Southern California creates historic regional transportation plan


Graduation is nearing here at the University of Pennsylvania, and many students (myself included) are looking for work. After learning of some job openings with some really great firms in Los Angeles, I asked a friend if she would be willing to work there. “Oh, no,” she answered, “I could never live in LA, I need to live in a place where I don’t need a car.”

For a lot of Northeasterners, the ability to live a car-free life is what makes a place truly urban. Los Angeles and its suburbs, for most of the modern era, have been the antithesis of that lifestyle, built around freeways and far-flung suburban developments. But things are changing in LA, and a car-free lifestyle is much more in reach than it has been in the past.

As with the rest of the country, people in Southern California are beginning to demand alternatives to the car and the single family home. This became evident last November, when a survey of 758 registered voters, conducted by the American Lung Association, Move LA, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, showed that people support expanded transit alternatives, walkable communities, and even smaller homes. This survey had a large effect on the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) as they prepared their 2012 Regional Transportation Plan and Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP/SCS).

The elected officials of SCAG unanimously adopted this plan on April 4th. As outlined by Amanda Eaken, the highlights of the plan include:

  • Increases funding for biking and walking by over 350% from $1.8 to $6.7 billion;
  • Spends $246 billion—nearly half the plan’s total revenue– on public transportation;
  • Reduces congestion 24% per capita despite adding 4 million residents;
  • Brings 12 key transit expansion projects to Los Angeles in the next 10 years under Mayor Villaraigosa’s 30-10 plan;
  • Creates 60% more housing near transit than is currently available;
  • Creates 4.2 million jobs in the region, 87% of all jobs will be ½ mile from transit;
  • Achieves a 24 % reduction in pollution-caused respiratory problems, resulting in $1.5 billion per year in health care savings’ and;
  • Saves over 400 square miles of open space–more than a third the size of Yosemite–from development by shifting to a more walkable land use pattern for the region.

SCAG employs a bottom-up approach to the plan, even allowing subregions to create their own alternative plans as long as they accomplish the same goals. The plan reflects the goals of those organizations that sponsored the original survey – it improves public health, creates transportation alternatives, and will preserve natural resources by reducing oil dependence and preserving natural areas that might have otherwise been developed.

Despite the democratic nature of and overwhelming support for the plan, some detractors have popped up. One notable objection came from Wendell Cox, whose article, California Declares War on Suburbia, ran in the Wall Street Journal on April 7th. Cox, who has no training in transportation (according to his website, he “attended the University of Southern California and earned a bachelor’s degreee [sic] in Government from California State University Los Angeles and a Master of Business Administration from Pepperdine University”) and has made a career as a hack and a lobbyist for conservative think tanks and the auto industry, declares that “California has declared war on the most popular housing choice, the single family, detached home—all in the name of saving the planet.” He attacks concentrating development near transit and claims that it would have virtually no effect on car congestion, “because additional households in the future will continue to use their cars for most trips,” partially because transit does not currently reach the places people want to go to the way cars do. He blames California’s high housing costs on land use regulation and argues that greenhouse gas goals could be reached by other means without adjusting development patterns. As someone who is planning on starting a family soon, I was particularly disturbed by his comment, “Los Angeles has shown that a disproportionate share of migrating households are young. This is at least in part because it is better to raise children with backyards than on condominium balconies.”

Fortunately, many of his most off the mark comments were rebuked in the recent New Republic article, Low-Density Suburbs Are Not Free-Market Capitalism, by Jonathan Rothwell. While Cox is partially right that government intervention leads to higher housing prices, he has it backwards – rather than forcing high density on people, most municipalities require unnecessarily large lots, in some cases almost half an acre, which essentially prohibits the creation of affordable, smaller houses and apartments. Rothwell doesn’t even mention the higher-level government interventions, such as the interstate highway system and federal mortgage loan programs, which also are responsible for the suburbs. The high cost of housing in California is simple supply and demand; there is an extremely high demand, and municipalities are constraining the supply by not allowing higher density development.

Rothwell clarifies that the efforts of organizations like SCAG are less government heavy-handedness and more a responsible effort to address the negative externalities of development. By concentrating population around transit in high density, mixed use developments, they reduce congestion by allowing for walking and biking, making transit a more viable alternative, and allowing for shorter car trips. Many of these organizations have no land use authority and member governments are free to not comply, as well as the developers who would build the new housing, since it would be entirely market-driven.

Cox’s argument that greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced through other means such as greater fuel efficiency and converting to natural gas power is true, but it is no reason to abandon the option of reducing emissions by discouraging auto traffic and encouraging higher density development. The issue of climate change should be attacked from all angles. Multifamily buildings are actually more energy efficient, because having fewer exposed walls makes heating and cooling a room easier.

Some young families certainly move out of cities because they prefer a yard, but it is flat out wrong and ignorant to assume it is the only reason, or that it is necessarily better to raise a child in the suburbs than the city. Especially in Los Angeles, many leave because high housing prices jacked up by large lot zoning force them to cheap land on the outskirts of the city. In some cases, especially in older cities like Philadelphia, it is because they can’t find the right kind of housing stock in their price range: some friends of ours who will soon be having a child couldn’t find a place with another bedroom that they liked, and will be heading out to the suburbs.

The comment about “condominium balconies” seems to show a real misunderstanding of how urban parenting works. Urban parents don’t deny their children place to play, they just share them with their neighbors: they’re called parks. There are all sorts of tips for urban parenting, such as those shared by Carla Saulter at Grist or Lenore Skenazy at Free Range Kids. Parenting in the city can be a real joy, as I learned from a discussion I recently had with Ken Greenberg, architect, urban designer, professor at Harvard and author of Walking Home: The Life Lessons of a City Builder, among others. He said that there were certain things that needed to exist in a city for it to be truly family-friendly:

  • A range of housing units of different sizes, so that as families grow from a couple to a couple with a child to multiple children and back to a couple again, they can move within the same neighborhood
  • Attractive, well-designed play spaces, particularly those that can be observed from within a residence
  • Convenient daycare
  • Good schools

Disinvestment in urban schools is a big problem for urban families in the United States, and possibly the greatest reason young families leave the city. However, cities across Europe (Greenberg cited examples in Scandinavia and the Netherlands specifically) invest much more in their urban schools, and thus are much more kid- and family-friendly. While there are challenges to having an urban family, the amenities, including museums, public parks and arts facilities, can be a real boon for families in the city.

SCAG’s new plan will be a great thing for Southern California. It will create a place where people can live without a car, be healthier, and spend less on housing, all while saving the planet. Potentially, these could be great environments even for families, and the dense cities of Southern California could retain the residents they currently lose to the suburbs.


About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

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