Measure M is one of the most promising ballot measures to pass in Los Angeles County in recent years. It offers $120 billion in long-term sales tax revenue to fund transportation projects — the kind of money that can help transform mobility in the region.
But the money brings perils, too, which I describe in a Los Angeles Times op-ed today:
If history is any guide, L.A. transit leaders have a habit of prioritizing politically expedient projects over ones that would benefit more riders. Faced with NIMBY opposition, our leaders too often cave.
Just look at the Expo Line from downtown L.A. to Santa Monica, a route that remains hampered by slow travel times after transit leaders failed to give the train priority over automobiles along city streets. Additionally, failure to push through with adequate development projects along the route denied this expensive rail technology an easy ridership boost.
Will transportation leaders similarly compromise away good Measure M projects until they go bad?
To answer this question, it’s important to understand what a “good” project entails. Cost-effectiveness — using the fewest dollars to move the most people the greatest distance — is key. Projects should attract maximal ridership, based on existing population, job density and service quality. Potential ridership, based on the feasibility of building more housing, retail and offices within walking distance of stations, is another crucial determinant. (The failure of the anti-growth Measure S in the recent L.A. election adds even more weight to this component.) Finally, projects should maximize reductions in overall driving miles, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
The piece details some immediate tests facing Metro leaders and offers recommendations to ensure that they make smart decisions. The long-term future of LA in many ways will be determined by these short-term actions.
It was a big victory last night for the Los Angeles economy and environment. Voters decisively rejected Measure S, a city measure that would have essentially frozen development for at least two years, with incredibly detrimental effects on local rents, housing prices, construction jobs, and sprawl.
The measure garnered just 31.5 percent of the vote, as LA Curbed reported. A broad coalition of environmental groups, labor unions, and homeless advocates, coupled with almost all major political leaders (including the governor), mobilized against it. Homeowners groups largely comprised the pro side.
Despite the broad opposition, many smart growth advocates were nervous about the vote. It’s a low-turnout election in March, and homeowner groups were really playing up the “overdevelopment” and “corrupt City Hall” angle to the measure. And on the heels of Brexit and Trump, it seemed plausible that Los Angeles voters would succumb to the same anxiety over changes in their communities, coupled with distrust of elites.
But the positive outcome won’t solve the development challenges in Los Angeles, as even the anti-Measure S groups conceded. The city suffers from a lack of comprehensive planning to ensure growth happens in the right places (near transit, largely) and to avoid the project-by-project approval processes that open the system up to abuse and inefficiency.
My hope is that the coalition that assembled against the measure continues to stay engaged on this issue of long-term planning in the city. They may even find common cause with some of the pro-S forces.
But for now, smart growth advocates and environmentalists can breathe a huge sigh of relief that ballot box planning didn’t rule the day.
Los Angeles voters face a major decision on Tuesday: will the city retreat from future growth in existing urbanized areas, worsening its current path of income inequality, economic decline for most of the population, severe traffic and air pollution? Because that’s what Measure S would largely achieve.
The measure would effectively halt new development for the next two years that involves any planning changes, putting development pressure on areas currently zoned for more development, usually in disadvantaged communities. The result will be a broken status quo that will only get worse, keeping Los Angeles only affordable to the very wealthy and displacing or pushing everyone else out into sprawl and far from good-paying jobs.
I think most sides of this land use battle would agree on one thing: Los Angeles needs better planning to ensure more development in the right places (near transit and jobs). This measure would not help achieve that goal though. It will instead mostly benefit existing homeowners who were fortunate enough to buy their homes at the right time or have the incomes to afford decent housing near jobs.
These individuals fear “overdevelopment” and density in their neighborhoods, and they want government to intervene to prevent it from happening. It’s the Anti-Sanctuary City.
Madaleine Brand hosted a lively one-hour discussion of Measure S yesterday on KCRW radio, featuring many of the leading voices on the issue from all sides:
Fingers crossed that Angelenos make the right call on Tuesday, or the region will have just taken a giant step backward in terms of economic, environmental and quality-of-life outcomes.
And in the long run, my hope is that a defeated Measure S will still spark a long-overdue discussion in Los Angeles about better planning.
When I lived in Los Angeles, I hated to pay for parking. And not just for the obvious reason of not wanting to part with precious dollars. My feeling was that if I had to put up with so much traffic, emissions, and space dedicated to the automobile, the least I could get out of it was free parking.
And now the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies has put together the gory details on the impact of excessive parking requirements on Los Angeles land use, all in a handy infographic:
The information is pretty disturbing but worth understanding to motivate reform. And the most obvious reform is to reduce or eliminate minimum parking requirements for new projects, particularly near major transit stops.
Last year, the Los Angeles Times made a lot of waves when it ran a piece decrying falling transit ridership. They used what I called a misleading chart to make the decline look worse than it really was.
Now the paper is back with more disheartening news about Los Angeles transit ridership, from transportation reporter Laura Nelson:
Trips taken on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s sprawling bus and rail system dropped again in 2016, by nearly 6%, driven by a continuing slide in bus ridership, according to agency data.
Although year-to-year ridership changes are worth noting, the bigger issue is how Metro has fared over time, said Michael Manville, a professor of urban planning at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.
Since 2009, Metro has opened four new rail extensions at a cost of more than $4 billion. In the same period, rail ridership soared 21%, but bus trips — a much larger share of overall ridership — dropped 18%.
Subway and light-rail boardings rose 4.4%, bolstered by the debut of the Gold Line and Expo Line extensions. But those gains did not cancel out a decline in annual bus ridership, which fell 8.9% to 304 million — the lowest in more than a decade.
While it was a bit easy to dismiss last year’s article, at this point I think we’ve reached the point of worry.
So what gives?
Surprisingly, no one seems to have any firm answers. The theories range from weak transit performance on on-time arrivals, poor overall service (convenience of the routes and time spent waiting), passenger fears about safety, a stronger economy that encourage more people to drive, drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, and the rise of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.
To be sure, this is a national trend on transit ridership, as is the trend of increasing vehicle miles traveled.
If I had to guess, I would venture that two trends loom largest: the growing economy and the rise of Uber and Lyft.
With nationwide vehicle miles traveled increasing, it seems likely that much of that driving is coming at the expense of transit ridership. With a robust economy, more people can afford to purchase cars and the gasoline to fuel them.
But the rise of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft should not be understated. Anecdotally, I hear about bus riders who can cost-effectively take Uber Pool or Lyft Line to their destinations, saving a huge amount of time in the process if they live far from their jobs and have to transfer multiple times (or catch the bus at non-commute hours when the waits are long).
For low-income people, particularly those on hourly wages, that time savings can quickly equate to badly needed increases in earnings from more hours worked.
But all is not lost for transit investments. As I wrote last year in an op-ed for the Times, transit agencies still have plenty of options. The big three:
- Encourage the building of more homes and offices within walking distance of transit stops
- Reduce fares
- Focus on building bus-only lanes on major boulevards and highways
Honestly, transit agencies should be doing these things anyway. Maybe the alarm bells about falling transit ridership will finally give them the political motivation they need to start implementing.
Two weeks ago I had an opportunity to discuss the history of Los Angeles Metro Rail in a presentation at UCLA, sponsored by UCLA’s Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, Department of History, and Institute of Transportation Studies.
For those who couldn’t attend (or did attend and want to relive the magic), a video recording is now available, albeit with shaky audio the first 12 minutes or so:
And for a written description, UCLA News ran an article describing the talk last week.
Of course for the long version, I recommend reading the book.
After just passing a landmark sales tax measure in November to boost transit investments, Los Angeles now risks throwing all that progress out the window this March.
Local NIMBYs have placed Measure S (as in “Sucky”) on the ballot then, in order to effectively stick the city in formaldehyde to benefit current property owners. They claim it will save the city from an “overdevelopment” housing boom and corruption of City Hall leaders by developers.
Far from experiencing a housing boom, Los Angeles is almost 30 years into a prolonged housing slump.
Data from the American Community Survey shows that between 1940 and 1990, L.A. built between 150,000 and 250,000 homes each decade. In the decades since, we’ve averaged fewer than 100,000. The 2010-2019 decade isn’t looking any better. As of 2015, only 13% of the city’s housing stock was built after 1990.
He notes property owners have an incentive to clamp down on supply through this initiative:
A 2015 report by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office claims that L.A. County built 1 million fewer homes than were needed to keep housing prices in line with average U.S. growth rates over the past 30 years. The latest data from the Census Bureau puts L.A.’s rental vacancy rates at historic lows of less than 3%, which has empowered landlords to raise rents on existing homes and has driven up the cost of new development. Of the most crowded 1% of census tracts in the U.S., about half are in L.A. County. These are the symptoms of a housing shortage, not an oversupply.
Some might argue that the problem isn’t too little construction, it’s just that L.A. is full up. We’ve run up against the mountains, the ocean and neighboring jurisdictions. But in reality, a city is only full when it chooses to be, and bad luck to anyone who doesn’t already own property when that choice is made.
Meanwhile, he cites Seattle as a city that is building smart around transit. As a result, it’s largely been able to stabilize rents through targeted density.
It will be a shame if this measure passes and dooms future generations in the region to stifling housing costs or long commutes, all while turning Los Angeles into a third world-style bastion of inequality, as only the wealthy can afford homes. I hope that reality never comes to pass, but it will take defeating this measure in March to prevent it.
For those in Los Angeles, I’ll be giving an evening talk on Wednesday, January 25th on the past and future of Metro Rail, based on my book Railtown. The event is hosted by UCLA’s Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies and will take place from 5:00 – 6:30pm in Room 5391 of the Public Affairs Building. It’s co-sponsored by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, Department of History, and Institute of Transportation Studies. More information and registration is available on UCLA’s event page. I’ll have book copies available for sale and to sign. Hope you can attend!
And speaking of Railtown and UCLA, I’m belatedly sharing this 2016 review of the book by UCLA assistant professor of urban planning Michael Manville in the Journal of Planning Education and Research. Manville starts with some compliments:
This is a good book. Anyone who thinks they might like it probably will. Elkind is a talented writer and synthesizer of information, and the story itself is one that (for transportation nerds, at least) has long begged to be told. Elkind has scoured the archives and interviewed many of the participants in his story. I have lived in LA for more than ten years, studied transportation there, and rode many of its trains, and I still learned a lot reading Railtown.
However, he also offers some pointed critiques:
The book’s great weakness, to me, is that it takes rail’s necessity as a given. In doing so, Railtown assumes away the great unanswered question of modern rail: Why do we want it? What problem does it solve? There are times in Railtown…where rail seems almost an end in itself. Any proper city has rail, so rail is successful when we successfully build it. But in a city with scarce resources and vast needs, that is no way to justify enormous public expenditures.
It’s ironic to read this complaint because it is the exact mindset that I criticized early rail leaders for having in promoting rail. For me, rail is a necessity for Los Angeles because it provides the best transportation infrastructure around which to channel future growth in the city (with the big unanswered question as to whether or not local leaders will allow that growth to happen). Otherwise, future growth will either be disorganized and stuck in urban gridlock or pushed out as car-dependent sprawl. And at the densities that Los Angeles would need to build new housing to meet market demand and accommodate existing and future residents, only rail can efficiently move those large numbers of people (again, assuming the density comes to fruition).
It’s also worth mentioning that a corridor like along Wilshire Boulevard already has the density needed to support rail and is a prime candidate for such a project as-is, just given the existing conditions there.
Manville then continues with the critique that rail won’t address the region’s underlying transportation challenges:
More train riding is not the same as less driving. Why should LA (or any city) descend into debt to subsidize rail when it could just stop subsidizing cars? Angelinos drive as much as they do because their government routinely widens roads, requires parking with every new development, and most of all lets drivers use the city’s freeways and arterials—some of the most valuable land in the United States—for free. The projects described in Railtown are distractions from, not solutions to, these problems.
I wholeheartedly agree with Manville on this point. If the goal is to reduce traffic congestion, rail is not the answer, and I never make that claim in the book. The preferred solutions for addressing the traffic problem in Los Angeles would involve congestion pricing and ending subsidies for driving, as Manville describes.
But there’s no reason why the region can’t do both: build alternatives to driving like rail transit and also stop subsidizing auto driving. In fact, both are needed simultaneously, and I don’t see any evidence that rail distracted the public from these other solutions. The reality is that rail is the politically easier thing to do, so it gets done first. But subsidies for autos will be easier to remove once there is a viable alternative in place, so rail could provide the conditions necessary to earn public support for the steps Manville envisions. After all, San Francisco was able to stop subsidizing cars and become a “transit-first” city only after it developed a robust transit system, which included BART.
There’s a legitimate debate to be had about housing growth in California. On the pro-housing side, you generally have millennials and smart growth environmentalists who are concerned about a long-running housing shortage and its effect on the environment and economy.
On the other side, you often have homeowners concerned about changes to their neighborhoods, as well as pro-sprawl conservatives who see the suburban lifestyle as a symbol of the good life.
Count me as firmly on the pro-housing side.
But increasingly in these debates, I see the homeowner types smearing pro-housing advocates as simply corporate tools. They charge the few brave elected leaders who champion more infill housing as politicians “bought” by large developers. Here’s an example from the San Francisco Chronicle’s new columnist, author David Talbot, about a pro-housing group in San Francisco:
["31-year-old, bow-tied, corporate public relations man named Justin"] Jones’ club is part of a network of young, corporate-backed activists who see themselves in opposition to the city’s progressive establishment. One such Jones comrade is 29-year-old Laura Foote Clark, a vice president of the RFK Club and the founder of Grow SF, a pro-development group that attracts funding from some of the same sources as the RFK Club ["Ron Conway and his Big Tech friends, and from the real estate industry"].
Clark is spearheading a campaign to wrest control of the Sierra Club’s San Francisco chapter from its traditional, sustainable-growth leadership. She is one of four pro-development candidates running for the chapter’s executive committee.
And this from a longtime San Francisco homeowner, a self-described “progressive” who is fortunate to live in a neighborhood where low supply has pushed average house prices north of $3 million.
Of course, Talbot’s smears about “pro-corporate” policies and funding from the “real estate industry” are meant to distract from the merits of the underlying argument, which he is unable to clearly articulate or rebut. For him, it’s all about the takeover of his beloved city by wealthy interests — nothing about how to address the chronic under-supply of housing and what it has done to further inequality, economic stress, and environmental degradation.
Furthermore, Talbot exhibits no sympathy for a millennial generation that has been priced out of major job centers and urban areas by first-in-the-door homeowners who refuse to allow new housing to stabilize prices. To add insult to injury, these longtime homeowners then get to watch their home values skyrocket.
The pro-housing movement among this new generation is blossoming in San Francisco but now spreading to places like San Diego. As the New York Times reports, a new group there is successfully harnessing millennial frustration with housing:
Many of San Diego’s Yimbys [yes-in-my-backyard] are millennials who say they’re fed up with spending upward of 40 percent of their income on housing.
“The older people, they already have their house,” said Chance Shay, 28, who became a father last year. “Now that they have their homes, they’re saying, ‘Hey, I don’t want a bunch of other houses built. I like my green space.’”
Sounds like another corporate tool.
Prop 13 is supposedly the third rail of California politics. The 1978 ballot measure effectively froze property taxes in the state and ultimately ensured that any new tax increases require a 2/3 vote, whether in the legislature or among local voters approving a new city or county tax measure. And there’s a good case to be made that it has ruined the state.
First, Prop 13 has badly distorted development patterns in the state — depressing new housing supply and worsening the environment. Why? It’s all about perverse incentives.
For longtime property owners, particularly commercial property owners, they pay so little in property taxes that they have no incentive to upgrade their properties. That means lots of downtown parcels that fall into neglect, as cruddy tenants can keep landlords happy with steady cash flows to meet low overhead from the minimal tax burden. Communities suffer from this blight and neglect.
And on the residential side, longtime homeowners have little incentive to downsize, further diminishing available housing supply for newcomers and young families and pushing them farther out into sprawl areas with long commutes.
Meanwhile, local government officials have little incentive to approve or zone for new housing, since it brings so little property tax revenue. Instead, they opt for commercial developments that promise sales tax revenue instead. It’s probably not a coincidence that California has been under-producing housing relative to population and job growth since Prop 13 was passed.
Second, Prop 13 makes it harder to provide cost-effective, equitable and sufficient government services. With the 2/3 hurdle, measures like local transportation taxes can sometimes lose by just a few thousand votes, even though say 66.5% of the voters approve. As a consequence, local governments sometimes can only provide poor service and are stuck with crumbling infrastructure. And when they do get measures passed, they’re often the product of extensive compromises to please everyone, leading to inefficient spending.
Prop 13 has also increased disparity among California’s communities. Since Prop 13 passed, California’s schools and basic services like fire departments have become more unequal, as poor communities struggle to fund them while rich communities can raise significant parcel taxes to cover them, in the face of dwindling property tax revenues.
Homeowners in expensive coastal cities such as Palo Alto and Los Altos, where median home values exceed $2 million, pay effective tax rates under 0.5 percent, while households in inland areas, like Beaumont and Arvin, where home values are under $265,000, have effective tax rates of more than 1.3 percent, Trulia said in its report.
This “cross-city variation” is a result of price appreciation and share of longtime residents, Trulia said. The more a home appreciates, the lower its effective tax rate becomes. The lower the rate, the more incentive there is to stay put.
And even within those communities, homeowners pay vastly different amounts of property taxes:
However, it also found that “substantial differences occur even among property owners of similar ages, incomes, and wealth.” Looking at Bay Area homeowners ages 45 to 55 years with homes worth $575,000 to $625,000 and incomes of $80,000 to $90,000, it found that their property tax payments in 2014 ranged from $1,350 to $7,500.
It all depends on when you bought, but young families could easily be paying five times as much in property taxes as a longtime homeowner next door.
Finally, on the inequality front, Prop 13 is really a giant subsidy for commercial property owners. Many pay practically nothing in property taxes compared to the value of their property, particularly since these properties can change hands via corporate buy-outs and mergers to avoid triggering a re-assessment and thus higher property tax rates. Disneyland may be the poster child for this perverse outcome.
In short, Prop 13 has been a disaster for California in terms of land use, equality and government efficacy. With a new super-majority in the California legislature, maybe now is the time for them to place a reform measure on the ballot, so the voters have a chance to undue this terrible policy.