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Sam Hall Kaplan

Taking Narrow View of Sidewalks

April 19, 1987|Sam Hall Kaplan

Why parts of Los Angeles look the way they do, continued:

Buried in a recent magazine article describing a day in the life of Los Angeles City Council President Pat Russell was a revealing few paragraphs devoted to a meeting she had held at City Hall with three traffic engineers.

Discussing how traffic congestion in her West Los Angeles district might be relieved, one of the engineers suggested widening Lincoln Boulevard by reducing its sidewalks to seven-foot widths.

"Seven feet?" Russell is quoted asking the engineer.

"That's what there is on Melrose," replied the engineer. "We know because we went out and measured it. It works. People don't have a problem with it there. . . ."

Yes, sections of the sidewalk on Melrose Avenue are just seven feet wide, narrower if you consider the obstructions in the form of lampposts, parking meters and newspaper vending machines.

And, yes, serendipitous Melrose works. People on the sidewalk seem to squeeze by one another, though it is hard when couples walking hand-in-hand are confronted by couples walking in an opposite direction. Stopping to look at a window display also can be hazardous.

Yes, Melrose works, but not because of the narrowing of the sidewalk; rather despite of it. And certainly it does not work as well as it could have if the sidewalk had been left alone, or indeed improved.

Just consider how much more attractive and successful Melrose could have been with wide sidewalks; if there were room for engaging sidewalk cafes, a canopy of trees to shade the strollers from the harsh midday sun, flower displays to brighten the street and benches on which to sit and rest weary feet and watch the crowds pass by.

In the narrowing of Melrose's sidewalks, Los Angeles lost another opportunity to create a very special pedestrian environment, a street for promenading.

Meanwhile, traffic on Melrose is not moving much faster these days, despite a few new left-hand turn lanes. The little vacuum that was created by the widening has quickly filled up.

And what if the trendy stores of Melrose pull the plugs on their neon signs and move on, as such stores tend to do?

Then Melrose with its sidewalk forever sacrificed will be just another ugly street, with no canopy of trees, no sidewalk cafes and no landscaping. That is what happens when the planning of a city is usurped by the short-range projects of traffic engineers.

As for Lincoln Boulevard with its profusion of mini-malls, tacky signage, used car lots and random commercial development, it is hard to imagine how narrowing the sidewalk would make the strip through Venice and into adjoining Santa Monica any uglier. But it will.

And after the narrowing and other such street "improvements," merchants there, no doubt, will still be blaming the poor business on the lack of parking and the traffic congestion. And the city, no doubt, will once again turn to the traffic engineers for a solution.

While traffic engineers should not be faulted for doing their job, which is to analyze and facilitate traffic, one would hope that before the city starts chopping up streets, the broader implications should be considered.

Even assuming that a street widening does facilitate traffic, at least for a while, is it worth the cost in terms of neighborhood disruption and permanent damage to the streetscape?

There is more to a city than just being able to get from one place to another easily. After all, what does one do when he or she gets to wherever they are going? It is nice to be able to drive to Melrose, but really nicer still to be able to park and walk and window shop along the street.

Perhaps it is time to hire some pedestrian engineers to form a bureaucratic lobby to counter the knee-jerk recommendations of street widenings by the traffic engineers. And if not pedestrian engineers, what about planners? Aren't they the professionals who are supposed to be responsible for the shaping of the city's land and streetscapes, not traffic engineers?

Of course, we also can have an enlightened Transportation Department that understands the nature of a changing city and tries to adjust policies and projects to serve both traffic and pedestrians.

This hope was prompted recently by the visit here of New York City's deputy commissioner of transportation, David Gurin. Though on vacation, visiting friends, Gurin, a respected planner, could not help but make some observations.

Concerning street widenings, Gurin declared that in most cases they are "utterly counterproductive." He called them an ancient solution that has proven wrong wherever tried in established urban area.

"It is axiomatic that any street widening will fill up with cars," Gurin said. "What you want to do is discourage traffic in residential and select commercial districts, not encourage it. In New York, wherever we are now reconstructing streets, we are exploring how they can be redesigned to better serve pedestrians and the neighborhoods."

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