Urban Planning Our Way Out of the Car Culture Hellscape

In an exclusive excerpt of “Renewing the Dream: The Mobility Revolution and the Future of Los Angeles,” Woods Bagot and James Sanders illustrate the ripple effect of the electric vehicle revolution on one of the country’s most car-choked cities.

Rendering of ReCharge LA Prototype EV Station, showing the community gathering around food trucks. The billboard provides shade for the seating area adjacent to the nearby building. Image courtesy Rizzoli New York, Renewing the Dream: The Mobility Revolution and the Future of Los Angeles, 2023.

How did California’s promise of the unfettered expanse of the open road turn into car-mageddon incarnate? Over the past few decades, the lingering nostalgia for taking to the freeway for a day of surfing at San O., or to decamp to Palm Springs for a weekend sojourn straight out of a Slim Aarons photo has been usurped by car- and smog-choked freeways. Once emblematic of car culture, L.A.’s broken transportation infrastructure has lit the fuse for a mobility revolution as detailed in Renewing the Dream: The Mobility Revolution and the Future of Los Angeles.

Together with architectural firm Woods Bagot, architect and author James Sanders gathers writers, urban planners, architects, and policy experts with an ambitious brief to reimagine L.A. in the face of a future marked by electric vehicles and transportation alternatives. In an exclusive excerpt from Renewing the Dream, the minds behind Woods Bagot and urban planning consultancy Era-co imagine the potential of reclaiming the land and infrastructure claimed by L.A.’s 550 gas stations.

Text courtesy Rizzoli and Woods Bagot, Renewing the Dream, “ReCharge LA, Part 1: The Future of the Gas Station—Introduction.”

As everyone knows, the electric-vehicle (EV) revolution is coming—fast. All new passenger vehicles sold in the state of California—the single largest automobile market in the United States, and one whose decisions set the standards for nearly a dozen other states—will be required by law to be electrically powered by 2035. By that date, General Motors will be producing only electric vehicles, worldwide. Ford plans to reach the same goal even sooner, by 2030. Hertz, the country’s largest rental car company, recently announced the purchase from Tesla of a hundred thousand new electric vehicles, intended to make up nearly a quarter of its rental fleet within a few years.

Ed Ruscha, Standard Station, 1963. © Ed Ruscha. Image courtesy Rizzoli New York, Renewing the Dream: The Mobility Revolution and the Future of Los Angeles, 2023.

This EV revolution is already propelling another dramatic development: the rapid growth of charging stations. The United States already contains more than a hundred thousand such stations, but President Biden’s $1.75 trillion recently approved infrastructure package will increase that number fivefold, to half a million—even as private companies, including Tesla, expand their own search for partners and property owners to enlarge their existing charging networks. Though internal combustion engines still power the great majority of cars on the road—about 18 percent of new vehicle sales in California in 2022 were plug-in EVs or hybrids—those numbers are quickly changing, and a little more than a decade from now, gas-powered vehicles will represent an absolute minority of cars on the road, their numbers dwindling fast. A decade after that, when no new gas-driven vehicles will have been manufactured or sold in the United States for years, they will represent just a small fraction of the total—and be on their way out entirely. 

For cities, this turnover to EVs—and to charging stations—carries with it a transformative opportunity. As the number of gas-powered cars diminishes steadily, so will the demand for gas stations, which currently occupy an extraordinary number of prime sites in urban areas, including 550 within the borders of the City of Los Angeles alone (and far more in the metropolitan region). On the whole, these gas stations will not be replaced entirely with EV stations. Unlike gas stations—centralized in large, well isolated sites, with underground storage tanks and intrinsically high risks of flammability and explosion—electric-charging stations require a tiny footprint and present no unusual danger, so can be safely located almost anywhere that a car can park, including inside commercial buildings, apartment houses, and household garages. So how might these hundreds of sizable, well-located gas station sites, typically placed on major boulevards and avenues—or, often enough, at “100 percent” corner sites at the intersection of two major thoroughfares—be repurposed for more socially and economically valuable uses?

The floating modernist roof of an actual 1950s Mobil station in Anaheim, photographed by Julius Shulman. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10). Image courtesy Rizzoli New York, Renewing the Dream: The Mobility Revolution and the Future of Los Angeles, 2023.

In late 2020, seeking to explore the opportunities afforded by this transformative shift, Christopher Hawthorne, chief design officer of the City of Los Angeles—a longtime leader in urban mobility, intent now on being the first American city to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2035—invited Woods Bagot and its experience consultancy ERA-co, along with five other noted design teams (Abalos+Sentkiewicz AS+, Inaba Williams Architects, MOS Architects, Perkins + Will, and Spiegel Aihara Workshop/SAW), to participate in an online symposium called Pump to Plug. Held in collaboration with the 3rd LA public-affairs series at USC’s Academy in the Public Square and in partnership with the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, the symposium invited teams to produce forward-looking proposals in three categories: the design of charging stations, the future of gas station sites across Los Angeles, and facilities for an electrified longhaul trucking fleet. Woods Bagot and ERA-co chose to produce studies for the first two of these categories. Their proposal for a prototypical charging station, located on the symposium’s selected site at 749 Los Angeles Street in Downtown Los Angeles, envisions electric mobility that reenergizes future infrastructure (Case Study 2). In response to the symposium’s second category, ERA-co’s global data team has prepared ReCharge LA, a citywide study of the future of the 550 gas station sites within Los Angeles. The team’s approach employed machine learning to determine each site’s most beneficial use—based on its social, economic, and spatial characteristics—and to test these as development proposals. Through this data-driven approach the team could propose a comprehensive citywide strategy that also considered alternative funding models.

The Tramway Gas Station, a 1965 Palm Springs landmark designed by Albert Frey and Robson C. Chambers, features a cantilevered hyperbolic paraboloid canopy visible for miles. Its striking wedge-shaped form now serves as the city’s welcome center. Creatista/Bigstock. Image courtesy Rizzoli New York, Renewing the Dream: The Mobility Revolution and the Future of Los Angeles, 2023.

Overall, the team’s findings determined that the 550 existing gas station sites could be transformed into 20,000 new dwellings (home to about 40,000 residents), create 43,000 new jobs, and provide an additional seven acres of green space. The average area for each site was approximately 22,000 square feet, leaving a substantial development opportunity on many sites to offset the cost of remediation and the provision of affordable housing and other public components. This chapter begins by presenting the study’s methodology, proposes four development typologies, and finally outlines potential implementation strategies.

Inevitably, the study should be regarded as a thought experiment: a means to test an approach, not to provide a final or definitive answer. Further analysis of the data and the introduction of additional data sets, such as site valuation, as well as updated data, would be required to undertake this study on a commercial scale.

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