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April 19, 2005

Lessons on Sprawl and Transit...from Los Angeles?

Well, from the LA Times, at least. 

The paper's had a series of guest editorials about traffic, transit and urban planning -- specifically, how sprawling, congested LA can get itself out of the fix it's put itself into over the last 60 years or so.  The LA area is surprisingly dense, but the population is spread out fairly uniformly over a large area -- which makes it very hard to service the region cost-effectively using transit.  At the same time, building new roads has become both exhorbitantly expensive and politically unpalatable.

Sounds a little like some parts of the Northwest, no?

To summarize...

  • Jonathan Richmond argues that the city should forget about expensive transportation megaprojects--both highways and rail--because they're simply too costly and not effective in a dispersed urban environment.  Instead, he says, "the only way to dramatically improve traffic flow in Los Angeles is to charge tolls."  A pay-as-you-drive system would keep streets and highways clearer; when coupled with a first-rate bus system, it could improve mobility for everyone, not just the well-off.
  • UCLA professor Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking, argues that free parking clogs the roads and undermines transit:  "Even if Southern California spends billions of dollars to build a larger rail system, a big problem will remain: Few commuters will ride the train if their employers continue to offer them free parking."
  • USC prof. James Moore thinks that the government should let the private sector enter the transit business: "If we want transportation services — jitneys, private buses, cabs — that can compete effectively with automobiles, we are going to have to bring transportation entrepreneurs out of the shadows."
  • USC professor William Fulton writes a sprawling and disorganized piece that makes a number of points, among which that LA's new mayor should "make it cool to get around town without driving."  (How a mayor can do that, I don't know.  Mayors aren't cool.) He also argues that the real task is to shape development patterns over the next 30 years: "Most importantly, the new mayor must aggressively use his power over the development process to promote dense new projects around rail and bus rapid transit stops."

Obviously, I don't agree with everything these folks have written, and haven't thought a lot of it through. But it's interesting to see the US city with the worst traffic problems in the country trying to figure out some solutions -- the nuggets are revealing.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink


Hey, Charlie Royer's cool. He's an ex-mayor, of course. But he's definitely cool.

Posted by: Michael | Apr 19, 2005 11:30:48 AM

Ok, ok. I'll revise that. Mayors are *almost always* uncool.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Apr 19, 2005 1:26:23 PM

Of course my piece was sprawling and disorganized. It was about Los Angeles!

Posted by: Bill Fulton | Apr 19, 2005 1:39:41 PM

Sorry 'bout that, Bill -- I still liked the piece. Sometimes a short editorial just isn't long enough to do justice to everything you want to say.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Apr 19, 2005 2:47:08 PM

Ah, jitneys. They have those in Russia, you know, and experienced riders won't get in one unless it has four working doors. Something to do with bad things happening in jitneys and having to jump for your life........

One city in Florida made the classic rookie mistake- opened a big free parking lot downtown at the same time that they opened a transit line. Didn't do much for the ridership on the transit.

Pretty astounding sometimes how much potentially taxable land is used for parking.

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 19, 2005 5:31:29 PM

I can't believe that after 132 years of transit history in Los Angeles (yes, it all began back in 1873), the first 85 years privately run and rail dominated, the last 47 years publicly run and bus dominated that the same tired arguments are being trotted out by "experts", bus versus rail, private versus public, rich versus poor, competition versus monopoly. I am sure the L.A. Times meant well with their Sunday special, but they can literally go for weeks on end without publishing any meaningful transportation news or editorials to encourage public examination, creativity or consensus building on transportation issues. It appears, like most political issues in Los Angeles, the story isn't about getting to any end result, it is all about the fight. When will someone pick up the ball and put a real team together? The voters spoke twice in 1980 and 1990, approving two half cent sales tax increases. The message was "fix it" and here were are with a newspaper that can't even form a coherent opinion on a vital matter it has covered, since its inception.

Posted by: Matt | Apr 19, 2005 5:47:16 PM

What was revealing about Clark's summary of the LATimes series was his decision to pan William Fulton's solution of guiding development patterns. No problem with tax schemes, tolls, the price of parking or privatization; government-directed disincentives using the 'stick' approach. No problem with privatization, jitneys n' such, that likewise avoid governmental oversight. "We don't need no stinking regulation".

No, Clark has a little problem allowing citizen-elected governing bodies the right and responsibility to direct growth away from car-centric blight, profitable asphalt wastelands, big box monstrousities. Walking, bicycling and mass transit, and the preservation of local economies have NO relationship with or bearing upon development, according to Clark.

Sounds to me like Clark and Mr Durning would rather leave development the sole responsibility of the landlord class who've made their fortunes the last 50 years selling, financing, insuring, maintaining or customizing the cars that fill the garages attached to the houses built in the suburbs so far from places of occupation that massive freeways will never stop expanding and transit systems never succeed.

Development patterns have everything to do with the traffic problem. Ignoring this fact is incompetently Old School and suspicious. Bypassing South Center and guiding development there dooms Link Light rail. No one should let Alan Durning and Clark forget this.

Posted by: Art | Apr 20, 2005 11:35:01 AM

Art: Ummm. WHAT?!?!

Clark and I are broken records on the point that land use patterns shape transportation. It's our favorite hobby horse.

Posted by: Alan Durning | Apr 20, 2005 12:12:51 PM

Art - What on earth are you talking about?

Look, a couple of things. First, my comment about Fulton's "sprawling" editorial is about the writing -- it looks like it was a longer piece cut down to fit an editorial format. And as a consequence I simply couldn't figure out quite what he was saying. He apparently doesn't look favorably on new transit projects:

"Critics of L.A.'s rail transit program — and, by extension, rapid transit buses — claim these projects are too expensive and won't solve any transportation problems today.

Almost without exception, they're right."

But he also says that LA's existing rail system doesn't work well. And that he favors high-density projects around transit stops. So I wasn't sure if that meant LA should keep developing rapid transit to put dense villages around the stops, or if it should stop developing new transit because it's too costly, and just develop around the existing stops. And the suggestion that symbolic transit trips by the mayor could make transit cool bewilders me, as does whether Fulton things the mayor should do anything in particular about bus service of the non-rapid-transit variety that serves LA's poor, other than talk to the riders about it and to ride the bus once in a while.

But the thing is -- I 100% agree with Fulton that you should put dense housing around transit stops. 100%. OK? And if some government intervention that would actually help encourage dense, transit- and pedestrian-oriented development--e.g., seed investments, building height or zoning waivers, restrictions or taxes on parking, etc., I'm generally for it.

Second, NEW consistently holds up Vancouver as an example of a place in the NW that's done a pretty good job of reining in suburban sprawl & encouraging development in the urban core. One reason is pure geography -- the city is hemmed in by water and mountains, so it can only sprawl to the east and south. But perhaps more importantly, the city never built a highway through downtown, and it has a highly stringent policy of protecting agricultural land surrounding the city. And the development process there is, as I understand it, extremely interventionist -- requiring developers to put in public amenities in order for their projects to go forward. The question for me is, how to replicate Vancouver's success in the US, which has a much different political outlook. I could go on for a while about this, but I won't.

Third -- we've written ad f'ing nauseum about encouraging density & the damage that highways do to cities. I don't have to justify myself here -- just look around at what I've written; e.g., http://www.thestranger.com/2003-03-13/feature.html

Now, I'm not inherently a big fan of expensive transit projects; I don't believe that they are either necessary or sufficient to promote dense development -- the details matter a lot. Transit projects can help; but they don't always, especially in the absense of a coordinated effort to encourage denser development along transit lines -- something that's often missing from transportation planning, and also can take a lot of effort and money to do right. Which generally makes me more excited about the other stuff -- good neighborhood planning and the like -- than in becoming a big booster for any particular transit technology or project.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Apr 20, 2005 1:42:07 PM

Hey guys. You rant and rave without considering the MAIN problem - CONGESTION
There is only one low-cost system to reduce or eliminate congestion - ULTRA-Light-Rail. Much smaller than the ancient Light-Rail system and requiring NO right-of-way real estate Ultra-LR can carry you in your own automobile at speeds up to 120 mph. All Ultra-LR needs is initial private investment to get it started 'cause the "Authorities" don't have R&D budgets.

Posted by: Bob Stiles | Apr 20, 2005 5:15:02 PM

Hmmm. As I say, I haven't so far been inclined to become a booster of any particular technology. Two reasons. First, I'm just not qualified to review *all* transportation technologies; and there are a lot out there. Second, the "right" technology will vary with the circumstances; it's hard to believe that one size fits all.

So generally, I'm concerned with figuring out (or trying, at least) the circumstances under which alternatives to the car can flourish. That generally means increasing residential density, since high density is very strongly correlated with low transportation energy use, and higher rates of walking, biking and transit ridership. It also means taxing gasoline so that it includes itsfull social and environmental cost. And eliminating subisidies that encourage sprawl & driving. Once you take those (and similar) steps, some better solutions -- walking, biking, bus, bus rapid transit, light rail, monorail, ultra-light rail, personal ultra-light rail, Segways, yada yada -- have a chance to prove themselves.

But actually, I don't particularly view congestion as the main problem, or even a particularly grave one. It's a nuisance (and then some), but it's not the end of the world as we know it. Runaway global warming is, however. And places that are particularly congested -- think NYC, SF, Tokyo, Vancover, etc. -- use much, much less energy per resident for transportation than the typical sprawling US metropolis. Which makes me think that when we stop worrying and learn to love (or at least live with) congestion, we'll actually be able to make some serious progress at reducing transportation-related GHG emissions.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Apr 20, 2005 8:06:21 PM

Additionally, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the air will be FRESH for those healthier modes of transportation: bicycling and walking.

Posted by: Michelle Parker | Apr 20, 2005 8:26:36 PM

New Urbanism's main guiding principle is NOT density; it's diversity, (Mixed-uses). Density without diversity exacerbates the problems associated with transport systems. Paul Allen's proposed development of Lake Union proposes 8000 new apartments/condos there, but adds 24,000 jobs; thus increases demand for travel downtown. Furthermore, downtown is already high housing density and a major employment center.

New Urbanism has evolved into Regionalism. Please explain, Clark, how Regionalism, (guiding growth regionally), reduces the demand for travel downtown, cross-county travel, long-distance travel overall. Explain why the Link LRT bypass of South Center violates the principles of Regionalism and dooms Link. Explain how Regionalism may indeed reduce travel demand to the point whereby the Alaskan Way Viaduct need not be replaced, and the I-5 Express lanes North become the light rail corridor, their original intent.

I am all for light rail, monorail and streetcar in Seattle. But the current plans, all of them, are not half what they could be and must be, were it not for the incompetence of next generation "Old School" planners like Alan Durning and Clark Williams-Derry.

Posted by: Art | Apr 20, 2005 8:50:40 PM

Having done my best to ream Alan on the 'Bus Rapid Transit' issue, I think some of our posters need to sip some cool water and readjust their collars.

Planners, on the whole, seem to be doing their jobs pretty well, considering the regional response to the mess we're in. The job of a planner is not to endorse an "ism" that will solve our problems, it is to make accurate forecasts that can be used by responsible elected officials. Judging from the behavior of elected officials, that is working pretty well in Puget Sound.

As for the diversity vs density argument, South Lake Union is surrounded by apartments and condos. Stand at the Naval Reserve Base, sweep your eyes around your visual horizon, and everything you see is within a twenty minute walk of South Lake Union. What is needed there are jobs and some good subways- subway sandwiches, that is, so the employee can spend their lunch hour eating instead of looking for food.

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 21, 2005 9:08:25 AM

Planners, on the whole, have their head up their ass. Those who resort to lengthy dissertation, have nothing to say, or are incapable of disseminating concepts simply, or are not authorized to do so. The Seattle region is torn with political dissent because planners are not doing their jobs 'pretty well'. The only Seattle planners doing their jobs 'pretty well' are those involved public relations. Only those planners within the public relations community hold this view. Their job is to convince others of some viewpoint, but are only able to convince themselves they are good at it.

Unless Alan and Clark answer these questions about Regionalism and the bypass of South Center, they prove themselves to be haphazard practitioners of "Old School Isms" and culpable in the absolute failure of Seattle's rail transit investments.

Posted by: Art | Apr 21, 2005 9:54:50 AM

Gee, Art, shouldn't you tell us what you do for a living, so we can post ad hominem attacks on you also? And aren't there plenty of blogs better suited to your style of disputation than this one?

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 21, 2005 10:07:42 AM

Gee, Serial catowner, I'm not talking to you, so please just let the good planners answer the questions, thank you very much.

Posted by: Art | Apr 21, 2005 3:40:42 PM

Hey Clark W-D. How can you off-handedly dismiss CONGESTION as a zero problem. Maybe you think one should "love" wasting precious time, and fuel while contaminating the air we all attempt to breath. You say that if we have enough congestion we will find other means to get to work. Sorry, that is quite naive. You want people to car-pool and to do other unlikly stuff just to get to where they are going. Seattle is not a city for the cockroach infested tenements that you propose.
The Ultra-LR system is designed to eliminate congestion and can provide very fast direct-to-destination service 24/7. It can move you-in-your-car, it can move pedestrians into hotels,malls, and airports without demanding huge billion dollar taxes. It can bring all parts of the city together without cutting a swath through neighborhoods. In addition, it can move small freight into factories and stores without blocking the streets. Please open your minds eye to the beautiful future that an Ultra-LR system can bring to Seattle.

Posted by: Bob Stiles | Apr 26, 2005 2:40:09 PM


Just saw your comment. I think it's great that you're fired up about ultra L-R. But a word of advice -- if you're actually trying to convince me of something, you're doing yourself ABSOLUTELY NO FAVORS with your tone. After reading your post, I'm inclined to associate ultra-LR with irrational hostility and rudeness. Seriously--re-read your posts, and mine, and tell me if you needed to be so rude just then.

Now, when I read something about ultra light rail, I'm going to have to make an extra effort to give it a fair hearing in order to overcome negative associations with it. Not the outcome you wanted, perhaps.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | May 10, 2005 5:18:34 PM

Why is rideshare often ignored or forgotten altogether as a solution? Am I the only one that notices more than 75% of the seats on the freeway are empty? Not the case on the 66 Freeway near DC. I am not advocating that the 405 become an HOV only freeway, but why is it that we keep addressing this issue as though "someone else" needs to solve it. Should we expect to live a happy life in our own private bubble? Where, of course, finding space for our private bubble is everyone else's problem?

Posted by: Joe | Sep 11, 2005 10:37:46 AM