Monthly Archives: September 2013

Transit Isn’t “Alternative Transportation”, It’s Just Transportation

One of my pet peeves  in the discussion on transportation is the pitching of things like transit and biking as “alternative transportation”. There are four problems here:

  1. If transit and biking are alternative transportation, they’re alternatives to “normal transportation”, i.e. cars. Transit and biking advocates should not be using terminology that reinforces car ownership as the default.
  2. It results in people actively seeking to provide a new mode of transportation for no other reason than increasing the number of modes available.
  3. It’s used to retroactively justify failing transit projects, e.g. “at least we gave people an alternative to their cars” (even if they’re not using it because it’s not very useful).
  4. It’s used to proactively justify transit projects that are likely to fail, e.g. “our community deserves alternatives just as much as everyone else” (even though it is likely to be difficult to design a useful, cost-efficient transit system for the community in question).

The first should be self-evident. For an example of the second, consider NYC and SF pols’ irrational exuberance for ferries. The most common examples of the third are defenses of low-ridership LRTs and commuter rails. (Ironically, buses are usually given a pass because thanks to bus bias, people expect/accept low ridership.) The fourth is usually seen in the form of communities demanding expensive rail systems where they don’t make sense and, after construction, morphs into the third problem.

At the moment, my favorite example of the second problem is the proposed bikeway for the High Desert Corridor. No one is riding their bike 55 miles from Palmdale to Adelanto to go to work, even in the relatively benign Southern California climate. It’s a recreational trail at best, and if you’re going to build a recreational bike path, why in god’s name would you put it in the same ROW as a freeway? On the other hand, if we want to make biking to work, school, and entertainment easier in the High Desert, we could probably spend the money on more worthwhile projects within the developed cities themselves. But no: planners are providing Another Alternative, so everyone is happy.

Efficiency is the Goal

The right way to look at all of this is that we have all sorts of different travel needs, and we have different options for meeting those needs. Figure out what needs you’re trying to meet, and then pick the transportation option that best serves those needs.

Let’s say you need to move an industrial transformer. Your realistic options are shipping, freight rail, and truck. Obviously the available infrastructure matters, but in general shorter distances will favor trucking, longer distances will favor rail, and very long distances will favor shipping. You’re not going to ship it or rail it from Los Angeles to Ventura. But you might put it on rail to go to Chicago. And if you need to get it from Shanghai to Los Angeles, you’re going to ship it – even if the FRNs get their Bering Strait Bridge. Biking and transit are not realistic options here.

Now obviously, that’s an extreme case – most trips don’t involve moving industrial machinery. But the same logic applies. If you accept the premise that we need a better way to move people and goods from Palmdale to Adelanto, a bikeway is not the answer. Neither are airplanes. Cars, buses, trains – they’re the options here.

Efficiency Favors Transit, Walking, and Biking in Urban Areas

Framing things from an efficiency point of view frees you from the need to spend money on infrastructure that doesn’t make sense. It also you gives you another leg to stand on in dense urban areas where providing infrastructure for one type of transportation means taking it away from someone else.  If you ask me, it’s a lot better than “social justice” arguments about providing space for all users. (Those arguments are a little rich, since bike infrastructure often seems to be deployed first in areas whose residents have the least economic need for it. As others have noted, these arguments are hard to accept when many people are treated as if they don’t have the right to be on the street at all.)

The most insurmountable challenge to cars in urban areas is geometry. They take up much more space than biking, walking, or transit. Even the most heartless auto advocate can’t deny that riding a bike for a trip of a mile or two is a better use of urban space than driving. In addition to being humane and treating bicyclists like they’re actually people, encouraging bike use improves the economic efficiency of the city. When less land is used for parking, more land is available for other productive uses.

At this point, Randal O’Toole usually jumps in and says hey, if people want to drive, shouldn’t we provide them with the infrastructure to drive? After all, you’re providing the infrastructure for people who want to bike. And maybe, from an “all users” perspective, he has a point.

But from an efficiency perspective, you get to say nope, sorry. The government’s job is not bend to your every whim. The government’s job is to provide public goods and make decisions about fair allocation of public resources that result in benefits to society. We only have so much space on the streets. And in cities, we can serve more people and more trips in a more efficient manner by providing bike infrastructure and quality transit.

This framework also you gives you a solid case against building expensive transit infrastructure to low-density areas due to the “our community is just as deserving of transit as the city”. Nope, sorry. Why don’t you try upzoning a bunch of your town, and come back to use when land use justifies the investment? (In general, it’s a bad idea to build transit and hope that land use patterns will change in response.)

At this point, Jarrett Walker might jump in and say hey, efficiency is only part of the equation for transit; we also have to provide service to low-density areas and at low-ridership times of day to make the system equitable and dependable. Fair enough. That service should also be provided in an efficient manner, which generally means by bus. You don’t get to have a subway to Chatsworth or Scarborough just because the Westside and Yonge Street got one.

By recognizing that different types of transportation are better able to serve different types of trips, we can move past the car being the default, recognize when politicians are pandering with projects that introduce a new mode of questionable value, and make the case against expensive transit projects that offer little value. Transit isn’t alternative transportation, it’s just transportation.


‘Round Palms: I <3 Dingbats

Next up in my Tour d’Palms is Clarington Av, which runs from Venice to National two blocks west of Hughes Av. Clarington is a little more heavily traveled than many of the residential streets in Palms, I think because it distributes/collects a fair amount of neighborhood traffic, and connects Palms to downtown Culver City. Probably partly as a result, almost all of Clarington has been redeveloped to apartment buildings, though a few SFRs are still around. You might want to open up an aerial map in another window and follow along to get an appreciation for the variety of building size and type. Without further ado:

At Clarington and Venice, we have an absolutely classic LA scene. With Sony Pictures Entertainment in the background, we have a 1985 strip mall on the left offering a mini world tour (Miyako Sushi, Villa Tacos, Giovanni’s Trattoria, Mama’s Indian, Thai BBQ, a convenience store that is somehow related to Myanmar, plus a party store and a nail salon for good measure). On the right is a generic four-story office building, also dating to 1985. It’s been vacant for a while, but the “for lease” sign recently came down and they’ve started painting the exterior.


On the opposite side of Venice is an upscale Thai restaurant and a Smart ‘n Final Extra.

North of that and across the street are two large apartment buildings (built 1982, left and 2006, right).


Then, we have this long, skinny dingbat, built 1963.


Across the street, there’s a 1964 dingbat that’s one of my personal favorites.


I like it because it looks like a giant whale straining cars through its baleen.


Just past that, there’s an old-school SFR from 1963 with an auxiliary apartment building attached at the back. When I moved to Palms, I looked at an apartment here. It was very affordable, and the building is managed by a nice family that lives in the SFR portion of the structure. Traditionally, this is how home ownership translated into wealth for low-income and mid-income families: the ability to rent out rooms or apartments. This is a much more logical and sustainable way to build wealth than depending on never-ending house price increases.


North of that building, there’s a three-story apartment and two-story apartment, built 2008 and 1964.


At the corner of Clarington and Regent, a two-story building and a five-story building, built 1958 and 2011.


Between Regent and Tabor, you’re pretty much in dingbat heaven. From Venice to Regent, many of the buildings have larger footprints, but on this block, most of them are single lot dingbats. From left to right, built 1962, 1965, 1987, an original SFR from 1922 hiding in the trees, and 1974.


This building, from 1988, has siding instead of stucco – a dead giveaway it’s a Century West property.


Here’s that 1922 SFR, looking fine next the a two-story apartment from 1974.


A typical single lot dingbat from 1963.


This model comes in blue or yellow, built 1967.



Another Century West property (1988) and a modern-style building (1990).


From the pink stucco to the floating faux rock wall, nothing says 1972 like this dingbat at the corner of Clarington and Tabor. The designer of this thing should get a Pritzker just to teach architects a little humility 😉


Direct to you from the City of Lights, 50 years ago.


Between yet another Century West property (1988) and a 2002 double-lot apartment building, we find a couple of charming SFRs from 1917 and 1930.


On the north side of Palms, there’s three buildings on the west side of Clarington, with considerable variability in size and age (from left to right, 1988, 1963, and 1946). (Note: the 1946 building was recently demolished to make way for an Expo Line traction power substation, I think.)

On the east, two buildings, from 2000 (left) and 1951 (right).


So on the short block between Palms and Exposition, we have five different decades represented. Between Venice and Exposition, every decade for the last 100 years is present. The variety of building types, ages, and sizes provides a range of accommodations and creates neighborhood diversity. History hasn’t been disrespected; quite the opposite, history has been honored by allowing the city to continue to grow and create opportunity for more people.

If we want Los Angeles to keep growing, stay diverse, and get more affordable, we need to allow more streets like Clarington to grow organically in more neighborhoods in the city.

Barriers to Fine-Grained Urban Development

Ok, so here’s the long-delayed compliment to these posts on LA density and mid-rise development, regarding the problem of enabling smaller footprint projects and different development models. The size of a development’s footprint was raised by Neal Lamontagne in criticism of mid-rise developments that take up the whole block, but really, it is just as applicable to high-rise development.

I agree that this is an important issue, for many of the same reasons I outlined for supporting mid-rise development in general: it opens the door for a wider variety of people to try their hand at land development. That means more new ideas, more development models, more sensitivity to local market conditions. If you ask me, communities are much more empowered to control their own future when many people in the community are potential developers than when a handful of the most active community members try to control a handful of developers through a handful of city planners.

So why don’t we see more fine-grained development? Let’s explore a few causes. They are somewhat varied, but they mostly come down to the fact that impediments to building have fixed components and variable components, so the larger the project, the greater the number of units upon which to distribute the fixed costs.

High Up-Front Costs

These costs are related to up-front project activities like doing traffic studies. Obviously, there’s an incremental cost too, since larger projects will have more impacts, but all activities have some mobilization cost – an amount that will be incurred no matter how small the actual task.

Here’s a simple analogy. Suppose it costs you $100 to rent a delivery truck for a day, plus $10 in gas for every delivery trip you make, and that you make $20 per delivery. Obviously, you need to make at least 10 trips to break even, and many more trips than that to turn a decent profit. If the fixed costs of $100 were to go down, a delivery business making fewer trips would be feasible. Likewise, high fixed costs for development make smaller projects more difficult, because there are fewer units amongst which to distribute the costs.

Cities have direct control over some fixed costs, through things like permitting requirements and fees. Many cities charge a fee for plan review, often on a basis of how many units or square feet there are in the development. The per unit fee may decline as the number of units increases, because the city also faces fixed costs in doing the reviews. The result is that larger projects are saddled with smaller costs per unit, so they take less of a hit to the bottom line.

Permitting requirements also favor larger projects. Once you are required to do an EIR, for example, you incur some pretty large costs, which encourages you to go for the biggest project possible. In addition, due to the high fixed costs of doing an EIR, it is much more logical to try to permit one large block-sized project than four quarter-block-sized projects. The requirements to do things like EIRs create a market incentive to consolidate properties into the largest possible projects, so that the hassle and cost of going through the permitting process will only be incurred once.

Perhaps the most underappreciated fixed cost that cities have control over is time. Time is money. If you are trying to build a project, all of the time you spend in the permitting phase is time that you are paying architects, paying engineers, paying lawyers, paying planners, paying property taxes, and bringing in no revenue. For large developers, this is a nuisance – the cash flow from other completed projects will keep you going. If you are a small-time developer, who has a harder time getting financing anyway, delays in permitting and legal processes can be a death sentence. Indeed, there is a long tradition in urban planning of simply waiting until recalcitrant actors exhaust their resources and fold.

If cities want to encourage more small-footprint development, they need to do all they can to eliminate these barriers. That means increasing the size and variety of projects that can be built by entitlement. It means processing applications quickly. And it means eliminating many of the pointless studies required of developers.


Zoning requirements act in two primary ways: one, they specify how much of the property can be developed through setbacks, height maximums, and floor-to-area (FAR) ratios; two, they may also specify the minimum size of development for a particular use, e.g. a minimum square footage for a one-bedroom apartment. Setbacks and height maximums may be fixed (e.g. setback always 20 feet) or they may have fixed and variable components (e.g. 5% of lot width but no less than 5 feet).

These rules make it more difficult to configure buildings on small sites. Setbacks take up a larger percentage of the site on a smaller property. Minimum square footages might make a site more difficult to use. For example, if the minimum apartment size is 500 SF, and the maximum FAR on the lot is 1350 SF, you couldn’t build three apartments. Maybe the market for three 450 SF apartments is there, but you won’t get to find out.

Now of course, you could ask the zoning board for a variance. The ability to grant variances means that municipalities can have almost limitless power over development – set very restrictive zoning, and arbitrarily grant variances to whoever you feel like giving them to. Variances take time and money, and there’s no guarantee you’ll get one.

Parking Requirements

If you’re laying out a parking lot, you need space for the aisles and the entrance/exit. If you have a multilevel structure, you need space for the ramps. Now, a huge garage might need more than one entrance/exit, and rarely you will see more than one set of ramps up and down between levels. But up to a certain size, one entrance/exit and one set of ramps will do. The larger the size of the parking lot, the smaller the percentage of total space lost to entrances/exits, ramps, and aisle ends.

This means you can accommodate the required parking (and developers rarely build more than the minimum) more efficiently on a larger lot. A block-size development with two entrances/exits and sets of ramps loses less space than six small developments on the same block. For small parcels, it might be geometrically impossible to meet parking requirements, or might require resorting to expensive treatments like robotic car lifts.

The doubtful wisdom of parking minimums has gotten a lot of attention from people with a much bigger platform than me, like Matt Yglesias, so there’s no need to go into detail here. At the very least, cities could eliminate the requirement that parking be provided on site, which would open up the market for efficient use of existing parking capacity and allow for developers of small properties to meet requirements by providing leased spaces elsewhere.


Current regulations provide an exemption from elevators for very small buildings: anything two stories or less, and anything with less than 3000 SF per story. Once you hit the threshold of needing an elevator, though, it makes sense to go as big as possible. Again, it makes financial sense to build the whole block so you can distribute the costs of the elevators on more units.

Banks and Insurers

Banks and insurers drive residential construction towards full-block apartment buildings constructed by big-name developers the same way that they drive commercial development towards suburban office parks and malls. It’s a model they have great familiarity with and a ton of data on. Numbers to plug into their spreadsheets; lots of similar deals in the past to make investors feel warm and fuzzy. You want to build a plaza with a Target and a Ralph’s? Done. You want to build a few hundred SFRs? Done. Wanna build a four-story building with half the first floor as retail, no pre-lease, and limited parking? Slow down.

Note that this is one of the reasons that immigrant communities are often forced to self-finance; banks are uncomfortable with development models that those communities want to bring with them, and that prevents good ideas from spreading. For example, many supermarkets in Asia have a food court inside, and you’ll find this model in K-town and other Asian immigrant neighborhoods. It’s a very successful model, yet for the most part, it hasn’t been adopted by the major supermarket chains.

Promoting Fine-Grained Development

Now, some of these things can’t be changed. Cities have limited power to coerce banks into changing lending practices, and city financing schemes like tax subsidies tend to have undesirable side effects. It would be pretty heartless to argue for going back to a time when people with disabilities couldn’t access housing or shopping. But a lot of what worked 100 years ago would work today:

  • Reduced requirements for up-front studies
  • Fast processing of permit applications
  • Liberalization of zoning schemes
  • Elimination of parking minimums
  • Investment through local or regional financial institutions that are more responsive to local conditions

In other words, like many urban development issues, making progress on this issue is simply a matter of getting out of our own way.

‘Round Palms: Hughes Av

In a previous post, I explained why the low-rise and mid-rise development of neighborhoods like Palms is the best development pattern to promote affordability, and a recent article in Design Intelligence confirms that three-to-four story buildings are the most cost efficient. Today we’re going to take a closer look at Hughes Av, which runs from Venice to the intersection of Palms, National, and Exposition.

It’s important to highlight places like Palms as examples of LA density, because this is the way neighborhoods grow when they’re allowed to do so organically. Unlike the contrived density of modern planned districts, high-rises don’t spring up everywhere all at once. Single-family houses and small buildings are gradually replaced with larger structures, resulting in a neighborhood with a wide variety of buildings sizes, types, styles, and ages. This is the natural way that cities develop.

Alright, off we go. Characteristic of Palms diversity, there’s a Korean church (built 1937) just north of Venice.


This four-story block (built 1981) is one of the taller structures on Hughes, and in Palms in general.


This block (built 1988) is only three stories tall, but has a larger footprint.


As you work your way up towards Palms/National/Exposition, single-family residences (SFRs) start to pop up (this one built 1939).


Here’s another SFR (built 1923), holding its own next to a three-story apartment building (built 1991) with a small footprint.


And on the other side, there’s an apartment block (built 1986) with a footprint twice the size.


A couple older style SFRs (built 1924 and 1925).



Two SFRs (built 1925 and 1931) with three-story apartment building (built 1987) in the background.


Now, Hughes Av isn’t going to capture many urbanist imaginations. It doesn’t present the uniformity that gives so many old frozen-in-time districts or contrived modern districts immediate curb appeal. But dig out your Jane Jacobs on diversity of buildings, and you’ll find her extolling the virtues of a street that features everything from a one-story Laundromat to a fourteen-story apartment building.

From a more political and pragmatic perspective, Hughes Av should be an easier sell than skyscrapers. So much of the debate about density in the US has been fouled by the equation of density with Manhattan-style development. And as much as I rip on NIMBYs, they do have a point about skyscrapers. Dropping a twenty-story building into a neighborhood of SFRs is going to create a lot of localized impacts. That’s why the headline contrived urban districts, from the Pearl District to the South Boston Waterfront, are all built on former industrial land.

And that’s the real beauty of Palms. No one is being forced out of their SFR, and even decades after upzoning, there are still many SFRs available in Palms. If you want a condo or to rent an apartment, there’s plenty of those too. People who own SFRs didn’t have their property values ruined, because the ability to build an apartment building creates value. Every year, many owners choose to keep their SFR, while others decide to build apartments. In other words, the city is growing and providing people with a  variety of economic opportunities and choices. As it should be.

Note: the buildings I selected on Hughes Av date to two eras (20s-30s, 80s-90s) but as we’ll see in future posts, other decades are well represented in Palms as well.

Bikes and Transit: Frenemies

Programming note: apologies for the sparse posting over the last few weeks. Things should be back to normal soon.

I’m always a little hesitant to wade into debates on cities that I don’t know very well. That’s why this blog borrows heavily from my time in Boston – it’s the only city that I know well enough to analyze without being there. I recently commented on this Systemic Failure piece about Caltrain bumps on Twitter, and unfortunately the conversation ended up basically being “Quiet, you LA blogger, you don’t know anything about Caltrain”.

I won’t lie to you: that’s true. I don’t know anything about Caltrain in particular. I was trying to make two general points, one about bikes and transit in general, and one about the SF Bike Coalition (SFBC) analysis that was linked in the Systemic Failure piece. Neither of these points require knowing anything about Caltrain: (1) paying customers without bikes should not get bumped while bikes are being hauled for free, and (2) the assumption that Caltrain bike boardings should increase at the same rate as bike riding in San Francisco is questionable.

Bikes Fill Seats, Bikes Take Up Space

When ridership is low, providing accommodation for bikes helps fill seats. Outside of San Francisco itself, the patterns of urbanization in California are very different from east coast cities, in a way that often exacerbates the “last mile problem”. By allowing riders to carry bikes, agencies can attract riders who might need to travel a mile or two at each end of their transit trip. This helps fill seats and raises farebox revenue.

However, as ridership rises, you start to get a couple problems with accommodating bikes. One is that dwell times go up due to the time needed to get the bike on or off the transit vehicle. This isn’t a problem if you’re running hour-long headways and you have plenty of recovery time. But it is if you’re running short headways, because dwell time variability will wreck your headway spacing and service reliability. The other is that the vehicle gets too crowded and passengers get left behind, which is especially unfair if paying customers are left behind while bikes are being carried for free.

These problems are more obvious with smaller transit vehicles. A transit bus bike rack can only hold two bikes, and there’s not enough room to bring a bike on the bus because of the seats. Should some seats be eliminated so that an extra couple bikes can go on the bus during off-peak periods? Bikes can also become a space problem on light-rail vehicles; take a ride on the Blue Line during rush hour for example. (When Regional Connector and Gold Line Foothill Phase 2A are complete, the Blue Line from Long Beach to Azusa will be about the same length as Caltrain.)

In the case of Caltrain, the issue was pitched as providing seats vs. providing space for bikes. But really, if trains are getting crowded, you could remove seats to provide standing room for paying customers too. The MBTA did this with several Red Line trains dubbed “Big Red” and still doesn’t allow bikes on the train during peak periods. The question of providing seats vs. standing room is something every agency must address. Longer trips lend themselves towards more seating, but I would note that even in transit systems with high crowding and relatively short trips, agencies still provide some seats.

I’m not singling out bicycles here. For example, transit vehicles can only accommodate so many wheelchairs, and loading/unloading wheelchairs is detrimental to service reliability. Agencies do not eliminate seats in order to accommodate an unlimited number of wheelchairs. If a passenger in a chair is waiting for the bus and the wheelchair spot on the bus is already occupied, that passenger will be bumped (a “pass-up”). The ability to accommodate things like bikes and wheelchairs is partly a value judgment, but it is also partly a matter of geometry. You don’t have to take my word for it – ask Jarrett Walker.

Fundamentally, allowing bikes on transit is easy if your system is running below capacity. The busy transit systems of the east coast do not allow bikes on at all during peak periods and allow a restricted number at other times. Caltrain has already done much more than most agencies; given current ridership patterns, Caltrain’s current bike accommodations seem to make sense. Metrolink would probably do well to modify some of their vehicles to increase bike capacity (there are currently only some trains with bike cars, and the bike cars have a capacity of 18 bikes). Bumps are a major detriment to ridership, and passengers must be able to expect that they will be able to take any train.

For what it’s worth, if you have high transit ridership and high bike usage, you simply need a different solution: bike storage at stations so that riders can have a bike stored at each end. That’s how these guys do it, and I hear they’re pretty good with bikes.

Bike Boarding Potential

My other complaint about the Systemic Failure piece is that the SFBC analysis of bumps assumes that bike boardings could increase at the same rate as biking in SF, bike to work counts in SF, and SFBC  membership, which range from about 55%-85% increases over the analysis period. It’s not clear to me why Caltrain bike boardings should increase at the same rate. Caltrain trips are different kinds of trips – longer, and with less varied purpose. Now, not knowing Caltrain that well, I’m not sure what that means. Maybe it means Caltrain bike boardings should have increased even faster!

There is one reason to think that the potential to increase bike boardings might eventually be lower: system capacity. SF is a pretty committed to bike infrastructure, but the percentage of street capacity that has been dedicated to moving bikes is still very low. There are many streets with no bike lanes, limited bike parking, etc. On the other hand, Caltrain has already committed a significant portion of its capacity to moving bikes:


So Caltrain has dedicated about 10% of its theoretical seating capacity to bikes. There is only so much room on the coaches, and it has to be split among seated passengers, standing passengers, and bikes. Again, maybe Caltrain does not have the right configuration, and maybe they should be providing more space for bikes. But objectively, Caltrain faces greater constraints in accommodating bikes than those faced by city streets.

Brief Notes on Bumps

I would be remiss if I did not point out that as of 2013, Caltrain bike boardings exceed the level predicted by the SFBC analysis, which was completed in 2011. That indicates that there was indeed significant latent demand at the time of the analysis. Contrary to the gist of the Systemic Failure piece, Caltrain has paid attention to bike boardings and increased bike capacity in the interim.

Caltrain’s 2013 counts, conducted over five days in February, found that there were 59 bumps, 25 of which were due to a single incident. Interestingly, all of the bumps occurred during peak periods on reverse direction trains (though directional bias in Caltrain demand is low). Peak loading on those trains ranged from 69%-98% of seated capacity.


The SFBC analysis showed a photo comparison of bike storage areas and seating on southbound trains at 22nd St. Since San Francisco station itself accounts for almost 25% of all bike boardings (and everyone there is obviously going south), 22nd St southbound is by far the most likely place to be bumped. The author was bumped from Train 324, and the photos seem to suggest that there are far too many seats. However, Train 324 has peak load of 91% leaving Hillsdale.

Considering that overall Caltrain ridership is up about 10% per year for the last three years, these points suggest that removing more seats to accommodate additional bikes will result in forcing some passengers to stand. And remember, this is partly a value judgment! Maybe that’s the right thing to do. Or maybe Caltrain should be given the funding needed to run additional trains. I can’t tell Bay Area stakeholders what the right answer is for them. But it seems to me that the discussion needs to start from an understanding that, like a city street, this a case where not everyone is going to get everything they want. There doesn’t seem to be unused capacity available for the taking.

Is Driving Like Smoking?

Hush Magazine has a piece up today arguing that driving is the new smoking, that is to say, “selfish, anti-social, unhealthy, and destructive”.

It’s an interesting philosophical question. No, not the larger one – has “X is the new Y” jumped the shark? – but the immediate one – is driving an activity on par with socially destructive things like smoking?

As you may have surmised from the way I phrased the title, I don’t think so. The difference lies in motivation. Nobody ever had to smoke in order to access a job, find affordable housing, or provide for their family. Smoking is an entirely voluntary activity. On the other hand, most people don’t drive for enjoyment, but because it’s the most rational choice of the options presented to them. If you smoke in busy public places, you’re basically saying you’re a jerk and you don’t care. But many people who drive do care! They don’t want to make air pollution worse or contribute to climate change or run people over, but they don’t have a realistic option other than driving.

The difference in motivation is important. Anti-smoking campaigns have two points: (1) you probably don’t want to die for no reason, (2) you’re kind of being a dick if you don’t care that your actions are harming other people. You’re being a bad person. The goal here is to create a stigma around the destructive activity, so people feel societal pressure to stop. This is pretty effective for things that really are voluntary, like smoking or littering or using racial slurs.

With driving, though, stigmatizing runs the risk of alienating people who want to help. Screw you, I’m not a bad person, I just need to get my kid from daycare before they charge me for being late. So what might be a better analogy? I can think of a couple: CFCs and coal-fired power generation.

Driving Is The New Refrigeration

Back in the 70s, people realized that CFCs had the potential to cause the destruction of ozone in the stratosphere, resulting in an increase in harmful UV radiation. Now, the people who were doing stuff like freezing perishable goods, painting things, and suppressing fires weren’t malicious or reckless. They weren’t releasing CFCs and destroying the ozone for no reason. They were trying to accomplish some economic activity that society generally wants done.

The ozone problem wasn’t solved by shaming the people who used CFCs or by getting rid of refrigeration. It was solved by action that phased out CFCs and provided people with better (or at least acceptable) replacements.

Driving Is The New Acid Rain

Burning coal releases things like sulfur dioxide that make rain more acidic in places downwind. Again, back in the 70s, this was becoming a serious problem, because acid rain was killing trees and making lakes and rivers too acidic for fish. The people burning coal weren’t doing it for no reason, they were doing it because lots of people want to have electricity and steel and other industrial goods.

Acid rain has been reduced through two main methods: requiring power plants and other people burning coal to remove some of the SO2 at the source, and shifting to alternative fuels that emit less SO2, like natural gas. Again, the solution was better technology and practical alternatives to the undesired activity.

There Are Still Jerks

Of course, there will always be jerks, like the people who smoke on their balcony and let it blow in your window. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair, the corporation making huge profits on the undesired activity will always be a reliable source of d-bags. This is true of the tobacco industry (it lied about the dangers of smoking for decades), the CFC industry (Dupont fought controls on CFCs, at least until they had patented the replacements for CFCs), and the coal industry.

Driving is no exception. There are people who do reckless and malicious things, like drive after drinking or commit hit and runs. The auto industry produces and promotes cars capable of going far faster than a normal human being is capable of safely operating them in an everyday environment. If there is a place for creating a stigma, this is where it’s at.

Help Me Help You

The majority of people, though, don’t want to be responsible for destroying the planet or killing other people. Many people would like to drive less, drive safer, and have less impact. So I think the right way to approach driving is to realize that many people have those goals, and then articulate how your policies will help them get there. Like solving ozone depletion and acid rain, there are two fronts of attack: better technology, i.e. technology that makes cars less polluting and less dangerous, and practical alternatives, like high-quality transit and dense, affordable land-use patterns that reduce the need to drive. It may not be as flashy as putting graphic cigarette-style warning labels on cars, but it might be more effective.

Check-List Planning

If you’re looking for some unintentional comedy, check out this video of one of the last High Desert Corridor (HDC) meetings in Palmdale. Highway engineers trying to explain how excited they are to look at putting solar panels and windmills along a new freeway – you can’t make this stuff up.

The basic problem here is that politicians in the Antelope Valley and Victor Valley would like to build a new freeway from Palmdale to Victorville. But new freeways have a bad name with lots of people in other parts of the state, so the plans have been gussied up to try to incorporate the most popular urban planning and environmental ideas of the day. This is nothing new – about ten years ago, bus terminals morphed into “multi-modal centers”, and all you had to do was throw in a bike rack or two. Hey, now people can walk, bike, and ride the bus!

However, I think the HDC sets a new record for number of constituencies that a project has tried to please. It’s not just a freeway. . . it’s HOT lanes! It’s high-speed rail! It’s a bikeway! It will have windmills and solar panels along the ROW! This is kind of like bundling cable television: even though you don’t care for or actively dislike many channels, you still pay for them to get the one channel you want.

Reality check: the corridor in question makes sense as maybe a freeway and maybe a high-speed rail corridor. That’s about it. A brand new freeway in this area is not going to have the volume for HOT lanes to make sense, especially if it is wider than two lanes each way, which Metro and Caltrans seem to be suggesting. If anything more than a pittance is charged, people will use free alternatives like the 18 and the 138. There is obviously tremendous solar and wind energy potential in the Mojave Desert, but there is no logical reason for the development of those resources to be tied to the construction of a freeway, let alone confined to the freeway ROW. Solar farms in the Mojave Desert could probably go anywhere. Wind farms should be located where winds are most reliable (that’s why they’re in San Gorgonio Pass and Tehachapi Pass, after all). All of these things need to be unbundled from the freeway.

The response of the various constituencies is curious. For example, this Streetsblog article takes a pretty neutral tone. C’mon, Damien! You know you don’t like this project! If we’re going to build 50 miles of Class I bike facilities in the High Desert, this isn’t the corridor you want it on. For the money it will cost to build that component of the HDC, how much quality cycling and pedestrian infrastructure could we build within High Desert cities?

This is what happens when planning is done by checklist instead of putting real thought into the unique characteristics and needs of the area. It’s how suburban office parks get LEED certified and call themselves green. It’s how you end up with the Las Vegas Downtown Project, which the Urbanophile describes as “exceptionally buzzword compliant, right down the PBR on tap in the local establishments. All of the boxes are checked perfectly – too perfectly.”

Bundling all of these other improvements onto the HDC doesn’t make the freeway any greener. Each component should stand or fall on its own merits.

Can’t Get Where You Want to Go Without Knowing Where You Are

A recent opinion piece about LA in the Architects Newspaper has been making the rounds of planning and transit blogs. I initially responded with an outburst on Twitter but it’s full of misconceptions about LA, so I feel compelled to document them a little more permanently. This matters because even if you have good goals, you need an accurate assessment of existing conditions in order to achieve them. It’s not enough to describe the future. You have to describe the present, and then a plausible way to get from the present to the desired future.

This article is just flat-out wrong about the way LA works, and that makes the recommended actions very weak. Here’s a short run down:

  • LA is sprawl. Nope. Not by any reasonable definition of sprawl. LA is the densest metro in the US by unweighted density, and in a virtual tie with SF for 2nd by weighted density (after NY, of course).
  • Boston and Philadelphia have the right pattern. Possibly, but only if you restrict your view to the parts of Boston and Philadelphia built before cars. The parts of those regions built during the Auto Age have been low-density, to the point that Boston and Philadelphia are far less dense than LA in both unweighted and weighted density. What does dense Auto Age development look like? LA! I wrote about this when I compared Boston, Atlanta, and LA, and noted that even the fringes of LA like Lancaster compare favorably to current development on the East Coast.
  • LA doesn’t have enough developed land to support its infrastructure. The ability to support infrastructure comes from residential and commercial density – which again, LA has.
  • People in LA drive because everything is so far apart. People in LA drive a lot, but we make lots of short trips. Gasoline consumption per household in LA is the lowest in the US after NYC, making LA one of America’s least car-dependent cities.
  • Angelenos are stricken by love for cars. Like most people, Angelenos are capable of making fairly rational decisions. What we have in LA is a system where the car is by far the most logical choice for most trips. This is due to deficiencies of the transit system.
  • The right answer is density within walking distance of a transit station. “Transit station” presumably meaning “rail station”, right? If you include bus stops, practically everywhere in the city would qualify. Read Jarrett Walker on the power of a high-quality, high-frequency bus grid, something LA could build pretty easily. This would complement the many excellent rail improvements we are making. I have written previously that proximity to transit stops is overrated because “close enough to transit” means different things to different people.
  • We can increase density and create more open space. Towers in a park, right? This is a misunderstanding of how parks work.

These are not trivial points. This is the message of The Death and Life of Great American Cities: you can’t do good planning without knowing how your city already works.

Readers of this blog know that I am not opposed to tall buildings or density. I am in favor of both, and we should enable the market to create them. But we need to realize that LA’s density is already working pretty well and that, starting from that point, we need more LA. There’s no need to worry about LA’s urban form because there’s nothing wrong with it in the first place.