Saturday, November 28, 2009

Open Urban Planning Degree, Installment 1

I'm now getting a Master's in Urban Planning. The conventions of writing in this field are much different from the conventions in either English or Mathematics, the two subjects I studied in undergrad. We are supposed to write for a general audience, primarily because when we graduate and actually become urban planners, we will be responsible to some (city's) public who must understand the reasoning behind our decisions. Jargon, obfuscation, and anything that smacks of an internal academic conversation is discouraged. The field of Urban Planning makes few claims to be a natural, coherent division of knowledge, so we don't really have a basis for that type of self-important internal discourse anyway. (Mathematics, on the other hand, is famously inaccessible to a layperson, and mathematicians are famous for not caring. As a field, math is stuck in a dark age that still believes in the universality of knowledge; because math is the naturalized basis for the "natural" sciences, few people feel compelled to think about its social dimensions, and who is excluded and included by the language of mathematics.)

So, to help me adapt to these new standards, I've adopted the following conceit: when I write urban planning papers, I pretend that I'm writing for this blog. Sometimes the constraints of the assignment make this difficult, but the attempt feels worthwhile, because: I posit that your average internet-accessing city-dweller is made a better citizen by understanding something about urban planning. Further, your average community organizer or activist (who unfortunately may not have internet access, but oh well) needs this knowledge even more. The structure and functioning of our cities directly bounds civic engagement, community work and activism.

So here's a paper on the 1924 Traffic Street Plan for Los Angeles, and how it relates to the problems with LA's streets today. And to reinforce my claim that this knowledge directly relates to civic engagement, here's one petition you can sign to improve the LA Bike Plan, and here's some background links on all the controversy surrounding it and how you can participate in improving LA's streets for all users. I'm currently working with LACBC to organize a grassroots response to this plan in cooperation with other community-based organizations, so more about that later.


The 1924 Major Traffic Street Plan of Los Angeles

and its influences upon contemporary urban planning practice, particularly the 2009 Bicycle Master Plan Draft of Los Angeles

October 14, 2009

Today, almost 80% of commuters in the city of Los Angeles travel to work in a private automobile. (LADOT 14) In the popular imagination, LA is the archetypal car city, famous for its sprawl and smog. Although sprawl is typically considered a consequence of the suburban housing boom and of highway and freeway building in the post-WWII era, in Los Angeles it dates back to the era between 1900 and 1930 (Wachs 1). During this period of tremendous population growth and fast-rising automobile ownership rates, the city made key transportation and land-use decisions that gave LA the decentralized form it has today. One of the most important of these was the 1924 Major Traffic Street Plan.

[my argument: the link to contemporary planning practice]
The adoption of the 1924 Plan began LA's fervent commitment to the automobile. Nationally respected urban planners wrote it, and a broad coalition of government officials, business owners, and citizen-drivers approved it and financed its implementation. Private vehicles dominate LA's transportation network because of the infrastructure called for by the 1924 Plan, the consensus around the private automobile it helped to cement, and the decentralized urban form that these produced. Contemporary urban planners, faced with a city whose mobility depends almost solely upon the auto, now have difficulty proposing anything that takes away space or money from cars. This legacy makes a bikable Los Angeles very difficult to plan or achieve.

[context for the plan]
The plan was written as a response to traffic congestion, which was already a problem in the early 1920s. Angelenos embraced the car earlier and to a greater extent than any other American city. In 1920, there were 3.6 residents per automobile in LA, whereas the national average was 13.1 (Bottles 93). By 1925 there was one automobile for every two Angelenos (Bottles 92). Compounding this effect, the city was rapidly acquiring new residents: LA nearly doubled in population from 1910 to 1920, from 320,000 people to 580,000. By 1930 it had doubled again, reaching 1.2 million. Prior to this wave of migration, LA already had a relatively decentralized form due to the fact that its first period of rapid growth, from 1870 to 1910, coincided with the introduction of street railways (Wachs 4). The rising population, high rates of auto ownership, and already decentralized shape caused traffic.

Before 1924, no comprehensive system for road maintenance and construction existed. Property owners could petition for local improvements, and there were some traffic regulations passed to expedite the flow of traffic, but none of these meager and piecemeal solutions had much effect. Most people considered traffic an ominous problem, and in 1921 a broad coalition came together to "assist the city" in solving it (LATC 3). The Los Angeles Traffic Commission was an unofficial advisory board of business leaders, utility officials, government officials, and newspapermen. In 1924 the Commission came up with $23,000 in privately-donated funds to obtain the services of nationally renowned urban planners Olmsted, Bartholomew, and Cheney to produce a comprehensive highway survey.

[the 1924 major traffic street plan]
In the following discussion, I focus on those elements of the plan that have had staying power; that is, the road widenings and new roads whose influence remains in the layout of Los Angeles and those ideas and methods which continue to have influence in the field of urban planning.

The causes of congestion that the plan identifies are not much different than the causes of congestion widely recognized today. They are: "the volume of traffic," "unscientific width and arrangement of streets," "promiscuous mixing of different types of traffic," and "limiting capacity of street intersections" (MTSP 11). The plan never proposes to limit the volume of traffic, and in fact explicitly anticipates a truism of transportation planning for the remainder of the 20th century:

"Traffic will be limited by the width or capacity of the streets, and by that only. If that capacity is doubled, the limit will be raised, but when it is again reached, the final degree of congestion will be just as bad... Congestion will reach a point approximating the intolerable whether the street is wide or narrow" (MTSP 18).

The plan even goes so far as to ask, "Why not be fatalistic and do nothing?"

Its answers are twofold: first, looking at the street system as a whole allows the planners to ensure it is well balanced, so that no portion is used far below its capacity. Second, major technological developments, i.e. the shift from horses to streetcars and automobiles, require cities to make dramatic changes in scale in order to remain economically productive.

Towards these two ends, internal system balance and increased overall capacity, the planners proposed to widen a set of “radial thoroughfares,” providing access to the central business district from all other parts of the city. First street would be widened significantly to connect to Hollywood and the Cahuenga Pass to the San Fernando Valley. Wilshire and 10th (now Olympic) would be widened, extended, and straightened to become major east-west thoroughfares. A proposed Arroyo Seco Parkway would connect with Pasadena to the northeast. The plan recommended that LA always distinguish between major and minor streets and attempt to segregate different classes of traffic (i.e. streetcar, private automobile, and heavy trucks) as much as possible.

[impact on the field of urban planning]
Many of the plan’s recommendations were carried out. In particular, Wilshire and 10th (now Olympic) became major thoroughfares; the Arroyo Seco Parkway was completed; and the call for a direct route to Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley beyond was eventually answered in the 101 Freeway. Freeways descend from the 1924 plan’s approach in that they segregate non-motorized modes and they are the ultimate products of widening compounded upon widening.

More generally, the plan’s overall to the problem of traffic congestion continues to be adopted today: widen roads where possible, maximize the efficiency of existing roads by segregating uses and speeds, and make consistent traffic regulations that speed up movement. In the intervening decades, transportation planners have followed this general program of increasing road supply in anticipation of greatly increasing demand. The Plan also set a precedent of public finance for expensive automobile infrastructure. This was not trivial. Most of the “public transportation” at that time, i.e. the streetcars and railways, was privately owned and operated. Thus the Plan paved the way for successive large public works transportation projects, like the freeways built in the 1950s and 60s. Altogether, the Plan facilitated the rise of the automobile in Los Angeles, which prefigured the rise of the auto in other American cities. In this sense the Plan contributed to the car-dominated transportation landscape planners face today.

[relation to contemporary planning practice: the 2009 Bicycle Master Plan draft]

The City of Los Angeles just released a draft of the 2009 update to the city’s Bicycle Master Plan. This document, if adopted, will guide “the development of bicycle policies, programs, and infrastructure citywide” (BMP 1). Via the connections listed in the previous paragraph, the 1924 Major Traffic Street Plan influences the 2009 Bicycle Master Plan. The 2009 BMP aims for a very low share of trips, 5%, to be taken by bicycle by 2020. This is the heritage of decentralization and decades of the car’s dominance. In fact, the plan’s main constraint is that it cannot take away space from cars. The plan identifies over 404 miles of roadway as “key corridors where bicycle lanes are desired but would require a policy change in street designation standards… the removal of vehicular travel lanes, removal of on-street parking; or roadway widening (42).” To give a sense of the magnitude of this mileage of infeasible roads, the plan only proposes a total of 206 miles of separated bicycle travel lanes and paths (41).

Not only does the 2009 BMP draft propose almost no improvements to high-volume thoroughfares, it actually removes 57 miles of bicycle lanes that were designated in the 1996 Bicycle Master Plan (BMP 6), the vast majority of these on major streets. Thus, we can view the BMP update as a direct descendant of the 1924 Major Traffic Street Plan. Both plans aim to increase space for cars.


Bottles, Scott L.1987. Los Angeles and the Automobile. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Foster, Mark S. 1981. From Streetcar to Superhighway: American City Planners and Urban Transportation, 1900-1940. Temple University Press.

Los Angeles Department of Transportation. 2009. The City of Los Angeles Transportation Profile 2009.

Los Angeles Department of Transportation Bicycle Services and Alta Planning. 2009. Complete LA Bicycle Plan DRAFT. Accessed October 13, 2009.

Olmsted, Frederick Law; Bartholomew, Harland; and Cheney, Charles Henry. 1924. A Major Traffic Street Plan for Los Angeles. Prepared for the Committee on Los Angeles Plan of Major Highways of the Traffic Commission of the City and County of Los Angeles.

Wachs, Martin. 1984. “Autos, Transit and the Sprawl of Los Angeles: The 1920s.” Irvine: Institute of Transportation Studies.


Doug said...

Great piece - I definitely appreciate your expose on the the history and implications of street policy decisions!

I bet streetsblog would love to post/link/write about this article.

Alex Thompson said...


I gotta disagree with you here. Firstly, as PhD in Mathematics, many mathematicians take writing very seriously, and struggle to make their proofs as readable as possible. There are of course, some who don't. But any generalization falls short. When writing my dissertation, my adviser pushed me hard to improve the clarity of my writing.

On the flipside, many urban planners are notoriously bad writers. Planners will typically replace "use" with "utilize", "infeasible" with "currently infeasible" and so forth. I offer you the following selection from LA's 2009 draft bike plan as an example, and afterward a plain English rewrite:

"Some of the measures in this chapter represent various approaches for adding bicycle lanes to existing streets. Although opportunities to add bicycle lanes through roadway widening may exist in some locations, most major Los Angeles streets pose physical and other constraints requiring street
retrofit measures within existing curb-to-curb widths. As a result, the measures in this section
effectively reallocate existing street width through striping modifications to accommodate dedicated bicycle lanes. Sections 5.6.5 discusses options for the accommodation of bicyclists where a bicycle lane cannot be provided through the methods described in the following pages."


"Some of the measures in this chapter are approaches for adding bicycle lanes to streets without street widening. Most major Los Angeles streets cannot be widened due to the location of buildings. Therefore, the measures in this section sometimes reallocate road width, reducing width used for car travel in order to make room for bicycles. Sections 5.6.5 offers options for those times when the street can not be widened, and road width cannot be reallocated."

Herbie said...

Well, I'm a mathematician who takes writing very seriously, and you apparently are, too. But the discipline as a whole? Most math is done in symbols that the average person doesn't understand. On top of that, math is littered with words that are far more obscure and unintelligible than "utilize." Joe Schmoe doesn't know what an integrand is, for example. Improving the clarity of writing within the field doesn't necessarily mean that the field as a whole is making any effort to be accessible to your average person. And as a result, math has enormous problems - people report math anxiety, they feel that they are inherently "bad at math," etc. Math has succeeded in propping up its authority on arcane jargon and symbols to such an extent that it frightens the average person. This wouldn't be of much concern if math weren't so crucial to understanding the workings of our world. As math is absolutely fundamental to understanding so many things, those who consider themselves mathematicians need to take some responsibility and spread the word that math ain't just for the elite.

Urban planners may mess up, but there is at least an imperative in the discipline to write for the public. One very rarely encounters a similar imperative in mathematics courses (or English courses, or critical race theory courses).

Herbie said...

Hmm, and just to offer a more hopeful follow up to that comment, here's an example of a mathematician who actively justifies the use of symbols in algebra, for example, and who makes math accessible.

AND who has sweet math toys.

Alex Thompson said...

Go take a look at Newton's original Principia, and look at how difficult it is to understand. Math has moved forward lightyears in comprehensibility. It's not that mathematicians don't try, it's that math is incredibly complex, it's as complicated as human thought can get, and that's damn complicated.

If you believe that there is an imperative in urban planning to write for the public, then we are further from agreement on this Mowery issue than I thought. Sit down with the bike plan for 2 hours, then try your hand at zoning code.

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