This is part of a series examining the 710 Corridor and its impact in the surrounding communities, produced in partnership with the California Endowment.
River advocates, visionaries, and city planners, going back to the Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan of the 1930s, have long dreamed of a 51-mile continuous greenway (102 miles on both sides of the banks) from the headwaters of the Los Angeles River in Canoga Park to the mouth of the River in Long Beach. Today, this goal of biking and walking paths from the mountains to the ocean, while realized along some stretches of the River, is often impeded by concrete, railroads, power lines, and a myriad of other barriers, both physical and mental, that have cut the Los Angeles River off from the region's residents.
Currently, the longest continuous stretch of the Los Angeles River bike path traverses alongside the I-710 freeway south of the City of Los Angeles, beginning on one end in industrial Vernon at Atlantic Boulevard and ending at the Shoreline Bikeway in Long Beach. These 17 miles of bikeway roughly follow the same length as the I-710 Corridor Project, which seeks to expand the freeway from SR-60 near East L.A. to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Driving along the I-710 freeway the Los Angeles River is barely visible, except occasionally as the concrete banks give a glimpse of the bike path and, very rarely, the water below. The County of Los Angeles maintains the portion of the Los Angeles River Bicycle Path in this section of the River, with the County Flood Control District and the Army Corps of Engineers responsible for the River itself. In Vernon, the bike path follows the west bank of the River until it reaches the confluence of the L.A. River and the Rio Hondo, at which point it switches to the east side of the River at Imperial Highway in Southgate, and continues south where riders can connect to attractions like the Aquarium of the Pacific, the Queen Mary, and Belmont Shore.
The study area for the I-710 expansion includes 15 cities and 3 unincorporated areas in Los Angeles County, knit together by both the River and the freeway itself. Multiple agencies, including Caltrans, Metro, the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), and the Gateway Council of Governments (COG), are involved in the development of alternatives for the 710 corridor as part of ongoing studies to finalize and Environmental Impact Report and Environmental Impact Statement (EIR/EIS). It is a multi-billion dollar proposal to address passenger and goods movement in one of the nation's busiest ports, air quality, and safety. This corridor is known to experience accident rates well above the statewide average, as well as high instances of asthma and other public health issues.
How does one begin to make sense of such a massive project and its impacts, both positive and negative, to the surrounding communities and to the region as a whole? Can the neighboring Los Angeles River and bike path contribute to the transportation and public health goals of the I-710 corridor? Or will it be more of an afterthought, in a project where precious land adjacent to the River may be utilized for freeway expansion, and would limit future revitalization and open space options? Riding along the existing bike path, one can see and feel the results of single-purpose infrastructures like the river channel, which was designed to convey water to the ocean as quickly as possible, with little regard for public spaces that invite people to experience nature or social interaction.
The bike path is 12 feet wide and, with the exception of the estuary in Long Beach, as well as a plethora of birds and some important parks along the way, largely cement as far as the eye can see. On any given day cyclists, walkers, and equestrians can be found using the path for recreation or commuting. While almost everyone agrees that upgrades to the I-710 corridor are necessary, it remains to be seen whether a 21st century infrastructure project (unlike the River channelization of the last century) can integrate multiple objectives and constituencies into a comprehensive vision that creates as many wins as possible. Thankfully, ideas such as putting a highway in the actual river channel are a thing of the past, and greening opportunities along the corridor are offered in the plans. But bicycle advocates have argued for bike and pedestrian access and crossing points, such as bridges along the river at half to one mile intervals, as well as improvements to arterial roads that run east-west across the River and the I-710 that would increase access and safety for non-motorized users. Proposed large, single point interchanges, designed in order to efficiently move large volumes of traffic through limited amounts of space, can be dangerous for bicycles.
Currently the Gateway COG has a list of 43 regionally significant bicycle and 16 pedestrian projects in their Strategic Transportation Plan Active Transportation Element. However, some community members feel that these projects should be included in the scope of the I-710 corridor expansion instead of stand alone projects that will need to go through separate funding and approval processes. These projects range from I-710 ramp improvements to a road diet at Gardendale Street, which would remove a vehicle travel lane and repurpose it for bicyclists and pedestrians, as well as connect the existing river bike path, numerous schools, parks, and bike facilities in South Gate. There are also pedestrian/bike bridges proposed over the river, such as the Gardendale Street and Las Flores Boulevard Bridge, which would improve accessibility to Los Angeles River bike path and provide the only access through the river and I-710, across a mass of streets and freeway onramps between Imperial Highway and Rosecrans Avenue.
Recently Metro announced that a review of the latest traffic data and new information gathered during the public review of the draft environmental documents have prompted further evaluation of the Alternatives for the I-710 Corridor Project. Groups like the Coalition for Environmental Health and Justice (CEHAJ) continue to push for a community alternative that would include a comprehensive transit element and River improvements that enhance public access. They believe that this alternative could become a national model for community engagement and consensus building around large infrastructure projects such as the I-710 corridor, where all users are considered and included into the region's complex urban fabric.
Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition's annual L.A. River Ride on June 22 is an excellent way to experience this downstream portion of the River.