Opinion

Measure S is a proposition on the March 7 ballot that aims to slow growth and development in Los Angeles by placing a two-year moratorium on projects that require a zone change, a height district change, or an amendment to the city’s general plan. It would also reduce the city’s ability to change planning rules for a single development.

Offered here are arguments for and against the ballot measure.

Against

Prohibiting dense development doesn't prevent traffic, it creates sprawl

Traffic jams the Harbor Freeway on Dec. 20, 2013. (Los Angeles Times)
Traffic jams the Harbor Freeway on Dec. 20, 2013. (Los Angeles Times)

Supporters of Measure S say it will stop mega-developments that worsen traffic. But in fact, the measure will do little to improve traffic. Congestion has many causes and possible cures, none of which are addressed or advanced by Measure S.

Traffic is growing in L.A. because the population and economy are growing. Though it is true that bigger buildings produce more traffic on nearby streets than the vacant lots and smaller buildings they replace, denser development near stores and offices lessens traffic overall.

In neighborhoods of higher density, more people walk and bike. More people also ride mass transit because service is best where density is higher. This is why California’s greenhouse gas reduction law requires each region to plan denser housing along transit-rich corridors. When people in dense communities drive, they make shorter trips, because more destinations are close by.

Proponents of Measure S are asking to reduce traffic where they live while creating more traffic everywhere else.

Prohibiting density does not prevent traffic. Instead, it drives new development to lower-density communities farther away from offices and stores. We call this sprawl. Though sprawl produces fewer trips per acre of development because there are fewer people and stores at each location, it produces more and longer trips in total because people and jobs are more spread out.

In other words, proponents of Measure S are asking to reduce traffic where they live while creating more traffic everywhere else.

Measure S would reduce the city’s ability to lower the amount of parking required in new buildings, because proponents want to prevent parking on their neighborhood streets. But more parking in new buildings leads to more car trips — and more traffic.

Parking spaces, moreover, cost as much to build as bedrooms, driving up the price of each unit. In San Francisco, for example, researchers found that parking requirements undermined housing affordability. While only 6% of units were affordable in developments with parking requirements, 23% of units were affordable in those without such requirements. The estimated construction cost per dwelling was $330,666 for buildings with parking requirements, and $230,208 for those without.

Like many planners, I don’t favor spot-zoning, and like many proponents of Measure S, I think L.A.’s community plans need updating. But that can be accomplished without the harsh actions mandated by the proposition. Voters should not be fooled by specious arguments that it will reduce traffic congestion. This would require a set of measures not addressed on the ballot.

Martin Wachs is a professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering and city and regional planning at UCLA.

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