An ongoing contentious conflict in Los Angeles, that affects every resident, is the conflict between automobile drivers and other users of the city’s public spaces. This city, which has been designed in deference to the automobile since the 1920’s, is facing new challenges from pedestrian, bicycle and public transit advocates seeking to reclaim a larger share of the city streets. Surprisingly, and without much public attention, this car-centric city has already adopted a new policy giving substantial ground to these advocates.
By a 12-2 vote, the City Council recently adopted what is called the Mobility Plan 2035, which calls, among other things, for putting many city streets on a “road diet” to allow more room for bicycle lanes and sidewalks. A few city streets have already been re-striped to add bike lanes and reduce the number of lanes available for cars. Advocates of the “road diet” approach claim that removing traffic lanes, and improving access to the city’s amenities by other means, will improve the quality of life and actually improve traffic flow in many areas. (Some of these arguments are summed up in this LA Times article.) If you accept the premise that traffic is caused by having too many cars trying to use the available street space, then the best way to reduce traffic is to adopt measures aimed at reducing the number of cars. The alternative approach of attempting to accommodate increased traffic by building even more roads, has been shown time and again to encourage greater reliance on cars, and results in even more traffic.
Drivers naturally feel threatened by the new policy of re-allocating scarce road space away from cars. They are skeptical of the argument that they and other drivers will be coaxed out of their cars by these new measures, and they can be expected to fight them vigorously. An organization called Fix the City that claims to represent the public interest (though it has no members) has already filed a CEQA lawsuit attempting to reverse the city’s adoption of its new mobility plan.
So this conflict is likely to play out in court, where instead of being able to engage in an orderly process of determining a reasonable allocation of competing uses for public space, the parties will instead be forced to argue about whether the city complied with applicable environmental regulations and statutes.
The conflict will also play out in contentious public meetings, where advocates for motorists, public transportation, bicyclists and pedestrians will see who can shout the loudest. As another LA Times column points out, however, it is only through greater public involvement that all competing concerns can be properly addressed. And public meetings can once in a while provide an opportunity for eloquent voices to be heard, as in the video clip below, where 11 year old Matlock Grossman shames the drivers who curse at him merely for trying to ride his bike to school.
Instead of turning this debate into a legal problem that frames the issues in a way that may not directly address all of the stakeholders’ real concerns, or into a zero-sum power struggle in which the demarcation of every inch of pavement is seen as a gain or loss for each side, what is needed is for all participants in this debate to try to better understand one another’s perspectives on this important issue of the allocation of public space. We should all be able to do that, since we all find ourselves using a variety of modes of transportation at different times. But if you are viewing the problem of traffic congestion only from behind the windshield of your own car, you might have trouble seeing how you yourself are contributing to the problem, or appreciating how the speed and noise of cars can affect others who are trying to cross the street or use the sidewalks. With a better understanding of other perspectives, we should be able to work together to design solutions that improve everyone’s ability to use public spaces. After all, we share a common interest in making the city streets and sidewalks safer, more usable and pleasant places to spend our time.