A Plan To Get Around

Infrastructure Planning

The famous renegade industrial designer Victor Papanek once wrote: “The only important thing about design is how it relates to people.” Our city is in the midst of a comprehensive, multi-year redesign effort. We can see this in the dozens of development projects slated to start in the near future, in the appearance of new citizen advocacy groups, and in the pressure–loudly expressed by residents in City Council meetings–to improve conditions in this increasingly crowded city. Our mobility–the way we get around the city, and go to nearby cities, is an essential part of the redesign. We have got to get this right.

Our transportation infrastructure is being made to evolve, at this very moment, simply by the changing tastes and needs of people who live and work here. We have all seen the large numbers of bicycle riders on our streets. This is just one example of a trend toward alternative transportation methods that will rapidly evolve and diversify in the near future. The city has made it a great deal easier to get around by bicycle, but residents and visitors are leading the charge, making bicycle-riding a popular way of moving around the city.

Cars aren’t going away any time soon. Bus ridership will increase. The train is coming next year. Between all of these things and the rapid increase in smaller vehicles and in bicycle use, our physical spaces made for moving around–streets, alleys and sidewalks–are under increasing strain, because we cannot manufacture more streets, or make existing streets wider. We must function within the existing limits, but everyone wants complete freedom of movement. To prevent chaos, gridlock and conflict, we must have a comprehensive transportation infrastructure plan that takes into account a wide range of factors, from construction projects in the pipeline, to the increasing population of both young and elderly people, to the contrasting views of different people in the community. One-off, ad-hoc solutions simply are inadequate.

The design theorist and Berkeley professor Horst Rittel described this kind of situation as a Wicked Problem: one where solutions are difficult to come by because of inherent contradictions, stakeholders with radically different perspectives, and because the attempt to solve one part of the problem may reveal or even create other problems.

We can solve wicked problems, but this often involves choosing one of three strategies: we could place the responsibility for solving these problems in the hands of a few people; we can pit opposing viewpoints against each other in an adversarial, winner-take-all approach, or we can work in a collaborative way, in which all people with a stake in the problem get engaged in solving it. The collaborative strategy is often the most successful, although, as Rittel points out, the disadvantage of this approach is that it’s often a time-consuming process. But we have seen, here in our own city, the abject failure of the first two methods.

The City has done many things right. The Michigan Avenue Neighborhood Greenway project, for all its intense controversies, was a creative effort to solve many contradictory problems simultaneously, and provide more transportation alternatives to some of the most vulnerable folks in the city (students, and those of lower income). The city ultimately heard the concerns of neighbors and made adjustments to the plan. This demonstrated an interesting and rare compromise intended to resolve both future needs and present dilemmas. The result is a kind of prototype for identifying places where we can integrate different ways of getting around. Our colleague Ron Goldman has, for some time, been working on a similar project in the City of Los Angeles, identifying certain streets that could be closed off without impacting local residents, vehicular movement and providing protected space for bicyclists and pedestrians. The Lincoln Boulevard design program (LINC) shows great promise in integrating many different modes of transportation. And the City has also encouraged general awareness of bicycling as an alternative means of getting around, including the bicycle activities at this weekend’s Santa Monica Festival, an event well worth visiting.

All of these are important things. But they are limited in scope, and do not address the larger, systemic challenges that we face. For that, we need a more comprehensive planning effort that brings in many different interested people from around the city, professionals and other residents impacted by the need to get around easily and quickly. We’re dealing with an infrastructure problem linked to other important issues, such as development, and the availability of adequate electricity, water and sewage.

The City can take a stronger lead on this wider-ranging effort. It can create an umbrella plan that would take into account many different and contradictory needs. For example, there are areas in the city where sidewalks are so narrow that pedestrians have difficulty navigating the streets. In those areas we could make adjustments to the zoning code that would require new buildings to be set back, on the first floor, to provide more room for walking and a bit of green space as well–a true contribution to the community. We could reconfigure certain streets with carefully controlled one-way traffic and with timed traffic lights to encourage smooth and rapid movement. This would make room for safe bicycle paths that are physically separated from cars, and would allow cars to flow freely without fear of interacting with bicyclists. (These paths would require careful planning in order to avoid eliminating much-needed parking in neighborhoods with a scarcity of parking spots). We could rearrange our bus stops to provide adequate shade and enough room for seniors to sit comfortably–a change from the inadequate and poorly designed new seats. Perhaps we could even reconfigure the downtown area to include a real bus station, with shuttles for getting people to the station. The City could also help solve the problem of charging electric vehicles (including, most importantly, the increasingly- important electric bicycles) in older existing multifamily apartment buildings; a difficult and as- yet unsolved issue.

Taking the lead from the Urban Forest Task Force and the Lincoln Boulevard Task Force, we could have a Citizens’ Transportation Task Force on Alternative Mobility, to help solicit and implement real-world solutions to challenges that our residents actually experience every day. As with the Urban Forest and the Lincoln Boulevard Task forces, such a mobility task force could bring together people with very different viewpoints, working together to craft practical, real-world solutions. This is the kind of collaborative strategy recommended by Professor Rittel, mentioned above.

With transportation, as with so many other infrastructure issues we face daily, the lack of alternatives often forces (or encourages) us to use inappropriate technologies. For many trips, a “small is beautiful” approach can yield big dividends both for individuals and communities. The “last mile” problem (the mile between transit and home, and between major thoroughfares and end destinations) can be solved in many different ways. It is not necessary to drive everywhere, nor should we be forced to walk or bicycle everywhere.

Instead of an either/or choice, we should have a both/and option, and this can only be achieved with a proper planning approach that is wide-ranging, comprehensive and takes into account the real-world conditions that we actually face in this city. This includes the number of development projects in the pipeline, along with their traffic and other infrastructure burdens, the evolving transportation preferences of people that live and work here, and the actual impact of circulation changes to local neighborhoods and institutions (such as schools). It also includes the actual physical constraints of the existing curb-to-curb street widths that we must all share. As with any responsible infrastructure planning, this comprehensive transportation planning effort must come before the approval of major new projects, and not after.

Creating individual solutions for specific locations is helpful, but a piecemeal approach must be replaced with a larger vision for the whole city that is firmly rooted in the needs of local residents and businesses, that takes into account real-world conditions, and connects properly with the region as a whole. It may seem like a tangle of contradictions, but it is in such “wicked” problems that we can find creative solutions for all of us.

Robert H. Taylor AIA, Architect and Daniel Jansenson, Architect, for SM a.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)