I was sitting at home not long ago working out logistics for a week in Los Angeles. Airfare? Check. Hotel? Check. A couple hours on Google Maps scoping out places I want to explore? Check.
Rental car reservation? Nah—who needs one?
LA is famously the first huge American metro area to grow up almost entirely around the automobile. Its explosive growth during the first wave of the suburban experiment, the 1950s and 1960s peak era of automotive optimism, means that stroads and strip malls and parking are baked into the city's DNA in a really deep way that you don't see in the Northeast or in the older urban cores of the Midwest, where environments first built around walking were retrofitted for cars by the bloody, invasive surgery of urban renewal.
And yet, a half-century and change later, LA is a brighter prospect than most American metro areas for becoming a solidly car-optional place—at scale, not just in a minority of expensive, trendy, transit-oriented neighborhoods. It's certainly more plausible, over the next few decades, than in many other Sunbelt megacities including Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Phoenix.
This is despite a staggering expanse of built environment that was designed around cars. The portrait of Los Angeles that I grew up with as received wisdom, long before I'd ever been to the city, was a portrait of permanently gridlocked freeways and six- or eight-lane boulevards that stretched away into eternity—or at least until they were swallowed by the smog.
Now, though? Sure, L.A. has big problems. The cost of housing is crippling. Inequality is severe: a sea of poverty crashes here against towering wealth. The city faces some very real environmental sustainability challenges as it stares down a future with less water and longer, hotter droughts. But mobility around the city? That part I'm optimistic about. Here's why.
The Two-Wheeled Revolution is Here
You can't throw a stone in parts of LA in 2019 without hitting a scooter. Bird scooters, Lime scooters, Jump scooters. Little and, if you ask me, somewhat ridiculous-looking Wheels e-bikes. (I'll withhold remaining judgment until I've tried one.) They are everywhere. And not just in heavily touristed areas like downtown, Hollywood, and the beach towns of Santa Monica and Venice.
This map from the ScooterMap app has a cap (apologies to Dr. Seuss) of 1000 scooters at a time, but Figure 1 shows the 1000 it decided to show me when I zoomed in on downtown L.A. and environs.
Okay, sure, so they're a plaything for tourists and a handful of millennial urbanite hipsters? Not so fast. Check out Figure 2, the map from a much more residential part of the city with few tourist attractions. These things are everywhere. In a not-insubstantial part of Los Angeles, you can probably find one within a few blocks of your home. And, anecdotally, I see a wide range of people using them, across a spectrum of race, social class, and apparent purpose.
Metro Bike Share has ubiquitous coverage in a couple regions, with a big hole in between, but expect that to change over time too. And they've recently rolled out electric-assist bikes, which may increase their appeal to a broader swath of the population for a broader range of trips. I tried one: it doesn't feel like you're riding a motorized vehicle. The motor is near-silent and just gives you a modest boost as you pedal, making you feel like a normal cyclist who hasn't skipped leg day at the gym in a long time.
The problems that everybody freaked out about when the scooter boom first took off seem to be resolving themselves. Cities can now designate no-parking and no-riding areas, and at least with some providers, the apps themselves enforce the rules. You can't end your ride until you deposit your scooter somewhere legal, and if you take a scooter into a no-ride zone (as I discovered the hard way near Venice Beach), your GPS lets it know and it and simply slows to a halt on its own. For the most part, scooter parking is also beginning to exhibit signs of emergent order, as informal parking zones establish themselves, and riders take their cues from those around them and (mostly) line scooters up neatly against the curb instead of splayed across the sidewalk.
Walkability on Steroids
L.A. is already more walkable than you'd think for a city dominated by suburban-style neighborhoods of single-family houses. Walkscore ranks Los Angeles in the top 20% among 141 North American and Australian cities. The key: relatively high density, a well-connected street grid, and many small businesses serving neighborhood needs.
What bikes and scooters on-demand do is put walkability on steroids. They combining the freedom of walking—just step out your door and go, and arrive right at the door of your destination—with a speed that's somewhat closer to that of driving and lets you reach much more.
I'm staying downtown, so I've been scooting around for days. I can get places in 5 to 10 minutes that would take 25 on foot. I'm rarely the only scooter rider on a given block at a given time, and it's no wonder: 60,000 people now live in downtown L.A. alone, the equivalent of a whole medium-size city. Meeting up with a friend? Quick grocery run? Live at one edge of downtown and work at the other—a distance that might not always make for a comfortable walk? You now have one more option than you used to.
The Real Secret Sauce: Combining Micro + Macro Mobility
The real game-changer, though, it seems to me, is the combination of micromobility (scooters, bikes, et al.) and good old-fashioned public transit. Especially once you get outside downtown, or other compact enclaves like Santa Monica.
The L.A. metro has a few rail/subway lines (and some solid bus rapid transit in the San Fernando Valley), but the Expo Line is the one I used on this particular trip. It runs from downtown, through a swath of the city's western neighborhoods, out to the ocean at Santa Monica. It costs $1.75 to ride. And it runs every 12 minutes throughout the day on weekdays, and never more than every 20. I've been to plenty of denser, more "urban" U.S. cities that boast commuter rail that covers a similar distance—a 15 to 20 mile stretch—but can't remotely compete with that on price or frequency.
The LA metro doesn't have very comprehensive coverage; many areas are far from rail service. And I'm told the bus system can be slow and unwieldy. This is where all of these two-wheeled "micromobility" options are transformative. There's been a big line-up of a couple dozen scooters and bikes at just about every rail station I've seen.
Ordinarily, we think of the walkshed of a transit station as 10 or 15 minutes: if you have to walk any longer than that to get to a station, you're unlikely to find transit useful as a regular means of getting around. These two-wheeled, medium-speed options, if they're predictably available on demand at both ends of that trip, are a game-changer, because they triple or quadruple the number of people who are within 10-15 minutes of useful transit.
In most of Los Angeles between downtown and the beach (an area with about 2 million inhabitants, comparable to the entire metropolitan area of Nashville, Cleveland, Kansas City, or Austin), here's what living without a daily need for a car might look like in the near future. You walk out your front door, find a bike or scooter within a few blocks, take it to a train or express-bus stop within a couple miles, and ride that train or express bus to anywhere it goes. Does this serve every trip, person, or need? No. But it serves a lot of them. And it's just the beginning of what has so far been a rapidly accelerating trend.
The Way Forward
The thing that L.A. can do, and that a place like metro Atlanta with its pod-like, disconnected subdivisions will struggle to do, is this: L.A. can evolve incrementally out of its car habit. It’s already on that path.
Los Angeles is too densely populated for driving to be fast and painless anymore. Billion-dollar efforts to fight freeway congestion by widening have failed miserably, run aground on the rocks of induced demand. L.A. will never, ever, build its way out of car congestion.
What it can do is steadily make driving less and less necessary. Embrace the two-wheeled revolution. Allow neighborhoods to "thicken up" with the next increment of development: missing middle homes. Make it painless to open a neighborhood-focused business near where your customers live. (L.A. already has its famed taco-truck culture serving as a nice end run around residential zoning. In practice, small businesses—if they're on wheels—operate and are accepted in all sorts of neighborhoods.)
The biggest transportation problem L.A. has is its stroad problem. The city's many long boulevards are mostly designed in a way that's dangerous and deeply unpleasant if you're on foot or bicycle: wide, multiple lanes in each direction, high traffic speeds, and narrow sidewalks with no real buffer from traffic. To the extent that these stroads are vibrant commercial corridors, it's in spite of themselves: countless small businesses in run-down strip malls are making a go of it, in the way that plants that sprout up through sidewalk cracks or from cliff faces gamely battle adversity.
There's some good work being done to change this, but the scale of the problem is overwhelming: there are simply so. Many. Stroads. This is a problem too big for piles of bureaucratic process and formal funding streams to tackle.
There are also huge gaps in the formal transit network, and there's only the money to build so many rail lines. So what's the best way forward for LA? The answer, I propose, is a combination of making strategic, well-chosen top-down investments (i.e. BRT and rail projects to connect important and highly productive places), and getting out of the way of a whole lot of bottom-up, tactical, do-it-yourself adaptation.
More thoughts in a future post on what that evolution looks like.