The idea of “complete streets”—that is, streets designed with all users, not
just cars, in mind—isn’t a new one, but it hasn’t caught on everywhere yet. On
Friday, planners, engineers, advocates, and students convened at the second
annual UCLA Complete Streets for California conference at the Kyoto Grand Hotel
downtown to renew their excitement in complete streets, see photos of cool
projects around the country, and discuss how to make complete streets the norm
in California. Advocates hope a widespread focus on complete streets in
California could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging more
walking and biking, but also promote healthier lifestyles, as explained by UCLA
public health professor Richard Jackson.
The head cheerleader was keynote speaker, Gil Penalosa, executive director of
healthy communities nonprofit 8-80 Cities and former
government supporter of complete streets initiatives in Bogota, Colombia (where
Ciclovia, a model for Los Angeles’ CicLAvia, happens every Sunday). He made a
case for designing cities where people age 8 to age 80 would feel safe and able
to move around—“Mobility is a human right.”
He reminded attendees that Californians aren’t unique in their attachment to
automobiles, and that some of their attachment may be a myth—one-third of Los
Angeles residents do not drive. He offered encouragement like, “If these cities
[Copenhagen, Vancouver] can do it, any city in California can do it.” If there’s
a will, there’s a way, given, of course, the right combination of funding and
support from city staff, politicians, and citizens.
In Los Angeles there’s a unique combination of challenges, not the least of
which is a minimum of four different agencies own the streets, reminded Tim
Papandreou, deputy director at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation
Agency. A former Angeleno, Papandreou brings both a local perspective and that
of a distanced observer to his view of how L.A. develops.
The property owner owns the area outside his business, but the Departments of
Public Works, City Planning, Metro, and others, also have a piece of the puzzle.
Still, Papandreou believes a change in favor of more pedestrian and
bicycle-oriented streets is possible in Los Angeles—“It’s going to happen,” he
says. “The political environment will change. In San Francisco, you were crazy
to run on a complete streets platform 10 years ago. Now, you’re crazy not
Despite the constraints, some progress has been made in LA since last year’s
conference. For one, a complete streets program was made official in October
2011with the Model Design Manual for Living Streets for Los Angeles County.
On Sunday, the Sunset Triangle pedestrian plaza, the first of its kind in LA, opened in
Silver Lake at Sunset Blvd. and Griffith Park Blvd.
At the conference, Valerie Watson, board member on the Downtown Los Angeles
Neighborhood Council, discussed plans for three “parklets” (mini parks) downtown
that would each take the place of two on-street parking spaces. The project,
which would create a communal space, an active space, and a passive space for
people, was approved by council motion in September, and may be erected as early
as this spring.
Complete streets may slowly be coming to Los Angeles—and California. But a
wrap-up session on moving forward and making more changes sparked a lot of talk
and not many answers. Governor Jerry Brown’s dissolution of redevelopment agencies , which provided funding for many of these projects, may complicate matters.
The complete streets initiative, though, is still getting started. There is
ample material for research still to be done and learning from the successes and
failures around the world. Brian Taylor, professor of Urban Planning at UCLA and
director of the UCLA Lewis Center, noted that the idea has generated a lot of
excitement (particularly at the conference Friday), and that we may well be a
transition period from an era of street design focused on cars to an era of
street design focused on people, not cars.