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Connecting the Dots

By Eric Richardson
Published: Monday, August 23, 2010, at 08:49AM
Connecting the Dots Illustration blogdowntown

Ever since the car was invented, folks have been trying to come up with ways to get around Downtown without one.

Often those ideas have taken the form of elaborate schemes. In 1922, a Chicago engineer proposed double-decking Broadway, placing truck and streetcar traffic underground while building a set of elevated moving sidewalks to whisk pedestrians along at a brisk three miles-per hour.

While that idea doesn’t appear to have ever come close to being built, the Downtown People Mover project of the 1970’s very nearly did. The line was intended to connect Union Station and outlying parking garages to the city center and Bunker Hill redevelopment, allowing fewer autos to enter the central city itself.

Elevated walkways did get built, though without the automated movement of the earlier plan.

Both projects would have acted to connect Downtown to itself, allowing easier movement between shops and offices. Today, residents too are thrown into that mix. The circulator mantle has been lifted onto two projects: the Downtown streetcar and Metro’s Regional Connector. Both are moving forward, but both are a long way from accepting their first passengers.

In the meantime, those who live and work Downtown still have to answer the question of how to connect the dots and get between the different hubs of activity that have taken shape during the central city’s revitalization.

Downtown may look compact when viewed on a map, but ask someone who has trudged across it on a hot day and they will certainly tell you that the journey is longer than it looks.

Metro’s Regional Connector is primarily intended to ease passenger traffic through Downtown, but the nearly $1-billion light rail project would also create three new station locations and offer a new option to those whose paths would cross it.

The project was originally proposed to Downtown as an above-ground line, but strong public sentiment during the community outreach process convinced the transit agency to study an option that would keep trains entirely separated from other road users.
A Draft Environmental Impact Report should be released in the next month, and the project is projected to be up and running by 2019. That timeline could be sped up if Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa receives federal funding for his 30/10 initiative, a plan to condense three decades of rail projects into just one.

The Downtown streetcar, by contrast, is aimed directly at this idea of urban circulation. When a group of Downtown stakeholders visited Portland in 2008, advocates there described the streetcar as a “walk extender,” a tool that allows any point along the line to be just down the block from any other. That’s a powerful concept for a place like Downtown, where residents are often content to stick to their own little neighborhood and rarely wander into other parts of the central city.

A favorite project for Councilman Jose Huizar, the Downtown streetcar effort has made tremendous progress since that Portland trip. Even so, what made the news this week was talk of a line that won’t hit its wished for opening date. According to the Downtown News, Huizar told the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum this month that he doesn’t expect to see an opening in 2014.

That’s not news to Dennis Allen, the director of the non-profit set up to build the streetcar. He says that the unknowns have always made it impossible to say exactly when the project would be complete. “Tell me when we’re going to have all the money,” he says. “Tell me when we’re going to have real preliminary design.”

Short-Term Solutions Stymied

In the meantime, short-term mobility fixes have had a rough go over the past few years. The city’s Department of Transportation this month implemented cuts to three DASH bus lines Downtown and raised fares on those that remain. A late-night holiday DASH shuttle offered a taste of entertainment-oriented transit service during the 2008 Christmas season, but the extra hours failed to return the following year when private-sector money could not again be found to pay for them.

That same year the city implemented new rules intended to create a short-trip cab culture in Downtown and Hollywood, but few residents can be seen hailing cabs as they walk down the street two years later.

Pedicabs offer a potential solution more geared to short trips than the airport-run-loving taxis, but thus far city rules have kept the pedal-powered transport sidelined. Guidelines to govern the vehicles’ operation made their way to the Transportation committee in June of last year only to disappear again into the bowels of the Department of Transportation after an outcry that the rules were crafted in such a way as to doom the service to failure. It is unclear when revised rules might return for further discussion or possible implementation.

Signs of Hope

Still, there are reasons to be hopeful that Downtown could soon be an easier place to navigate. While the funding crunch for government projects appears unlikely to loosen any time soon, little bits of funding are still being spent to study neighborhood mobility and the problems of last-mile connectivity.

More importantly, attitudes toward transit and the pedestrian lifestyle are growing increasingly positive. That should eventually lead to a shift in funding priorities. There are even signs that the private sector may be ready to venture into the fray. Upstart LAXcarshare is tentatively entering the shared-vehicle void left by Zipcar’s 2008 withdrawal from the Downtown market. The new company has three locations Downtown, with 4th and Main being the first to truly target the resident population.

In the end, no one solution can answer the mobility question. A properly functioning Downtown will take cars, buses, taxis, trains, streetcars, bikes and pedestrians.

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