Los Angeles is on its way to becoming habitable, but you shouldn’t hold your breath — or maybe you should, if you value your life.
Breathable air, an end to traffic jams, usable waterways, an airport you can actually get to, a safe downtown, a functioning train station, affordable housing, accessible parks — these are the qualities that would make LA a world-class city, rather than a cancerous cluster of metastasized suburbs.
Los Angeles is hard at work to make all of that infrastructure a reality. But will it happen within our lifetimes? Ehhhh… maybe. For now, people may reside in Los Angeles, but we wouldn’t call it suitable for human life.
To understand why it’ll take so long to become a livable city, just take a look at the sad state of LA’s infrastructure, starting with public transit. In a town choked by traffic jams, workable public transportation is the only hope to get people moving. The average Los Angelino spends 61 hours delayed in traffic every year, the country’s second highest delay. A quarter of LA’s kids are obese (every hour in a car increases your likelihood of obesity by 6 percent), and 100 people are killed or injured in car crashes every day. LA’s pedestrian fatality rates are double the national average, and the LAPD doesn’t care.
Not to mention, LA has the highest concentration of poisonous airborne substances in America, thanks in large part to all the cars. We’re not just talking about a little smog here or there — the air is carcinogenic and causes heart attacks and strokes. For about a third of the year, the toxins are at illegally high levels. You literally shorten your life simply by breathing in Los Angeles.
LA’s future depends on getting people out of cars, and getting cars out of LA. And to be fair, the city has gradually been building out new transit routes, inch by agonizing inch.
But is LA’s public transit a viable transportation option today? No, not by any stretch of the imagination. Not unless you have hours to spare every day on buses that creep through traffic, transfers that take forever, and walking miles to and from stops. If you want to travel more than a few miles, commuting by bus will consume your entire life.
In a decade or two, that might change, if you’re lucky. The city expects to finally finish a light rail line to the beach in 2016, which will finally allow traffic-free commutes between Santa Monica, downtown, and North Hollywood. Of course, when the Exposition Line opens, most destinations will remain impractically far from the transit stops. The good news is that the LA Department of City Planning is developing plans for the neighborhoods around the light rail stations, which means that over the next few decades, there will be a boom in construction around those stations. In fifty years, you’ll be able to ride the train to transit-oriented hubs; but for the next few years, you’ll mostly only be able to ride the train to parking lots.
Another light rail extension that will go near — but not all the way to — the airport will be done in 2019. And a Purple Line subway extension to the Westwood neighborhood will be ready for operation in 2036. One source of delays on that Purple Line: Beverly Hills, where residents can be relied on to oppose any form of transportation that’s perceived as catering to anyone but the very rich.
But even if those projects are completed on time — and they won’t be — they’ll barely reach most of LA’s population. None of those projects touch West Hollywood, for example, and only one of them skirts Koreatown. Another just barely passes through the tip of Culver City. You’re out of luck if you live in Glendale, or if you clean mansions in Brentwood.
In other words: in 20 years, Los Angeles will have some very nice trains that only a handful of people will be able to use. And in the meantime, the city will continue blowing money on car infrastructure. They’re widening freeways, which will attract more cars and create more traffic jams for decades to come.
You’re even out of luck if you walk: the city’s sidewalks are in such disrepair that it would cost $1.5 billion to repair them. The available budget to fix sidewalks last year was just $27 million, and it was all spent on sidewalks around city property. There’s an urban rumor that 40 percent of the city’s sidewalks are unusable, but that’s based on a study from the late 1990s that nobody can find. Seriously, the city lost it’s own study. Great job!
And many neighborhoods have no sidewalks at all, which is essentially like hanging a sign on the street that says “screw you, disabled people!”
Other cities have solved this problem: they require property owners to fix sidewalks when they sell their houses. It works in neighboring Pasadena, and maybe someday LA will adopt something similar. But at this rate and the current budgeting, it’s estimated that fixing all of LA’s sidewalks would take nearly a century. You read that right — nearly a century to fix a sidewalk.
Then there’s California’s high-speed rail project, which could link LA to San Francisco. After numerous delays that pushed the schedule back, an initial segment from Fresno to Bakersfield may be done by 2017 — but these towns are tiny farming communities, and a train connecting them doesn’t represent anything meaningful to Los Angeles. Rail won’t connect any major cities until 2029 at the earliest (fifteen years from now, and fifty years after it was first proposed), and after issuing at least $10 billion in bonds and spending $68 billion. That basically means that the government (i.e., taxpayers) is going into crazy debt. It’s a worthwhile project, and our grandkids will be glad that we built it, but don’t expect to be riding those trains anytime soon.
Transportation isn’t the only area in which LA will have to wait decades to correct the car-centric mistakes of the last century. About a hundred years ago, LA cut a deep scar in its wrist with the construction of the 101 freeway, a freeway trench that cuts off countless neighborhoods from each other, stretching from the Valley to beyond Downtown. Aside from a few treacherous bridges, the freeway is an uncrossable canyon that divides LA. Once an area of busy pedestrian activity, the freeway is now a giant open-air sewer of thousands of cars pumping poisonous gases over surrounding homes every day.
Now, a group of activists is trying to at least apply a band-aid over the scar. The “Park 101” project would cap the trench with public green space, restoring and reconnecting the neighborhoods destroyed decades ago. Currently undergoing one study after another, the project won’t be finished until the 2030s at the earliest — and probably much later, since nobody knows exactly how to cover the $387 million construction costs.
Meanwhile, the “Hollywood Central Park” project would cap another section of the 101. That project will be in study-mode until sometime next year — or maybe longer. And if it ever actually moves ahead, it would take at least a decade to build.
The freeways aren’t LA’s only scars, of course. There’s also the LA river, a concrete drainage ditch created by the army nearly a century ago. The LA River Revitalization Corporation has been working on turning it into an actual river — a healthy ecosystem with plants and animals that you’d actually want to visit, rather than a dumping-ground for old mattresses.
One river project is called “Greenway 2020,” and they have an achievable goal: building a pleasant path alongside the river over the next five years. But the restoration of the entire river will take a lot longer than that. This is a massive undertaking, consisting of numerous separate projects, some of which are already underway and others of which are merely a gleam in the city’s eye.
For example, a project to fix the Riverside Bridge is currently in year 11 of 13. Another bridge over the Tujunga Wash is in year 13 of 17. Rebuilding the Sixth Street Viaduct is in year 13 of 20.
Fixing the LA River is going to take billions of dollars and 20 to 50 years to complete. Last year, the Army Corps of Engineers, which built and owns the river, endorsed a $1 billion proposal to fix it. But — surprise! — now they’re having second thoughts, and it may not happen after all.
In the meantime, the Army has undermined the revitalization process by demolishing nature areas. Great.
Maybe no project better exemplifies LA’s livability delays than the long-awaited “My Figueroa” development. As envisioned, the project would have dramatically opened access to three miles of was previously a deadly car-only thoroughfare. Figueroa Street was to get a complete makeover, finally getting room to safely walk, bike, and catch a bus.
But because it was a good idea, the project languished in development-hell for six years. City council members were able to suppress the project year after year by continually requesting redundant studies.
But the city’s car cabal has repeatedly held back the project. A rich car dealer named Darryl Holter, along with The University of Southern California, the Motion Picture Association of America, and some nearby museums have worked continuously to maintain the 1950s-era status quo. Their complaints were typical: they feared that the minor slowing of traffic would ruin the neighborhood. Better to block access for pedestrians, cyclists, and bus users than spend a few more seconds in your car, right?
Funding for the MyFigueroa project was originally contingent on it being finished by the end of 2014. Surprise: It wasn’t. At best, they’ll have finished some wiring for street lights.The new deadline is 2016, but there’s no telling if that deadline won’t slip too.
If the MyFigueroa project ever materializes — and that’s still a big “if” — it’ll be a faint shadow of what could have been, if only the city had stood up to a few wealthy automotive apologists.
And let’s not forget LAX. Anyone who’s flown into Los Angeles has probably experienced the baffling airport: the pickup and dropoff areas are a carnival of terror, with fast-moving vehicles forced to weave around each other to navigate the confusing terminals. The terminals, rental cars, parking lots, and shuttle areas are all very far apart, so it takes forever to get anywhere. The airport receives 6,000 car trips per hour — far more than what it was designed for. There’s a connection to mass transit, but it’s so confusing and slow that no sane person can use it.
The Board of Airport Commissioners has proposed a modernization program that, for $4 billion, will consolidate the rental car center, connect the airport to mass transit, and build a people-mover to quickly get people from the parking areas to the terminals. It’ll take about a decade to complete, once they finish several years of planning. You can probably expect a smooth arrival at LAX sometime around 2030.
And that’s just a small sampling of the projects that’ll reach completion late in our lifetimes. There’s a downtown streetcar project that’s ballooned in price — construction was supposed to start two years ago, but they haven’t broken ground yet. Last year they estimated it would be done by 2019, but they’ve missed plenty of deadlines in the past, so don’t expect to ride it anytime soon.
A plan to replace the beleaguered Jordan Downs housing project lost out on a grant and might never be done.
And the Farmer’s Field project would be a new sports venue and convention center downtown. The project’s taken so long to get off the ground that the original agreements have expired.
Maybe LA will manage to turn itself around in the coming decades. But a report by the Los Angeles 2020 Commission last year pointed out that “Los Angeles is barely treading water, while the rest of the world is moving forward. […] Year by year, our city — which once was a beacon of innovation and opportunity to the world — is becoming less livable.”
(Featured image via Marci Reiford/Flickr)