City planning and easing traffic

Today, Reed and Gordon address the relationship between growth, city planning and traffic. Previously, they debated the MTA’s plan to convert some carpool lanes into toll lanes, the slow pace of building transit projects in Los Angeles and congestion pricing. Tomorrow, they’ll discuss the future of transportation infrastructure in L.A.

Location, location, and traffic
By Bart Reed

The location of the Las Lomas housing and retail development forced the Los Angeles City Council to re-evaluate why a such a dense project outside city boundaries -- and on a mountain and wildlife corridor that is seismically active -- should get an OK from the city. Developers spent huge sums of money to convince the City Council to change the rules of city planning and annex the land north of the San Fernando Valley so the 5,553-home project could be built. Typically, when sprawl and big money come together, the odds are with the developer. Proponents even put up a facade of every “green” feature imaginable to make their case for Las Lomas.

In-fill development is desirable when it is near mass transit, which certainly was not the case with Las Lomas. Had the council voted to annex the land, the financially ailing city would have had to pay about $600 million to build connecting roads to support trips by the nearly 20,000 Las Lomas residents. The $600 million doesn’t including sewers, water and transit.

Los Angeles Planning Director Gail Goldberg cited this project as an example of the defects in the city’s planning process. The developer had pushed Las Lomas through so many cracks in municipal policy that Goldberg’s hands were tied. Goldberg has said that land values in L.A. are determined by their entitlements, not by location. Unfortunately, we have yet to see new legislation or rules to prevent this type of abuse.

Currently, Los Angeles doesn’t consider a development’s impact on traffic as much as it should. The San Fernando Valley has many blighted areas along San Fernando Road that are prime for redevelopment. In these areas, the amenities of a Las Lomas-type project would revitalize slum conditions, but city policy doesn’t push deep-pocketed developers to revitalize slum conditions in areas where the community would benefit. The Sylmar and Sun Valley Metrolink transit hubs are prime examples where workforce housing, retail and other amenities would rejuvenate blighted urban areas.

A lot of the major transportation arterials in the Valley have the kind of retail options more common in slums, as many absentee landlords haven’t reinvested in the properties for decades. Where is city policy to reinvigorate? Some solid retail-residential projects that would be built near subway stations in North Hollywood and Universal City are in various stages of planning. Such projects would put housing, retail and entertainment in close proximity; residents wouldn’t have to drive miles to eat or take in a movie, thus reducing traffic. And the jobs proposed at these hubs are such that many would commute by trains or buses. But the locals who oppose such projects don’t seem to understand that blocking these dense developments would contribute to the deterioration of the larger community.

City Council members and planners need to evaluate proposed developments such as Las Lomas and those in North Hollywood and Universal City holistically. The city should take into account how they impact surrounding communities, not just by how much they’ll increase tax revenue, but also how they’ll affect traffic. After all, road congestion hurts everyone’s pocket book.

Bart Reed is executive director of the Transit Coalition, a Sylmar-based nonprofit organization dealing with issues of transportation, mobility and land-use planning.

More city planning isn’t the answer
By Peter Gordon

Land-use planning in L.A. has become highly politicized. We know that the city’s expensive process for approving new construction has crimped housing supply and pushed up home prices. The “housing affordability crisis” has been the result. Recent research by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shows that the average cost of excessive regulation on one new dwelling was $11,910, or 4.8% of the average cost of a new home in the U.S. in 2004.

And there has been little to show for it. Policymakers have not succeeded in “getting people out of their cars,” nor have they had much effect on how we live. People have a better sense than politicians of the trade-offs that work for them. More than 90% of post-2000 population growth in the U.S. has been in the suburbs. For the most part, it is a story of jobs moving to where people want to live rather than the other way around. That is the way the market keeps traffic from getting worse than it already is. It is the safety net in a world where pricing of highway access is still seen as exotic, sinister or both.

“Sprawl” is a vague and pejorative label, and most commuting is in fact suburb-to-suburb, which is a lot better than suburb-to-central city -- an outdated idea to which some still cling. Equally unfounded are other “visions” paraded by planners and politicians. Do any of them really know what the “best” densities ought to be at the myriad locations throughout Los Angeles? How can they know this? Where is the science?

Bart, you write as though there are some principles of land-use planning that should be followed. But neither you, me nor any number of commentators know the details. Only the market can manage such countless details; there is no known alternative.

Lifestyle choices and the demographic composition of our population are ever-changing. It is the job of builders to figure out how to respond, and those who get it right make sales and money. Those who get it wrong suffer losses and end up in another line of work. The only thing that stands in the way is politics. When politicians get involved, as they increasingly want to do, the process favors large and well-connected developers. Politicians get campaign contributions and developers get approvals. Competition, consumer choice and economic efficiency are reduced. Local communities often turn to NIMBYism because they do not trust the deals that are made in City Hall.

On an almost daily basis, we hear an unbelievably naive discussion that presumes politicization of development is benign and that such politicization has something positive to contribute. Central planning always fails because neither is true.

Innovation occurs when and where it is allowed to occur. The idea that fine-tuning by politicians can be helpful is far-fetched. Once our leaders fix the potholes, we can realistically discuss whether they are ready and able to move up to grander tasks.

Peter Gordon is a professor of real estate economics and public policy at USC.

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