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Rethinking Streets in Los Angeles to be More People Centric

In Los Angeles, it is common to take side-streets to avoid traffic, especially during rush hour.

South Robertson, like most of Los Angeles, was designed for cars. Much of the corridor is not welcoming to pedestrians or bicyclists, and this has major implications for the social and economic health of the area.

The boulevard is a heavily trafficked thoroughfare to the I-10 freeway, making it difficult to cultivate a positive pedestrian experience, no matter how hard local businesses and residents try. As a recent Great Streets grant recipient, though, the surrounding neighborhood is actively thinking about new ways to enhance the area, and the Complete Streets movement offers a promising tool.

From within organizations like Smart Growth America, the concept of a “complete street” first started to gain traction in the early 2000s. Complete Streets considers how engineering, design, policy, programming, and investment can create urban spaces that are designed for all users, regardless of transit mode (pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, transit riders), ability or age. Projects often aim to increase pedestrian and bicyclist safety, advocating for transportation equity and the creation of public space that is safe, healthy, and vibrant for all.

South Robertson (SORO)
Looking south along South Robertson Boulevard.
Los Angeles freeways can often make or a break a neighborhood.

The concept has gained momentum in recent years because the pedestrian experience has garnered increasing amounts of attention and can be easily tied to economic development. Since 2005, California has passed over 100 Complete Streets policies in municipalities of all sizes, and in 2008 the state passed a Complete Streets Act. In October 2014, the Los Angeles Metro adopted a new Complete Streets Policy, which delved into specific ways to improve mobility for all users, promote local partnerships and incentive programs, and improve coordination within various city agencies and departments. In addition to this high level policy direction, the L.A. Department of City Planning put out a draft Complete Streets Manual and a Complete Street Design Guide in 2014, and the city’s updated Mobility Plan 2035 features an increased focus on creating a safe and multi-modal street network. For example, L.A.’s first parking-protected bike lane recently opened on Reseda Blvd in Northridge.

In addition to these initiatives, L.A. has also spearheaded several complementary programs that deal with the design of cohesive, vibrant, safe streets for all. Complete Streets initiatives have the clear potential to reach beyond transportation planning, asserting that designing a street for all user types can have important implications for public health, environmental sustainability, and economic development. Two such L.A. initiatives are the Mayor’s Great Streets Initiative, focusing on enhancing specific corridors around the city, and Vision Zero, a project to improve traffic safety.

Some major streets in Los Angeles do double duty acting as both a major throughway as well as a commercial corridor.

The Mayor’s Great Streets Initiative awards grants to community groups to undertake projects that improve L.A. streets, making them more enjoyable, safe, and economically healthy public spaces. Two rounds of grants have already been awarded, and many resulting projects put forth the argument that design and creative placemaking can and should be important tools for producing better streets for all users. For example, LA-Más (where I work as a Design & Engagement Associate), introduced exterior improvements like painted sidewalks and street furniture as part of the Reseda Blvd Great Streets project. These pilot projects were developed based on community feedback and in collaboration with multiple local partners, seeking to create a more walkable, bikeable street while also spurring social and economic activity. In another Great Streets project on Central Ave, Los Angeles Walks installed creative new wayfinding signage that was informed by a community outreach process conducted in collaboration with Great Streets and a number of local community partners. As part of the Hollywood Blvd Great Streets project, a new pedestrian scramble was installed at the intersection of Hollywood and Highland.

Another significant effort towards making L.A. safer for bicyclists and pedestrians is Vision Zero Los Angeles, a citywide initiative spearheaded by Mayor Garcetti to reduce traffic-related deaths to zero by 2025. To achieve this ambitious goal, LADOT has begun installing engineering improvements on over 90 miles of the city’s most dangerous streets, and has also invested over $2M on a citywide outreach and education campaign. Roughly $500,000 of those funds have been awarded to community based-organizations to develop creative traffic safety interventions and outreach. "Our goal is to build safe, organized, and beautiful streets where people thrive, no matter how they travel," according to Seleta Reynolds, LADOT's General Manager.

South Robertson
Learn more about the South Robertson neighborhood.

As part of this community outreach and education arm of the program, Vision Zero selected nine corridors as high-priority areas for on-the-ground activations. LA-Más is working with PESA and CARS on W. Adams Blvd, a street that is heavily used by overflow traffic from the nearby 10 Freeway. This project includes outreach with local residents, businesses, and high school students, along with temporary street installations at the sites of past collisions to increase awareness and draw the attention of drivers, encouraging them to take note and slow down. Other Vision Zero outreach projects will feature tree-based altars on N. Figueroa Street (hosted by Ave 50 Studio and L.A. Neighborhood Initiative), a community mural, mapping workshops, and a telenovela performance on W 6th Street (hosted by Central City Neighborhood Partners) and more.

Reseda Before and After
Reseda Boulevard | Courtesy of LA Más
Reseda Complete Street
Reseda Boulevard | Courtesy of LA Más
Avalon Before and After
Avalon Boulevard | Courtesy of LA Más
robertson-blvd-project.jpg
Learn more about South Robertson complete street project.

Road networks, public spaces, and business districts are all deeply intertwined in Los Angeles. There is often a direct relationship between a healthy small business landscape and a healthy (safe and welcoming) sidewalk and streetscape. This relationship was central to LA-Más’ Small Business Support Program and On Avalon projects in Wilmington, Los Angeles. These projects aimed to restore Avalon Blvd as a vibrant commercial and social corridor for the Wilmington community. LA-Más worked with community partners to provide technical and design support to small businesses on Avalon Blvd, helping them to thrive and continue to serve their communities. In the design projects, the sidewalk was heralded as a space that can acknowledge small businesses and encourage pedestrians to patronize them.

There are wide-ranging and exciting opportunities for supporting Complete Streets projects, but there are also implementation challenges and difficult trade-offs for many initiatives. Today on South Robertson, as with a number of streets around L.A., there are various deterrents preventing people from spending time there ranging from parking, to safety, to the general appearance of certain stretches. That said, as a Great Streets recipient, the South Robertson Neighborhood Council is currently planning a range of initiatives, focusing on supporting small businesses and local residents alike. For example, street beautification projects hold promise for the corridor, as they can serve to improve the pedestrian experience and spur economic activity for the small businesses already there.

What is a complete street?

Ground-up, community-based activity is central to the success of Complete Streets initiatives. If you’re interested in helping LA streets become better designed for pedestrians, bicyclists, and all city residents there are various ways you can get involved. You can start advocating for a Complete Streets approach in your neighborhood by applying for the Great Streets Challenge grant. Town hall meetings and local neighborhood council board meetings are a great place to learn more and get involved!

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