Dan Koeppel is a senior editor at The Wirecutter. He is the author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.
Despite its reputation, L.A. has deep walkable roots.
LOS ANGELES—The pedestrians moving along the elevated walkway at the center of downtown Los Angeles barely notice the bronze plaque, even when they’re stepping on it. If they do see it, the face sculpted into the memorial — that of Calvin Hamilton — is barely visible, scuffed and worn after years of traffic. It is also hard to tell exactly what Hamilton did to deserve such an honor. There's nothing in the engraving's text describing his Quixotic attempt to transform the city, or how he failed, miserably, to implement that plan. And there's certainly nothing to imply that Hamilton was a visionary, one of the first to recognize that Los Angeles had a problem with cars — and to try to solve that problem.
For the record, this is what the memorial says:
CALVIN S. HAMILTON PEDWAY
AN APPRECIATION - DIRECTOR OF PLANNING
CITY OF LOS ANGELES
The word "pedway" is the key to understanding the planner's vision. It is also the name of the peculiar kind of urban passage, the centerpiece of Hamilton's design, where the plaque itself sits. Hamilton's commemoration isn't on a city street or sidewalk. It's pressed into a circle of concrete on a pedestrian bridge at the heart of downtown, just a few yards from the Hollywood Freeway and a stone's throw from City Hall. About a dozen such pedways exist along Bunker Hill, the once-stately Los Angeles neighborhood that became, in the 1960s and early 1970s, an urbanized pod of skyscrapers and corporate plazas.
The pedways are the last remaining artifacts of Hamilton's vision. But the Los Angeles of the 21st century that is growing around them — more pedestrian friendly and deeply invested in public transit — reflect a city that's finally catching up with a figure it has mostly forgotten.
For Hamilton, those initial twelve pedways were supposed to be just the beginning. He envisioned hundreds across the city's 500 square miles. The Los Angeles he dreamed of would have been divided into 29 "Centers," or islands of development, connected by pedways, moving sidewalks, monorails, and mass transit. Beyond those intentionally-crowded zones, Hamilton proposed a Los Angeles of limits. Density would be restricted in residential communities; motor vehicles and rail would be given equal treatment; commercial development would be regulated; and parks — lots of parks — would be constructed.
Hamilton's plan, officially called "Concept Los Angeles" (it is also called the "Centers Plan"), debuted in 1970. The Los Angeles City Council passed it. But implementation immediately became bogged down in fights between developers, community advocates, and political forces. Without any practical plan at all, Los Angeles began to sprawl, and in 1986, city officials decided that Hamilton — who'd been accused of a conflict-of-interest over his involvement in a tourism venture — had to go.
"Cal's style is visionary, and that has served a purpose," former city council President Pat Russell told the Los Angeles Times. "But we're entering an era of implementation."
For the next two decades, "implementation" led to a city that was hostile to the needs of pedestrians, bike riders, and mass transit users. Unchecked growth meant freeways; it meant that Los Angeles continually topped lists of America's most polluted and slowest-moving cities. It meant that the memory of Hamilton, who died in 1997, was relegated to a faded plaque.
• • • • •
I moved to Los Angeles in 1989, and being a native New Yorker, immediately wondered whether it was possibly to actual travel my adopted city on foot. The answer, back then, was yes and no. If you lived in the city's crowded east side, then you absolutely could walk. And you wouldn't be alone, since tens of thousands of people — most poor, many immigrants, few owning cars — walked everywhere, too.
But for vast segments of the city, walking was almost impossible. Wide boulevards stretched west from the city's center. Many of them were intentionally built without sidewalks. Pedestrian crossings were sometimes a half-mile apart, and the police maintained a vigilance when it came to jaywalkers that one could only wish they'd have maintained in terms of drivers who treated those wide avenues as freeways. If you did walk in Los Angeles, you were either poor or wildly eccentric.
But I walked, a lot. It helped that I'm a bit obsessive — and found a focus for that obsession when I discovered, and began to catalogue, the dozens of public stairways that dotted Silver Lake, the neighborhood just west of downtown where I lived. I would travel with map in hand, counting and charting and modifying my route to make sure it was complete. If walking was an oddball activity, I wanted to create a community of oddballs. I wanted people to know that, tucked less than 100 yards from the always jammed Interstate 5 was a mile-long dirt road that felt like rural Vermont. I wanted to people to know about a passageway that's squeezed, ridiculously, between the north and southbound lanes of the 110 Freeway. If pedestrians can find the entrance, they can walk in what is fundamentally a two-mile long cage, designed to protect them from traffic. At night, the effect is such that walkers feel swept up by shimmering waves of light, red and white, from the head and taillights of the vehicles hurtling by.
I began to show my favorite spots to friends, and soon, my public walks were attracting hundreds of people. The Big Parade, as it was called, garnered media attention, too, which often included a headline or lead paragraph that riffed on the horrible key lyric in the horrible 1982 Missing Persons song: "Nobody Walks in LA." "If you believe that," I'd usually say, "you must only be looking through a car windshield."
One afternoon, I met a friend who promised to show me something new downtown. We met at the bottom of Angels Flight, a restored funicular railroad that's now a tourist ride, but which once was part of a series of vertical transports key — just like public stairways — to getting people to and from their destinations in a city whose geographic contours were created by tectonic upthrusts. In Bunker Hill's World Trade Center building, we entered a nearly empty passage that ended in a room with a beautifully sculpted frieze. The frieze celebrated various workers (trucks and granaries, cotton gins, trains, and tankers) but it also celebrated the passage itself. It was originally intended as the centerpiece in a whole network of such passages: Calvin Hamilton's plan.
At the end of the hallway, we turned again, emerging thirty feet above Figueroa Street, crossing above the rush-hour traffic into a busy hotel. A sign marked "pedway" directed us down a flight of stairs, into the hotel’s lobby; we crossed the street, arriving at a spiral staircase that led up to another high-line style sidewalk. It followed the east side of Figueroa for a block before opening up into a rounded, miniature plaza. At the center of the plaza — like the hub in a wheel — was the scuffed plaque. I took a picture and made a note: Find out who Calvin Hamilton was.
• • • • •
Through much of 2013, one of the most popular museum exhibits in Los Angeles was on display at the tiny Architecture & Design Museum in the Mid-Wilshire District, right about where sidewalk-free streets begin to appear. "Never Built Los Angeles" was an astonishing catalogue of foolhardy concepts, magical thinking, and most of all, hoped-for utopias. The exhibit showed dozens of proposed "improvements" on Los Angeles — from a bicycle freeway with toll booths to a "super-community" of pods to Hamilton's pedways — each of which not only envisioned paradise but aggressively dismissed previous visions of perfection.
Hyperbolic insensibility wasn't just limited to things that never (or barely) got underway. One of the founding documents of Los Angeles as it exists today is the city's 1941 master plan. The 112-page charter barely mentioned pedestrians, bicycles, buses, or trolleys — all of which were major modes of transportation in the years leading up to World War II — and instead stated in emphatic capital letters: "HIGHWAY TRANSPORTATION IS MASS TRANSPORTATION." With those words, freeway construction began, playing a game of leapfrog that continues to this day: capacity is estimated and exceeded, leading to suggestions that the problem is simply not enough freeways.
Freeway construction isn't over in Los Angeles — there are a couple of projects still on the books — but there's near-universal agreement that, certainly by Hamilton’s time, the idea that freeways were free – or fast – wasn’t panning out. Population had risen to six million; the number of vehicles exceeded three million, and the city was beginning a decades-long run as the nation's most polluted and congested urban area. (Lately we're doing better with pollution, thanks to cleaner cars, but we remain the city where people spend more time in traffic than anywhere else in the country.)
It was against that backdrop that Hamilton came up with his Concept Los Angeles. He didn't want to eliminate cars; instead, he came up with a whole second level for Los Angeles, a place where people would be removed from their vehicles. "Automobiles will be restricted to the ground level," Hamilton wrote. "Interconnected pathways for pedestrian circulation will be provided at the second floor and higher levels. This nearly complete separation of vehicles, transit, and pedestrians, will enhance the convenience, safety, and pleasantness of the core."
The dozen pedways surrounding Bunker Hill were all that Hamilton was able to see constructed, and all that's left. The arguments against the pedway system were numerous. It would be too expensive. It would segregate people from "real life" down below. But mostly the plan failed because Hamilton sought to restrict growth outside of his centers, which brought him into conflict with development interests. The result of Hamilton's lack of political skills — and the city's lack of political will — was the ugly sprawl that now defines L.A.'s outer suburbs: Intersections with fast-food restaurants at each corner; big box stores stacked into shopping centers as big as New England towns; and especially interminable, grinding commutes from the outer suburbs into the central business districts.
After his resignation, Hamilton continued to promote his vision as the best possible way to build a more human-scale city. "The term 'Los Angelization' has been used to denote uncontrolled growth," Hamilton wrote in a 1986 article in the Journal of the American Planning Association. "Someday 'Los Angelization' could come to mean controlled growth and preservation of the quality of life."
• • • • •
So where can we see the Los Angeles that Hamilton envisioned? For a long time, the answer was only in the ultimate regional fantasy product: the movies. The multi-tiered city envisioned by Concept Los Angeles played a huge role in 1982's Blade Runner, which is set in 2019. A more recent science fiction film, Spike Jonze's Her, used the pedways of downtown as a location, extending them and (with the help of computer-generated imagery) fulfilling Hamilton's plan, at least for downtown. Though I loved the movie, the storyline also seemed to confirm the worst criticisms of the Hamilton plan: rather than bringing people together, a multi-level Los Angeles turned out to be a segregating force, making people so isolated that they're forced to take virtual lovers.
Whatever flaws in Hamilton's own plan, he deserves credit for recognizing the social drawbacks of an urban vision that insists on seeing passenger cars as mass transit, pedestrians and bus riders and bike riders as superfluous, and building out rather than up. The question, almost two decades after Hamilton’s death, is how to get Los Angeles back on track. Today, Los Angeles County has 6.6 million registered motor vehicles and a population of more than 9 million. Commute times along its 20,000 miles of road, including 520 miles of freeway, are getting worse: in 2013 Angelinos averaged 64 hours in traffic, up from 59 the year before. There are positive signs, but a sort of institutional schizophrenia is still underway; though there are more plans to create bike lanes, extend sidewalks, and build new transit lines, those plans are often met with fierce — and usually irrational — opposition. "The problem is that policy hasn't caught up with reality," says Jessica Meaney, a member of the board of Los Angeles Walks, a pedestrian advocacy group.
Evidence of this gap comes as the California Department of Transportation keeps plans on the books for the region's last remaining to-be-built freeway, the 710, which would connect Pasadena to Long Beach. I recently was asked to lead a group of CalTrans officials on a tour of the pedways. The question of the 710 is kryptonite to many of them, but a few told me that they knew that adding a few more miles of freeway won't help the problem. "We know that the key is reducing the numbers of cars on the road," one freeway planner told me. "Not building more lanes."
For pedestrians, building is exactly what's needed. The city's sidewalks are in horrible shape (Hamilton's elevated pedways are an exception). Many of them were built in the 1920s, and tree roots have twisted and tilted them, creating hazards that have led to multiple trip-and-fall lawsuits, including a pair that were settled for $85 million. The city says that nearly half of its 10,000 miles of sidewalks need repairs, and the estimated cost for such a project tops $1.5 billion — an amount that dwarfs the city's sidewalk repair budget for 2013-2014, $10 million. Meaney says that part of the problem is that transit officials see street repairs and sidewalk repairs as separate issues. There needs to be a more holistic approach, she says, to making sure L.A.'s infrastructure is safe, well-maintained, and positioned for a future when fewer people will need or want cars.
In the meantime, the pedways still hover above the city, and make for a fun walk. Some people actually use them to commute, the way Hamilton intended. But their utility is limited by something Hamilton would have approved of: a flourishing downtown. Los Angeles is discovering that people don't need to be separate from cars the way Hamilton envisioned, they simply need to be celebrated above them. Along Bunker Hill and beyond, residential life — which for decades has felt like an afterthought in the city's core — is thriving. New housing, development along the Los Angeles River, and even a trolley line are all planned or under construction. The new downtown has mostly dispensed with attempts to tilt toward utopian ideas, focusing instead on common-sense notions for better lives.
The pedways may remain an artifact, rather than something useful, and there's been talk recently of whether they should continue to be maintained. I say they should, and the first step should be restoring that plaque. That should lead to a second phase of rehabilitation — Hamilton's reputation. It's a good direction for Los Angeles to walk.