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Road Sage

Could foot-friendly streets save us a drive?

Neighborhoods with generous sidewalks and easy access to amenities might solve L.A.'s traffic woes.

February 25, 2008|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

By the 1950s, the politicians and planners of Southern California had made their bet: Freeways would solve the awful traffic gripping city streets.

Now, Los Angeles officials are taking a different tack. With the Santa Monica Freeway congested, they're looking at increasing the capacity of Olympic and Pico boulevards to ease traffic on the Westside.

Life has a way of coming full circle, eh?

As is the case with most traffic plans, this one has caused a huge stink. Businesses and residents have complained that it would affect the livability of their neighborhood. Some have threatened to file suit to stop it.

Even if you don't participate in the steel-cage match that is Westside traffic, the dispute revisits a provocative question: What is the role of our streets? Do they exist to move a lot of traffic? Or should they be the spine of refurbished, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods? Can they do both?

"I like it when strong leaders do what's right and implement solutions," said Victoria Karan, president of the South Robertson Neighborhoods Council. But "this is an initiative for people who have to travel through our neighborhood and not live in it."

Still, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- with support from area Councilman Jack Weiss -- this month ordered the plan to be implemented, and it is set to start rolling out March 8.

In some ways, it's commendable for public officials to act now. Few do. Villaraigosa appeared on Charlie Rose last week and the first question lobbed at him involved traffic, and it's clear the mayor gets that there's a problem.

In this case, however, what the city is doing also happens to rub against the grain of modern urban planning.

"One way you can move toward less congestion is if you provide people better accessibility and walkability and more pleasant streets," said Gail Goldberg, the city's chief planner, who is not wild about the Olympic-Pico plan. "But as a city we're not ready for that conversation yet."

The concept of “complete streets” has been in vogue in planning circles for years.

The idea is to create neighborhoods and business districts that have many of the amenities needed in daily life so that residents don't have to drive everywhere. Part of that includes having streets with room for mass transit and generous sidewalks.

"If you design streets for traffic, you'll get lots of traffic," said Chris Morfas, an analyst for the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District, which is pushing for innovative ways to reduce smog. "If you design streets for people, you'll get people."

That is a tall order on the Westside. Here's how KFWB traffic reporter Jeff Baugh described the afternoon eastbound commute he often sees from his helicopter: "If you don't have religion in your life yet, you will by the end of that drive," Baugh said. "It's just jammed on every surface street. There's no way out."

The Olympic-Pico plan initially involves two concepts. One is to time traffic signals to help vehicles move faster on the westbound lanes of Olympic and the eastbound lanes of Pico. The idea is to treat the streets as if they were one-way because one-ways usually have better traffic flow.

It's the other idea that has everyone really going bananas. The city wants to remove most of the street parking during rush hour so that the curb lane can be used by traffic -- although parking on the north side of Pico east of Century City would still be allowed.

But businesses say they need the parking to survive, and the parking, of course, serves as a buffer between pedestrians and the cars and trucks zooming past -- the kind of "clear separation" for which the city's walkability guidelines call.

In the view of the city's transportation department, however, residents and businesses need not worry. "The city's experience is that older retail districts on major highways can be successful, vibrant and sustainable with peak-period parking restrictions," states a recent transportation department report.

The problem is, though some corridors such as La Brea and Sunset have lost on-street parking during rush hour, plenty of other streets have kept it.

And those streets are often a lot nicer, including Lankershim Boulevard in the North Hollywood arts district and Ventura Boulevard through Studio City. Outside the city, Santa Monica Boulevard through West Hollywood also looks great and is lined with popular shops.

All three have medians that soften the look of the street and still have two lanes of traffic moving each way. Pico Boulevard, on either side of Century City, isn't as nice as any of them.

At least, not yet. That's one reason Councilman Herb Wesson had the portion of Pico in his district, east of Fairfax, yanked from the mayor's proposal. He wants to give it a chance.

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