Let the People Walk to Dodger Stadium

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Dodger Stadium is one of the most hallowed temples of American sports, and probably the only great Major League Baseball stadium built between 1923 (when the original Yankee Stadium was completed) and 1992 (Camden Yards). It’s also right next to downtown Los Angeles — as musician Ry Cooder will sing to you or photographer Don Normark will show you, its builders destroyed what was left of the charmingly ramshackle Mexican-American neighborhood of Chavez Ravine in order to make way for America’s pastime.

Those builders cordoned the stadium off from downtown and other surrounding neighborhoods with 130 acres of parking lots. This was 1962, and the notion that someone might want to arrive at a baseball game by means other than a private automobile was apparently inconceivable. Also, downtown Los Angeles was by then already well into a decades-long decline. Hanging out there before or after the game wasn’t exactly something people who could afford Dodgers tickets were clamoring to do.

Now, of course, downtown Los Angeles is, like lots of downtowns around the country, a booming place full of new apartments, restaurants and hotels. It is also quite well served by non-car means of transport, such as the gold, purple and red lines of the city’s Metro Rail system; Metrolink commuter trains from Lancaster, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura; Amtrak trains from farther away than that; and a panoply of bus lines. Getting to and from a game by car, meanwhile, has come to entail usually getting stuck in traffic for a significant part of the evening or afternoon. There are also shuttle buses from downtown’s Union Station, but thanks to all that traffic, it takes about 25 minutes to travel a distance of, as the crow flies, a little over a mile.

It is understandable and quite welcome, then, that the Dodgers and the city have begun entertaining some interesting suggestions for new, non-automotive ways to get from downtown and other nearby neighborhoods to the stadium.

In April came a proposal for a gondola from downtown’s Union Station, to be built and paid for by Aerial Rapid Transit Technologies LLC, a company founded by Drew McCourt, son of former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, who sold the team in 2012 (but retained ownership of half of the surrounding land). It seems to have moved one step closer to reality as the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority last week sent out a formal “Request for Information” to the company.

Then, on Wednesday evening, Wired broke the news that Elon Musk’s Boring Company wants to connect Dodger Stadium to neighborhoods to its northwest (downtown is to its southwest) and Metro Rail’s red line via a “zero-emissions, high-speed underground public transportation system in which passengers are transported on autonomous electric skates traveling at 125-150 miles per hour.”

So that’s all pretty cool, right? As Dodgers Chief Financial Officer Tucker Kain put it in a news release, “Whether it is flying overhead in an aerial transit system or bypassing traffic through an underground tunnel, we are always looking for innovative ways to make it easier for Dodgers fans to get to a game.” Yay, innovation!

Then I saw this from journalist Josh Barro:

Yes, each of the Boring Company’s electric skates will only hold between eight and 16 passengers. The skates can apparently be packed pretty closely together, with initial capacity of 1,400 people per game, going up to 2,800 if “community feedback” allows. The company behind the proposed gondola, meanwhile, says it could move 5,000 people per hour. Add 2,800 and 5,000 together and you get about 14 percent of Dodger Stadium’s capacity — not nothing, in other words. But it also seems, as Barro intimates, that a lot of people would face unpleasantly long waits, especially at game’s end, if these systems were running at anything close to capacity.

This led me to look at a map. Downtown’s Union Station, as already noted, is about a mile from Dodger Stadium as the crow flies. Chinatown, which stretches northeast from downtown, is even closer. The Chinatown Century Plaza open-air mall is less than half a mile from the stadium, and the Chinatown station on Metro Rail’s gold line about three-fifths of a mile, which under normal circumstances is a 10-minute walk. There are parking spaces in the stadium lot almost that far away.

Only ... you can’t walk directly from Chinatown to the stadium. There actually is a (narrow) pedestrian bridge over the 110 freeway that separates Chinatown and downtown from the stadium, but once you cross it, you have to detour well to the east or west to go in one of the auto entrances to the stadium parking lot. Bianca Barragan of Curbed Los Angeles timed the walk from the Metro Rail station last year, and it took her 35 minutes.

Just cut a hole in the fence surrounding the Dodger Stadium property and it seems like you could reduce that to 20, although the journey would involve some scrambling up a steep hill. And while I get why the Dodgers might not want to just cut a hole in their fence, it seems like providing straightforward pedestrian access from Chinatown to the stadium would — even if it included escalators up that steep hill — be both much cheaper than a gondola (estimated cost: $125 million) or underground tubes (cost unknown) and capable of enabling far more people to get where they want to go after a game. It would also encourage pre- and post-game pedestrian traffic in the very parts of Los Angeles that are best equipped to handle it and most likely to benefit from it. As Jane Jacobs put it 60 years ago in the Fortune magazine article that launched her career as North America’s greatest urbanist, “downtown is for people.” And people walk.

Don’t get me wrong: Gondolas and underground electric skates sound like fun, too. But I do worry that the private backers of these projects might become formidable opponents of a pedestrian route that would constitute an easy, free alternative to their services. And more generally, I worry that in all the excitement about how ride-hailing services, electric scooters, autonomous vehicles, gondolas, skates and other cool new things can transform urban transformation, we risk forgetting that cities are made for walking.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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