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Thu, Jun

Gridlock: Not New to LA

LOS ANGELES

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-According to the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles still has the worst traffic congestion of any major city in the United States. This is old news to most of us (see photo above), but to finally address this gridlock, we need to better understand it. 

LA’s horrible traffic congestion does not result from a handful of poor decisions made by a few bad apples at City Hall. Rather, LA’s gridlock results from thousands of short-term transportation and land use decisions, some going back many decades. Most of these decisions appeared to be minor at the time, although, in retrospect at least one turned out to be momentous, the dismantling of the Red and Yellow Cars, the largest trolley system in the United States until the 1950s.

Furthermore, the culprits are not just elected officials. They also include the private sector. In their successful pursuit of a handsome rate of return on private investment, the real estate and transportation sectors built a car-oriented city and life style. But its downside, gridlock and smog, had already become a problem by WWII. This successful business model also had another downside; it habituated most Angelinos to two bad habits. One is our imposed dependence on private cars for personal mobility, and the other is the California dream – also largely imposed -- of a single-family home with a big garage. 

Unfortunately, many decades later we have woken up to harsh reality. Once people become used to the comfort and ease of cars and private homes, it is nearly impossible to change their transportation and housing habits. Furthermore, even if they try, Angelinos soon discover that Los Angeles has been methodically re-engineered to make driving cars and living in single-family homes transparently easy. The alternatives of taking the bus, walking, and living in an apartment remains a great personal challenge. In this world, harangues about personal responsibility, traffic congestion, air pollution, and climate change rarely work. Instead, we need to hold our tongue and, instead, re-engineer LA’s built environment. 

If you doubt the power of these thousands of small decisions to create an addictive life style based on cars and houses, just eyeball the weekend Los Angeles Times. About half of the paper is devoted to advertising inserts for cars and single-family homes. This successful promotion of driving and dispersed residential patterns leads to a number of unintended consequences, including traffic gridlock. 

Taking on Gridlock: This knowledge means that the only way to address LA’s chronic gridlock is to reinvent the city’s transportation and land use systems. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet that can cure gridlock on the transportation end alone, such as flexible work hours, carpooling, HOV lanes, street widening, self-driving cars, or timed lights, called ATSAC (Automatic Traffic Surveillance and Control System) in Los Angeles. 

Likewise, it impossible to only address gridlock through better land use decisions. While the City should obviously dump laws that promote automobile driving, such as excluding the square footage of attached garages in McMansions, this is only part of the picture. We also need to make walking more appealing in residential and mixed-use areas through a major program to repair LA’s cracked sidewalks, install ADA curb cuts and mid-block cross walks, and plant a drought tolerant urban forest to form a tree canopy over pedestrian areas. 

What else needs to be done? 

Transportation: At the transportation end, we need to end auto-dependency by building a multi-modal city, already envisioned by California’s Complete Streets Act, as well as the new Mobility Element of the Los Angeles General Plan and several ballot measures. For example, at a projected cost of $5,000,000 million per mile, the $1.4 billion CalTrans program to widen the I-405 freeway could have re-engineered nearly 300 miles of surface streets in Los Angeles. All of the major east-west corridors linking the downtown and the ocean, such as Pico Boulevard, could have become multi-modal corridors. They could all become variations of the My Figueroa project. Only now breaking ground, this project will radically alter Figueroa between downtown and USC by incentivizing transit, bicycling and walking. 

This infrastructure approach is based on the premise that to change human transportation behavior, cities need to change their built environment. While this is an expensive proposition, we know that it can be done because other cities provide us with successful models. For example, in London, busses and subway trains run every few minutes. Furthermore, every Londoner in their 60s or older rides busses and the subway for free, while fares on interurban trains, including high speed rail, are heavily subsidized for seniors. This combination of first-rate engineering, reliable service, and attractive pricing results in high ridership rates and plays a major role in reducing the city’s gridlock.

Furthermore, London’s sidewalks are wide, well maintained, with a tree canopy, directional signs, many crosswalks and street level destinations, such as snack bars and coffee shops. 

Land-Use: In CityWatch, I regularly take aim at City Hall for poor land use decisions that contribute to gridlock. Unfortunately, City Hall is so bewitched by real estate speculation that any significant improvement in this area will come after a knockdown, drag out fight, such as the AB 283 zoning consistency program of the 1980s, and the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative on the March 2017 ballot. 

Our challenge is to end City Hall’s glaring double standard when it comes to land use. When existing land use laws prohibit the construction of car-oriented mega-projects, the City Council readily revokes those irksome laws through spot-zoning and spot-planning ordinances. But in the opposite situation, when existing land use laws allow real estate speculation and auto-centric buildings by-right, such as McMansions, there are no administrative or legislative options for neighbors to seek relief. 

For now it is heads they win, tails you lose, but this rigged game would change with voter approval of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative next year. Those too-tall, high-end, automobile intensive projects proposed for already congested neighborhoods require special legislative intervention, such as zone changes, from the City Council. They also almost always require an Environmental Impact Report, and each of these EIRs presents the City Council with an environmentally-preferred alternative that would minimize increases in traffic congestion. Yet, in case after case, LA’s elected and appointed decision makers approve the most environmentally damaging alternative. They then adopt a Statement of Overriding Consideration to dispose of those inconvenient EIR findings with a flick of the pen. Voila, they whisk away gridlock by referencing the developers’ unverified promises of a jobs and transit ridership bonanza once their project is completed. 

The Lesson: To deal with standstill traffic, we need to pay full attention to the thousands of small decisions that eventually lead to gridlock, such as spot-zoning for luxury buildings and loopholes for McMansions. At the same time, we need to support LA’s transition from an automobile-centered transportation system to the multi-modal one envisioned by the Mobility Element and to a lesser extent by Measure M. 

Finally, we need to remember the obvious, the transportation system and other infrastructure and services categories must be re-engineered prior to land use changes. If we reverse the sequence and permit denser land uses before the City’s infrastructure and service systems are substantially upgraded, we perpetuate LA’s endless gridlock.

 

(Dick Platkin is a veteran city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatch. He also serves on the boards of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association and East Hollywood Neighborhood Council Planning Committee. Please send comments and corrections to [email protected].)

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