LA’s public works: Rethinking the city’s transport infrastructure

by Charles Critchell

Illustration by Nate Kitch
Illustration by Nate Kitch

Los Angeles divides opinion. For some it is a land of sun-drenched beaches and palm-lined boulevards. For others, car-choked freeways and a monotonous urban fabric – dominated by its sprawling grid – are the images which live longest in the memory. The fact that it is all these things, and more, is no doubt why it can be considered so divisive; the perception of Los Angeles the place versus the lived reality of Los Angeles, as a place. Friends had been quick to caution me before I had left to visit. Their warnings – from the impossibility of walking anywhere and the problematic public transport, to how I would simply dislike the place – fell largely on deaf ears.

So, when a couple of weeks later I had alighted from the serenity of an air conditioned bus having carelessly missed my stop, I enthusiastically took to the sidewalk to prove them wrong. As I slogged my way back along La Brea Boulevard however, it soon became increasingly difficult to ignore both the searing heat and those voices that had told me it would be like this. The sheer distance between intersections and the comparative monotony of the cityscape, with its low-rise urban fabric and broad swathes of concrete began to feel consuming. Likewise the constant negotiation of the sidewalk for any shade from an unrelenting sun quickly became exhausting.

Los Angeles: the dominance of the car
Los Angeles: the dominance of the car

The frustration of feeling as if you’re going nowhere fast is, of course, exacerbated by the traffic. Waiting for it to subside before a series of illuminated white figures beckons you forward can often feel like an eternity, whilst waiting for the next bus can feel even longer. Whilst Los Angeles’ well-known dependency on the car renders its sidewalks and public transport networks free of overcrowding, it can, however, rarely be considered high quality public space. This realisation soon took hold as I recounted my effortless traverse of San Diego’s Gas Lamp quarter only a few days before.

The Grid typology, common to many major US cities, was the urban model of choice for quickly and efficiently subdividing land for real estate, still a major consideration in the state of California but more specifically in Los Angeles itself. Though unlike Los Angeles, neighbouring San Diego favoured smaller block sizes as a means of creating a higher number of profitable corner plots, thus capitalising on the commercial value of the land. So why hadn’t Los Angeles followed suit?

San Diego
San Diego

Firstly, Los Angeles is still a comparatively young city, with a grid system designed to embrace the automobile and the promise of the utopian future it was hoped it would deliver. By contrast, San Diego and many of Los Angeles’ East Coast rivals were purposefully laid out to accommodate horse, carriage and pedestrians, resulting in narrower streets and a tighter urban grid. Of perhaps greater significance is the sheer scale of the Los Angeles basin, which constitutes the informal annexation of both beach and foothill cities into the city of Los Angeles itself.

Successfully connecting these geographically disparate communities has demanded some huge infrastructural moves over the years, with the proliferation of sprawling highways and the cities ‘super grid’ very much key facilitators. Whilst these facilitators have long been acknowledged to lend the city the unique character it possesses today, dig a little deeper and you find that this wasn’t always so. Long regarded as ‘The Mobile City’, it was actually a thriving public transport network which delineated Los Angeles urban form. Pacific Electric railway cars ran everywhere, and when the automobile arrived, freeways and Boulevards literally ran along their tracks.

The age of individual travel coincided with the rise of another phenomenon which can be seen to be integral to the psyche of Los Angeles the place: mass consumerism. As impressed as I had been by the towering conglomeration of billboards residing not only on Sunset Strip but other linear neighbourhoods amongst the grid, what was possibly more noticeable was the total absence of any advertisement on public transport. Huge sterile ticket halls, scantily-clad subway platforms and unerringly bare buses, seemed so out of character with the place as to suggest that you weren’t in Los Angeles at all.

Likewise, step a street back from any of the main shopping drags and you are cast into a veritable no man’s land of vacant parking lots, breakers yards and industrial compounds – wide open spaces essentially devoid of people or human interaction. It’s these two sides of Los Angeles that is perhaps the most striking thing about a visit to the city, the conspicuous excess alongside the unnerving emptiness.

Los Angeles
Los Angeles

Whilst this is an inherent and accepted fact of Los Angeles life, could measures not be taken to improve the experience of the pedestrian and public transport user? Could private investors not work with the city in establishing a greater number of routes and new locally-engaged transport hubs in return for the rights for blanket advertisement [in keeping with the city’s accepted character and culture] at these mid-block sites? More fundamentally, incremental improvements to the public realm, such as greater shade coverage, real-time traffic updates and the design of more sociable waiting areas, would not only provide a richer sidewalk culture, but improve user experience, heighten confidence and more importantly increase use.

Simple beautification: measures usually scorned upon in other cities for their superficiality would not only improve the public realm but complement the idea of place perfectly, making a real world difference to those who have to walk Los Angeles’ streets, while putting the noses of those who dismiss the city just a little further out of joint. Los Angeles does not need saving – far from it – but it should endeavour to offer its residents and visitors alike a better urban, pedestrian experience. Though in true Los Angeles fashion it may just go on defying its critics.

All photographs by Charles Critchell


Do we need a Chief Built Environment Adviser?

Building Design

‘A positively-designed built environment enhances and enriches our lives. As population rapidly expands and development proliferates, it is crucial that good design is central in the process – design that is inclusive, sustainable, responsive and responsible.’

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This month I wrote an opinion piece for the debate in Building Design over whether the UK would benefit from a Chief Built Environment Adviser to the government, as recommended by RIBA in their response to The Farrell Review. The full debate can be found here. What are your thoughts?