Andrew Keatts | @Andy_Keatts | October 8, 2015
Car-loving Los Angeles won urbanist hearts this summer with the city council’s passage of a 20-year plan intended to reinvent the way its residents get around the sprawling city.
The city’s new transportation plan – dubbed Mobility Plan 2035 – aims to reduce its citizens’ overall driving habit by 600 million miles per year. It reimagines the city’s street network, taking hundreds of miles of lanes now used for cars and handing them over to bikes and buses, removing on-street parking and remaking the city for pedestrian safety and comfort. The L.A. Times mapped the whole ambitious blueprint.
City residents are now debating the wisdom of the plan, with competing op-eds and predictable anger from drivers who hear each element as assuring even further automobile congestion. A neighborhood group, Fix the City, has sued, arguing the plan will increase pollution as a result of more congestion and thus more idling.
But the debate obscures a more fundamental question: will the plan ever become reality?
“It’s more like, this is where we want to go, it’s an aspirational network,” said My La, the plan’s project manager with the city. “It can’t happen in one day.”
It’s a question for any long-term plan that’s intended to outlive mayoral administrations and city council term while straddling real estate booms and recessions.
City leaders are realistic about the likelihood of the vision ever coming to pass exactly as it’s described in the plan.
Initially, they’re putting in place specific projects on a much shorter time horizon. A 5-year plan, for instance, would have the city cut parking requirements near transit, install 3 miles of specific bikelane improvements on the Figueroa Street corridor, add another 10 miles of protected bikeways across the city, and open bus-only lanes on two major corridors by 2020 that would allow for buses to run on 5-minute intervals.
But over time, the plans become less specific and more conceptual. Nonetheless, a long-term vision is valuable too, even if it’s never fully realized, said Bill Anderson, director of planning at the engineering design firm AECOM and former president of the American Planning Association.
He points to Chicago’s Burnham Plan, a 1909 document that envisioned decades of growth and change in Chicago.
“Only 50 percent of it ever got implemented, but it shaped Chicago as we know it,” Anderson said.
Understanding a 20-year Plan
It’s understandable that residents and media want to look at the plan’s end goals – perhaps more than its interim steps – in order to get a sense of just how much it will affect their daily lives.
The plan is intended to be used as a road map that guides city leaders each year as they develop and approve specific projects, said My La, the city’s project manager for Mobility Plan 2035.
It’s a set of aspirations. Actually achieving them will happen on a year-by-year basis.
That means the picture it paints of L.A. in 2035 is very much a rough sketch. It’s uncertain whether the plan will significantly impact the day-to-day lives of Angelenos any time soon.
The city has an outline for the plan that will be updated every 5 years. The city’s budget doesn’t provide funding specifically for implementing the plan itself. Instead, it sees the projects as being incorporated into the existing and future capital budgets.
“It’s not calling for more funding or taxes; it’s just making sure that we prioritize our needs based on funding that’s already available,” La said. “We have a scarcity of resources, but we have many needs that we need to fill.”
Hilary Norton, executive director of the L.A. transit advocacy group Fixing Angelenos Stuck in Traffic (FAST), said the plan sets clear goals and expectations for leaders to follow in the coming decades.
“This is going to be fully implemented, but it’s going to be implemented by this document stating a vision, and politicians implementing it each step of the way,” she said.
In other words: approval of the plan itself doesn’t ensure the projects will go through. City leaders will still have to approve each of them individually over a period of years.
She also said she expects implementing the plan will grow easier over time. As each project comes to fruition, a constituency around streets and public spaces that aren’t solely for cars will grow.
The city says it will make its decisions going forward using data, tracking locations where car collisions are most frequent and pedestrians have the least access and targeting them for improvements.
“Maybe when we start to grow, the apprehensive areas will say ‘maybe we don’t want our children to get hit when they cross the street,’” La said.
Big Picture Thinking
The likelihood that the plan to remake L.A.’s streetscape over the next 20 years ever comes to pass relies heavily on the decisions leaders make on housing and development, as well as the types of investments regional leaders make.
Without making way for increased housing density that makes the new bus and bike lanes worthwhile, the plan won’t matter, Anderson said.
“If you put all this investment in but still have low-density housing, it’ll still take so long to get from point-A to point-B that they’ll still use a car,” Anderson said. “So the answer of success is always, ‘it depends.’”
While the project’s short-term implementation is far more assured than its big-picture vision, Anderson said it’s important also to remember that 20 years isn’t so long, in planning years.
“2035 may seem like a long time from now, but most people would say 1995 doesn’t seem like that long ago, and if they made different decisions in 1995 we wouldn’t have some of the issues we have today,” he said.
And even plans like the one in Los Angeles, which doesn’t have a dedicated funding source, are still largely dependent on how revenue materializes based on a future economic picture. An ambitious plan that remakes miles of city streets will be decidedly more modest if the city hits a budget crunch in coming years. And if budgets remain healthy, it might not take 20 years to reach the grand vision at all.
“The right thing to do is take a grain of salt to what the plan is in a very particular flavor at the time of its release,” said Erik Bruvold, president of the National University System Institute for Policy Research – a Southern California think tank focused on housing, transportation, economic and municipal policy.
He argues that the specifics of the plan aren’t as significant as its overarching goals. Essentially, he says, it’s crazy to think the plan that actually unfolds over the next 20 years will mirror what emerged this summer.
And L.A. is already getting a taste of one of the biggest impediments to the plan coming to life: legal challenges.
Right now, the lawsuit challenges the plan as a whole on grounds it’ll cut the miles traveled by car but also increase congestion, and therefore idling, that’ll undo any environmental gain.
As the city rolls out each individual project, it can expect more lawsuits from neighborhood groups who may try to find ways to use California’s environmental laws as a means of stopping those projects.
“Environmental lawsuits at some point will stop plans from moving to fruition,” Bruvold said. “That’s a warning about, just how worked up should we really get with these plans? As opposed to focusing on a short-term, 2- to 5-year expenditure plan, where you’re actually talking about breaking ground in that period of time.”