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Talking transportation, infrastructure, (and voting!) with Alissa Walker before the election

Curbed’s Urbanism Editor talks living in L.A. car-free and advocating for dense, transit-friendly cities

Illustration via Shutterstock

It’s a presidential election year (we can hear you all groaning), which means that the future of our cities, housing, and infrastructure are all hot topics, right? Of course not! But here at Curbed, where such issues are central to our daily coverage—from the latest in sustainable design to the future of transportation, and everything in between—we are setting things right by carrying on the conversation on our own.

It helps that our L.A.-based Urbanism Editor, Alissa Walker, is on the front lines of such issues, talking the talk and walking the walk (often literally) to defend public transit and pedestrians’ rights in her car-oriented city. On the latest episode of the Appeal, the Curbed podcast, we sat down with Walker and got her insight into the most pressing infrastructure issues in the U.S., the future of American transportation, and what it’s like to live car-free (with kid in tow, to boot!) in Los Angeles.

Read the interview, or listen to the episode in full, below:

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Asad Syrkett: It’s an election year as you all very well know from painful personal experience, and transportation and infrastructure are just not sexy election year issues, especially in a cycle that has provided a lot of fodder for other conversation.

Zoe Rosenberg: Yet at that, they are incredibly important to the future of our country, and we know somebody who’s thinking, at length, about these issues as well as advocating transportation related issues in her own life through the way that she gets around, and that is Curbed’s Urbanism Editor Alissa Walker.

Asad Syrkett: Alissa lives in Los Angeles which, as you well know, is a car-centric place and has decided to forego cars in favor of buses, trains, biking and everything in between.

Zoe Rosenberg: Stick around.

Asad Syrkett: Well, we’re so jazzed to have you chatting with us. How long have you been at Curbed now?

Alissa Walker: Let’s see, since July. I don’t know how long that is, a couple of months.

Asad Syrkett: It feels like we go way back.

Alissa Walker: I know, I feel like I’ve been here forever.

Zoe Rosenberg: It feels like you’ve been here for much longer.

Asad Syrkett: In a good way.

Zoe Rosenberg: Yeah, in a good way.

Asad Syrkett: Alissa, for listeners who don’t know, what is your title?

Alissa Walker: My title is urbanism editor.

Zoe Rosenberg: What does that actually mean?

Alissa Walker: I’m the counterpart to the architecture critic who is Alexandra Lange who has also been on the show. I think the idea is that I look at where the property lines stop, perhaps, in a Curbed way to put it, and looking at the city as this holistic set of systems, everything from transportation to policy to technology, how basically you build the city that you want to live in and how your city helps give you a good place to live.

Asad Syrkett: This anticipates the next question I had, which was what does it mean to be an urbanist in a broad sense?

Alissa Walker: I think it’s something that’s changing and enabled by the way that we are changing as people who live in cities. I asked this on Twitter. I always just ask my questions on Twitter and everybody answers them who is smarter than me. I asked that the other day like, “Where did the term urbanist come from? Like who was the first urbanist?” There’s all these historical examples, but I think you really start to think about the urbanist when you think of someone like Jane Jacobs or someone who realizes that the top-down city decisions didn’t have to be that way.

You didn’t have to take it anymore and you could start to build the city that you wanted to live in. It’s people who write and think about what it’s like to live in a city and how it should change and people who are out there experiencing the city, and walking through it, and moving through it, and seeing all these different ways that people can affect the built environment and the places where they live.

That’s how I think about it. You’re an advocate for your city but you’re also pointing out the problems and trying to solve them at the same time.

Zoe Rosenberg: One of the things that you are really passionate about it not using private transportation, and to that effect, you wrote a piece for Curbed LA last week about minimizing your use of private transportation, especially in relationship to raising your daughter. There was a lot of feedback on that—

Asad Syrkett: There were, and passionate comments on both sides of the aisle.

Alissa Walker: Including some people that were like, “Oh, I’m glad you’re not my mother,” which I thought was so great.

Asad Syrkett: Oh God! Really?

Zoe Rosenberg: Yeah, oh, burn. Yeah, really.

Asad Syrkett: Jesus! People, get it together.

Zoe Rosenberg: Really, why do you think that this is inciting so much debate?

Alissa Walker: I love that you called it private transportation because I think that that’s a really important way of thinking about it, public versus private transportation and LA is famous for, I don’t want to say inventing private transportation but maybe popularizing it, celebrating it almost in a frightening and world-destructive way, more on that in a second, but I think that that’s the very question.

People want to be able to travel through the city on their terms. A lot of people get angry when you tell them that they should maybe try it a different way, and that’s just what I’ve come up against for years, ever since I started trying to do this. For me, it was I never questioned the idea that I should have a car. When I moved here 15 years ago, everyone was like, “You should buy a car,” and I was like, “I’m going to buy a car.” There was no other option presented to me and I know there were buses that were going past me as I was driving, and they were building a train under my feet, and I’m sure there were some people riding bikes, although not as many now. I literally just never ever thought about it or ever considered that there was a different way. I think you have to go through that in LA.

Obviously, LA is just a different city but LA is like more cities in the U.S. than, for example, New York or Boston or Chicago in that we are like all those smaller cities, which I grew up in St Louis, similar issues, that are now very planned around the use of a car from everything from where we park our cars to where we drive our cars to how every space in between is designed to make sure that cars can move fast and park themselves easily outside, as close as possible to the store that you’re going to.

I think just being able to open yourself up to having those different options and trying them out, maybe they won’t work for you, maybe you don’t use them every day, but those public transportation experiences rather than a private one, I don’t even need to go into the environmental or mental or physical benefits that you can produce by doing this. It’s just a lot more fun, and it’s a lot more interesting to talk to people and to experience your city in this kind of context, and that’s just where I wanted my daughter to be raised.

Zoe Rosenberg: Using public transportation, why did it become so important to you?

Alissa Walker: I think just for that very reason, the fun and the mixing with people and seeing different parts of the city. Again, I point those things out and people are like, “Huh, okay. Cool. I’ll get in my car.” Well, the reason that I actually started doing it was because I lived in Hollywood where—I don’t know if you know where the Hollywood Bowl is in relationship to downtown Hollywood, which is just one of the few areas that has a bunch of very tall buildings in the city.

I literally could not get out of my apartment certain nights of the year because people were going to see Willie Nelson or the Dixie Chicks or whoever, or maybe both of them together, whoever, Kenny Loggins. I was basically trapped in my house and couldn’t get out on a car, and I was like, “Well, maybe I’ll just walk down and, you know, see if I can ride my bike to get past the traffic or walk a few blocks to the grocery store.”

Or, “Whoa! There was the Red Line train right there that went underground. Maybe that would be a good idea,” and I started to realize how much easier it actually was. Looking for a parking space in LA, I don’t know if you’ve tried it. Well, Asad, you don’t even drive so you’re like my hero.

Asad Syrkett: Yes, thank you Alissa. I do not know how to drive. I am someone who grew up mostly in New York City.

Alissa Walker: I wish I could unlearn. Can I stop? Can I get deprogrammed?

Asad Syrkett: I love public transit. It’s great to hear you make the argument though for the ease of use and convenience of public transportation. I think there’s an idea that really prevails pretty strongly that having private transportation available to you at all times means that your life is thus much more convenient. I don’t think that that relationship is always the case between convenience and having a personal car that you—

Alissa Walker: I feel like the opposite of what most people think. Having a car is like this shackle that weighs me down and like, “Oh God! I have to figure out where to park it and like I have to pay attention while I’m driving it.” There’s all these things that really annoy me about it, so if I can avoid all those things and just jump on a bus and have this fancy free day through LA, it’s much better.

Curbed Senior Reporter Patrick Sisson joins Alissa and Asad to talk about low-effort, high-impact placemaking and tactical urbanism projects from their recent story “101 small ways you can improve your city.”

Asad Syrkett: Still, something that consumes all of our lives—at least people who live in cities thinking about how we’re going to get from home to work and from work to whatever appointment is after work and etc.—there’s been a surprising dearth of attention paid to, or maybe not surprising entirely but just a general dearth of attention paid to, issues of transportation and infrastructure in this election cycle. Obviously, there’s been a lot of other shit happening in this election cycle to pay attention to.

Zoe Rosenberg: Shit really.

Asad Syrkett: Exactly, but in August of last year, a senior editor at The Atlantic, Derek Thompson, wrote a piece and the headline was “One Issue Trump and Clinton Agree On.” It was referring to infrastructure and the sad state of US infrastructure beyond transportation infrastructure specifically, and thinking more about hydroelectric power and old dams across the country that are deteriorating slowly.

What is the state of infrastructure in the US? Why is this something that is a politically attractive thing to throw out a sound bite about once in a while?

Alissa Walker: It’s so funny. I was waiting even for the last debate, I was like, “Surely, this will come up,” and it’s also the people waiting for climate change to be mentioned, which only got a backhanded mention at the last debate as well. We keep waiting for these issues that touch people every single day, how you get to your job and how you can save money by living closer to where you work, and all these different, really important things that are determined by the health of our cities, the health of our infrastructure, the health of our transportation system.

It’s just surprising that it hasn’t come up more to be honest. I think that what you were talking about, the article, the idea that this is one thing they agree on. They both agree like, “It’s a mess. We need to fix it.” They have very different ideas for how we should fix it, but I think at the federal level, we’ve only recently started to see some really great leadership addressing these issues.

I will say that the current Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, is flying under the radar because I don’t think many people are paying attention to how awesome of a job he’s doing, and just throwing out all these great programs and initiatives, and policy documents about everything like autonomous vehicles, how we can repair urban freeways to reconnect neighborhoods, a Vision Zero policy which would try to reduce traffic deaths to zero across the country, building up our public transit infrastructure and making it more resilient and responsive.

We need to hope that one of these people who will be elected as our leaders will have somebody as visionary as him because he really gets the technology part of it. He gets the forward-thinking part of it. He’s really trying to take us into the next century, next millennium, whatever, in a very smart way. The other thing that you’ll start to see in this election, which might be even more important than what either Democratic or Republican platform says, is all these huge infrastructure measures that are on local ballots.

I would say, almost every Curbed city in our network has a really important bond measure or a sales tax increase that would be funding some pretty major infrastructure improvements. That’s not just public transit. It’s also sidewalks and bridges, very, very basic things that cities have not been able to pay for. If we can get some of these things funded and at that level, I hope every single one of those passes, —I think some of them are a little problematic—but that could maybe give us the bump. Then the next president could really start to make some of those either top level appointments or just get people in the right places to start making some of this happen.

Zoe Rosenberg: To that end, whomever’s is brought on next, what do you think some of the most important priorities for them as a leader, and for us as a country, in terms of transportation infrastructure?

Alissa Walker: Another really exciting document that just was released by the Obama administration was this housing toolkit that we wrote about a few weeks ago which, again, really great stuff is coming in here right under the wire before these people have to leave office. We shouldn’t neglect them.

Asad Syrkett: Yeah, really.

Alissa Walker: They are really important policy things that they’re proposing. The housing toolkit document that they put out was really just the answer to all these issues. It addressed transportation in a way that is very smart and is really how some cities are thinking about it already. Basically, what I said before about how the most important thing you can do is put housing close to where people have jobs or with a good transit connection between it, so it’s an equal access opportunity for everyone in the city to get where they need to go, schools, jobs, shopping, whatever you need to do.

What that was really pointing out was how we can take housing and put it closer to where those opportunities already exist by getting rid of some of the parking lots, getting rid of some of the wider streets, encouraging cities to really build up their transit to serve those areas. I would say that kind of policy, which, again, do you hear the candidates really talking about affordable housing that much? Not that much.

You hear maybe some discussions about just people making more money in their jobs, but there needs to be a bigger initiative underway to really get the affordable housing part into all the different cities so we can start to solve this problem.

Asad Syrkett: I think, like you’ve noted, there’s been a lot of discussion about the economy but without really addressing some of the ancillary issues that people have to deal with. It’s not just about having a great job but being able to get there, being able to have access to a transit that will get you from point A to point B and get you to that amazing job.

Alissa Walker: Or being able to stay there. The biggest thing confronting a lot of our cities, the biggest issue right now is our aging population. The baby boomers are retiring. First of all, they shouldn’t be on the roads much longer so let’s hope we have autonomous cars to get them around because they shouldn’t be driving. We need these people to be able to stay where they want to live and afford these cities.

How do you create all that housing for seniors who just want to stay in the awesome New York City they grew up in and lived their whole life? They shouldn’t have to be sent out to some affordable housing center in the suburbs. They should be able to stay there.

Asad Syrkett: Something that you just mentioned that I wanted to follow up with you about it is just autonomous cars. I feel like we’re reading and thinking so much more about driverless cars and autonomous vehicles of all sizes recently. Obviously, the U.S. government has done some things to begin to codify legislation and regulation of driverless vehicles.

How much progress do you feel like there is to make before we get to a place where this is something that people are going to be using in their daily lives and is not just going to be a pie in the sky idea?

Alissa Walker: Our governor, Jerry Brown, just passed a exemption what most of the autonomous car companies have been using as far as testing on the streets of California. You are familiar with Google cars and all other different kinds of vehicles that are driving around right now—Uber in Pittsburgh—that are driving around autonomously. This is a pilot project in Northern California that will allow autonomous buses, just shuttles really, zip around a little office park and then at a few moments, go on to public streets.

This is a company, EasyMile, which you’ve probably seen in stories on Curbed or elsewhere. It’s in a lot of European cities that they’re also conducting pilot programs right now, and it’s just the most adorable, little thing you’ve ever seen. It doesn’t have a driver. It’s just a little robot shuttle rolling around, and that’s actually probably going to be the very unsexy first experience for a lot of people in a completely autonomous situation.

It’s going to be the shuttle buses that are on maybe college campuses or like these corporate campuses, or that scoot around a very dense downtown on its own little network of very slow streets, streets where people are going 20 miles an hour or less.

Here in LA, we have a really cool proposal that is part of our DOT, Department of Transportation, a really great study that they did over the past year, which would turn some of these neighborhood circulators, these smaller buses that you see going around the city, that are really just doing big loops around neighborhoods to connect them, and making some of those autonomous which would then allow them to become a little bit more responsive.

That means if I’m a few blocks away from the route, I ping it on my phone and I call the bus on my phone or whatever you do with your app to summon it. It would come out a little bit out of the route and pick me up or maybe pick up someone who is a little bit older and can’t walk all the way to the bus stop. You’ll start to see these awesome, responsive routes in addition to all the great fixed rail and fixed buses that we have already in the city to complement that.

I think that will be your first experience. It’s not as cool as the Tesla that you’ll be driving, the sexy Tesla you’ll be driving or not driving, but that’s probably the reality.

Zoe Rosenberg: This kind of technology you’re explaining is very much like a stepping stone to getting people to welcome public transportation into their lives in a way that is more integrated and meaningful, so interesting.

Alissa Walker: Exactly, you nailed it. It’s like that bridge between the private transportation and the public transportation. Everybody brings up these examples, it’s like Lyft Line or UberPOOL which is forcing you to be in a car with a stranger because you pay a little bit less, and it’s like a little carpooling system.

This is like the bridge between public and private transit, and how do we get people to realize that this is a really good solution and that they don’t need to buy a car, and they don’t want to have an autonomous Tesla. They want to have the autonomous Tesla bus—which Elon Musk has also talked about developing.

Asad Syrkett: We want to move on now to our thunder round, and I don’t know if you have heard the thunder round seconds before, but basically, they’re a little slower than our lightning round which is why they’re called the thunder round.

Alissa Walker: Oh, I see, got it.

Asad Syrkett: Thank you Jeremiah for that lovely name. The questions will be design-adjacent and adjacent to what we’re talking about but a little faster. What is your favorite thing to do in LA?

Alissa Walker: Walk.

Asad Syrkett:

Tell us more. Why is that?

Alissa Walker: Well, first of all, it’s a great city to walk in. We have perfect weather pretty much every day unless it’s a little too hot, which is a few days out of the year.

Asad Syrkett: We feel so bad for you here in New York.

Zoe Rosenberg: Just awful.

Alissa Walker: What was I complaining about the other day when we were talking about something? Oh, I was complaining about how my outdoor furniture was getting a little dusty because it hadn’t rained and everybody was like, “Boo hoo, boo hoo,” but we do need more rain. We can talk about that later, but—

Asad Syrkett: Sure, very true.

Alissa Walker: I love to walk because it connects me to my city. It’s a surprising thing in that every day, I see something new and I love taking pictures of that and sharing it with people, and showing people that it is possible to walk and it pleasant to walk most of the time, but also walking helps to attune me to the challenges and the problems facing my city just like that urbanism label that we were talking about earlier, especially with a kid, with an almost-two-year-old.

Now, she walks me. She tells me what she wants to look at and what street we should go down and what bus we should hop on, so it’s a whole different world.

Asad Syrkett: It’s huge. I know that you commute via bike with your daughter to school, if you will. How did you get so into biking? What’s your earliest memory? Do you have early childhood memories of biking that you hold firmly?

Alissa Walker: I definitely remember my earliest memories. We had a very big hill on our neighborhood, so you couldn’t really ride up but you could ride down very fast and that was always pretty fun. I remember the bike decorating contest at the neighborhood picnic probably the most vividly where you put the streamers in and out of the spokes of your wheel and cards in there to make noises. That’s probably my first, but urban biking—

Asad Syrkett: Those are good ones.

Alissa Walker: Biking in the city is a little different than the bike decorating contest and the cul-de-sac. I will say that this is so absolutely true but I had like a little beach cruiser which isn’t very—it doesn’t actually work on a lot of the streets in LA just due to potholes and some hills. I bought a bike just because I thought it was really cute. I bought a little Public bike, if you know that company. Because it was like Creamsicle orange and it was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.

Asad Syrkett: Oh my goodness, yes.

Alissa Walker: I was like, “I need that.”

Asad Syrkett: Amazing.

Zoe Rosenberg: If you could live in any other city in the United States or anywhere else in the world, where would you move?

Alissa Walker: Oh, man! That is a tough one. I have always fantasized about living abroad just for a limited amount of time so I would come back to LA and be like, “Oh, I appreciate it even more.” Honestly, the place that I would love to just go experience, and I’ve actually never been there, is Japan, but only because of all the amazing advances they’ve made in transit and walking and biking, and making their cities safe for families.

Their kids walk to school supposedly when they’re eight or nine years old because it’s completely safe and they have no reason to worry that they will be on too busy of streets or near fast cars or whatever. I would love to just go see how another country has done it right and experience how they’ve gotten it, and take some ideas back.

Zoe Rosenberg: Here’s our very last question, and it’s a bit of a curveball. What is your favorite midnight snack?

Alissa Walker: Gosh. The only thing I can think of about eating in the middle of the night was recently when you have a small baby and you have to get up to feed them in the middle of the night, which was not a very interesting midnight snack at all. Probably just like KIND bars or something, it’s not very fun but if I was going to maybe get up and make my own—

Zoe Rosenberg: Snack?

Alissa Walker: I would probably just do a stove-popped popcorn on the stove, not microwave popcorn because it’s disgusting, and then do real melted butter and—

Zoe Rosenberg: Preach.

Alissa Walker: Just maybe sit in and hang out with my baby in the middle of the night while I eat my popcorn.

Asad Syrkett: You’ve got to reward yourself for all the walking and biking that you’re doing. You can eat as much butter popcorn as you’d like.

Alissa Walker: I could eat like 10 KIND bars in the middle of the night if I want to.

Zoe Rosenberg: Well—

Asad Syrkett: Thank you so much for coming by and chatting with us. We really appreciate it.

Alissa Walker: Of course.

Zoe Rosenberg: Thank you for listening. That was Alissa Walker speaking her truth about getting around in LA.

Asad Syrkett: If you like what you heard, please do subscribe in iTunes and find us in the podcast section of the Spotify app.

Zoe Rosenberg: If you’re interested in reading more by Alissa, head on over to