Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
As the city becomes more foot-friendly, some car-centric habits die hard.
They say Los Angeles is becoming a great walkable city—and perhaps that it already is. In California, trips on foot have been on the rise since 2000. And with the city's continued expansion of rail service, development around new transit stations, and blossoming "suburban downtowns" like Long Beach and Pasadena, Los Angeles is projected to rank 11th among 30 U.S. metros in walkability in the near future.
Naturally, there are growing pains. Two local stories this month highlight how old mindsets and policies die hard in the infamously car-reliant city.
Police Aggressively Ticket Pedestrians Downtown
In late April, the Los Angeles Times reported on a spate of traffic tickets given to pedestrians who stepped into crosswalks after the signal's red hand began to flash—which, as I was not aware, is indeed illegal there and in many other cities. In a four-year period, LAPD officers have distributed more than 17,000 citations for this offense in L.A.'s downtown core alone, four times as many than in the next highest area. Tickets run an eye-popping $197, a major sum for anyone, and an especially big blow to L.A.'s low-income communities of color, who rely most heavily on public transit. As Streetsblog noted, many of the crosswalks LAPD has been targeting are adjacent to high-foot-traffic Metro entrances.
This aggressive ticketing is meant to keep pedestrians safer, but it certainly upholds the auto-centrism L.A. is known for at their expense. Placing such punitive measures on pedestrians in what is easily L.A.'s densest, most walkable area sends a message way out of whack with the city's foot-friendly future: Don't Walk Here.
Public Staircases Become Private—and Maybe Public Again
Just a few miles from downtown comes this cringe-worthy video of a heated encounter between a pedestrian advocacy group and a local homeowner. The Big Parade organizes an annual 35-mile walking tour of the east side of the city, with a special emphasis on the public staircases that trace many of its hilly neighborhoods.
Citywide, there are nearly 450 of these staircases, built mostly in the 1920s and 30s to connect residents to schools and transportation at street level. But in the past few decades, many have been closed to the public due to neighborhood complaints about "burglary attempts, drug deals, loitering, poor maintenance, and excessive trash," according to LAist. Many advocates say the city gave unfair preference to property owners as it made those closures.
The Parkman-Westerly Terrace staircase in Silverlake was shut down in the 1990s, but that didn't stop the Big Parade from marching by this past weekend to make a point about public right-of-way. After Bob Inman, author of “Finding Los Angeles by Foot," had posed with fellow paraders by the gated steps with a makeshift sign reading, "This Is a Public Street," a homeowner came out with a strong rejection of that idea.
"You're standing on private property, this is no longer a public street," he tells the REI-clad walkers. "You are choosing to try and open the street [and] that is putting my family and everybody else at public risk."
Having a public throughway in your backyard comes with certain inconveniences and concerns. Plenty of homeowners with properties adjacent to staircases have fought with the city to close down the paths. But many argue that the positive public impacts of open stairs far outweigh the negative private ones, especially as L.A. moves towards greater walkability.
"Stairs are like public parks," Charles Fleming, the author of a guide to the steps, told Patch. "... [They] are heavy pedestrian areas that would allow active, healthy use by citizens."
Officials Will Try to Make Adjustments for Pedestrians
In the case of the jaywalking citations, the City Council is getting its act together. This week, Councilmembers Mike Bonin and Jose Huizar asked the LAPD to explain to the City Council where and why these tickets are being issued, and what evidence supports the idea that such a law makes pedestrians safer.
As for access to public staircases, a representative from Councilmember Tom LaBonge's office has said that re-openings would "requires some get-togethers and discussion." That's not a whole lot of action. But it's still true that L.A.'s staircases—like its sidewalks and trains—are getting more use than they have in a long time. A critical mass of pedestrianism just might eventually force NIMBYs aside.