This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions.
Neighborhood main streets, or corridors, are at the heart of daily urban life, connecting us to the local businesses, resources, and people that form our communities. To understand how main streets affect community vitality and how city investments impact these streets, Los Angeles forged a novel benchmarking analysis to quantify their baseline vitality using indicators such as economic activity, neighborhood character, and public safety. This analysis will allow for more informed planning investments and community engagement in the most active corridors in Los Angeles. The benchmarking analysis is the data-driven component of Great Streets, a multi-faceted community investment program that empowers communities to transform their main streets into meaningful public spaces, improving overall community well-being.
Mayor Eric Garcetti, a champion for data-driven, citywide improvements, signed the Executive Directive on Great Streets as his first order of business in 2013. The order called for a coordinated investment strategy to support neighborhood activity and provide economic revitalization through meaningful and cost-effective city service solutions that benefit businesses and community members living and working on each Great Street. Great Streets are designated corridors in each of Los Angeles’s 15 council districts that were selected for a series of substantial city investments and serve as pilots for a holistic approach to neighborhood empowerment through community engagement, new investments, and tailored programming for local businesses.
A major evaluation challenge in such an initiative is creating a robust baseline to measure success. Hurdles include defining metrics, gathering the appropriate data, and ensuring a comprehensive view of all aspects of vitality. Great Streets facilitated the development of new physical investments such as protected bike lanes and high-visibility crosswalks and Internet of Things investments like solar-powered Soofa benches with charging ports and Wi-Fi-enabled JC Decaux bus shelters with USB charging ports, LED lights, and real-time arrival info for Metro and city buses. It can be challenging to measure the overall impact of physical investments, as they can have immediate effect on mobility and economic activity but their long-term impact on a community’s well-being is harder to pinpoint. To address this challenge, the Great Streets team working within Mayor Garcetti’s office undertook a rigorous benchmarking analysis that included data from over two dozen sources including open data and surveys.
"Key to the success of this effort was building partnerships with data owners and managers, who not only could provide the raw information, but could help us understand its context and what stories it would tell us about our communities,” said Great Streets Senior Program Manager Carter Rubin, who was instrumental in leading the analysis. “For instance, communities that had a large number of requests for pothole repairs might have a disproportionate amount of street problems — or they might have an engaged community that knows 311 can be a great tool for quickly responding to quality-of-life issues."
To develop a baseline vitality report for each Great Street, the Great Streets program took on the formidable task of quantifying the vitality of the 15 corridors by incorporating the goals from Mayor Garcetti’s Executive Order: increased economic activity; improved access and mobility; enhanced neighborhood character; greater community engagement; improved environmental resilience; safer and more secure communities; and improved public health.
The city’s possession of precise, location-based data for each corridor made these reports possible. The vitality analysis included 2013 and 2014 data from 27 different sources including the city’s open data portal and GeoHub, city departments, and intercept or in-person surveys with community residents and business owners. With help from consulting firm Fehr & Peers, Great Streets developed benchmarking reports that describe baseline conditions on the first 15 Great Streets.
The team aggregated the following datasets to build each street’s profile in the six focus areas:
Increased Economic Activity
Improved Access & Mobility
Enhanced Neighborhood Character
Greater Community Engagement
Improved Environmental Resilience
Safer & More Secure Communities
The majority of the data used for the Great Streets profiles, including the intercept surveys conducted by Fehr and Peers, can be found on the Los Angeles open data channels.
This benchmarking is novel for two reasons: first, it leverages open data, geospatial analysis, and community surveys to build a more comprehensive community vitality report, an essential set of metrics that help track quality-of-life improvements. Secondly, the project aggregates and presents data in accessible reports to spur community action at all levels.
Emphasizing transparency and accessibility, the 15 comprehensive reports transcend conventional neighborhood summaries by zooming in to the street level to produce insights on city investments such as mobility improvements on these streets. On Reseda Boulevard, the Great Streets team installed a high-visibility crosswalk, protected bike lanes, new street furniture, and a new sidewalk pattern. Since completing the project two years ago, the Great Streets team has been collecting data to determine the enduring impact of these additions by comparing the vitality report this year to the baseline analysis. This evaluation will help determine future investments based on the success on Reseda Boulevard and other Great Streets.
An essential part of the project was ensuring that the reports would be easy to use and engage with. Great Streets staff chose metrics that were accessible and most likely to increase community engagement in the program. The reports are thus framed to appeal to a diverse community of stakeholders, including advocates, businesses, and residents looking to glean insights about their street. As an example, data on environmental resilience—such as the percentage of adults who walk at least 150 minutes per week, which is 37 percent in Los Angeles (see below)—could help pinpoint low-activity areas and determine root causes, especially when combined with in-person surveys on mobility. Community members could then, for instance, advocate for improved sidewalk quality or forge a community walking group.
Citywide statistics on community vitality
Corridor locations are available on the GeoHub, the city’s map-based platform developed under the leadership of Chief Data Officer Lilian Coral, and residents are encouraged to explore the data to empower their communities. With this data, Angelenos can quickly find, compare, and explore their community’s Great Street to see how much revenue their corridor generated between 2013 and 2014 to create comparisons with other corridors, identify their Great Street’s strengths, and make a plan for how to tackle their street’s challenges.
This street vitality data is not just sitting on a shelf — it's informing Great Streets' core programs and projects to address community well-being. For instance, economic data feeds into the outreach for the Great Streets Great Business program, which helps small business owners understand the economic dynamics of their corridor. The Great Streets business program is a $4 million small business loan fund that helps local businesses thrive; this program leverages the baseline analysis to provide crucial insights to local business owners looking to open a new location or better understand their customers’ travel patterns and tap opportunities to increase business.
Researchers, data enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, and advocates are likewise eager and able to use the benchmarking data to identify gaps and opportunities for civic engagement. Recently, a design group comprised of UCLA students studying computer science, design, and urban planning hosted a Design Jam where groups analyzed the Great Streets survey data and pitched city innovations and improvements that fill gaps identified in the results. Representatives from Great Streets and Mayor Garcetti’s Data Team were in attendance to provide feedback and encouragement as the students explored ways to improve mobility and livability.
While public spaces, proximity to public transportation, and well-lit streets are intrinsically linked to community well-being, we seldom connect these factors in a comprehensive way to our experience on the streets where we live and work. Including built environment factors in the benchmarking project encourages community members to weigh in on future infrastructure and meaningful city service improvements in their neighborhoods. This data-driven benchmarking is empowering Angelenos to transform the backbone of the city’s neighborhoods—streets where we live, work, learn, and co-create on a daily basis—into a fountain of insights for the city of the future.
Check out the reports at lagreatstreets.org/benchmarking.