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Its car-reliant reputation might become a thing of the past.

Los Angeles has a new blueprint for its transportation future called Mobility Plan 2035. The city council just approved it this week by a 12-2 vote, and the reaction has been … mixed. Some people think the plan, which will put a new emphasis on non-automobile forms of transportation, creating more dedicated lanes for bikes and buses, is terrific. And some people really, really don’t.

The editorial board at the Los Angeles Times called it “an L.A. transit plan with vision,” saying that “[i]t's time for L.A. to shed its traditional automobile-centric approach and evolve into a modern, multimodal city.”

A community group called Fix the City sees things quite differently. “MP2035 is not a mobility plan,” the group wrote on its blog, “it is a plan designed to create immobility while enabling increased development and density.” In the same post, the group announced its intent to pursue a legal challenge to the plan “on multiple grounds.” (In 2012, Fix the City was part of a successful lawsuit that blocked a Hollywood rezoning plan that would have allowed for denser development on transit corridors.)

It’s no surprise that the new transportation plan inspires such divided opinions. Its fundamental assumptions challenge a view of Los Angeles that has dominated for a century—that of a city defined by the automobile. This is the L.A. you know from the movies and TV, the one that revels in the personal freedom the car affords while simultaneously lamenting its irritations and indignities. This is the city of the convertible, of the wind in your hair on the Pacific Coast Highway—and also the town where parsing traffic patterns is an art, and the ability to plot a clever route across town during the evening rush is a prized skill.

The new Mobility Plan calls that long-held identity into question, advancing the prospect of a future L.A. where the car is but one of several choices for getting around. It’s a vision that builds on an increasingly viable mass transit system (1.5 million people ride Metro rail and buses on an average weekday, according to the city’s figures), and one where bike commuting is not some far-fetched fantasy (L.A. saw a 56 percent increase in bike commuting between 2000 and 2010, although raw numbers of bike commuters are still low). It even puts congestion pricing on the table for consideration.

The Mobility Plan’s “key policy initiatives” all steer the city in a new direction, one in which the car is no longer the be-all and end-all of transportation. They include:

  • Establishing new standards for streets design that “will provide safe and efficient transportation for pedestrians (especially for vulnerable users such as children, seniors and the disabled), bicyclists, transit riders, and car and truck drivers.”
  • Using data to make transportation decisions, with safety, public health, and equity as top criteria.
  • Linking land use and transportation policy.
  • Making equity a prime consideration in transportation planning.
  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions “through a more sustainable transportation system.”
  • Expanding “the role of the street as a public place.”

The plan also calls for a “Vision Zero” approach to reducing traffic fatalities and serious injuries. Currently, according to the city’s figures, more than 36,000 city residents are injured or killed in motor vehicle crashes each year.

What’s really riling up opponents, however, is the city’s own admission that the plan could slow traffic speeds on certain streets during rush hour, and that access for emergency vehicles could be “inadequate”—although the plan’s backers say they don’t think that will come to pass because of reduced car use.

Fundamentally, the plan moves away from what traffic engineers call “level of service,” or sheer volume of cars moved along a street, as the ultimate design criterion, instead looking at vehicle miles traveled, with the goal of reducing the number of miles driven by the city’s residents. That’s a significant shift, and it’s no surprise that some people who spend hours each week stuck in traffic don’t get it and don’t like it.

Local shock jocks Jon and Ken railed against the “massive, ridiculous plan” on their KFI AM 640 radio show, giving voice to those Angelenos who think that any move away from a traditional, auto-focused transportation network is a dismal folly that smacks of social engineering. “They are going to try to create as much traffic as they can to drive you out of your cars,” said one of the DJs of the plan. “Screw the bicyclists. I hate bicyclists. I am developing a deep venom against them.”

Car-free events like CicLAvia (above, in 2011) have become wildly popular in L.A. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

That viewpoint is hardly unique, and when it comes time to propose individual bike lanes in particular neighborhoods, presumably such objections will be well-represented in community meetings.

The very existence of the plan, however, and its approval by the city council, signals that the city has already changed, like it or not. One-day CicLAvia events, which open streets in different neighborhoods to pedestrians and bicyclists for car-free exploration and fun, have become wildly popular since their inception in 2010, and are now the largest such events in the country. The resurgence of walkable Downtown L.A. as a residential neighborhood, along with the expansion of Metro, has made a new way of living possible for this generation of Angelenos. And regional advocates have for years pressed the city’s planners to consider access to public transit as a social-equity issue.

It’s already not the old L.A. anymore. Twenty years from now, if the city sticks to this plan, it could be a very different place indeed.

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