Los Angeles: A Tale of Two Bike Lanes

The scene of the battle: Figueroa Street runs for 30 miles north from the port of LA. Image: JM Rosenfeld via Flickr, re-used under creative commons.

It was the best of plans, it was the worst of plans. It was a plan hailed as a success, it was a plan that failed miserably. It was a plan that had won over those who’d been sceptical; it was a plan that once-supportive council members sent unceremoniously to the scrap heap. And, to top it all, both the biggest success and the biggest failure of Los Angeles’ plans for cycling infrastructure took place on the same street.

LA wasn’t always a driver’s town. In the 1920s, it had the longest urban rail network in the world, and innovative infrastructure was built for cyclists as well. Despite this, Angelenos fell in love with the car early on and moved for more highway projects, making it the road-based city it is today.

Lately, though, the city’s residents have become increasingly supportive of transportation projects that go beyond the car. In 2008, they voted for Measure R, which includes one of the most ambitious rail construction plans in the United States. Two years later, the city approved a bike plan that calls for 1,684 miles of bikeways.

All the same, implementing these plans has been slow going: voters who supported the creation of bike lanes in theory changed their mind when it came time to take away their precious car lanes or parking spaces. The Los Angeles Times estimates that, of the more than 1,600 miles of proposed bikeways, just 200 have been built.

One particularly acute case of this has occurred on one of the city’s most important roads, Figueroa Street. Though not as famous as other LA thoroughfares like Hollywood Boulevard, it’s a key artery for the city’s downtown, connecting the rolling hills of gentrifying Northeast Los Angeles with USC, the Coliseum, and the city’s distant port to the south.

The planned bike lane for Figueroa in Northeast Los Angeles has become a case study in exactly how much can go wrong with a seemingly good plan. In documents released in 2010, the area was listed as a priority. But after locals became hostile to the idea, councilman Gil Cedillo, who’d previously supported the plan, suddenly changed his mind; in July, the Los Angeles Times reported that Cedillo had halted all work on advancing the bike lane project. Citing concerns that adding bike lanes would restrict access to emergency vehicles, he added that cyclists are a “tiny but vocal segment of the population”.

Naturally, this didn’t go over well with the cycling community in Northeast LA. Josef Bray-Ali, owner of the well known Flying Pigeon bike shop and a vocal supporter of cycling infrastructure throughout the city, said of Cedillo, “We're going to have to get in his face non-stop, constantly…  I'm not going to back down.” Rick Risemberg, another advocate, accused Cedillo in a blog post of responding to pressure from those who don’t live in his district but do provide much of his financial backing.

As cycling advocates in Northeast LA regroup, perhaps they could learn from the tactics used to quell opposition to a scheme further south on Figueroa. In 2010, a plan for bike lanes along the two mile stretch between Downtown and the USC/Exposition Park complex, known as the MyFigueroa plan, began to take shape after a series of public meetings.

As with many other plans, the plan drew widespread, though diffuse, popular support. By contrast, its opponents were few, but dedicated – and, most importantly, rich. The website People for Bikes reported in April 2014 that the most visible face of opposition to the project was Darryl Holter, owner of eight car dealerships along the route, who vocally opined that the project would hurt his sales. But behind the scenes, other major local players, such as USC and the Natural History Museum, were dragging their feet, too. Though they publicly supported the plan, they also called for a traffic study that would jeopardise key funding for the project.

Fortunately for bike advocates, such opposition was overwhelmed by the strength of grassroots support. The Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition mobilised supporters to put pressure on the city council. The plan won backing, too, from others in the local business community and all five local neighbourhood councils. In March, the campaign found another ally at the very top of the city’s government: mayor Eric Garcetti. By May, opinion had turned and construction was under way; even Holter backed down, and withdrew his case.

It’s unclear whether this strategy would work in Northeast LA. Though this area was included in Garcetti's “Great Streets” plan, the mayor has stayed silent on the issue. Maybe the shadowy interests accused of manipulating Cedillo are more powerful than those further south along Figueroa. Nevertheless, this example has important lessons for all cities looking to build bike infrastructure. Car dependent cities elsewhere should take note. 

This article was amended on 18 August to correct some inaccuracies concerning Mayor Garcettie's "Great Streets" plan.

 
 
 
 

Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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