Nothing clarifies a sense of place like a long-distance run. One recent Sunday, I ran 14 miles. More than two hours of pounding the pavement is plenty of time to take in our urban landscape and city streets. In the course of that run, the principle of complete streets came home to me in a new way.
Complete streets are roads designed and operated with multiple users in mind. Who are those users? Pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, motorists and, yes, runners. Incomplete streets, by contrast, show a design bias for cars alone. They make walking, bicycling and taking public transportation inconvenient, unattractive and sometimes unsafe.
The concept took center stage at a recent forum by the Southern California Planning Congress, which I attended, along with a few dozen small-business people and urban planning specialists. The forum highlighted the Figueroa Corridor, due to become downtown L.A.’s first complete street after an ambitious $20 million multimodal streetscape project. I expect the project to stimulate the downtown economy, increasing foot and bike traffic as well as giving a boost to restaurants and other businesses. I hope future routes of the L.A. Marathon include it.
Distance running offers expansive and intimate views of our neighborhoods in ways that routine drives down the same routes rarely produce.
Strikingly apparent are the virtues of some places and the sore spots of others. Running came late for me, in my late 20s, when I was working in housing finance for the federal government in Washington. I decided to run the Marine Corp Marathon as part of an AIDS fundraising drive. I finished. That’s all I can say.
When I returned home to Los Angeles, running became an important part of my reconnection with the city. Now, six L.A. Marathons later, and after a two-year hiatus due to my run for state Assembly in 2012, I’m back at it.
Besides the regular annoyances – barking dogs, cramping muscles, unyielding motorists – what is reassuringly familiar is that feeling of being both observer and actor on the streetscape.
There’s the dark, intimidating underpass along Fletcher Drive where any passerby endures a 4-foot-wide sidewalk, three of which are covered in pigeon droppings on the east side. The occasional pigeon carcass serves as a visual aid. Who walks here? Kids getting to and from school? Shoppers going back and forth from a store? As I wonder about this and the public health issues at stake, I get a distinct feeling it is not safe for me to be here. Cars whiz by at 50 miles an hour. Pedestrians and runners are truly not welcome. But the presence of the sidewalk indicates otherwise.