Complete Streets Conference Packed 2/25/11

Complete Streets are multi-use environments that enable safe and comfortable access for all users on both roadways and sidewalks in a way that promotes vibrant, healthy and active neighborhoods.  Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and public transportation users of all ages and abilities, including older people, children and people with disabilities, are able to safely move along and across a Complete Street environment.”  (Definition from Conference Program)

Strong examples are noticeably lacking in Los Angeles, but this conference was designed to inspire people to action!

Packed room at Complete Streets conference

Held at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown LA, it was a treat to go to a conference on one of my favorite topics: making streets more people friendly. You might say I’m a radical “streets for people” person, my attempt to be more positive than saying I’m a radical anti-carist, not wanting my car owning friends to be offended by my passions.

The unusually long day (8am to 7 pm) was supported with lots of fabulous food.  Though I don’t want to appear unappreciative of the many culinary delights, probably we could do with less eating and more movement a la Japanese style.  Seems like tai chi breaks are more common than coffee breaks in that part of the world, and there’s a lot less obesity and degenerative diseases there as well, so no time like the present to start eating less and moving ourselves more, much easier once our streets become more complete, the main subject here, after all.

The event was sold out nearly two weeks before the happening.  It was impressive to see that at least half the 350 or so attendees were staff from a variety of public agencies:  Metro, L.A. City’s Department of Transportation, L.A. County’s Department of Public Health and others.  The balance of attendees were primarily students and faculty from several local academic institutions.  UCLA’s Lewis and Luskin Centers, along with Los Angeles County RENEW (Renew Environments for Nutrition, Exercise, and Wellness) were the co-organizing sponsors.  Many other sponsors lent energy to the event, including UC’s Transportation Center, The California Endowment, Metro, Green LA, AIA Los Angeles, ASLA Southern California, LACBC, SCAG, Safe Routes to School, UEPI at Occidental College, AHBE Landscape Architects, the Castle Press, Stanley R. Hoffman Associates, Linscott Law & Greenspan engineers, APA, LA City Planning Departement, Ryan Snyder Associates and Safe Routes to School.  Gosh, hope I didn’t leave anyone out (the papers never credit all the great energy that goes into making a successful event–yeah blogs! Oh, and then there were also advisory and outreach committees made up of many hard working folks whose names will be familiar to most of you who follow this stuff).  A healthy showing of nonprofit reps and activists were also attending.

Though I didn’t get there till almost noon, I still heard some cool quotes.  Here are a few:

Why did you go to school?” Professor Emeritus Allan B. Jacobs asked rhetorically.  “To get ideas!  Then, propose them!”  Jacobs taught City and Regional Planning and Urban Design at UC Berkeley, and formerly headed up San Francisco’s Planning Department.  His quote seemed to be directed toward anyone who might complain about  things not being right, but especially those who work in the public sector.

Ventura City Manager Rick Cole

Ventura City Manager Rick Cole, one of Southern California’s most visionary and long standing advocates for more sustainable urban development, chided us with “The tea party is now the major defender of free parking, and they’re tying it to the second amendment.” (Well, cars are a lethal weapon, right?)  He offered an old quote from famed architect Stefanos Polyzoides: “Form follows parking” as the embodiment of the dogma of free parking, one of the most cherished and ingrained entitlements in our culture.  But ultimately, Rick left us with this inspiring quote: “Leadership is fundamentally about courage.”   This really struck home for me.  It’s kind of like: just get in touch with your chutzpah, know that you’re a good person working in the public interest and go do the good things that must be done to make change happen.

Eco-Villager and CicLAvia organizer Joe Linton

L.A. Eco-Villager Joe Linton enthusiastically presented the great news that plans are underway for three CicLAvia events this year after last year’s smashing success.  The first 2011 CicLAvia is coming up April 10th, so mark your calendars.  Volunteers are needed for lots of fun things, so get ready to make happy in the streets again.  Do recall, that CicLAvia in L.A. got its start from L.A. Eco-Villagers Adonia Lugo and Bobby Gadda after their return from Bogota where Ciclavias have been happening on a weekly basis for quite a while.  Joe went on to help organize the event last year and is organizing the three events again this year.  Don’t miss it.

Former L.A. City Planning Director Gail Goldberg had a kind of “just go do it” remark which I found inspiring: “Closing streets down should happen at the community planning level.”  Though I expect she meant that it should happen in conjunction with the City’s Community Plans and with the assist of one of the appropriate Community Planning staff from the Planning Department, I’d prefer to interpret the remark to simply proceed with closing streets down, based on a community getting together on the same page to do so.   Yes, now that takes courage, and I hope neighborhoods citywide will proceed as rapidly as possible (to regularly close their streets down to cars, that is).

I believe it was Gail also who reminded us that in Seoul Korea, they reduced a 10 lane highway to four lanes and it resulted in no more traffic congestion than they had with the 10 lane highway.  Hint!  Hint!

How do you like this one from L.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel?

Disrupt! Persuade!  And negotiate!”

This is a great, yet ever so simple, recipe for change.  It requires enough personal and collective strength combined with congeniality to get through the three steps.  It definitely helps, too, to have your blood pressure under control, so you don’t drop dead in the process!

Wendy added this great advice:  “Without trust and social capital, nothing much is going to work.  You have got to get kids and moms to testify at public meetings and commit to caring for the public investment.”  I will have a lot more to say about the latter phrase in future blogs.

Planning and Policy Director for the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition Alexis Lantz reminded us that unlike architects and lawyers and doctors who must engage in continuing education to keep their licenses current, engineers have no such requirement.  And any of  us who have had to deal regularly with the DOT or regularly observe some cockamamie street design screw up (like widening Western Avenue at Wilshire across from the subway) know that many of those engineers are sadly stuck in the 1950s (though some would argue they are just following the regulations, poor souls).

So many of us were enthusiastic when we heard from L.A. City’s Department of Transportation interim General Manager, Amir Sedadi, that his Department now has 25 brilliant young enthusiastic engineers with a 21st century attitude .   If Amir’s rhetoric matches his actions as the interim General Manager (e.g., using parking dollars for community projects, reducing traffic congestion and pollution, etc.), then maybe at long last we will have some courageous leadership in that department that actually sees feet and bikes and skateboards and baby carriages and scooters as having equitable access to our streets with cars.  Let us pray!  Or disrupt… should our prayers fall on yet one more mid 20th century consciousness.

Of course, the crux of the whole issue of making our street design radically change in a short time rests to a large extent on the complexity of working with a multiplicity of public agencies and jurisdictions, all of whom have complex and lengthy documents defining issues and procedures that may or may not be relevant at this stage of our development as a city, and overseen by elected officials who may or may not know their eco-city guidelines from a hole in the ground and, in many cases, have to cow-tow to constituencies that are still attached to the “free parking as entitlement” dogma or risk losing elections!

On the other hand, courage can go a long way to make change happen.  I think of Jaimie Learner of Curitiba who, when he was mayor and could not get the support of his community, changed that City’s downtown to a walker’s paradise over a long weekend.   “Giraffing” can also accelerate the process of changing mentalities, i.e., sticking your neck out to get things done.  And if you’re just a complainer and a coward (or have other worthy priorities), you may suffer in an increasingly suffocating urban environment immobilized by often ineffective and wasteful bureaucracy.

And when what you do works and is in the public interest, the bureaucracies and elected officials will soon be beating a path to your doorstep.  Because they need people who will just make change happen.  Their hands are tied, and they depend on their grass roots constituencies to get things started!  I think of City Repair and Greywater Action (formerly Greywater Guerrillas who taught people how to install illegal greywater systems; and eventually helped public officials write the legal code).

Well, help is coming very quickly now.  Long time transportation planner and activist Ryan Snyder is working with RENEW to write a new manual entitled Redesigning Our Streets: A Manual for Healthy, Livable Communities.  Happily, this manual will make its debut on March 15, 2011 at the Metro Building downtown (One Gateway Plaza, LA 90012).  Reception at 6:30 pm, presentation from 7 to 8:30 pm.  RSVP to Rebecca McKenzie at  And, hopefully, the manual will help guide communities to make the changes they need and want to create healthier neighborhoods.

Along with Joe and I attending, new L.A. Eco-Village member Ianne Lavigne was there and long time Eco-Villager and EcoMaya Festival producer Julio Santizo.  I must say I missed seeing LA Streetsblog’s Damien Newton at the conference, but expect he might have been ill to miss such an event.

Eco-Villager Joe Linton & Green L.A. Coalition Director Stephanie Taylor. Green L.A. Coalition was also a conference partner

Some of the conference organizers (it looks like UCLA and RENEW) also created a substantial hard copy Resources List, but I’m not sure where to find it on-line.  The full program can be viewed here.  And I believe there will be some follow-up materials on-line, so check the Complete Streets website from time to time to see what’s up.

I would love to hear from any of you, especially others who attended to add more juicy tidbits or argue my opinions.


6 thoughts on “Complete Streets Conference Packed 2/25/11

  1. Pingback: Streetsblog Los Angeles » Guest Post: Complete Streets Conference Packed 2/25/11

  2. With that last panel I called attention to the fact that much and deservedly celebrated Janette Sadik-Khan and NYC DOT have finally hit a wall with the Prospect Park West Bike Lanes. The opposition is well organized and professional. See “Bike Lane Battle of the Bulge” –

    It was disappointing to observe that none of the panelists seemed aware of this and seemed ill prepared to respond to a similar effort to stop complete streets efforts here in LA.

    Also, it’s Greuel.

  3. As a relic of the 20th Century, I have to take issue with categorizing cars as “lethal weapons”. Few, if any drivers leave their homes with the thought “I’m gonna run over some hapless bicyclist today!” Cars are a means of transportation. It’s rather like saying locomotives are deadly weapons because some distraught soul decides to end it all with the help of the local commuter train. Just about anything can be a deadly weapon in the hands of someone with felonious intent. And when it comes to weapons, I wonder about the term “assault rifle”. Isn’t the whole idea of a firearm (other than one designed for target shooting) to have the capability of assaulting humans or game animals? Cars are dangerous in the hands of incompetent or impaired drivers, but they come from automobile factories, not arsenals or gunsmiths.

  4. Caltrans has just released a draft “complete streets” update to its influential highway design manual. Look it up, and send in comments. It is important that they get it right.

  5. Pingback: A Tale of Two Bicycle Boulevards « L.A. Eco-Village Blog

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