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.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Love, love, love, I want your Love

It has recently come to my attention that Lady Gaga is the shit. Well, maybe I should tone that down a little bit. She is the most shameless exhibitionist in showbiz, that's for sure. She is a master of media saturation, marketing, and multiple genre post-modernism. (All that alliteration makes me want to sing Roma, ro-ma-ma!)

Her new video, "Bad Romance," was just released to general excitement, controversy, and ogling.

Part of me wants to demolish Gaga with a feminist / anticapitalist critique. Yes, this video is a microcosm of a society that spends billions of dollars on advertising and where little public space remains without some kind of arches or swoosh adornment. And yes, this video is a total feminist dystopia. The camera-as-male-gaze renders the women sex objects, a role the video actually casts for them explicitly. Female bodies are covered in makeup and alterations that I hope to God are computer generated. Norms about what is feminine and what is beautiful dictate that all the women are skinny, white, and hairless. (Although I guess all the men are hairless, too, and while we're at it so are the cats).

Ok. Now that all that is dispensed with, I have to say I really can't stop watching this video. It's partly because it's such a freakish cultural artifact, and equal parts because of the straight-up eye candy, both fascinating and disturbing. Gaga has played on some fundamental tensions, and these make the video rich. Let's examine these one by one.

The liberated sex-object tension: This video is a perfect metaphor for Gaga in real life. She's a high-priced sex object cloaked in high-priced adornments. It seems like she's being exploited, and truth be told her legitimacy and agency are seriously limited, but in the end... she wins.

Detachment vs. old-school romanticism (no pun intended): Notice the slightly time-delayed close-ups of Gaga lip-sync-ing sans make-up. A traditional staple of the music video genre, these cast the singer as expressionist, channeling her emotion into music. These shots appear at the video's climax, pulling on our romantic heartstrings. On the other hand, most of the video exhibits a wierd detachment that is part of Gaga's overall character deal. She doesn't care, she's just selling crazy razor sunglasses and walking in freaky ass crab claw heels. But wait! She does care - she's singing in slow motion and crying. Which is it?

Hipster irony vs. high fashion: The dance moves here reek of hipster irony, especially the wierd twitchy hand distraction at the beginning and the slow hip-shiftingin the middle. But most of this video is about hipster irony's evil cousin, high fashion. With all the elaborate props and model-ly poses, the video resembles a photo shoot with some dance scenes spliced in. If Gaga were on America's Next Top Model, Tyra would congratulate her for "working the garment." She also works the headphones, and the vodka, and the beats laptops... Point is, Gaga is way too cool to dance outside the self-aware hipster paradigm, but unlike most hipsters, she's got diamonds raining down on her while she looks aloof.

(Non-sequitur: I self identify as a hipster and I am NOT down with the shit-talking that surrounds this term. A post on this is due.)

Postmodern low-attention-span collage vs. old-school narrative: There's a storyline here. I would argue that few of us really know how to relate knowledge without narrative, and this video demonstrates that a little narrative goes a long way toward making a piece of art compelling. There's a big literary debate about this. On the other hand, the narrative is totally spliced and confused by the short takes, costume changes, and just general non-sensical-ness. I want to know how to fit these into my narrative, i.e. what are the folks in red doing at the end and why does Gaga then put her black glove on her face and wink like that? Is that future Gaga knowing that present Gaga is about to burn this motherfucker down? I try to piece a narrative together, and I'm compelled in the process.

Whiteness: Whiteness is its own tension, as any white person can tell you. There's something hip and kind-of-black going on here: "I'm a freak bitch, baby" sneaks in as if on a side track, dropped onto the record player and then shuffled off by an expert and extra-subtle DJ. And the Thriller-esque moves recall Michael Jackson, which makes them fraught with racial ambiguity. Gaga shouts herself out throughout the track ("Ga GA Oh La la") like a rapper would, and uses nonsense syllables to rhyme like a rapper, but the whole thing is happening in a pop song that sounds kind of like a Russian folkdance. AHH!

Best of all, the video is totally shameless about containing all this contradiction and allusiveness. All Gaga really did here was dress up a pretty standard surprise-ending story in as many ridiculous outfits and aesthetics as possible. Fucking shameless, and that's all I ever want out of pop.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

KPCC Will Give the Bike Discussion Another Try!

So many people complained about last week's show that they will run another "Airtalk" segment on sharing the road, this time with some people who know a damn thing about bicycles. It's tomorrow at 10:20 AM on 89.3 KPCC.

Tune in! This is what Sharon McNary had to say in reply to my letter:

Hi Kristen – Great points all, and sorry to get to your note so late. There’s been a wide call from listeners asking for a followup show. So yes, I’m happy to announce….

Due to the intense interest in this topic and response to this week’s show, AirTalk with Larry Mantle will revisit the issue, this time with some expert guests. It’s set for 10:20 to 11 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 11. You can listen live on the air at 89.3 FM or online at We’ll have an archive of the broadcast available online after the show, and places on the show website for simultaneous comments, and to continue the discussion afterward.

Please feel free to pass the word. I’ll be e-mailing cyclists who are in the Insight Network an alert to the follow-up show. Also, anybody who wants to add their bicycle story and photo to our Insight Network of news sources is welcome to do so at this link:

Thanks very much for making your voice heard on this issue.

Sharon McNary
Public Insight Journalism at KPCC

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

KPCC Botches Bike Discussion

The following letter concerns this on-air discussion, which aired the morning that Dr. Thompson was found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon - his car.

It's worth listening to the first few minutes of the show just to hear an insane caller who is a resident of Mandeville Canyon, where the incident took place. The caller just keeps repeating that cyclists are rude. They ride "in front of cars" and "don't get out of the way." This call has to be the low point of the whole discussion. The lowest point, in particular, is when this caller says that someone is going to die on Mandeville and that none of the residents are going to feel bad about it. Wow.

Wow, wow, wow.

[The picture, by the way, depicts 8th Street near my apartment. It's a very typical LA situation that could have been discussed with a level head. The right lane is too narrow to share if a biker is doing the safe thing and staying out of the door zone. Luckily for motorists, the city has placed for your convenience ANOTHER LANE just to the left of the one the biker is occupying. All motorists must do is step on the brakes lightly, wait for an opening in traffic, and change lanes, allowing plenty of room for the biker to breathe. It's not rocket science people. ]

Roadblock's logical suggestion in a midnightridazz forum on the show was that we write Sharon McNary, who handles programming for KPCC. So I did. My letter follows. (By the way, if you want clarification on the all the legal issues that were mishandled on this show, wikipedia did a bomb job of summarizing California vehicle codes relevant to bikes).


Dear Sharon,

Wow, I am really disappointed with how this show was handled. A bunch of misinformation regarding the law went unquestioned. Caller after caller gave the impression that bicyclists are legally required to ride single file, which is not true. Mantle never clarified the law. I cringe to think how many motorists listened to this show and came away with the incorrect impression that riding side by side is illegal. It's actually a very safe and reassuring thing to do when the lane is too narrow to share with a car but wide enough to accommodate two bikes.

Moreover, Mantle gave a lot of air time to motorists complaining about bicyclists on "busy streets" or "narrow mountain roads," but never clarified that the bicyclist has the legal right to be on any road (excepting the freeways). He could have said this right at the beginning. The horrendous comment from the Mandeville resident should have been tempered by some sort of sane follow-up. A caller suggests that "someone is going to die, and nobody in Mandeville is going to feel bad" and Mantle doesn't bat an eye?

It was not until much later in the show when a caller finally made the point that roads are public and cyclists have the full right to be on them (even when they are too narrow and require drivers to - gasp - slow down). Nor did he offer the sensible observation that drivers, too, act "arrogant" and constantly break the law. He seemed to vindicate angry motorists when he said it was "unrealistic" to expect drivers to adjust their behavior and pass safely.

The worst moment was when Mantle claimed that we have "minimum speed limits," which is just obscenely incorrect.

Mantle had a huge opportunity to encourage safe behavior by both cyclists and motorists. It's really not that difficult for us to share all the roads. Cyclists might slow motorists down a little bit; but motorists pollute the air a little bit, and we all have to breathe. I wish more of a civilized discussion could have taken place. Too much airtime was given to venting, misinformation, and resentment.

KPCC could do a great service by covering the ongoing bike boom in LA and the fact that more and more of us are getting on bikes. Follow the LA Times' lead and discuss how to ride safely, how motorists and bicyclists can make their interactions more pleasant, and base this dicussion on the facts in the law. Yes, infrastructure in LA does not exactly facilitate bicycling. Cyclists have to take the lane A LOT on our narrow streets. We really need the media to recognize our rights so that we don't have to suffer from any more road rage.

Kristen "Herbie" Huff
Los Angeles
commuter cyclist and urban planning student