The Joy of Poor Circulation
Listen to/Watch entire show:
Like love, a neighborhood is a sweet but fragile thing. Like affection, a neighborhood is easily lost.
On Monday you walked around the block for coffee and croissants, down where narrow streets filled pleasantly with a confusion of people and cars. There you idled in front of a flower shop and popped into a tiny market for apples, where you joked with the beautiful cashier.
Then lo, Tuesday morning you step out your door and find that someone has widened the street and added an onramp. At the end of the block, an Office Depot looms.
Just like that, romance flees. Soon you're driving to Costco for apples and croissants. Soon, you forget the beautiful cashier.
What happened? Someone saw the confusion of people and cars, and decided to improve your life with better traffic circulation. Your little local fling was sacrificed to that greatest of all affairs--the automobile. Your city squeeze was embraced by the great, gray sprawl of parking lots and Taco Bells.
Even here in L.A., we have a few genuine urban neighborhoods. Some exist from the old days, and some have grown up recently--but only where the streets are sufficiently tangled, or narrow, or so far from a freeway that it's hard for folks to jump in their cars and drive to Costco.
Love is complicated and inconvenient--and not coincidentally, the most inconvenient neighborhoods have the highest property values. Beverly Hills. San Marino. Brentwood. The Palisades.
As in all cities, everywhere, the best parts of L.A. happen where the traffic circulation is…lousy.
Well-meaning people rarely understand this. No, for half a century, they've gone about destroying great cities in the name of better traffic.
In L.A., the latest good intentions come from a politician who would turn historic Pico and Olympic into one-way expressways, damaging dozens of neighborhoods en route…places where traffic and parking are finally getting bad enough to make them work. Places where people are just now becoming tempted to walk or bike or catch a bus.
Now, urbanists have known for decades that the increased traffic speed of one-way streets makes walking less appealing. And they know that whenever circulation improves, people shop further, work further, and slowly abandon the love of neighborhood. Often, one-way streets reduce the use of buses, because riders have to walk too far to switch directions--that's not an issue with the new plan for Pico and Olympic, as it would create contraflow lanes for buses, but the "expressway" feeling would be considerable.* These roads would cease being "neighborhood main streets."
Most importantly, as the city spreads and thins, traffic ultimately gets...worse.
Back in 1961, the great urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote a book called The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which explained all this very clearly. And yes, across America, a few enlightened cities have stopped building expressways and have turned back to two-way traffic. They've learned to let congestion do its joyful work.
Maybe if every politician were forced to read Jacobs' book, their eyes would be opened. Maybe they'd see that a neighborhood with poor circulation is a neighborhood with hope--not to mention a place that might someday vote for subway bonds.
This morning the Urban Man strolls Pico near Robertson. This is my own little hood, where despite the immense wealth surrounding the boulevard, flower shops and cafés struggle. Like the politicians, I'm not sure they realize that improving circulation would make their situation worse, not better.
Personally, I'm thrilled to see drivers waiting in growing frustration for lefthand turns. In fact, I'd like to propose making this area much more difficult to navigate in an automobile.
Today, the Urban Man would like to formally propose narrowing Pico to one lane in each direction, then running a trolley right down the middle, from Downtown to the sea.
Just imagine the complications. In fact, such a move might improve not just my neighborhood, but encourage many happy affairs in what could someday be a great city for people instead of cars.
Copyright © 2007 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
*My apologies to County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, as the inclusion of busways was not mentioned in the original radio version of this piece. You can read the full details of his plan online.
Click the Full Details link to view the complete transcript. Tapes are not available.
Engage & Discuss
BROUGHT TO YOU BY