Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Walkbike tourism

I recently returned from a trip to Los Angeles. Some people go to California to gawk at celebrities, take wine tours, or ride the teacups at Disney. As a walkbike nerd, I intended to find out if the rumors about Los Angeles are true: is LA really the country's sprawl capital? (Click here for the NY Times series on the subject).

It turns out that LA is a very dense city: actually, the highest population density in the country according to the 2000 US Census.

Yet this density does not make the city very walkable. I visited some areas that were designed to be pedestrian friendly, such as Little Tokyo, 3rd Street in Santa Monica, and Pasadena's Old Downtown. But most of the city's shopping is either tucked away in malls (some of which are outdoors, which gives them a main street feel) or lining its busy boulevards which are choked with traffic for much of the day. I saw some examples of strip malls that are built out to the sidewalk, but mostly they were the setback sort you would see along Whalley Avenue or Dixwell. Very few shade trees, too, but maybe they couldn't survive in the desert/mediterranean climate. The major roads were at least four lanes plus a turning lane across and allowed traffic to fly by at high speeds. I did notice that the side streets adjacent to the major boulevards had speed humps, but this was the extent of traffic calming I saw.

I don't think that LA residents are any more attached to their cars than anyone else who doesn't live in Manhattan or San Francisco. But I'm sure more people there would consider walking if the major roads focused less on speed and more on aesthetics. Plus, with free parking in abundance throughout much of the LA that I visited (downtown is a significant exception), I'm sure many people lack the financial incentive to leave the car at home.

I did not get a chance to check out the bike trails, etc., that were available other than the path along the Pacific coast in Santa Monica, which was unsurpringingly gorgeous. Given its climate and density, LA has the potential to be a very bike friendly city, but I think that it would be too dangerous for most bikers given the high speeds that drivers can go on its roads.