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