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Preparing the Automobile City for High-Speed Rail

Roger Sherman, AIA, and cityLAB examine how America’s most car-centric city can work with high-speed public transit

By John Gendall

It’s up to Roger Sherman, AIA, to find a way to make high-speed rail mass transit work in car-obsessed Los Angeles.

Principal of Roger Sherman Architecture and Urban Design and co-director, with Dana Cuff, of cityLAB, an urban design think tank affiliated with UCLA, Sherman has made a career out of tackling thorny, seemingly intractable urban conundrums and making sense of them. One such project involves urban design strategies for California’s planned high-speed rail network.

Through careful research and analysis, Sherman is attempting to re-assert the urbanizing force of public transit in a city whose history, development patterns, and urban fabric is based almost entirely on the automobile. With $2.25 billion in federal funding, California is moving forward with plans to lay down tracks, linking San Francisco with San Diego. This effort is the leading edge of the Obama Administration‘s $8 billion plan for a nationwide high-speed rail network. Through cityLAB, Sherman was awarded part of a $250,000 grant from the Haynes Foundation to study the urban implications of high-speed rail.

“We always use a research-based approach to design,” explains Sherman. “This allows us to understand the particularities of each site.”

Dealing with uncertainty

Some municipalities are turning to New Urbanism for quick-fix solutions on how to integrate high-speed rail into cities. Sherman positions himself as a distinct alternative to that. New Urbanism seems a bit too paint-by-numbers for him. “The New Urbanist approach is more like a template that they can develop quickly, so it is the method favored by planners that have already been hired by a lot of cities because they’re trying to impress [high-speed rail advocates] with their level of preparedness.


Playa Rosa, designed by Sherman and cityLAB, is a transit-oriented development that focuses on tactics to forward a new model of community revitalization. Image courtesy of Roger Sherman and cityLAB.

Roger Sherman, AIA. Image courtesy of Roger Sherman.


“The New Urbanist credo would be mixed-use, mixed-use, mixed-use,” he says. “But building mixed-use housing makes no sense if you don’t have reason to believe a lot of people are going to live there and use high-speed rail. High ticket prices really affect the dynamics as to who, realistically, will use it,” Sherman cautions. “Because of this cost, it can’t be looked at as something that would be akin to typical commuter rail,” he reasons.

Sherman favors a more tailored approach that tries to anticipate ambiguity. “We use more of a scenario-driven model,” he explains. “There are a lot of uncertainties with high-speed rail, and our designs deal with those. Not all the criteria on which you build a masterplan always happen. Our approach takes those into account.”

Clearly, high-speed rail networks present American cities with a new set of challenges. First, cities and urban designers need to establish just how they fit into different urban settings. Owners of existing rail lines would have to be willing to sell them at a reasonable price, and building new tracks is politically complicated. The selection of cities designated with stations will ultimately affect the design of each of the other stations. “It has largely to do with how the system operates as a whole,” explains Sherman. This is a process that will continue to evolve, demanding an urban design approach that can accommodate change.

Sherman is currently working with three sites in the Los Angeles area: Anaheim, Norwalk, and Burbank. For each, he is developing a series of scenarios that can be implemented given certain variable criteria. “We are looking for trends and testing whether they would be plausible on these sites,” he explains. “We come [away] with much less of a preconceived idea of what the answer is.”

The proactive city

Sherman is also working on a 15-acre urban design proposal for a former shopping center in the Willowbrook neighborhood of south Los Angeles, between Watts and Compton. The epicenter of the Watts riots, the site is now scourged with gang violence. His design, (called Playa Rosa) is predicated on health and wellness, providing a place for sports, recreation and health-related activities, an urban beach for sunbathing, and access to green grocers. “The neighborhood has become extremely fragmented, and this project aims to regain a cohesiveness,” Sherman says.

In addition to his design work, this summer Sherman published LA Under the Influence: The Hidden Logic of Urban Property, a book that applies game theory to how the city is made and formed.

In each of these projects, Sherman’s approach is proactive. “Architects can tend to stick our heads in the sand and say ‘Call me when you need something designed.’” He has inverted this model by actively identifying and seeking design challenges. “The complexity of today’s cities are such that a lot of the strategic thinking requires architects to be at the table from the very beginning, marshalling the expertise of other specialists.”

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