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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Walking in LA: Myth or Reality?

Ever since moving to Los Angeles, the pop culture myth cemented by the band Missing Persons has been traveling in my head: "Walking in LA, Nobody Walks in LA."  This concept has traveled with me on my own walks in my neighborhood, and even on my drives throughout the basin, leaving me with the question: Does really nobody walk in LA?  

My own anecdotal experience points to the contrary.  People do walk in LA, and bike, and actually do so on a regular basis.  In fact, beyond the traffic and large number of daily car trips that happen outside my window, my neighborhood also scores in the top 15% for walkability in the nation.  And, a recent series from GOOD magazine by Ryan Bradley provides some revealing statistics about walking in LA, pointing out that my neighborhood isn't unique in LA:
Everyone thinks they know L.A., even if they've never been west of St. Louis. Nobody walks in L.A., right? There's that Missing Persons song, or that line from Steve Martin's L.A. Story: "'s not like New York, where you can meet someone walking down the street. In L.A. you practically have to hit someone with your car. In fact, I know girls who speed just to meet cops."

But the truth is people do walk in L.A. And bike. Fully 12 percent of all trips in Los Angeles are by bicycle or on foot—that's more than Austin or Portland. In sheer numbers, L.A. has more bikers and walkers than Washington, D.C., or Chicago, or even San Francisco. And it happens to be far safer for biking and walking than all three, according to a 2010 Benchmarking Report by the Alliance for Biking and Walking. I lump walking and biking together only because, until very recently, so did everyone else. In the 1990s biking and walking were "alternative," like rock music. Fifteen years ago, Los Angeles spent "about $1 million" a year on pedestrians and bike services. This year Los Angeles has earmarked $36 million on walking alone. Could it be that this western cow-town, this place that's synonymous with self-reinvention, is reinventing itself?
Don't get me wrong, there is no doubt that car culture still reigns supreme in LA (partly because of custom and partly from a lack of alternative infrastructure resulting from decades of car-centric design), and that there is a long way to go to make LA not only a city designed for walking, but also a city dominated by pedestrian activity.  But, I was amazed to learn that LA outpaces alternative heroes Portland and Austin in the percent of biking and walking trips, begging the questions: is this myth of LA accurate anymore, and if not, why does the myth persist so strongly about LA?  Is it due to the extreme number of cars on the roadways? Or, shaped by repeated media images of a traffic clogged Los Angeles? Or, perhaps the narrow experiences of visitors whose only time in LA, often, is spent driving from the airport on a rush-hour freeway to a hotel and back? (I include myself in this group)  Or is it all of the above?

Ultimately, despite what may be a changing reality within LA, the image persists.  On the flipside, however, this image has also probably planted the seeds for a better future.  Both facts and perception undoubtedly helped push LA towards a greater focus on alternative transportation and pedestrian infrastructure, and has been a great motivator in mobilizing citizen groups all across the city to take back LA for bikers and walkers alike.  The myth, borne from a previous reality, has created an image for counterculture efforts to rally against.  For it to be hip to be out of your car, and onto the sidewalks.  Reality or not, the myth that nobody walks in LA has helped change LA's once and future reality for the positive.    

Definitely look for some future posts looking at the issue of walking in LA, including whether this perception of LA is true, and if the myth is not true, or at least not as true as it once was, is it really possible to believe that LA can be a walkable city?  Or, even more importantly, wonder why LA isn't even more of a pedestrian city already? What prevents people from taking to the streets, and what opportunities exist to change people's behavior? 

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