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Sprawl: What Happens When You Legislate Against Vibrant Streets

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Posted weekly, Jeremy Rosenberg's (@LosJeremy) Laws That Shaped LA column spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.
"¨Law: Functional Classification Guidelines, Federal-Aid Highway Act
Year: 1968 / 1973
Jurisdiction: Federal
Nominated by: John Norquist

Traditionally, John Norquist says, major streets in urban locations have three purposes. He labels these: "Movement, market purpose and social purpose."

Norquist is the visionary former mayor of Milwaukee and the President and CEO of The Congress for the New Urbanism. CNU is an influential Chicago-based national policy group that earlier this year held a transportation summit in Long Beach.

A successful street, Norquist says, must serve as: a path on which people travel, a place that facilitates the buying and selling of goods and services, and a public gathering spot. In short: a street is analogous to a city itself.

"You want a city to produce wealth, to be a place where commerce can go on and have a lot of complex interactivity among all the various sectors of the economy," Norquist says.

So what happened when federal and then state governments chose to focus on -- and fund accordingly -- street projects that put movement first and all but ignore the other vital characteristics Norquist mentions? A failing public policy is born, the CNU leader says.

"The regulatory structure of highway metrics is really based on a narrow-minded goal, which is to defeat congestion," Norquist says. "Within the urban context, that's too narrow a purpose."

That means during the post-World War II years, Los Angeles and other cities suffered, Norquist says. Sprawl happened. Interstates went right through cities, not around them.

Significantly wider surface streets were constructed. Historic and other older buildings were sacrificed for more asphalt lanes. Urban cores split and sputtered. Commerce stalled. Tax receipts declined. People's daily lives intersected less. Suburban big box retail replaced mixed-use Main Streets. Life in less sustainable suburbia started to make sense. Populations fled.

"You can look around L.A. and find all kinds of places where streets have been widened to try to handle what they perceived as future traffic needs," Norquist says. "It's wrecked the character of these streets."

Then there are the areas that were previously, say, fruit groves or other relative open spaces. "Commercial streets that were built in any new area -- like most of Riverside -- once the sprawl pattern was set, they didn't even try to build streets that are valuable settings for the market or for social interactions," Norquist says.

Norquist lays the blame for the above and so many other ills goes to the deceptively innocuous-sounding, "Functional Classification Guidelines." Or, as the more demonstrative sub-title of this CNU panel session -- posted here to YouTube -- puts it, "Functional Classification: The Least Interesting Policy That Dominates Most Everything."

The Functional Classification system was spelled out in a 1968 Department of Transportation study manual and then adopted into law as part of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1973. [Related: Read the Laws That Shaped L.A. columns about the original 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act and California's Article 19 and Collier-Burns Act.]

Last December, Norquist published in Atlantic Cities a great and at first glance, seemingly contrarian, read. Headlined, "The Case for Congestion," the piece in part compared traffic to cholesterol. "If you don't have any, you die," Norquist writes.

During a recent phone interview, Norquist re-iterates that HDL vs. LDL theme -- that there is both good and bad cholesterol in the manner that there is good and bad traffic congestion. In the Atlantic Cities piece, and during his recent Laws That Shaped L.A. interview, Norquist also discusses "Level of Service" (LoS) rankings. These designations are a key feature of Functional Classification, as well as being a further bit of wonk-speak.

The rankings work on "A" through "F" scale, like a student's report card. "'A' means the traffic flows freely and 'F' means the traffic fails," Norquist says, by way of explaining the scale, not endorsing it. "But if you take most of the really prosperous places, they have congestion -- because people want to be there."

In Atlantic Cities, Norquist writes that New York City's Greenwich Village features streets graded, "F." During his Laws That Shaped L.A. interview, the Mayor ticks off the names of various other famous locations.

"Fifth Avenue in New York, Lexington Avenue; Michigan Avenue in Chicago; Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills," Norquist says. "All those places are successful retail locations and the streets are crowded, not just with cars but with pedestrians, people spending money and enjoying themselves."

Norquist then brings up that infamously ailing Midwest burgh, Detroit, a.k.a. The Motor City. (Hi, Charlie LeDuff. L.A. misses you.)

"If you look at the city that is probably the setting for the most successful congestion elimination program, it's Detroit," Norquist says. "They built every freeway that anybody ever dreamed of. They removed their transit system -- they had about 300 miles of streetcar at the end of World War II."

And now, the city-tragic punchline: "And it worked" Norquist says. "Detroit doesn't have a big problem with congestion anymore."

Which, for a place that has lost nearly two-thirds of its peak population and much of its retail base, is like calling a bulimia victim a successful dieter.

Norquist has spent sufficient time in the Southland, and been in touch with the CNU's local chapter, to salute a few local stretches for not going the Detroit, or Inland Empire, route. He's particularly high on Broadway in Downtown L.A.; Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena; and Hollywood Boulevard -- particularly since that iconic street wasn't widened and building stock torn down to accommodate more lanes, as he recalls was once threatened.

Norquist's efforts in Milwaukee led to the dismantling of an aged stretch of that city's Park East Freeway. He knows there are useful techniques to keep traffic moving other than building six-lane or ten-lane thruways.

And Norquist also knows, that for the solo driver with places to be, it can at times be a pain in the ass to drive through, say, Hollywood and Highland, or the streets of the Golden Triangle, or Downtown during Art Walk. But, the CNU leader says, even at its worst, moving slower on a narrower road through a happening and engaged city far outweighs the alternative that the Functional Classification has for so long promoted.

"Cities without congestion are pretty much dead," Norquist says. "Congestion is a byproduct of success -- it means a lot of people want to be there."

To suggest a "Law That Shaped L.A." or otherwise contact the columnist via @LosJeremy on Twitter, or by emailing: arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or by leaving a comment at the bottom of this page. Follow Rosenberg on Twitter @LosJeremy

Top photo: In this December 20, 1980 photo, Jerry Gerbracht walks what he calls his reindogs on Rodeo Drive, a street that John Norquist salutes. Photo by Chris Gulker from the Herald-Examiner collection. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

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