It can be difficult to figure out who exactly is in charge of the street in Los Angeles. For instance, the graphic below shows all the different departments that play a role in the street.
But I’m going to make the case that it’s more straightforward than it appears. There are four main departments that work with the street:
1)Bureau of Engineering: designs and builds streets + sidewalks
2) Streets LA (recently known as Bureau of Street Services): maintains streets + sidewalks; manages sidewalks and non-mobility uses on the street
3) Department of Transportation: manages mobility uses on the street
4) Department of City Planning: guides how land along the street is used
Other LA city agencies play critical support roles for streets and transportation, like the Bureau of Street Lighting, the Bureau of Sanitation, and the Police Department. County agencies like LA Metro and state agencies like Caltrans also play very important roles.
But these four LA key city departments generally play the biggest role in how LA’s streets “work” every day. What follows is some context on where they came from and how they function.
A quick reminder- these four departments take care of the streets in the city of Los Angeles (and its 4 million residents), which is not to be confused with the county of Los Angeles (and its roughly 10 million residents). Looking at the map below, the city covers the red part of the map of LA County below:
Bureau of Engineering (BOE)
2019–20 Budget: $103 million
BOE has engineers and architects that design and oversee the construction of streets, bridges, parks, and public buildings.
BOE played an instrumental role in the the development of LA’s transportation system. There were no paved streets 200 years ago, and the position of the “City Engineer” was created in mid-1850’s to build them. You can see what many of LA’s most prominent streets looked like in the past when they were dirt roads here. In 1925, a new city charter established the “Bureau of Engineering” (BOE), and today they exist as one of five departments under the Board of Public Works.
According to the Los Angeles transportation historian Matthew Roth, the high water mark for BOE’s influence in Los Angeles transportation occurred during the three decades between 1920–1950.
Prior to the 1920’s, transportation was dominated by the streetcar magnates who built lines to service real estate developments throughout the Los Angeles region. But starting in the 1920’s, car ownership substantially accelerated in Los Angeles and with it an increased demand for new roads. BOE served as the lead oversight agency for this buildout.
According to Roth, at the same time that BOE was designing and overseeing the construction of roads, the Bureau also became the central hub of funding for state and federal transportation dollars. This meant BOE played a pivotal role in not only building projects but also in determining which projects were built.
BOE today is much less influential. For one, the street network is pretty much built out. In addition, state and federal money for new transportation projects flow primarily through Metro (the LA County transportation agency) and once this money gets to LA it is divvied up between BOE and other city departments like DOT and StreetsLA.
BOE nonetheless plays a pivotal role for transportation in Los Angeles. They are in charge of the city’s sidewalk improvement program, and continue to play a large role in redesigning existing streets. As one city engineer puts it, “one of the most important roles BOE has in relation to the street is setting standard plans that must be used by the private and public entities working on the street.” This means that if someone wants to put in a new driveway for their home or add a sidewalk for a new development, they need to conform to standards set by BOE.
Streets LA/Bureau of Street Services (SLA/BSS)
2019–2020 Budget: $170 million
Streets LA, which is in the process of switching to its new name after years as the Bureau of Street Services, is primarily about keeping city streets and sidewalks in good physical condition. If BOE built the streets, then Streets LA now functions as their primary caretaker, which can range from minor touch-ups to full-on reconstruction of deteriorated streets.
Street maintenance was carried out by the City Engineer for the early decades of the 20th century until the volume of work merited the creation of a “Bureau of Maintenance and Sanitation” in 1941. When the sanitation function was spun off into its own bureau in 1947 (currently the Bureau of Sanitation) the unit took on the name Bureau of Street Maintenance. This new Bureau of Street Maintenance would add and subtract different street-related functions over several decades before evolving into the Bureau of Street Services, soon to officially be “Streets LA”.
At present Streets LA takes care of the entire street and sidewalk, and this includes:
- patching potholes and applying “lighter” slurry seals to streets still in reasonable condition
- conducting “heavier” resurfacing work to streets in worse condition
- maintaining street trees in the public right of way
- providing emergency fixes to sidewalks
- issuing permits for sidewalk vendors and events requiring street closures
- issuing citations to people and property owners interfering with the public’s ability to use sidewalks and streets
The workforce of Streets LA is somewhat distinct from BOE, in that while BOE is comprised mostly of engineers and architects (680 total staff), Streets LA has a much smaller proportion of these professions. Most of the 942 positions at Streets LA are part of different crews that go out into the street on a daily basis and perform the physical labor of repairing the street or sidewalk.
Streets LA does have a group of engineers and landscape architects who design “streetscape” projects (shorthand for “street landscape”). An example of a streetscape project would be adding sidewalk trees, crosswalks, and median islands to a street, thus improving the pedestrian safety and general attractiveness of the street.
There is some overlap in terms of the kind of street improvement projects handled by Streets LA and BOE, but historically BOE has tackled larger and longer-term engineering projects while StreetsLA handles ongoing maintenance and less intensive projects. That said, Streets LA can take on larger projects- for example, Streets LA recently received a $25 million grant to implement a major cycle track in South LA.
Department of Transportation (DOT)
Budget: $187 million
Staff: 1397 positions
So if BOE builds streets and Streets LA maintains streets, what does LADOT do? LADOT manages mobility on the street. Put another way, LADOT oversees the primary way the street gets used.
This can be a tricky discussion, since the existing design of the street (via BOE) dictates a lot about how a street will get used, as do the land uses that line the street (via City Planning, explained below) and even the condition of the street (via Streets LA). LAPD certainly can influence how a street gets used as well, given that they can hand out tickets and arrest people. But at least officially, LADOT has “centralized authority over the conceptual planning and operation of the City’s streets and highways systems.”
The story of LADOT is quite interesting. Here’s the short version:
- Early on, management of traffic and parking in Los Angeles was performed by the police department. Thus when the city created Bureau of Traffic Engineering in 1930, it was placed under the Police Commission.
- In the early 1950’s, the City Council elevated the importance of traffic management by establishing a new Traffic Department. This new department covered traffic studies, the design and installation of traffic signs and traffic signals, the management of parking meters, and permits for commercial vehicles.
- In 1979, after years of intense debate and pushback from other city departments, the Council and Mayor made the pivot from “traffic” to the more comprehensive concept of “transportation” with the inauguration the Department of Transportation (LADOT). This new Department absorbed the following transportation-related functions from other departments:
- most transportation planning (from LADCP)
- street-improvement studies (from BOE)
- traffic and parking enforcement (from LAPD)
- oversight of franchises for buses, taxis, and ambulance companies (from the Board of Public Utilities).
- After the passage of the Prop A sales tax in 1980, oversight of the DASH bus program came into the fold.
This shift from “traffic” to “transportation” in 1979 was significant: even if only on paper, it symbolized a more holistic approach to all the ways people move around instead of the narrow focus on how cars can get around. Most city departments don’t like losing positions, funding, and authority, which is why all of the departments above resisted this attempt at centralization of transportation activities. But the overall objective was to better harmonize the many modes people use everyday, which include walking, biking, public transit- and of course, driving.
In the current era, LADOT develops comprehensive plans for the city’s transportation network by crafting a vision of transportation that the city can work towards in the future. These plans say which uses should be prioritized on which streets- even if they aren’t used that way right now- and which policies should be implemented to move towards a better mobility system throughout the city. Of course, DOT’s plans are nonetheless just a vision- they still require communities, other city staff, and elected officials to work together to fulfill them.
On a more day to day basis, DOT oversees projects to improve how streets operate. Their primary tools are paint, signs and signals- with these instruments they can dictate a lot about how a street gets used. Interestingly, some of the most contested transportation decisions in the city are not related to multi-million dollar infrastructure projects, but rather concern the simple placement of paint on the street that would redesignate space to a new use- like for buses and bikes.
An important note- about 45% of LADOT’s budget is devoted to parking: parking meter and parking lot operations, parking enforcement, parking permit issuance, and the processing of parking citations. While City Planning sets parking requirements for the “private” buildings and their parking lots along the street, DOT manages parking for the “public” spaces on the street and those in city-owned parking lots. DOT also provides a grab-bag of other services, such as providing crossing guards for schools, traffic officers for emergencies and special events, and it runs the DASH shuttle and commuter bus services that supplement the city’s core bus service that is provided by LA Metro.
Similar to Streets LA, DOT has a large proportion of employees that are physically out in the streets everyday- conducting traffic, issuing parking citations, or driving buses. They have a relatively smaller number of planners and engineers, though these roles are essential for executing important transportation initiatives like the Vision Zero and Safe Routes to School programs and delivering selected infrastructure projects.
Department of City Planning (“Planning”)
2018–19 Budget: $58 million
I once saw a meeting between a developer, a City Planner, and an engineer from the Department of Building and Safety. The engineer jokingly referred to the planner as the most powerful bureaucrat in the city. The developer said “wait a minute- I bet your Public Works guys would disagree,” to which the engineer responded: “You can build a road to anywhere- but it doesn’t mean anything unless you can build something there.”
Along these lines, perhaps the most influential way City Planning influences the street in the present day is through its role in determining how land is used along the street. This matters a lot because the buildings on the street play a huge role in how the street gets used.
But first, it’s helpful to know that transportation issues were pivotal in the City Council’s creation of a 51-member Planning Commission in 1920. The Planning Commission was directed to “act as consulting body to the Mayor and Council and make investigations and recommendations…pertaining to the civic center, zoning, traffic congestion, grade crossings, rapid transit, parks and boulevards, passenger and freight terminals, beautification of the city and…such other subjects as have to do with the orderly and consistent physical development of the City. ” (From the essay “City Planning,” by Greg Hise and Todd Gish, italics mine)
The formal City Planning Department (DCP) was created in 1925 and the Planning Commission’s membership chopped from 51 to 5. For the next fifty years the Planning Department worked with the Planning Commission on transportation planning for the city, meaning they laid out the vision for how our streets should be used in terms of mobility. That function was officially shifted to LADOT in 1979 (see above), though City Planning continues to assist DOT in determining how roads should be used through shared work on documents like the city’s Mobility Plan and Community Plans.
Ideally, transportation planning and land use planning have a symbiotic relationship — the use of the street should serve the buildings the line it, and the buildings should complement the way the street is used. For example, you want to put public transit hubs next to land uses that serve lots of people, like taller apartment and office buildings, because that way the public transit and the buildings feed each other a high volume of users. Conversely, a non-symbiotic relationship would be if a street operates as a wide, high-speed, car-oriented thru-way, yet its adjacent land uses consist of schools, shops, and residences on each side.
Matching the right buildings with the right streets and neighborhoods can be very difficult in a city where entrenched interests make change very challenging, but City Planning tries to do so using tools like zoning, urban design, and a host of other incentives and techniques. Planners spend a lot of time insuring that new development is compatible with the street by promoting pedestrian-oriented design of the ground floor of buildings (for example: big windows = good, big walls = bad), insuring that bicycle and car parking requirements are met, and weighing in on discretionary situations like whether drive-thru feature should be allowed at a new restaurant. Buildings are not islands- they interact with the street in complex ways, and Planning tries makes this relationship a fruitful one so that as people go about their daily movement patterns between buildings they do so safely and in a way that makes for a good quality of life.
LADCP also sets the parking requirements for the buildings and other uses on the street, which plays an absurdly under-appreciated role in how the street gets used. After all, if abundant parking is required for new buildings even in areas with excellent public transit service (as it currently often is), we shouldn’t be surprised that people still drive.
Like the engineers and architects at BOE, the 389 planners at City Planning generally do a lot of work looking at plans in an office, though in recent years the emphasis on outreach and community engagement has put planners into the community to a greater degree.
So there it is. It can seem like a maze of complexity, but once you grasp what these four city departments do- Engineering, Streets LA, Transportation, and Planning- you’ve pretty much got a handle on who is in charge of the street in the city of Los Angeles.
This article does not cover the many other cities in LA County, which generally have much smaller departments for each of these functions and may even put all of their street-related staff in the same building. Nor does it cover the work done throughout LA County by the LA County Department of Public Works, which is very large and takes care of the streets in many other cities and unincorporated areas throughout the county.
If you are looking for more Los Angeles explaining, see here on how to make sense of all the different jurisdictions in Los Angeles. Go here for my take on why sitting in traffic isn’t as bad as we think, here for why restaurant drive-thrus are much worse than we think, and here for why even if Elon Musk succeeds in building his hyperloop it still probably won’t work.
I will be the first to admit that I am not the foremost expert on LA’s streets. But I have worked with all of these departments for a few years now, and have done a lot of reading about them. I’ve also found that those who do have expert knowledge in this area tend not to write things on the internet for the layperson or the person new to the field. So that is what I’ve attempted to do here.
If you have some experience in any of these departments, I would love to hear from you- especially if you think there are some elements of this overview that could be corrected or improved. (Use the comments or find me on the internet.) Even better- write your own overview.
I am much indebted to the essays that detail the history of each department in the two volumes published by the LA Historical Society. I believe I’ve not taken any material wholesale from any of my sources without acknowledgement, but please let me know if you feel otherwise. Thanks for reading.