Slowly the city that is the symbol of American sprawl and car-dependency, and once the image of the smog-plagued city, is moving in a new direction.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wants Los Angeles to be a green role model.
“We have done a lot to clean up the harbour. We have the largest LED-street light retrofit program in the world. The city saves 19 times more energy now than we did four years ago. We are building 18 new stations for public light rail, and we will continue on that way. We now recycle 65 percent of all waste. These are no small things in a city that has come to symbolize one-passenger car traffic”, said Mayor Villaraigosa to colleagues from around the world at the Mayor’s Summit in Copenhagen in December.
At the Summit I had the opportunity to ask Mayor Villaraigosa if he sees a political risk in proposing pro-transit measures in a car-dependent city like Los Angeles.
“We have already made such decisions, as the congestion fees for some freeways. We have also introduced a new sales tax to finance investments in public transportation”, said Villaraigosa.
“There have been protests from both sides. One side thinks this will only make it more expensive and difficult for the poor to get to work on the freeways. The other side thinks that freeways should be free, period.”
In 2008 Villaraigosa got approval for a half-percent sales tax increase that is expected to generate up to $ 40 billion over 30 years for public transportation. This year a congestion fee will be introduced on some freeways.
“There is always resistance in Los Angeles against these types of measures. To give priority to public transportation is a challenge in a city like L.A. and perhaps even more in cities like Phoenix, Houston or Atlanta. A lot of people are against it, that’s for sure”, said Villaraigosa.
The 57-year old mayor was first elected to the office in 2005, and then re-elected for a second term in 2009. The former labour organizer, city councilman and state assemblyman is the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles since 1872.
Born Antonio Ramón Villar, the mayor had a tough childhood on the east side of Los Angeles and later failed in his ambitions to become a lawyer. As a Democrat he entered local politics in the early 90’s.
He changed his name to Villaraigosa when he married Corina Raigosa and adopted a combination of both last names. The couple later divorced and the mayor’s involvement with
other women has been the topic of numerous reports in the local press.
After early success as a high-profile mayor, once named one of America’s best leaders, support for Villaraigosa has dwindled and he has cancelled plans to run for Governor of California later this year. The deep financial crisis that plagues California makes life tough for anyone in power right now.
Education and public safety has been on top of his agenda as mayor, but his most visible results may have come from his ambition to make Los Angeles “the greenest city in America”. The city might have a long way to go to reach that goal, but Villaraigosa has succeeded in putting public transportation on the agenda.
The extension of commuter rail to Santa Monica is the latest step in that direction. After years of debate over plans to build an expensive subway extension to Santa Monica, the “Subway to the Sea”, transportation officials have now settled for a less expensive light rail-solution.
Los Angeles has also entered a new era of “transport-oriented development” where urban planners focus on concentrating new housing along existing or planned transit routes.
There are many challenges ahead, but Los Angeles is moving in the right direction.
Santa Monica, to be reached by light rail in the future.