January 01, 2007

ITDP Seeks to Help Third World Cities Avoid Congestion and Auto Dependency of First World

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TPR spoke with Executive Director Walter Hook about what the Third World is learning from the West, and what the West—and L.A.—can learn from the Third World.

Last month the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) sponsored a talk by former Mayor of Bogotá Enrique Peñalosa, which attracted a large audience of transportation experts, community activists, and public officials from metro L.A. What inspired ITDP to host this discussion?

ITDP’s ambition is both to share the kind of thinking that led Peñalosa to bring about what are, in our opinion, historic changes in the city of Bogotá and, more specifically, to bring some of his energy and political thinking to U.S. cities. We want to get some of that alternative urbanism back on the political agenda in the United States.

The Los Angeles and Long Beach events were part of a series of lectures; he has also given lectures in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and Washington, and in the coming months he will be in Portland and Boston. It was a good beginning of a dialogue on these issues. Our other intention was to empower local organizations that have been trying to do many of the same things in the L.A. region. I think the local partners were happy with the results of the visit.

TPR carried Mayor Peñalosa’s remarks and has also covered speeches by Curitiba’s Jaime Lerner. What lessons can American cities glean from these leaders of Third World cities?

In some ways the politics behind Peñalosa’s efforts are easier in a city like Bogotá or in a developing country where, say, 80 percent of the population already is dependent on walking, cycling, and public transportation.

In developing countries, the people who own and operate cars tend to be a small minority; they tend to be the richest people in country, and they tend to be the decision-makers. In the developing country context, the notion of using scarce public roads and space to give priority to public-transit users, cyclists, pedestrians, open space, and meaningful interaction in the public realm has a class meaning. Dedicating urban public space and roads to private cars means turning over most of those public resources to the richest 10–20 percent.

I think another important lesson that Peñalosa can bring to the United States is that L.A.’s ridership is high by U.S. standards, but it’s not high by international standards. So it doesn’t make a lot of sense to invest a huge amount of money in a very heavy technology like a metro, which should serve 40–80,000 per direction at the peak hour. Almost no place in the L.A. area has the numbers to justify the $1 billion a mile that it is likely to cost build a heavy rail metro.

You can achieve—and they figured this out in Curitiba and Bogotá—the same speeds, quality of travel, and level of customer service using bus rapid transit: bus priority measures and special pre-paid boarding stations and improved signal priority for your buses. These much cheaper bus-based mass-transit technologies can achieve more or less the same service quality but at probably 1/20th the cost.

Because developing countries didn’t have the money to buy their way out of the politically difficult decision to allocate scarce road space to buses, they have to make tough political decisions. I think the message for L.A. is fairly clear: Building bus rapid transit down Wilshire could give you a metro-quality service that would be ready in, say, two years, and it could cost $50–100 million to build the whole system. If you go for the metro that the Mayor Villaraigosa is talking about, that service won’t begin for ten years.

The developing world has showed the developed world that bus rapid transit is a serious option for a major city. You have a decent pilot project with the Orange Line. But there is a certain amount of political timidity to take that type of infrastructure and put it down an old light rail line. It will take a lot more political courage to a similar system down Wilshire. Another key message is that it takes a mayor with a lot of political guts to do some of the things that Peñalosa did.

ITDP doesn’t advocate a one-size-fits-all solution to every city and geography. How could cities in California adopt and adapt the models of Curitiba and Bogotá?

I spend my time working in developing countries, but based on the limited information that I have about the Los Angeles area, some of your bus lines are carrying pretty good volumes. Wilshire Boulevard in particular is carrying a lot of passengers: as high as any place in the United States. So that is a pretty good possibility for a bus-based mass transit like what they built in Bogotá.

You already have some bike infrastructure. I think a certain amount of cycling can happen, perhaps integrated with you mass-transit system. L.A. has bike parking along the Orange Line and as a feeder to the Blue Line to Long Beach. The Bikestation at Long Beach is a great example of what might also be done in other parts of L.A., where you can bike to a place and park your bike.

The streets in Los Angeles are really wide. There is a huge amount of space that could be reconfigured to provide “Grade A” cycling facilities, which would provide a network that would make it possible for, at least, popular short trips to be made by bicycle. I think a lot of public space recovery could be done; a lot of streets could be pedestrianized, a lot of land could be recovered for parks, and waterfronts could be opened up. Some of the drainage canals could be revitalized as recreation spaces with bike facilities along them.

The voters of California just passed a package of infrastructure bonds totalling $40 billion, which may amount to merely a down payment on a $200 billion investment agenda for the next 25 years. What should elected leaders consider before deploying those resources?

Like I said, I am not an expert in Los Angeles or roads and road development, but certainly, you could build a pretty dense mass-transit network in the L.A. metro area using bus-based technologies to complete the preliminary network that your Metro, light rail, and Orange Line have already created. You should certainly do Wilshire Boulevard al the way to Santa Monica as bus rapid transit; I think you could get it done in two years.

I think that another big thing for L.A. is going to be densification along mass-transit corridors. A little bit of that is happening, and some groups are trying to work on higher-density, low- to moderate-income urban communities around these mass-transit lines. I think there is huge potential for development along the Blue Line and Orange Line.

As congestion becomes worse, there has to be more attraction for people in the L.A. area to be within walking or cycling distance from one of these high-speed mass-transit corridors. I think that is going to require the state to invest a little money to get that process started. I know there are a lot of issues with land consolidation and zoning that are going to take a certain amount of political capital to overcome.

Another message of what came out of Bogotá was that the Japanese came to Bogotá and said, “you should build an elevated outer-ring road, and you should spend $50 billion on that.” Instead, he took that same amount of money and put it into schools, waterfront recovery, and 350 kilometers of new bike lanes. He built bike- and pedestrian-only streets. He pedestrianized 50 km of roads. He built little parks and public spaces all over the place.

A lot could be done to revitalize historically important places in L.A. to bring the heart and soul back to the city. I don’t know L.A. well enough to give prescriptive ideas, but I think what Peñalosa tried to do was challenge the citizens of L.A. to dream a future of L.A. that would incorporate a more livable and humane urbanism that encourages human street-level interaction and isn’t so focused on moving people from place to place in a private automobile.

Peñalosa emphasized in his Los Angeles remarks that the built environment and transportation system of cities owe their form to “government choices.” What sort of choices was he referring to?

One of the most difficult issues (and one of the most important political choices) is how to allocate street space. The most public space in any city is dedicated to roads. In Los Angeles, like in most communities across the United States, both curb lanes are occupied by off-street parking. Off-street parking is usually under-charged, so it is a big subsidy to private motorists.

Any mayor or district that controls roads is making a choice about whether that public space should be dedicated to subsidized private parking or dedicated to a bike lane and a widened sidewalk with park benches and new trees along it. That is a choice. The width of the road that is dedicated to private cars is a choice. And then, whether to create a bus lane or to leave it a mixed traffic lane: that is a political choice. Whether to build 300 km of bike lanes or ignore cycling as a possibility: that is a political choice. Those are all political choices.

Public space—how it is used and allocated—is not something that is, at the end of day, determined by abstract engineering principles. It is a choice made every day by politicians, who have, in this country, thought that our public space should be dedicated to moving private motor vehicles around, even if it’s at the expense of human interaction. That being said, obviously shopkeepers and other people have some vested interest in parking. The process of reclaiming this public space has to be done in a participatory way where shopkeepers that want their streetscapes full of cars should have that option.

What defines excellent transit oriented development? What models should planners pay attention to?

I think you are asking the right question, but I may not be the right person to answer it, and I will explain why. In Bogotá, for example, they actually didn’t do any transit-oriented development. They did change the master plan for the city as a whole to allow for some higher-density development. But what development has occurred around the BRT system didn’t happen with any intervention by the city government.

In the case of Curitiba, Jaime Lerner changed the zoning laws along the BRT corridors to allow high-density development only along those BRT corridors. And then a step or two away from them, lower density. And then quite a bit lower density further away from the mass transit corridor.

Over time, that led to private investment and very high-density high-rise buildings along the BRT corridors. Those are extremely successful, but they required a metropolitan-level zoning control system. I think you have a problem in L.A. in that the zoning controls are much more localized and will be difficult to change in that way.

What other work is ITDP engaged in around the world?

Currently we are working in about 12 countries on global issues. We essentially work as technical advisors to municipalities.

We’re working on BRT projects, traffic demand management projects (which means parking or congestion charge pilot projects), bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure (bike master plans, pedestrian zones, safe routes to school pilot projects), and we just started a program on urban revitalization and brownfield restoration.

Introducing international best practices to local municipalities is the first step of what we do. The second step, if the city becomes interested, often becomes a technical issue. We would try to find the most affordable, but best, experts in the world to help that mayor, if we think the mayor is serious, implement the project. Because we are an international organization and we work in fun and interesting places on projects that are fun and interesting, we often get some of the best experts in the world.

Southern California long ago adopted Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer as part of its delegation. What has ITDP’s relationship been with him?

Congressman Blumenauer has been a huge supporter of ours. He wrote a couple of letters on our behalf, supporting our work to USAID, which was very important to launching our Livable Communities Initiative in India and Indonesia. We are extremely grateful for Congressman Blumenauer’s support over the years.

ITDP has not done any work domestically, but we are thinking that based on the success of the Peñalosa visit, if cities are interested in us mobilizing other international experts, we might consider getting a little more going in the United States. We are also partner to the Clinton Climate Initiative, as their transportation advisors. Perhaps, under the Clinton program, we might explore a domestic program if local groups are interested.

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