Cars Don't Shop

03/27/2015 02:55 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2015

"Cars don't shop" and "If you want a better city, build bike lanes. It's an economic development strategy."

Those were two of the takeaways from last night at the Hammer Museum in transit-friendly Westwood. The evening at the Hammer's Billy Wilder Theater featured former New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and Los Angeles Department of Transportation's (LADOT's) new General Manager Seleta Reynolds.

In a lively conversation, the two transportation leaders spent the night riffing on how the streets and public spaces revolution happened in New York and elsewhere and what might be in store for Los Angeles on Reynolds' watch.

For those of us who care about this stuff, last night was Hammer Time for LA's streets. But as anyone who has been in Los Angeles for more than a New York minute knows, Reynolds has her work cut out for her in transforming Los Angeles into a city of complete streets, or Great Streets, as LA is calling them. Complete streets are safe streets amenable to pedestrians, bikers and transit riders as well as drivers.

Thankfully, a lot of the groundwork laid by Sadik-Khan and others will help Angelenos envision the possibilities.

The chemistry between these two well-regarded transportation chiefs is strong and last night both speakers deftly shared their visions for their respective cities. They also shared a good deal about the transportation myths that haunt us in pushing the transportation status quo.

Sadik-Khan got things rolling describing the widespread resistance she encountered in New York. In sum, the myth is that, "All of those projects you are talking about will just make traffic worse." Or, as Reynolds put it, "What idiot came up with this plan?"

But, as Sadik-Khan explained, the reality is, "It's not the end of days." And during the evening she repeatedly drove home the need for data because, "In the absence of data, anecdotes rule."

Those new metrics will need to look beyond car counts and traffic speeds to pedestrian and bike improvements, safer crosswalks and more business for shops along the street. Residential and commercial rents and gentrification may be other meaningful metrics as an audience member, a former downtown resident who can't afford to live there anymore, pointed out.

In a city where affordable housing presents one of our biggest challenges, achieving more complete streets without pricing out the working and middle class will be a challenge. Unless, as LA's Deputy Mayor for Budget & Innovation Rick Cole said last month in The Planning Report "...revitalization was so widespread across Los Angeles that attractive neighborhoods were not a scarce commodity? In other words, what if the supply of attractive areas was increased to meet the demand? Second, what if rising wages and business activity allowed existing residents and local businesses to prosper in an improving neighborhood? Targeting both these missing factors could significantly reduce displacement."

I like the sound of that. I also like what Reynolds had to say about her vision that different streets play different roles in the city. Talking about San Francisco from which she hails most recently, Reynolds described how Valencia in the Mission is now a bike boulevard with street lights timed for bikers, while Mission is a transit-focused street thanks to its BART stations. Given the size of LA and its diversity, LADOT can experiment with different strategies for different areas as it has done on Broadway in downtown LA.

At the Hammer, Sadik-Khan underscored that there is now a totally different competition between cities for which ones can be most favorable to "people who walk and people who bike." Reynolds meanwhile spoke of the way small businesses tend to oppose changes even though "businesses are exceptionally poor judges of who shops at their stores." Citing research on Polk Street in San Francisco, Reynolds noted that some 80 percent of shoppers didn't drive to the area, walking and taking transit instead. Or as Sadik-Khan remarked, "Cars don't shop. Cars are lousy consumers." There is a huge body of evidence that transit riders and pedestrians spend more than those who drive to their shopping destination. Wonk alert: see Transport for London for data on that city.

In the Q and A, Reynolds got a hard question from an audience member who pushed her on shortcomings of the LA bus system. On Wilshire which will someday soon see the ribbon cutting on the Metro 720 Rapid bus only lane, the audience member was right to express disappointment with our failure to create a meaningful bus rapid transit (BRT) line because of the cutouts through Beverly HIlls, the Condo Canyon and Santa Monica. Now that the bus lane has had its soft opening, the city also needs to ticket and tow drivers who flaunt the no parking signs.

Reynolds' answer included comments about the need to tell the story of bus rapid transit in language that ensures the city embraces the Wilshire project as well as planned BRT lines along Vermont and elsewhere.

There is cause for optimism about what lies ahead for Los Angeles. But we should also heed the leaders' reflections on the transportation myths that will stand in our way. As we have already seen in the pushback over Figueroa downtown, old myths die hard.

LA will need to show with data, that LADOT's new approaches make sense.

Late in the conversation, Sadik-Khan quoted Gil Peñalosa, one of the heros of the complete streets movement and the former Commissioner of Parks, Sports and Recreation in Bogotá, Colombia: Scientists look at the health of our rivers by counting the number of fish in a stream. We should look at the health of our cities by counting the number of women and children in our bike lanes.

That's sound advice coming from the guy whose team initiated Ciclovia, the car-free Sundays in Bogotá that has become an internationally recognized program which sees over 1.3 million people walk, run, skate and bike along 121 kilometers of city streets. With any luck, just as Bogotá's success inspired LA's CicLAvia, New York's achievements under Sadik-Khan's leadership will inform Reynolds' tenure at LADOT.

Yours in transit,