another wrinkle. Downtown Los Angeles, perhaps the one place in the city that accommodated density seamlessly over the last decade, has a lot of residents driving to work — frequently outside downtown. In other words, people changed their behavior, as smart-growth theorists had hoped, by moving into multistory buildings. Then they found jobs elsewhere, creating yet another traffic problem, Woo says.
“Finally, we’re getting the new [housing] units downtown, but it’s mostly going to people who don’t have jobs downtown,” Woo declared. “So if we have that problem downtown, I expect to have that problem even worse in Century City, Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles.”
Watch the Metro Gold Line roll into Pasadena and you will see a sight unlike any other in Los Angeles County: a train that stops right in the middle of a six-story apartment courtyard. In a region where the freeway is king, the arrival of the 8:52 a.m. train at the Del Mar Boulevard station – a sprawling series of structures that combine 347 homes, several still-vacant stores and a historic train depot — is positively unsettling. It’s like a piece of Portland sprouted up a few miles from the Rose Bowl.