Los Angeles’ Pedestrian Environment

Last week, Tyler Cowen wrote that Los Angeles is the best city in the world based on several factors, including that it’s one of the best cities for walking. While he makes the valid point that LA’s beautiful weather gives it an advantage over many other American cities with good walking opportunities, I have to disagree that it ranks among the best cities for walking as a tourist or for enjoyment. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this topic because my boyfriend is from LA and has often tried to convince me that it has great walking neighborhoods.

Tyler is clearly correct that weather is an important aspect of walkability, so whether or not LA can compete with older, colder American cities on walkability depends on the walker’s preferences for weather relative to other factors like aesthetics and safety. Personally, I weight urban design much more heavily for walkability than weather, and from this standpoint I don’t think LA can compete with the few cities built before wide boulevards became standard street construction. As Nathan Lewis points out, American city planners began building wide streets well before personal cars became common for transportation. Only the U.S.’s oldest neighborhoods that predate the Revolutionary War feature the narrow streets that facilitate a pedestrian scale environment.

Stephen Stofka at Strong Towns supports 1:1 as the best ratio of building height to street width, but personally, I prefer a “really narrow street” design with mid-rise buildings, with a ratio often approaching 2:1. With buildings taller than the streets, pedestrians feel a sense of enclosure and close-in building facades pull the walker along as compared to the expansiveness of wide streets that make comparable walking distances feel farther. Although some call Boston’s financial district an urban canyon, to me it’s one of the most interesting places to walk that I’ve seen in the U.S. It’s building height to street width ratio is much higher than 1:1.

Photo by Doug Kerr

Photo by Doug Kerr

Even in Los Angeles’ relatively walkable neighborhoods, street widths typically dwarf building height. Take Wilshire Blvd, for example, which Tyler cites as one of the best walking streets. Using Streetmix to estimate, it’s about 90-100 feet wide. Wilshire does some have 10+ story buildings, but it doesn’t have the continuous facade of 9 or 10 story buildings that would give it a pleasant proportion.

Wilshire

Some might consider Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade one of the most walkable places in the LA area. To me, the pedestrian experience for shoppers there doesn’t compare to the similar touristy shopping streets in older New England cities with streets half as wide.

Third Street Promenade

Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade above vs. Edgartown’s Main Street below.

edgartown

Photo by Josefina Casals

 

In my opinion, downtown LA is the exception to the city’s generally poor pedestrian environments. The historic core’s streets, developed as residential streets in the late 1800s, are, surprisingly, narrower than some of New York or Chicago’s downtown streets of earlier eras. And of course it’s home to some amazing Art Deco architecture.

Broadway LA

If Angelenos wanted to prioritize pedestrian environment over driving convenience in the future, narrowing streets is even more difficult than the monumental policy challenge of lowering parking requirements. While parking lots can be developed as land becomes more valuable to create a continuous building facade, selling development rights to narrow a street would be a slow and painful process, and it would take decades of development for building facades to slowly be built out toward streets.

Making Los Angeles streets narrower is probably impossible, but the city could make changes to the land use regulations governing Wilshire and its other streets with potential for walkability by continuing to pursue land use deregulation in the vein of the failed Hollywood Plan. Allowing for taller buildings and continuous facades would improve the building height to street width ratio on some of the city’s most expensive land where high rises are financially feasible. However, political opposition to the Hollywood Plan’s deregulation demonstrates the difficulty of marginal policy changes that would allow LA to become more enjoyable for walkers.

LA has many great features, but in my opinion it doesn’t compete overall with older cities as a walking city. Pedestrians in the Northeast must endure sub-freezing temperatures and regular precipitation, but personally I would still choose to go for a walk in the few neighborhoods with narrow streets in Philly, Boston, or lower Manhattan over LA’s sunny, expansive boulevards.

  • Aldyen Donnelly

    Have you walked in Vancouver? More than a few decades ago, City council adopted key development principals, including but not limited to: (1) the maintenance of view corridors, and (2) development guidelines that established a maximum footprint any new building could have on its lot.

    The net result is that for any given density target, buildings have to be taller, to comply with the footprint limit. typically! this limit means more public space at street level and more opportunity for light to get to street level. In theory (and often, in practice), the nine official view corridors mean that walkers get full water or mountain views (if it is not raining!) at least once every two blocks.

    As a result of experiencing Vancouver, I tend to vote for a > 2:1 building height to street width ratio, as long as the building footprint cannot cover more than, say, 70% of the land of the lot it occupies (with additional provisos for street level me entities).

    Also, Vancouver did not start to get into multi-use (retail first two floors, commercial next 2 or so, then residential farther up), until the mid-90s. But love what this translates into on the street. Baby strollers and dog walkers appearing to lunch alongside suits at food trucks on sidewalks in business districts. It feels great.

  • Emily Washington

    I’ve never been to Vancouver, but I know many people rank it among the best walking cities. That’s an interesting policy, and has something in common with NY’s rules for ziggurat buildings that allow height while still requiring setbacks at higher floors for light to reach street level. However, do you find that the setbacks or breaks in the street wall create needed to get buildings down to 70% of the lot create dead space for pedestrians? If not, how do Vancouver’s developers avoid that?

  • LetsGoLA

    I think there are two questions when it comes to walkability. One, on an aesthetic level, is it enjoyable to walk in the city? Two, on an abstract level, is the city functional if you have to try to get things done on foot?

    On the first question, some things are obviously going to be a matter of taste. Narrow streets are popular today, but in the past they weren’t… otherwise we wouldn’t have so damn many wide streets. Personally, I like the openness and brightness of many LA streets. But I also lived in Boston for a while, and I really liked the narrow streets too – I’d often go out of my way to avoid the main streets and walk through the really narrow streets in the North End, Downtown, and Chinatown. If you ever visit Seoul, you can explore some amazing streets just by picking a random subway stop, walking out, and turning off the main road into the alleys. Interestingly enough, some newish Seoul apartment buildings on really narrow streets take a page right out of the LA book and stick parking on the ground floor.

    If your preference is really narrow streets, LA is probably never going to be able to match places like the North End or Seoul on a big scale – it’s just alleys here and there. (Next time you’re in Santa Monica, check out the alleys on either side of 3rd St – I think in the future, their potential as narrow streets will be realized.) Selling rights to develop street space and make streets narrower would be tough and take a long time, as you say, and it it would probably only make sense where land values are high, because of the need to move utilities.

    On the second question, LA isn’t great, but the city has the right structure to be successful. The questions for functional walkability are (a) what’s within reasonable walking distance and (b) do facilities for walking exist? Part (a), LA does pretty well. For example, from where I live in Palms, there’s three supermarkets, a few convenience and drug stores, several coffee shops, and plenty of restaurants in walking distance. Because commercial development follows the arterials all over the place, most people in LA are actually within walking distance of a lot of things. Part (b) is where LA comes up short. We haven’t caught up to a lot of other cities in terms of things like putting ped phases at traffic signals on automatic recall or adding in missing crosswalks at intersections where they’re only provided on three of the four legs to facilitate traffic flow. The other missing amenity when you’re walking in LA is often other people walking. Walking along a busy street isn’t nearly as bad if the sidewalk is busy.

    Part of the problem is parking, because in many parts of the city, you know parking is going to be available at both ends of your trip. People could walk… but people are lazy! People in LA routinely drive distances that would get you institutionalized in an east coast city with limited parking. My sister lives two blocks – two! – from the supermarket in East Hollywood, but she usually drives because she gets a parking spot at her apartment and there’s plenty of free parking at Vons. In Boston or New York, you’d never drive two blocks, even in the shittiest weather.

    People’s habits can be stubborn, but they’re often remarkably flexible once money is involved. Donald Shoup is on the advisory committee for the city’s rezoning effort, so hopefully his ideas on parking will start to get more traction. I think once free parking is no longer a given, people will start to realize that LA is pretty walkable. And seeing more people walking will make it seem more walkable too. Walking in LA will probably never feel the same was walking in an old world city or neighborhood, but it will be a pleasant way to access a lot of what the city has to offer.

  • http://facebook.com/johnhupp John Hupp

    I would argue that Los Angeles does not want to be Boston, but rather wants to be Hausmannian Paris. To come at the problem from a different angle, Los Angeles is an unpleasant walking environment because all the “boulevards” (as they were historically designated) are in fact stroads. If Wilshire were a modern multi-way boulevard, with an expanded pedestrian realm and better-place street trees, it would be a lot more pleasant than it is today. It would not, in any manner, resemble Boston.

    For what it’s worth, though, I have chosen to live in downtown Long Beach, which has narrow 19th-century streets.

  • anonymouse

    One disadvantage of LA weather is that it can get pretty hot in the summer. Now, it’s not humid, so the heat isn’t too bad as long as you have shade to keep the sun from beating down on you constantly. Unfortunately, far too many of LA’s street trees are palms, often of the varietly that’s a 5 story pole with a tiny mop of leaves on top, which provides exactly zero shade, and occasionally drops those leaves on your head as well. If they managed to fix that problem (which they are slowly doing), LA would become a much more pleasant place to walk.

  • Rico

    I don’t think Vancouver requires setbacks for the podiums. It only applies to the tower portion of the development.

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  • DMalcolmCarson

    I don’t think Cowen was trying to say that LA was more walkable than the pre-Revolutionary Era cores of the major East Coast cities, just that it was more walkable than it’s generally given credit for. My personally, I’ll take a stroll along the Venice Beach boardwalk on an 80 degree December day over pretty much anything else.

  • OnTay Johnson

    uuugh, what do you consider hot? 85 with no humidity? The rest of the country’s “hot” sucks. Our hot is only really hot to people who don’t know how nice it is to actually have shade that works. You guys are spoiled here, trust me, I’m from WI and our summers are waaay hotter than yours. Rarely do I hear about old people dying in LA heat, heard and still hear it all the time in the Chicago/Milwaukee areas during their summers.

  • PatrickP

    If you’ve ever been on the Third Street Promenade on a Saturday afternoon in July you know that the problem is not that it is too wide. It’s that it is not wide enough.