The locked gate connecting Irvine Train Station to Marine Way, the road leading to Irvine Great Park. Credit: Ryan M. Allen

We recently ventured on an uncertain and perilous journey in Orange County; attempting to go to a sports game using public transit. The team in question was Orange County Soccer Club, who play at Great Park, Irvine. We set off from Orange train station assuming that after a 20-minute ride, we could walk from Irvine Transit Center to the park, a little over a mile away. Google maps seemed to think this was feasible. But after disembarking we found that access to a public street – Marina Way – was barred by a padlocked chain-link fence. There was no other way to walk to the park, nor did bus routes from the station make a stop there. There was no option but to call a Lyft; after a 5 minute ride – via a freeway – and $15 lighter, we arrived at the stadium. After the game we were picked up by a family member in a car, the last train back to Orange having long since departed. It shouldn’t be this hard to go to the game.

Orange County, like the rest of the nation, is facing a rising cost of living, fueled by high gas prices, to say nothing of the need to tackle climate change: we need to find better solutions to simple problems like this. While we wanted to attend a soccer game, what about families who might want to visit their local park who don’t own a car, or who may want to take the cheaper, cleaner option of public transit? This is not a problem of infrastructure; that is already in place. It is a problem of service provision and coordination. It is an issue of creating a connected transportation network which gives users a range of options to make their journey, and that protects pedestrian access (We later learned the padlocked fence is owned by a private company that unlocks it when its own events are scheduled). It is also a problem of imagination, and challenging the dominant idea that we should think of cars first while any other transportation becomes an afterthought.

On the face of it, this is a problem that can be easily solved. It means coordination between the City of Irvine, Amtrak, and the private business to unlock a gate. Ideally, bike or scooter rentals could connect the station and park for those not inclined to walk. But in reality it touches on the larger issue of the car-centric culture of Southern California, which defines how our cities look and feel, and who can access places and services. While the state had the impetus to connect our cities with freeways in the 1950s, we now need the imagination to produce a more diverse transit system that creates rideable, bikeable, and walkable communities. We can even look to our own past for inspiration: Orange County cities had streetcar networks before making way for car-centric development. There are still vestiges of neighborhoods that offer rare walkability and consequently are highly desirable, like Old Towne Orange and Balboa Peninsula.     

To its credit, the City of Irvine is in the process of formulating a Climate Action and Adaptation Plan. The City was initially receptive to our complaint about the locked gate, though they ultimately deferred the matter to the private company. It is our hope that a greater emphasis on transit and accessibility will be at the heart of this Adaptation Plan. The City is rightly proud of the Great Park, which it describes as ‘an innovative public space’. But if the only means of enjoying this space is car ownership then it is not public in any sense of the word. Orange County has the history, innovation, and even some of the infrastructure to begin to tackle these issues, we just need more focus on giving people the agency that comes with choosing to drive, walk, bike, or train to all that our communities have to offer. 

Jamie Larkin is Assistant Professor of Creative and Cultural Industries at Chapman University. His research examines the role that museums play in contemporary social and economic issues.

Ryan M. Allen is the Assistant Professor of Comparative and International Education and Leadership at Soka University of America. His research centers on internationalization of higher education, the intersections between education and urbanism, and the East Asian region. He tweets from the account @PoliticsAndEd.

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