Walking in LA: The effort to make Southern California more walkable

Kids walking to school
Kids walking to school
Elizabeth/Table4Five/Flickr (Creative Commons-licensed)

When Dan Burden started approaching bureaucrats about making streets more pedestrian friendly 16 years ago, he could hardly get them to look up from their desks. That was a lot of miles ago. Today, with the health, environmental and quality-of-life benefits of walk-able neighborhoods, they can't get enough of Burden. Even in car-dependent Southern California, where he spent a few of his roughly 340 days a year on the road this spring, city planners are literally walking the talk alongside him.

Burden, 67, doesn't own a car and conducts so-called walking audits by foot.

"He is the Johnny Appleseed of walk-able communities, a true modern nomad," said Ryan Snyder, a transportation planning consultant who brought Burden aboard to create a plan to improve streets in Los Angeles County. "I am guessing there's been nobody who has gotten to know as many American communities as he has."

Dressed in a khaki vest and armed with a binocular, camera, stopwatch, speed radar gun and measuring tape, Burden appears more like a man on a safari than a folk hero as he flies from city to city and leads mobile workshops pointing out poorly planned streets, intersections and sidewalks and suggesting improvements.

For the past century, city streets have been designed to ease automobile traffic flow. But in recent years, sustainability and livability have become buzz words as policymakers seek ways to reduce congestion and pollution and improve the health of residents. They have become increasingly aware that getting more people on the street boosts public safety, raises property value and brings in more businesses.

In and around Los Angeles, where cars outnumber people on the streets and freeways and multi-lane roads divide neighborhoods, efforts are under way to reverse the refrain "Nobody Walks In LA" that was sung by the 1980s band Missing Persons. They include a plan to make over Figueroa Street, a major downtown artery for vehicle traffic, for pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders.

Burden has made several visits to Southern California, including stops in San Diego and Santa Monica, to conduct walk audits. The concept is simple, and the former National Geographic photographer from Port Townsend, Wash. makes it known he has no special training in street design.

"I'm not a traffic engineer, I'm not a planner, I'm not an architect, but I'm trained in how to see and observe and so I sometimes see things that nobody else sees," Burden said during a February visit to assess this Southern California beach city.

At a busy corner on Pacific Coast Highway, he points out cars zooming by at 45 mph, traffic signals that force pedestrians to hurry across the wide boulevard and trash cans and utility boxes that block walkers on the sidewalk. With his measuring tape, he showed that traffic lanes could be slimmed down to accommodate vehicles and add more space for cyclists and pedestrians. Trees could be planted for shade and as a safety buffer from cars. Benches could give the elderly a place to rest during a stroll.

Redondo Beach, along with two neighboring cities, are participating in a program that encourages residents to adopt healthier habits. Burden has recommended putting in a bike lane on a heavily used road that leads to Pacific Coast Highway and adding traffic circles and replacing a car lane with a bike lane in several places to slow down vehicles.

Some of these ideas, presented by Burden at a statewide workshop several years ago, were adopted by Lancaster, a sprawling suburb of 156,000 north of Los Angeles. The city saw remarkable change last year when its main drag, Lancaster Boulevard, was put on a "road diet."

The city narrowed the 4-lane, nearly mile-long boulevard to two lanes, put in diagonal parking and landscaping in the middle of the street and widened the sidewalks to add trees and outdoor dining areas.

Mayor R. Rex Parris came up with the idea of installing speaker systems playing the soothing sounds of bird songs and trickling water to enhance the ambiance.

Cars that used to speed through the boulevard at 40- to 50 mph now slow down to 15- and 20 mph, making it safer for people to cross the street and patronize the 30 new businesses that have moved downtown, city planning director Brian Ludicke said.

"It was a ghost town down here," said Maria Elena Grado, who opened her Lemon Leaf Café on the boulevard five years ago. "Now people drive down here just to walk their dogs."

Lancaster is developing a plan that calls for redesigning its streets to accommodate walkers and cyclists by putting in protected bike lanes, roundabouts and other measures to reduce car speeds and improve safety overall.

"While these things benefit people who want to bike and walk, it has a lot of benefits for the community beyond that," Ludicke said. "It does a lot for public health, it does a lot for the aesthetic value of the community. It creates a better place to live, it increases property value."

The shift toward building "complete streets" reflects a broader change in federal government policy. Last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued new guidelines that moved to end "favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized" by including cyclist and pedestrian needs in new road projects.

Snyder said it's the skyrocketing rate of obesity that has also propelled governments to create better places to walk so people can conveniently get some exercise without having to drive to the gym. He is leading an effort funded by a $32 million obesity prevention initiative by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health to create a street design manual for cities to reshape what he calls their "35 mph architecture."

"They're places where grandmothers can't cross the street or kids can't get to schools, they're trapped in their neighborhoods because the streets are ... used as conduits for flushing out large volumes of vehicles," he said.

Burden said he developed the walk audits as a way to train traffic engineers to see the effects of their designs on walkers when he worked as a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the Florida Department of Transportation more than two decades ago.

Today, the audits that he leads also involve civic leaders and average citizens. He said the exchanges that occur during the walks put people at ease and open up many ideas for ways people want to better their communities.

He said people can lead themselves when it comes to redesigning their neighborhoods.

"My goal before I leave the planet, is to have a thousand walks being led per day to see towns differently than what we see today," Burden said, "and to do it through the eyes of different people who become practiced at seeing and observing."