Beyond Gridlock

Beyond Gridlock

The first place entry in the professional category, MMs Transit, designed by Joshua Stein, Aaron Whelton, and Jaclyn Thomforde with Jacob Brostoff.
Courtesy the designers

On March 21, The Architect’s Newspaper and the Los Angeles–based Southern California Institute for Future Initiatives, a program of SCI-Arc, announced the winners of their open ideas competition, A New Infrastructure: Innovative Transit Solutions for Los Angeles.

Inspired by LA County Measure R—a half-cent sales tax hike passed last November that promised up to $40 billion in transit funding for the city—the competition offered architects, engineers, and planners a chance to rethink LA’s transit infrastructure from a neighborhood scale and from far-reaching, system-wide perspectives. The contest attracted 75 proposals from around the world, providing a refreshing look at a set of problems all too often met by sighs of weary futility among transit professionals.

Most of the winning schemes took a big-picture approach to reintegrating this famously far-flung city. The professional winner Más Transit (pictured above), by Joshua Stein, Aaron Whelton, and Jaclyn Thomforde with Jacob Brostoff, proposed a system in which high-speed regional and local rail would be seamlessly linked via a raised infrastructure above the city. The design would cluster nodes of density around its inventively layered network, while making San Diego less than an hour away by train. The student winner, Ryan Lovett, tackled transit issues in concert with rezoning to incorporate work, production, and living into the same dense districts, a simple development strategy that solves multiple environmental problems.

Many of the best ideas to emerge from the competition were repeated across the spectrum. The second-place student winners, Alan Lu and Yan-ping Wang, proposed a modular mobile transit vehicle, which, like one proposed by Lovett,could travel both on and off a track. Meanwhile, the third-place professional winner, Osborn’s Mag Luv proposal, also integrated high-speed rail with local mass transit systems, including zip cars and other individually-oriented transit technologies, converging on 12 centers of transportation and activity.

Several of the top prize winners—like Ben Abelman, Vivian Ngo, and Julia Siedle’s Freeways Are For Trains—proposed using LA’s existing freeway system as a base from which to build new transit and dense urban development. Others, like Fletcher Studio’s Infrastructural Armature, looked at merging transit with other existing infrastructure, like water and sewer networks, from which “infrastructural tentacles” could grow. Roe Goodman’s honorable-mention-winning student proposal suggested transit stations that could double as neighborhood centers, offering markets, bike storage, and other amenities. NBBJ’s Green Tech City scheme, which won a professional honorable mention, proposed linking new stations within a greenbelt, accompanied by zoning in the area to encourage the burgeoning green-tech sector in the city.

Among the organizers’ special selections was Odile Decq’s eye-popping Fast, Fluid & Free, which proposed an electric-car transport system modeled on free bike-sharing systems developed in Europe, along with mixed-use linkages spanning the freeways with parks, commerce, and car and bike stations. Wes Jones’ The Answer Is Not Mass(ive) Transit took a contrarian approach, suggesting that instead of resource-intensive infrastructure, planners consider small-scale solutions like the Elov, a pod-like electric vehicle that fits into less space than a smart car and reduces the volume of traffic by serving the same number of occupants in only one quarter of the space.

Outside of new ideas, the competition encouraged conversations among transit players, designers, and community leaders, who don’t speak together enough when transit decisions are made. The jury included architects Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, and Neil Denari; but also Aspet Davidian, director of project engineering facilities for the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority; Cecilia V. Estolano, chief executive officer of CRA/LA; Gail Goldberg, director of planning for the City of Los Angeles; Roland Genik, urban planner and transit designer; and Geoff Wardle, the director of advanced mobility research at Art Center College of Design.

Most agreed that the discussion about transit in the city needed to better tap into the design and urban planning fields. But they also argued that the whole issue needed rethinking from a coordinated, regional perspective. Mayne pushed for a change in how we see the city at large, while Denari pressed for proactive—not reactive—planning, and Goldberg pushed for more long-term thinking. Moss pointed out that Measure R only detailed rail and road improvements, but not how such improvements would affect the city. He deplored a city balkanized by local politics, without an overall vision. “We’re known in LA for experimental architecture,” he said. “But when it comes to urban planning, we’re about as meek a place as there is.”

And now, the winners.