Regional Assembly Preview: Big City Streets Get a Makeover

Last Sunday, an estimated 100,000 Los Angeles residents left their cars at home and took to the streets on bike, foot and rollerblades for the annual Ciclavia celebration. Similar to New York's Summer Streets Program, which closes Park Avenue and other thoroughfares each August, the festival aims to introduce people to benefits of bicycling and walking.

The crowd jibed with a city that has been moving away from its image as the mecca of American car culture. The city has installed more than 450 miles of new bike lanes, some as part of the planned 51-mile greenway along the Los Angeles River. To complement them, a new bike-sharing program is scheduled to open in December. At the national American Planning Association conference held in downtown Los Angeles last week, the city's work in this arena was one of the central topics.

That Los Angeles is embracing bike travel and infrastructure shows the extent of changes that are occurring within the U.S., and by reflection around the globe. New York City has been a leader in this area, among large cities in the U.S., for some time. But other cities are following suit. Washington, D.C., has a bike sharing program that has won over skeptics. And it's not just bicycling. It's the idea of "complete streets." New York State recently joined Connecticut, New Jersey and New York City in its adoption of policies to build streets that are safer and more welcoming to all users, by incorporating such features as separated bike lanes, new sidewalks and better road striping and signage.

But change is hard. Elected and appointed officials have to balance competing needs of cars, bicycles and pedestrians. Pilot programs and "lines and signs" improvements are easy to install, but also easy to dismantle under political pressure.

At the Regional Assembly on April 27, the workshop entitled Cars vs. Bicycles vs. Pedestrians: Can They Learn to Live Together? will bring together elected officials, planners, advocates and others to talk about the physical and cultural challenges of rethinking our streets. Moderated by RPA Board member Trent Lethco, the panelists will include "Gridlock" Sam Schwartz and Jon Orcutt from the NYC Department of Transportation as well as two rising political stars: Mayor Dawn Zimmer from Hoboken and Mayor Thomas Roach from White Plains.

All have grappled with the challenges of implementing complete streets policies. Hoboken's Mayor Zimmer, for example, has integrated car share with the city's parking policies, helping residents reduce dependence on private automobiles. Mayor Tom Roach in White Plains has connected the city's Metro North station with a bike lane, the first of an intended network of complete streets for bikers, pedestrians and drivers.

The streets workshop will be just one of the many panels at the Regional Assembly, but for those who care about these essential veins of our cities it promises to be one not to miss.