Mumbai and Delhi aren’t the only places with transit headaches. In fact, the mother of all freeway cities, Los Angeles, has reached its breaking point. Just try taking the 10 freeway eastbound any day after 4 p.m. I dare you. The effects of traffic and pollution from this problem could soon cripple the city permanently.
But there are signs of hope. First is the recent passage of LA County Ballot Measure R, which will give the city up to $40 billion in transportation funding over the next 30 years. Second is President Barack Obama’s efforts to make the largest investment in U.S. infrastructure since the 1950’s.
But all this money will mean little if we spend it the same way that we have in the past. We need to think big; to break the outmoded boundaries between transit and its surroundings; between design and infrastructure; and between the professions of architecture, engineering, and planning. We need to reinforce and improve successful new thinking like transit oriented design, light rail, zip cars, biofuels, and other new technologies and systems.
In order to help this process along my publication, The Architect’s Newspaper (, has teamed with the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) to launch a competition promoting creative ideas for LA’s transit system. The contest, called A New Infrastructure: Innovative Transit Solutions For Los Angeles, is open for entries, which are due by March 13. (Participants can find information and an entry form at Winners will be announced on March 21.
The contest is designed to encourage solutions outside the normal parameters of LA’s—and the country’s—existing transportation-related solutions. We hope entrants—including architects, engineers, planners, or (hopefully) a combination of the three— will explore new transit systems and technologies, new transit-related buildings and neighborhoods, and a new thinking about the relationship between transit, architecture, open space, and urban redevelopment. Competitors will be asked to focus on specific rail extension projects and also take a look at larger-scale, inter-related transit planning challenges. Interested entrants should check out
Fifty years ago our new highways increased our cities’ mobility and its efficiency. But they subsequently destroyed neighborhoods and have in recent years ceased to be able to handle voluminous traffic. Meanwhile mass transit systems continue to age, while L.A.’s remains stalled with a limited ridership and a limited reach. Sure there are subways, and our bus system is certainly extensive, but very few here take mass transit.
Some have predicted that the age of the automobile will soon end. I’m not one of them. People will always relish the opportunity to set out on their own, and cars will continue to become more efficient and ecologically sound. But cars cannot sustain us. We need new transit systems to supplement them, and to insure that our city doesn’t grind to a halt. These systems need to be designed to encourage riders to take and enjoy them, and in ways that nourish and improve our neighborhoods and open up new opportunities; be that for open space in the city, for cultural facilities, or anything else we can’t think of.
Hopefully these ideas will encourage our transit planners, city planners, and civic leaders, some who will have a seat on our jury, to be inspired and to think fresher. Maybe a plan will become reality, maybe it won’t, but we hope this competition will draw attention to an issue that could make or break the prototypical freeway city. If no one is paying attention we will get more of the same. Or nothing at all. Already the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority has announced in a report that because of budget shortfalls the much-hyped “Subway to the Sea” stretching from Downtown LA to Santa Monica, would be stalled until 2032. LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has sharply criticized these dates, and we must too. If we are active in this process, imagining schemes and pressuring our government to move swiftly and innovatively, there’s no telling what we can accomplish.

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