What Chipotle Can Teach Us About Transportation

There is a battle in Los Angeles right now over our streets: on one side are those who would like to make streets safer and more convenient for walking, biking, and taking public transit, and on the other side are traditionalists who prefer the prioritization of cars. While many media outlets continue to play up the conflict aspect, I think it would be helpful to clarify the debate by making an analogy using Carl’s Jr. and Chipotle.

In Los Angeles, most of our streets are what might be called Carl’s Jr. streets. I call them this because while Carl’s Jr. serves many different foods (chicken sandwiches, fish sandwiches, salads), the reality is that Carl’s Jr. has a single core customer: the burger lover.

Carl’s Jr.’s menu and advertising are targeted almost exclusively at “young hungry guys between the ages of 18 and 34” who like meaty burgers. Even Carl’s Jr. CEO Andy Putzer admits that when he walks into one of his restaurants with the intention of eating a chicken sandwich, he ends up ordering a burger. The numbers bear this out: as of 2013, Carl’s Jr. sold 20 times more burgers than chicken sandwiches.

Los Angeles streets are similar to Carl’s Jr. in that despite being places where people walk, bike, and take public transit, both transportation policy and the allocation of space on the street emphasize cars. This means that if you own a car, you are encouraged in overt and subtle ways to use it over other types of travel. You may want to walk to the store, but given the absence of safe crosswalks, you end up driving. You might prefer to take the bus to meet a friend, but you drive because riding the bus takes twice as long.

In contrast to Carl’s Jr., Chipotle is a restaurant that provides real choices. Though known as a burrito place, it is very easy to order a salad, a bowl or tacos. At the counter you will can see many meat items on prominent display, but also tofu, grilled vegetables, two rice offerings, and two bean offerings. Every option is presented attractively, which makes it easy to choose both healthy options and indulgent ones. (Or perhaps a combination of the two- I myself often go for a half-steak, half-veggie burrito.)

Los Angeles is in the process of moving towards a Chipotle approach to streets in which people will have a variety of safe and convenient options to move throughout the city and region. This means making walking safer by fixing sidewalks, giving bicyclists clearly defined space on the road, and allowing buses use of their own lanes to improve travel times.

For a good portion of Los Angeles residents, using a car may continue to be their preferred (or even necessary) method for getting around, and that’s fine. But cars should not be able to box other modes off of our streets anymore. We should be able to walk to the store to get a few things to make dinner, or travel to work using a combination of bus and bike.

With the City Council’s recent passage of Mobility Plan 2035 and Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Vision Zero Initiative, our city is on the cusp of making essential improvements to walking, biking, and public transit. Taking a trip in Los Angeles should feel like getting to the front of the line at Chipotle: appealing choices, many possible combinations.

See an overview of the other things I’ve written, transportation-related and otherwise, at the link here.

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