How an obscure rule about parking lots led to downtown L.A.’s bike revival

February 15, 2017

Michael Andersen, PlacesForBikes staff writer

Spring and Sixth streets, Los Angeles, 1914. Photo: USC Libraries Special Collections.

Fourth in a series of profiles of the Big Jump Project’s 10 focus areas.

After a century of showing what a city looks like when the car is king, Los Angeles may be on its way to becoming a model for regime change.

In 1946, the city became one of many U.S. cities to make a fateful decision: Almost every new home would need to be built with at least two auto parking spaces, just in case its future residents might need them.

It made sense at the time, when it may have seemed as if universal car ownership was just around the corner.

But it wasn’t. Fifty years later, 57 percent of L.A. households still owned no more than one car. And the immense cost of setting aside so much space for parking, much of which wasn’t even needed, had made it prohibitively expensive to add new housing to the city center — or even to remodel the downtown’s old underused office buildings and warehouses into homes.

“If you wanted to turn any of these places into apartments, you’d have to tear down the building next to it and build a parking lot,” said Nat Gale, a project coordinator for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. “That’s obviously economically infeasible.”

Figueroa and Wilshire in downtown Los Angeles. Photo: tomscy2000.

So in 1999, Los Angeles made another fateful decision: it removed the requirement for old downtown buildings to add new parking if they were being repurposed for apartments.

If people didn’t need more parking, they wouldn’t have to pay for it.

That simple change, along with long-awaited mass transit improvements, has had big effects on downtown Los Angeles. In a region gripped by a devastating housing shortage, downtown (just 1 percent of the city) has added 20 percent of the city’s new homes since 1999 — most of it built to serve the majority of Angelenos who own less than two cars.

“You’ve got this rich mass transit environment, from surface transit, bus, to heavy rail underneath,” Gale said. “Because of the tight street grid, lots of people walking and biking.”

Photo: Cobalt123.

To serve that new activity, Gale said, the city wants to quickly build a grid of low-stress bikeways through downtown and the neighborhoods to its south.

“You’ve got Union Station at the north end, we’ve got for our project area USC at the south end, which is a huge jobs center, population center,” Gale said.

Los Angeles plans to build a grid of low-stress bikeways in this focus area by 2020.

Atop L.A.’s to-do list is a major redesign of Figueroa Street, a four-mile artery between downtown and the campus that’s slated to get protected bike lanes, bike signals and bus islands after a campaign by nearby residents to reduce auto dominance in the area.

Another major goal, one L.A. has yet to solve, is an east-west bikeway in the south side of downtown.

“The east-west streets involve some pretty major tradeoffs because they almost all connect to a freeway, and are all just parking lots for people waiting to get on a freeway,” Gale said. But to have a functional grid, “we need something.”

A few blocks outside L.A.’s Big Jump focus area is its arts district, east of downtown, where the sidewalkless industrial streets are “prime real estate for some woonerf-type treatment” that could make it comfortable to walk down the middle of the streets, Gale said.

Gale said the city has been working for years to build buffered and protected bike lanes around the area, but is excited to join them together into something more functional to help an ordinary Angeleno bike, “whether you’re an eight-year-old or an 80-year-old grandma.”

“You have all these standalone projects that we now need to figure out how we link them all up,” he said.

Los Angeles Street’s protected bike lane opened last June. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog LA.

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