If Cities Change Land-Use Policies, Californians Might Take to Rails

<i> William Fulton is the editor of California Planning & Development Report, a newsletter based in Ventura that covers growth and development issues around the state</i>

On June 5, Californians will be presented with perhaps the most dramatic opportunity ever to break their decades-long love affair with the automobile. Two ballot measures, Propositions 108 and 116, hold out the possibility of allocating nearly $3 billion to rail-transit projects. And Proposition 111, the comprehensive gasoline-tax package, contains provisions likely to encourage even more investment in rail transit.

If all three measures pass, the election results will be interpreted by politicians and transportation officials as a sweeping mandate to build rail-transit lines around the state, especially in auto-oriented Southern California. Proposition 108 would authorize a $1-billion bond issue for rail-transit projects; Proposition 116 would authorize another $2 billion in rail bonds, most of it earmarked for specific projects. Proposition 111 also contains some rail funding, and its so-called “congestion management” provisions would require local governments to undertake traffic-reduction efforts in order to qualify for a portion of the increased gas-tax revenue.

But even if all three are approved, the measures won’t do much to relieve traffic congestion and improve the quality of life in California--unless the vote is also interpreted as a broad mandate to change local land-use policies so that they support transit ridership.

Simply approving bond issues and constructing rail lines won’t guarantee people will ride rail transit. For rail to succeed, communities must be oriented around transit stations, with rail travel located within easy walking distance of many jobs, stores and, especially, homes. Pedestrian-oriented communities, with easy access between homes and rail-transit stations, are the “software” required to make the “hardware” of rail lines succeed.


The reasons are obvious: Most people will ride the rails when trains are a convenient alternative to driving. With the exception of some long-distance commuters, virtually no one who has to get into a car to reach a rail station is going to get out of that car and wait for a train. Most people will simply continue driving to their destination--and with good reason. Under such circumstances, driving is easier, more convenient and probably faster than taking public transit.

Some recent rail systems haven’t come close to ridership projections. It was projected that Miami’s new rail system would carry 240,000 riders in 1988; it drew only 35,000. Most of Miami’s rail stations are accessible only by car. The software is missing.

Unfortunately, California’s software programmers do not appear very interested in making the hardware work any better here. Land-use policy is a jealously guarded prerogative of local government, and most of California’s 500-plus local governments are still pursuing land-use policies that reduce the potential for transit ridership. Influenced by slow-growth sentiment and frustration with traffic congestion, local politicians and planners continue to create spread-out communities that seek to solve growth problems by minimizing the number of new residents--thereby maximizing dependence on the automobile. The idea of linking new subdivisions to potential transit lines usually does not arise.

Furthermore, the experience of BART in the San Francisco Bay Area suggests that even when suburban communities do agree to create clusters of high-density development around transit stations, they often leave out the one ingredient that is most necessary to make a transit system work: housing. A recent study for the Senate Office of Research found that East Bay cities, driven by fiscal concerns, have encouraged heavy commercial development around BART stations while discouraging housing construction. In several cities, high-density housing projects near transit stops have been killed by neighborhood opposition.

Such an approach may help maintain communities that are financially sound, but it does nothing to alleviate traffic congestion. According to the same Senate study, only about 10% of people who work near transit stations ride BART. By contrast, 30%-40% of people who live near the stations use the rail system. In terms of creating a successful transit system--and therefore reducing traffic congestion--there is simply no substitute for clustering housing around transit stops.

Fear of high-density housing constitutes a potent political force all over California. Hardly a day goes by without some neighborhood group somewhere making headlines by opposing an apartment building or condo complex, on the ground that it threatens to undermine their current low-density way of life. In the suburbs, all socioeconomic issues get narrowed, sooner or later, to a debate over housing units per acre.

But even with opposition to high-density housing, there is still a chance for change in local land-use policies to improve rail transit ridership--making rail transit work, especially in Southern California, doesn’t necessarily mean more high-density housing. In many instances it may simply mean rearranging current land uses to encourage transit ridership.

Because of the high cost of land, developers and home-buyers are already being forced to look at high-density alternatives. According to the Construction Industry Research Board, almost 40% of all housing units built in Southern California last year were apartments and condominiums. Most of these projects were probably built at a density of somewhere around 20 units per acre--not enough to generate optimum transit ridership, but far more than the five to seven units per acre typically found in suburban subdivisions.

The problem is that these apartments and condominiums, like everything else in Southern California, are flung across the landscape on the assumption that everyone who lives in them will drive everywhere. In urban areas as well as distant suburbs, apartment complexes are built as walled-off fortresses accessible only by car, even when they are built (as they often are) adjacent to shopping centers or employment districts--because local land-use regulations usually require enormous parking lots, massive roads, buildings set back from the street and all the other trappings of suburban life, even for high-density apartments and condominiums.

Even if a rail-transit stop were constructed a block away from this kind of project, only the hardiest pedestrian would brave vast parking lots and six-lane arterial highways to get there. Some localities are beginning to recognize the potential in combining rail transit with a more pedestrian-oriented community life. For example, the city of Irvine plans to convert its auto-oriented office corridor along Von Karman Avenue into a pedestrian-oriented “Main Street.” The city recently approved two new office buildings by McDonnell Douglas Realty Co. in the Von Karman area, on the condition that the company build a half-mile monorail from John Wayne Airport to its buildings. The project is likely to form the basis for a countywide monorail system.

But the Irvine example also reveals the shortcomings of even a farsighted local plan. In exchange for building the monorail, McDonnell Douglas got permission to build larger office buildings than permitted under the code. And the area contains little housing, meaning that the McDonnell Douglas project will probably be a duplicate of the East Bay situation: an office district clustered around a transit stop where virtually everyone drives to work.

Two influential members of the state Senate--Housing Chairman Leroy Greene (D-Carmichael) and Transportation Chairman Quentin L. Kopp(I-San Francisco)--are sponsoring a pilot program to encourage high-density housing around transit stops. If the bill passes, communities that permit such housing would receive top priority for a whole slew of state grant programs. The bill is a worthy start toward using the state’s own policies to reinforce rail-transit ridership.

Potentially far more powerful are the “congestion management” provisions contained in Proposition 111. About $6 billion in funds would become available for local streets and roads--but the money will be available only to local governments that undertake traffic-reduction efforts meeting with state approval. If it passes, Proposition 111’s congestion-management provisions must be used not only to build roads, but to encourage a shift away from auto-oriented development.

California desperately needs a major commitment to rail transit, and for that reason alone the passage of Propositions 108, 111 and 116 is imperative. But billions of dollars will be wasted unless local land-use policies are changed to make transit ridership easy and convenient. The mandate should not be just to build rail lines, but also to build a different kind of California--a place where people who want to use rail transit don’t have to get in their cars to do so.