No one is more pleased than Aaron Paley to see Los Angeles morphing from a sprawling, car-dependent metropolis into a series of interconnected neighborhoods served by transit. In 2010, Paley introduced CicLAvia to his hometown. Modeled on Bogotá’s street festival Ciclovía, the event drew an estimated 100,000 residents on foot, bike, scooter, Rollerblades, and skateboard to a seven-and-a-half-mile stretch of car-free road between Boyle Heights and East Hollywood. The daylong festival has expanded from an annual event to a quarterly one and is now an L.A. institution, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood.
As we meander through Downtown’s Bunker Hill on a drizzly Saturday morning, Paley is explaining CicLAvia’s rise. He believes the event’s popularity is emblematic of L.A.’s transition to a post-car city. “It took 27 years,” he says, “from the closure of the trolley lines in 1963 until the opening of the first light rail in 1990. During that time, Los Angeles essentially finished its freeway system and became the automobile capital of the planet. And during that time, you could answer any ‘How long does it take to get there?’ question with ‘Twenty minutes or less,’ and it was true. But then it wasn’t any longer.”
Compact and energetic, Paley is 57 years old with a salt-and-pepper beard. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley and was trained as an architect and urban planner. For the past 26 years, he has been president of an organization he cofounded called Community Arts Resources (yes, CARS for short), which puts on art and street festivals throughout the area. Our route through Bunker Hill is not direct. Instead of streets, we take the tucked-away staircases and escalators that weave between the hill’s high-rises. Along the way, Paley points to the sky bridges that were built in the 1970s in anticipation of a never-constructed people mover. “That idea of separating the pedestrians from car traffic goes back to the middle of the 20th century,” Paley says. “It made for great science fiction, but it’s a terrible idea.”
After grabbing breakfast at Grand Central Market, we sit down at one of a handful of outdoor tables on South Broadway. Buses go by, a lot of buses, and lots of people are riding them. Where public transit in L.A. used to be the mode of necessity for those who couldn’t afford a car, it’s become a lifestyle choice for increasing numbers of residents. Former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his successor, Eric Garcetti, have promoted an aggressively bold campaign to make transit a cornerstone of the region’s growth and development. In 2008, Los Angeles County voters approved a half-cent sales-tax increase that will raise $40 billion over 30 years to expand light-rail, subway, and bus lines, more than doubling the current system.
We walk down Spring Street, heading for the Metro Red Line that will take us to Union Station, the gorgeous 1939 Mission Revival train depot that is now the city’s transportation hub. “The past 40 years have brought hundreds of thousands of immigrants who had no alternative to get to work or school aside from mass transit,” Paley says. “Kids found other ways of staying in touch with their friends aside from cruising down Van Nuys Boulevard. It’s socially acceptable now for a 16-year-old kid not to get her driver’s license on her 16th birthday. That was unheard of in L.A. 20 years ago. A generation is opting to get their licenses later or opting not to get them at all. All these factors meant that by the early 2000s there was a mass of folks taking transit, a burgeoning bike culture, and more and more people saying that they wanted to live in a walkable neighborhood.”
Dodging raindrops, Paley and I take in some of Downtown’s greatest hits: the Bradbury Building (the 1893 landmark that starred in Blade Runner), the Last Bookstore (only a decade old and California’s largest used and new bookstore), and the Angels Flight funicular (the now-shuttered 298-foot railway that once delighted generations of Angelenos). We then hit upon a hidden treasure. Behind a roll-up door on Sixth Street is a vaulted room covered with custom tiles depicting scenes from Holland, which Arts and Crafts pioneer Ernest Batchelder created in 1914 for a soda parlor called the Dutch Chocolate Shop. We never would have been able to experience all this from a car.
I ask Paley if he worries that mass transit, especially the subway, will lead to the gentrification of L.A.’s poor neighborhoods, as it has in cities like Washington, D.C. “What we’re really talking about is the unwilling displacement of people and communities,” he says. “It’s occurring in every city throughout the world, and I don’t know one that has dealt with it effectively. In L.A., you have this weird symmetry at either end of the wealth spectrum. In richer neighborhoods, residents want everything to stay just as it is, and this form of NIMBYism prevents transit stations from opening and affordable housing from being built. And in disadvantaged areas, the fear that good transit might lead to gentrification has led to the opposition to new lines in transit-dependent areas.”
Before we depart, Paley pulls out a map of Los Angeles he’d picked up on a recent trip to Berlin. It not only shows yet-to-be-completed subway lines. It depicts Downtown as the city’s center. Santa Monica, indeed the whole coastline, is an inset, an afterthought. That California-loving German tourists would be drawn not to the fantasy of Los Angeles but the Los Angeles of bikeshare and sidewalks amuses Paley. “I can only wish,” he says, “that urbanism has supplanted movie stars, but I’m sure that our worldwide identity as the home of Hollywood is firmly entrenched. The truth is, I’m far less concerned with how the rest of the world sees us and far more interested in how Angelenos themselves see their own city. If we can figure out how to move to the next incarnation — a place with viable transportation alternatives — then we’ll offer a new model to emulate for all those cities that followed our lead into the car century. There are a lot more cities that look like L.A. than look like San Francisco, Paris, Copenhagen, or Manhattan.”