"It was cheaper than Koreatown, and closer to Century City," Mitch King comments as he explains his recent decision to move to Mid City, a very large neighborhood that covers roughly everything east of La Cienega, south of Pico, west of Crenshaw, and north of the 10. He hasn't tried to get to his job in Century City via mass transit yet so I look up the route and we head on our 52 minute, 4 mile, journey. I admit that even I know this isn't going to be easy. As we stroll though his neighborhood, one of the most dense in the city, we pass many streets of cute multi-residential homes, cars, and a fair amount of greenery. It's about a 10 minute walk to Pico and Redondo, the nearest bus stop that will take us to Century City and we both agree that this is a very different city then where he lived just six weeks ago.
Mitch's change comes with gains and losses but he says, "That's what makes L.A. so unique, it's a city of neighborhoods...K-Town was its own ecosystem. I had a market a block from me, bars and coffee shops. I was right above the Wilshire/Normandie train station. It was nice to be there, I felt like I could be in NY. Parking was miserable, but once I parked I didn't have to get back into my car till 8 o'clock the next morning. This is more residential, the nearest market is a mile away." While he has lost the vibrancy of K-Town he finds his new neighborhood appealing because of it's central location, and having grown up in the suburbs of Atlanta he jokes, "It makes me feel a little more grown up, part of that might be attributed to growing up in a neighborhood like this where it was just also removed from the city." Given his new route, I don't blame Mitch for driving to work, he is literally traveling in the way he, and everyone else in this neighborhood, is designed to.
The first thing I notice walking in Mid-City is that it wasn't really designed for people to use their feet as a way to access it. The houses sit in a dense neighborhood of homes that almost feel hidden from the freeway-like thoroughfares that connect them. As we cross one of the widest streets in the city, Venice Blvd., Mitch says, "there are times when its frustrating because I remember being in K-Town and thinking I could walk anywhere...it's little things like that. I find myself driving a lot more now." It is also interesting hearing how services like coffee shops, bars, or grocery stores are now measured in miles and not feet. The space that Mitch needs to satisfy his daily or weekly tasks has grown because of the automobile, Mitch refers to his neighborhood bar now being a mile away. Whether that is a good thing is up to any individual person and their own desired lifestyle, but when a neighborhood is designed with the prerequisite of a vehicle to carry out daily tasks the choice is no longer up to the individual but rather the people who made that decision when designing the neighborhood decades ago. An interesting design choice for the center of the second biggest city in the country.
After a short walk , we reach Pico & Redondo and while waiting for the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus 7, I ask Mitch about his experience with transit, "I used to be terrified of buses...I was staying with my uncle who lives in Sherman Oaks without a car...I didn't ride the bus for about a week, but then I went stir crazy and I sucked it up and I was fine...it's just a bus." While Mitch can laugh about the preconceptions many have toward public transit, most bus stops have very little appeal for those waiting to get to work. A single unshaded bench; a sign that makes it hard to understand when the next bus is coming (especially for the first time rider); dozens of cars are zooming by at top speed. Only a few weeks ago there was a driver who literally flew into a restaurant just feet from this stop. Speaking of passing cars, as we are about to get on our bus we see Mitch's roommate zooms by; they work in the same office but commute seperately. It will take his roommate 22 minutes to get to the office.
The Big Blue Bus, at $1.25, ironically took us 22 minutes just to make our way down Pico. It was a little confusing for Mitch because, like many, he was unsure of the difference between Metro and Big Blue Bus. Luckily, they both take TAP card. Mitch admits he think he would take transit if it were more convenient but, "it's more convenient to drive and even though parking in Century City is ungodly expensive my company doesn't charge for it...they assume you are going to drive. Taking transit would triple the commute time and cost more." Unlike his company's New York office, which subsidizes Metrocards, the L.A. office only offers free parking. He also talks about not having confidence in L.A. transit due to the fact that when he lived on Wilshire he would often see the bus lanes aren't actually enforced: "People would park in them and parking enforcement would just drive straight past. To take transit, I would need to be able to rely on it. When it says it's gonna be there, it needs to be there."
As we get off the bus our most daunting stretch begins. Century Park E. is a straight shot up to Mitch's office but a rigorous 17 minute walk. There is only a sidewalk on one side of the road with traffic rushing by, and on the other side of the sidewalk sits a high fence for a gated community. How can I encourage Mitch to take transit to work when these neighborhoods are designed without transit in mind? As we get closer to the office I realize just about all of Century City regards pedestrians as an afterthought. To cross the last street to Mitch's office, we had to first cross the street to where there was previously no sidewalk because our side had no street crossing for pedestrians. Go figure.
At the end of the day, the trip was doable but by no means appealing. Even by stereotypical Los Angeles standards, this is the worst of the worst when it comes to pedestrian experience. It is a commute like Mitch's that highlights much of why people aren't taking transit: many places in this city are not designed for them to take transit. That doesn't mean our investment is wrong, but we can't just focus on creating new lines, we have to fundamentally adjust the experience of what it means to be in these communities as a pedestrian. Once someone steps off the bus or walks out of the station, is there a sidewalk? Shade? A nearby coffeeshop or park? These are the aspects that can make transit unbearable if not accounted for. As for Century City, only time will tell what that it will look like in the future, but as we walk the last 500 feet to Mitch's office he remarks how the building next to his office is about to be torn down for the new Purple Line Century City stop. How is this neighborhood going to change? Will there be more pedestrian crossings? Will there be more pedestrian entrance's to the revamped Westfield mall and it's nearby high-rises? One can hope.
As for Mitch, he is aware that while he enjoys his time in his car he is also hoping to integrate more eco-friendly transportation into his life. He mentions he wants to get a bike and utilize the Venice Blvd. bike lanes to get him to the Expo Line in Culver City and the beach in Venice. In the short-term, he is carpooling with his roommate to get home this evening, and mentions he will make an effort to carpool more often. Baby steps. We're still getting there.