Market Realities and Urban Planning: Challenges of a Growing Los Angeles in the Sharing Economy

NateGaleHead.jpgGuest blog by Nat Gale, Great Streets Program Director, LA Mayor's Office

More people are moving to Los Angeles. But does that mean we need more road capacity and parking?

That's the question on my mind--and on the mind of many planners these days--regarding how to build livable and sustainable neighborhoods. It's something I've thought about since I studied civil engineering in New York City, where one professor required field trips to understand neighborhoods from a human scale. I learned that transportation and community development are inherently linked. Mayor Garcetti understands this basic principle, which is why his first Executive Directive created the Great Streets Initiative. I am now tasked with carrying out this effort, and am constantly looking to answer another question: how do we improve our streets to better serve the needs of communities and people?

The streets of Los Angeles have been shaped by decades of policy focused on increasing vehicular carrying capacity, leading to narrower sidewalks and less public space for people. However, some communities have pushed back against the notion that all streets should be designed in this manner. In West Hollywood the city actively slowed down speeds on Santa Monica Boulevard to create a vibrant, walkable community.

LA has similar neighborhoods with great potential, incredible diversity, and high quality of life. But an irony of current planning is that under modern law, some of our most loved neighborhoods would be impossible to build today because of parking requirements. We must develop smarter ways to promote street life in our great neighborhoods.

And Los Angeles is well on its way, which was a central theme of the Shared Mobility Ecosystem panel that I moderated at the LiveRideShare conference in February 2015. The City's Mobility Element, if adopted, will promote a new way of prioritizing infrastructure development along our streets. And we heard stories from the West San Fernando Valley, which we think of as a suburb, where it's clear that Angelenos want local serving main streets that are walkable and vibrant. They don't want to have to drive to Culver City or the Grove. They want great streets in their backyard.

But there are still huge challenges, even when we think we have a policy solution that works. Take the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan. To encourage more development on underutilized parcels in an area near Chinatown, the city removed parking requirements for development. The neighborhood is adjacent to the Gold Line and not far from Union Station, so it's already got great transportation options. It was hailed as a victory for a new policy paradigm where we let market forces dictate the appropriate amount of parking. However, development hasn't rushed in. This may be due to the fact that lenders don't look at individual neighborhoods when financing projects -- they have a model for the whole nation. And if banks demand parking and won't loan to developers that don't build it, then the project doesn't pencil.

It's not surprising that lending institutions haven't caught up. We've never seen transportation systems evolve so rapidly. Uber and Lyft have changed how people move through cities. Your phone, rather than your car, is your status symbol. For this reason, Mayor Garcetti is looking for a transportation futurist at the Department of Transportation. We want someone who can help us plan for these changes.

We're already moving forward in tangible ways. Bike share is coming. Car share is at our rail stations, with the city exploring point-to-point car share as well. Should we still plan for a future where privately owned cars sit unused-taking up space needlessly - 90 percent of the time? Perhaps driverless cars will help solve this problem.

Programs like CicLAvia, our successful farmers markets, and LACMA's Friday Night Jazz series demonstrate that Angelenos want to spend as little time as possible in their cars and more time among other people. That's going to mean all neighborhoods have robust local services, where people can walk and bike to a vibrant main street. It's clear that people want calmer streets, better signage, more street trees, and updated zoning. Will they still want more road capacity and parking? It's hard to predict. Because the only constant on our streets is change.

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