(Summer ’11) Jaymes Dunsmore G

Jaymes Dunsmore will be working for the City of Los Angeles Urban Design Studio to improve access to public transportation, increase pedestrian and bicycle safety, and enhance the quality of life in neighborhoods around existing and planned Metro stations.


Jaymes Dunsmore G, is in Los Angeles working with their Urban Design Studio to improve access to public transportation, increase pedestrian and bicycle safety, and enhance the quality of life in neighborhoods around existing and planned Metro stations.

Final Blog: Leaving Los Angeles


Jaymes Dunsmore G, was in Los Angeles working with their Urban Design Studio to improve access to public transportation, increase pedestrian and bicycle safety, and enhance the quality of life in neighborhoods around existing and planned Metro stations.

Front page of my final product, design guidelines for transit-oriented districts

After a little over two months in Los Angeles, my work was complete, or at least I was done with it. While I created a set of design guidelines a about ninety-pages long, my final product is really only another small step in the City’s planning process. What I did achieve was to demonstrate a method to begin to rethink over fifty-years of auto-oriented planning around the seventy-or-so transit stations in Los Angeles. The approach is based on the idea of grouping stations into eight neighborhood typologies and then laying out specific recommendations for implementing the City’s General Plan goals, policy objectives and Urban Design Principles in each neighborhood type. I completed two chapters focusing on the two of the neighborhood typologies that are most commonly found along the next planned rail lines. Together these chapters, are a template for how the TOD Design Guidelines can be expanded to cover all areas of the city.

My project brought together many existing city plans, policies and principles into a single document, providing one of the first collections of every existing plan and policy that relates to transit oriented development. Taken together these already-adopted plans and policies are a bold call for the city to focus development around transit stations, and to design streets in those areas to prioritize pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users. In this way, the TOD Design Guidelines serves as a tool for advocates for safer streets, better bike access and increased transit options.

The following chapters focused in detail on the Streetcar Suburb and Transit Village typologies. I chose to focus on those typologies because neighborhoods like that are to be found along the planned Expo Phase II and Crenshaw light-rail lines. These chapters detail design guidelines for station location and design, for streets and public spaces, and for commercial and residential development. They’re intended to be used by both professional planners in the City Planning Department and Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), as well as by neighborhood residents who might serve on Metro’s station design advisory committees. For people who are not design professionals, the TOD Design Guidelines illustrate and explain how design interventions such as raised crosswalks or narrowed streets can improve pedestrian safety and access and promote transit use. City planning staff are hoping to use the TOD Design Guidelines to demonstrate the sort of TOD that is possible while apply for up to $5 million dollars in grant money for station area planning that Metro is making available to Southern California cities.

Excerpts from Sections on Station Design, Street Design and Residential Design. Click on image to enlarge.
Excerpt from section on Station Design

Excerpt from section on Street Design

Excerpt from section on Residential Design

In addition to learning about transit planning and urban design, this internship gave me the opportunity to learn how planning works in a major city and to learn about Los Angeles itself. Over the course of the summer I was able to meet with developers building high-rise residential towers in Century City. I represented the Urban Design Studio at Metro’s Technical Advisory Committee meetings for its Regional Connector project, a planned new subway through Downtown Los Angeles. I attended and participated in Planning Commission and City Council meetings. And I spend time traveling and observing the city by bus, ligh-rail and on foot, visiting neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights, Leimert Park, Little Tokyo and Koreatown, and talking with transit riders, restaurant owners, business people and community leaders.

Southern California has been called an island on the land, isolated from the rest of the country by deserts and mountains. That idea refers both to the geography of the region as well as to the mindset of its inhabitants. I learned quickly that it’s useless to mention design examples from other cities- a common practice for urban designers– because they would be dismissed out-of-hand by Angelenos convinced that their city is an anomaly. So I tried to illustrate every design principle using only examples from Southern California. However, focusing on Los Angeles made the project universally applicable in another sense. If you try to explain to an Angeleno how removing traffic lanes in midtown Manhattan reduced traffic congestion and improved travel times, the response is “well, this is Los Angeles…” But explain to anyone from any other city how Los Angeles is encouraging transit-oriented the development and the response is “well, if they can do in LA we can do it here.” When you’re working on pedestrian, bike and transit issues in the perceived car capital of the world, that means something.

A final look at Union Station in Downtown LA, on my way to catch the evening train home.

Community Voices: If all politics are local, all local politics are about parking

Los Angeles City Hall

With an issue as broad as transportation planning, in a city as diverse as Los Angeles, there are many communities and voices involved in policy debates. I saw this first hand when I attended a Planning Commission Meeting in July, which provided the opportunity to consider: what are the rolls of a planner and community members in the decision making process.

The first issue before the Commission that day was a proposed apartment building in an already dense part of Brentwood, not far from UCLA in the desirable Westside. The project was to include two parking spaces per housing unit, and one parking space per low-income housing unit, as allowed by city code. A group of neighborhood residents was in attendance to oppose the project, on the grounds that it would increase traffic and exacerbate a perceived parking problem in the area. They spoke about the difficulty of finding parking for their four-or-so cars per household, without appreciating the irony that they were part of the cause of the “parking shortage” in the area. The developer, while defending the project, agreed to try and tweak the design to add two more parking spaces so that even the low-income apartments would come complete with two parking spaces each. The planning commission approved the project, allowing it to move forward.

The debate over parking in Brentwood, illustrates one of the challenges of planners trying to listen to the community. The loudest voices are often those defending the status quo, while voices of other communities have no part in the debate. Missing from the discussion over the proposed apartment building were the voices of the people who might occupy the low income units if they were built. When a project goes before the planning commission, notices are sent out to people living in near the site, but people who might live in the project once it is built are obviously not notified. How could they advocate for a project that might give them a place to live in a good neighborhood if they’re unaware of the project? If they could come to the meeting, what would they say about the parking issue? Most likely they wouldn’t know what to do with a second parking space if they had on; according to the 200 Census 57% of households in Los Angeles have one or no cars. Not surprisingly, the low income families have the lowest rates of car ownership and the highest rates of transit ridership.

Currently, it is illegal to create a market-rate dwelling unit in Los Angeles without providing two dedicated, off-street parking spaces. Low income housing can generally be developed with only one parking space per unit. No dwelling units are allowed without any parking spaces, which means that the city assumes all households will have at least one car, and most will have two. However, the city is considering revising these requirements. The second issue that the planning commission considered that day was the creation of a Modified Parking District (MPD) ordinance, which would allow the city to designate certain areas where it could allow less (or require more) parking. Most of the people at the meeting that day had come to speak about this issue.

The first speakers on the issue were representatives of affordable housing developers, including Lisa Payne, Policy Director for the Southern California Association of Non-Proffit Housing. The affordable housing community had been opposed to the idea of modified parking districts, fearing that allowing reduced parking by right would make the parking reduction granted to affordable housing projects impotent. The MPD ordinance was amended to guarantee that less parking would be required of affordable developments in all areas, and housing advocates were now in support of the ordinance. Given that providing a single parking space can add between $10,000 to $30,000 to the cost of developing each housing unit, requiring less parking can sustainability increase housing affordability.

The proposed ordinance would also impact commercial development, and could allow new retail stores and restaurants to provide less parking in areas with transit. This provision raised concern from many community members, who spoke about “spillover parking,” where shoppers and diners park on residential streets when patronizing neighborhood businesses. At the core of the concept of spillover parking is the idea that residents are entitled to store their private vehicles on public streets in their neighborhood while non-residents are not.

The meeting also revealed a generation gap in the different ways young and old citizens viewed the issue. An elderly gentleman described how his first car brought him a sense of freedom, and how the many recreational actives in sunny Los Angeles, such as mountain hiking trails or coastal beaches necessitate auto use. In contrast, the people my age had a different viewpoint. The college-age representatives from the LA County Bicycle Coalition argued the aforementioned qualities of the city, make Los Angeles ideally suited for cycling. The region’s warm and sunny climate make cycling enjoyable year round, and the city’s beaches, parks and other recreation sites are all accessible by bike. My fellow intern, LA native and writer for Metro’s blog The Source, Carter Rubin, spoke to provide what he called “generational balance” to the debate. Whereas the automobile provided freedom for previous generations, Carter said that today younger Californians are finding freedom in urban living, where they can walk, bike or take transit to school and work, and enjoy a wide range of shops, restaurants and cultural events without getting stuck in traffic.

Finally, I spoke, challenging the terms of the debate. Throughout the meeting speakers and commissioners raised the issue of “congestion:” what did it mean, how much was acceptable, how could it be alleviated. I urged the Planning Commission to think beyond congestion and to focus instead on mobility. The real issue isn’t, how easily can you drive somewhere, it’s how easily can you access the shopping, entertainment and employment opportunities. If you can walk, bike, take transit or live closer to school, work and other destinations, traffic congestion isn’t a problem anymore.

As planners we often talk about listing to “the community” as if it were a single entity with a single voice, but the complex reality in most places is that the community is comprised of many groups, with differing and often conflicting interests. While it’s important to listen to citizens’ interests, in the end a roll of a planner must take a stand and argue for what’s right. After all, a planner is a member of the community as well.

July 12, 2011: Instant TODS- just add transit

In many cities, creating transit-oriented districts (TODs) often involves developing new neighborhoods from scratch around existing or planned rail lines, but in Los Angeles the challenge is different. Despite LA’s image as a sprawling, low-density metropolis, the city has many compact, dense, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods that are ideally situated to become transit-oriented districts with addition of transit and the modification of auto-oriented street standards and parking requirements. Many such neighborhoods developed as streetcar suburbs around electric train lines in the early 20th century, so its not surprising that they feature many of the qualities sought after by planners and developers seeking to create in new transit oriented developments. Last week I visited Highland Park, one such neighborhood that is a model for how light rail can fit into established residential communities.

Highland Park is situated north-east of Downtown Los Angeles, along a historic rail corridor that has been revived as the Metro Gold Line light-rail line to Passadena.

While some communities fear that the introduction of transit will transform their quiet residential neighborhood, Highland Park is an excellent example of how light-rail can be designed to fit within a historic neighborhood. Through Highland Park the Gold Line runs along Marmion Way, a narrow local street lined with a mix of single-family homes and a few apartment buildings. Trains run in dedicated lanes in the median of the street that are demarcated with special paving. Cars, cyclists and even pedestrians share the narrow travel lanes on either side of the tracks. The constrained road width and un-signalized rail crossings forces drivers to slow down and pay attention, which makes the road safer for pedestrians, bicyclists and children playing in the street. Marmion Way doesn’t conform to the municipal Department of Transportation’s street standards that prioritize the movement of traffic, but the street serves the needs of drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, transit vehicles and respects the scale of the neighborhood.

A Gold Line train along Marmion Way

Stone pillars along the median fence on Marmion Way reflect those found on craftsman homes in the neighborhood.

Stone pillars along the median fence on Marmion Way reflect those found on craftsman homes in the neighborhood.

A block south of Marmion Way, is Figueroa Street, the commercial heart of the neighborhood. A mix of stores and restaurants line the sidewalks. Many have set up displays of merchandise or tables and chairs on the sidewalk, creating a more active streetscape and more enjoyable walking environment. Along the curbside of the sidewalk, shade trees, bus shelters, bike racks and newspaper stands create a buffer between pedestrians and passing cars. Even the more residential parts of the neighborhood have some commercial activity, such as corner stores, which serve as gathering places for neighborhood residents.

Figueroa Street in Highland Park

Figueroa Street in Highland Park

Neighborhood residents gather on the sidewalk in front of a corner store.

Neighborhood residents gather on the sidewalk in front of a corner store.

This single family home is adjacent to the above pictured corner store, demonstrating how different uses coexist in close proximity in older neighborhoods.

This single family home is adjacent to the above pictured corner store, demonstrating how different uses coexist in close proximity in older neighborhoods.

Zoning codes do not always encourage such diversity and activity. It’s likely, that many of the buildings in the neighborhood could not be built today in most parts of the city because they would not provide the required off-street parking. As the Metro rail network is expanded in Los Angeles, transit investment should be directed at neighborhoods such as Highland Park, which can become instant TODs with the addition of a station, while codes should be changed so that other neighborhoods around stations can be improved by implementing many of the successful features of these historic streetcar suburbs.

July 6, 2011: The past and future of transportation in LA

The Past: The Hollywood Freeway through downtown Los Angeles, July 2011

Jaymes Dunsmore G, is in Los Angeles working with their Urban Design Studio to improve access to public transportation, increase pedestrian and bicycle safety, and enhance the quality of life in neighborhoods around existing and planned Metro stations.

Los Angeles is often said to have a love affair with the automobile, and indeed car culture has deep roots in Southern California. Both the freeway and the drive-through restaurant were invented here, as were many other less-celebrated, but no less ubiquitous, elements of the auto age such as the large-font overhead street sign and the left-hand turn pocket. So prominent is the car in both the physical landscape and popular image of Los Angeles that it is difficult to imagine the city’s past or future without it. Few remember that LA once had the greatest network of streetcar lines in America, with tracks stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Inland Empire. Today a similarly scaled system is under construction. Subways now run under Hollywood and Wilshire Boulevards, while light-rail trains run along historic rail right-of-ways to Long Beach, Pasadena and soon Santa Monica.

A quite revolution is taking place in Los Angeles. Over the past two decades the local transit agency, Metro, has built nearly 80 miles of rail transit lines and 70 stations. The business community, labor leaders, city officials and voters have all embraced an ambitious plan for subway and light-rail extension that is now underway. Downtown, which was once devoid of activity outside of business hours–aside from film crews shooting car commercials on its empty streets–is becoming a vibrant urban community and a destination for dining and entertainment. In short, Los Angeles is becoming a post-suburban metropolis.

City planning, zoning, and street standards in Los Angeles has not kept pace with the recent changes and are still designed to prioritize the movement of automobiles rather than to create safe, interesting and inviting places for people. The Urban Design Studio, which is part of the municipal Department of City Planning was created to change that. In the past few years the studio has focused on improving walkability, creating Downtown design standards and reforming street standards to end the previous practice of ever widening Downtown streets in the name of congestion relief. This summer I am working in the studio to create Design Guidelines for the Transit-Oriented Districts. The goal of the project is to produce a cohesive set of guidelines for public improvements and private development around the city’s 70 transit stations in order to improve pedestrian safety and access.

In a way, we’re working to push back against the transportation innovations of the previous century including the freeway, the drive-though and the left turn pocket. These inventions were designed to facilitate auto use and relief congestion, but as Angelenos have learned a city designed for cars and congestion produces cars and congestion. A city redesigned for transit users, cyclists and pedestrians will produce transit users, cyclists and pedestrians.

The Future: Metro Gold Line in Highland Park, July 2011

Jaymes is in Los Angeles working with their Urban Design Studio to improve access to public transportation, increase pedestrian and bicycle safety, and enhance the quality of life in neighborhoods around existing and planned Metro stations.

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