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.
With so much transit news happening in Los Angeles, I’m pleased to be speaking tonight at UCLA on “The Past and Future of L.A’s Metro Rail.” The talk is sponsored by the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, Department of Public Policy, and Department of History.
As I blogged about in announcing the event, you can register for the event here. However, the room appears to be filled. But if you are unable to attend in person or could not get in off the registration list, you can now sign up for a live recording of the talk.
For those of you who can attend, I look forward to seeing you tonight and talking rail (and if you bring a copy of Railtown, I’ll be happy to sign it for you!).
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.
L.A. Metro spent $1.6 billion to widen the 405 freeway from the San Fernando Valley to the Westside. Now the New York Times has to fill paragraphs exploring the obvious: was it a waste of money?
Well, here are the initial results on what was supposed to have been a project with multi-decade benefits for congestion relief:
Peak afternoon traffic time has indeed decreased to five hours from seven hours’ duration (yes, you read that right) and overall traffic capacity has increased. But congestion is as bad — even worse — during the busiest rush hours of 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., according to a study by the county Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
To be fair to the project’s proponents, it also added a carpool lane and seismic retrofits for overpasses, both of which will be useful going forward.
But the idea that widening a highway relieves congestion? We should have put that one to bed a long time ago. Increasing capacity just induces more demand, as this UC Davis brief documents [PDF].
If the goal is to reduce congestion, local governments should implement congestion pricing to discourage solo and optional trips. If the goal is to expand capacity, they should look into bus-only lanes, new bike infrastructure, and new transit capacity. Congestion pricing can meanwhile help to fund some of those options.
Otherwise, consider $1.6 billion investments like this one to be a giant waste of money.
Los Angeles just overwhelmingly passed a transportation sales tax with over 70% support, yet policies that encourage automobile usage may undermine the transit and congestion relief goals of the measure. Chief among these driving incentives is the over-supply of parking.
Juan Matute of UCLA and Andrew M. Fraser and Mikhail Chester of Arizona State University make the case in the Los Angeles Times that the region should stop providing plentiful, cheap parking:
Decades of car-centric development in Los Angeles have resulted in more than three and a half parking spaces for every car in the county — nearly 19 million in total. These spaces — in residential garages and driveways, commercial parking structures and surface lots, and along streets — account for 200 square miles of real estate, much of it concentrated in dense, transit-friendly areas.
It is not a coincidence that where there’s the greatest concentration of parking spaces —the downtown core, Hollywood and the Wilshire corridor — traffic can be particularly bad. The abundance of cheap or free parking spaces encourages Angelenos to choose cars over other transportation options and creates localized congestion, which makes driving more painful for everyone.
Only by making parking more scarce will we give drivers a reason to switch to buses or subways — and achieve Measure M’s promise of reducing traffic.
There’s no question that policies that require abundant parking are counter-productive when it comes to discouraging driving and reducing infill opportunities, and this op-ed sums up the situation nicely. My only quibble is that it frames parking reform in the negative. The average Angeleno reading this will probably think: they’re going to make it harder and more expensive for me to park my car in order to force me onto a slow-moving bus.
But there are many positive benefits for Angelenos from reforming parking policies. First, it will (as the authors argue) decrease congestion for those times you need to drive. Second, it will allow more walkable, thriving neighborhoods to develop in all the space that otherwise would go to house cars in a parking spot. Three, it will save residents money on their homes and rents from not having to subsidize excessive parking. Fourth, it will encourage the development of much better, faster, and more reliable transit service as an alternative to being stuck in traffic.
The authors hint at these benefits in the end:
Angelenos like to think they have a right to cheap and easy mobility in the form of car ownership. We suggest that cheap and easy accessibility — to work, stores and fun — is the right we should strive to promote.
They also counter the usual argument that reduced parking spots will lead to parking nightmares in surrounding neighborhoods (residential parking permits can handle that issue).
Given the intense opposition to parking reform, advocates should focus on the positives for residents, rather than making the policy sound punitive to those who have few viable options other than driving. Because ultimately, the weight of the evidence is on the side of parking reform. And as this piece makes clear, advocates need to make the case that it’s the right thing to do.