I’ve read recently with a sense of deja vu — and dread — about the efforts of Los Angeles and Pasadena to build denser housing in downtown areas and make their streets more friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists.
Santa Monica, where I live, was an early adopter of this “urban village” concept. The result? My beachside community’s downtown core works fine for those who can afford to live there. They can walk from their $4,000-a-month studio apartments in the hip center of town to their choice of half a dozen coffee joints, and they can pick up the latest fashions on the way so they’ll look good when they get there.
But for the majority of Santa Monica’s 92,000 residents — those of us who cannot ride bicycles and live too far to walk to this downtown paradise — life has deteriorated.
It all sounded great when the city planners, whose salaries we pay, started talking about it. The plan was to add residents to the city core and then make the streets safer and more appealing for cyclists, so people would leave their cars behind. There would be bike lanes and bike centers with storage and showers to make biking to work possible. Who could oppose that?
Since then, even though most of the new residents drive just as the old ones did, a number of streets have been reduced from two lanes in each direction to one to accommodate bike lanes. Traffic lanes on other streets have also been narrowed to make room for the bicycles. And city streets are festooned with “sharrows” — hieroglyphic-like drawings on the asphalt that are supposed to encourage drivers to be polite to cyclists (though, from observation, the cyclists don’t feel bound to show the same courtesy).
Congestion has been growing in Santa Monica for years, but today it can take 30 minutes or more on any of the major east-west routes to drive the few miles from the ocean to our eastern boundary with West Los Angeles. It’s the same at 11 a.m. or 9 p.m. most days. North-south streets such as Lincoln, Fourth and Main can be even more nightmarish.
If you work or have appointments outside the city, or even if you just want to leave the beach to attend a play or concert in downtown Los Angeles, you have to brace yourself for a tortuous commute, often starting at your driveway. You might spend two hours in the car to drive the 18 miles to Disney Hall, more time than the concert itself will take. To meet friends for dinner in Beverly Hills, a mere eight miles away, you have to plan on an hour to be sure you’re not late.
Constructing more hotels and high-rise multi-use buildings, and eliminating lanes for cars in favor of pedestrians and bikes, sounds great in theory. Who wouldn’t want to live in an urban village? But a lot of Santa Monica residents don’t take advantage of the movie theaters, restaurants and shops that were supposed to make our downtown attractive. Getting to them is just too difficult. Instead, we’re sheltering in place, experimenting with dinners with friends by Skype and tearing our hair out at the thought of having to drive more than a mile or two from home.
Of course, sometimes we’re forced to drive — say when we need to buy food from a nearby grocery store. Then we have to run a gantlet of empowered cyclists, who dart in and out of traffic at will, position themselves in the middle of the street going 6 miles per hour (because they can!), ride against the direction of traffic or on sidewalks (which is prohibited in Santa Monica), and slide in between two stopped cars at lights to assert their position. They nonchalantly blow through stop signs.
Bicycle riders feel entitled in Santa Monica, and for good reason. We’ve bent over backward to let them kick us in the rear end. The bulk of Santa Monicans have been forced to take a back seat to a few thousand smug urbanites and cyclists. They’ve won the war and are taking no prisoners
Is this what you want in Pasadena and in downtown Los Angeles? Just make sure you know what you’re getting into. If you build it, they will come. Pasadenans may soon find themselves heading to Sierra Madre to do their errands. And those who work downtown should brace themselves for significantly longer commutes.
Go ahead with your plans, if you want, but here’s some advice from someone who’s already living in an urban village: The next time you get in the car to go the doctor, take your kids to school or call on a client, make sure you pack a sandwich, a toothbrush and a change of underwear.
Bruce R. Feldman is a 29-year resident of Santa Monica.