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Guest Opinion | Rick Cole: Change Pasadena to a 15-Minute City

Published on Monday, February 6, 2023 | 5:00 am
Rick Cole

Thirty years ago, Pasadena voters overwhelmingly approved a new General Plan that included seven core principles. One was particularly visionary: “Pasadena will be a city where people can circulate without cars.”

That vision remains out of reach for most people. True, we now have access to a growing regional rail transit network that now exceeds 100 miles.

By the time of the 2028 Olympics, Pasadena’s six light rail stations will connect to most important destinations in the region from Long Beach to the San Fernando Valley, from Santa Monica to Pomona. We will soon be linked to Glendale and the Burbank Airport with bus rapid transit. But within Pasadena, relying on public transit to get around means long waits and big gaps in service. Too many of Pasadena’s streets are unpleasant to walk on and dangerous to bike on. 

Everyone complains about traffic, but what are we doing about it? With a little imagination, we can draw on Pasadena’s history and restore a walkable downtown core. Traditional retail is eroding, new housing is being built and our climate is a growing concern. We can meet all these challenges by bringing back what was once the backbone of urban transportation in Pasadena: the streetcar.

It’s not nostalgia. It’s a return to common sense. Cars may have started out as a faster, more convenient way to get around. But today they are expensive to own, unbelievably inefficient hogs of space for roads and parking and environmental catastrophes. Particularly for the growing population actually living in downtown, a streetcar would unlock everything you need for daily life within the magic “fifteen-minute city.” A streetcar would finally create at least a central core where people could circulate without cars.

It would also be the best economic shot in the arm imaginable. Suddenly PCC and Caltech students would be in easy reach of South Lake, the Playhouse District and Old Pasadena. Light rail bus rapid transit riders could jump off and have the city literally at their feet. 

The route is obvious: a 4-mile loop using Union and Green from Pasadena Avenue on the west to Hill on the east. It would put a treasure house of assets within a five-minute walk from transit: Pasadena City College, Caltech, City Hall, the Civic Auditorium, Central Library, Norton Simon Museum, Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena Conference Center, Fuller Seminary, Pasadena Playhouse, Central Park, Armory Center for the Arts, Memorial Park, Playhouse Village Park plus all the major hotels, corporate headquarters, movie theaters, restaurants, churches, clubs, stores, businesses, services, historic architecture and landmarks of our three-square-mile historic core.

Streetcars are making a comeback all over America. Portland kicked off the trend in 2001 when their original 4-mile route connected the downtown core with the Pearl District. Its runaway success led to doubling the length a decade later. A host of cities have followed, including Seattle, Salt Lake City, Tucson, Atlanta, Dallas, Washington, D.C., Kansas City, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Oklahoma City, Tempe, Milwaukee and Detroit with more under construction or planned, including a line in Orange County. And, of course, older systems still thrive in Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Pittsburg and New Orleans.

The economics are not complicated. Building the system requires a mix of Federal grants, regional transit funding and local assessments from the surrounding properties. Operational funding varies, but a Pasadena line would more than pay for itself from added hotel, restaurant, retail and entertainment and business tax revenue. 

Most important is what a revived streetcar will mean for the soul of our city. As we continue to add more residents in new apartments and condos, we need to pair the population surge with a revival of urban street life instead of more traffic. Colorado once thronged with pedestrians – and the businesses that served them. Old Pasadena showed that a vibrant public realm can be reborn. Let’s invest in an environmentally-friendly, historically-resonant transportation backbone that strengthen the heart of Pasadena. It’s back to the future to achieve the vision of a city where people can circulate without cars.

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2 thoughts on “Guest Opinion | Rick Cole: Change Pasadena to a 15-Minute City

  • Hold up. Pasadena still hasn’t built protected bike lines from their complete streets initiative in 2011. We’ve been waiting 12 years for concrete and paint.

    Now you’re trying to sell us on more at grade public transit? This smacks of pork.

    How is this materially different than a bus? Increase bus frequency and add a route. That requires zero infrastructure costs. But first, build the damn bike lanes!

  • Breaking the chains of car dependence should be a top priority – it reduces the quality of life in so many ways. I’m not necessary sold on a streetcar as the best mechanism but I agree with the desired outcome and think we’ll all have to think creatively and compromise to achieve our ends.






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