German Lessons

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

The favorite civic catch phrase in Los Angeles lately has been livable city. The goal of making LA more people friendly has been used to justify all manner of urban planning decisions, good and bad.

Yet you notice, things don't really change much. Instead of an admired and popular new public space such as Manhattan's High Line, we get LA Live.

The only train line to the airport still stops a mile short of the terminals. A subway to the sea? Yeah, well, we'll see.

But when a city works, it is a marvelous thing. This week I checked out one where they don't just talk the livable talk, they it.

My urban lab was Stuttgart, on the edge of the Black Forest in southern Germany. It's sort of an anti-Detroit. The biggest private employers are Porsche and Mercedes, but the car makers over there are doing fine. The city's thriving.

The difference hit me as soon as I landed at Frankfurt. Without ever leaving the airport, I rolled my bag onto an express train for Stuttgart, a bit more than an hour away.

On the way to the train I passed stalls selling fresh fruit, pastries, roasted sausage. Good coffee. More selection and better quality than in any terminal I've been in at LAX.

As the train sped south, I fired up my computer and sent some email. On arrival, I walked to my hotel, through a park that was once the king's garden.

My visit, just like the lives of real Stuttgarters, orbited around this park and the main station. Down one escalator was the hub of the city's streetcar and subway system. Down another level were the regional trains, sort of like a German Metrolink.

In front of the station opens a central shopping district that extends for more than a mile -- without any cars. There are the usual chains, plus specialty shops and department stores with grocery markets on the basement level.

But in any good city center, people don't come just to shop. They sit at cafes, browse at Stuttgart's new modern art museum, or stroll across large squares past restored castles.

The opera and the state theater are there, as well as history museums and the local seat of government. It's the center of city and regional life, and all geared to pedestrians.

Plenty of people drive in Germany, of course –- it's the home of the autobahn. But the decision was made, long ago, to adapt traffic to the city, not the other way around.

Shoppers coming by car park in underground garages that ring the downtown area. If you drive into Stuttgart from Frankfurt or the other big cities up north, you arrive via long tunnels that separate traffic from everyday life.

Bicycle routes are interwoven through the city and the surrounding fields, which this time of year are rich with cauliflower and cabbage headed for the sauerkraut pot.

Local officials want to go one step further toward livability and remove all surface train tracks from behind the station. They want to put them all underground and dig more tunnels -– then redevelop the old train yards.

OK, so most of this has no real application to L.A. But there was one German practice I could see bringing us immediate benefits.

Jut before red stop lights turn to green, there's a brief flash of orange. It's a little heads up to get ready, and it's brilliant.

Imagine how many more cars we could squeeze through on a green arrow if L.A. drivers were actually prepared to go.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.