In Chapter 10 of Human Transit, Jarrett Walker writes about the contradictory missions faced by many transit agencies:
Coverage: serve all parts of our community.
Ridership: maximize ridership with our fixed service budget.
It is one of the most fundamental insights of Human Transit that, while reasonable and achievable when stated separately, these goals cannot be executed simultaneously. Thus, agencies usually face criticism on both counts: that they are not serving low-demand parts of the city well enough, and that they require too much subsidy per rider. Note that, all other things being equal, it is impossible to improve on both measures at the same time – doing one works against the other.
City planning, as we have currently constructed it, also faces contradictory missions – an urbanism equivalent of “fast, cheap, or good – pick two”. In coastal regions of the US, we have assigned city planners with three primary missions:
- Stop sprawl: slow the conversion of rural land into suburban developments of single-family homes and low-rise commercial.
- Protect existing neighborhoods: prevent changes that current residents find discomforting, such as construction of apartment buildings or “McMansions” in single-family neighborhoods.
- Affordability: ensure that a variety of housing types are available so that everyone can find a place to live without spending a burdensome part of their income.
Any two of these goals can be executed well together:
- Stop sprawl and affordability: you can do this if you increase density in the existing built-up city. Who does this well? Tokyo. And Toronto! You can buy a brand new condo in a high-rise in downtown Toronto for barely $200,000. Read it & weep, coastal elites.
- Protect existing neighborhoods and affordability: you can do this if you unabashedly sprawl out. Who does this well? Sunbelt cities, like Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta, and any place in North Carolina.
- Stop sprawl and protect existing neighborhoods: you can do this if you don’t give a crap about how expensive your city gets. Who does this well? San Francisco, obviously. London, again obviously. This is where Boston might end up, too.
Notice that I didn’t throw LA, or Houston, into any of these bins. LA’s development pattern until 1990 allowed both sprawl and densification of existing neighborhoods, much like Houston does today. And while “neighborhood protection” has become the NIMBY rallying cry in LA, and some inland cities like Norco and Redlands have “slow growth” regulations, the sprawl outlet is still very much available in Southern California. There’s not much stopping suburban development in places like the Victor Valley or the Antelope Valley – in fact, people like Lancaster Mayor R Rex Perris are out there trying to encourage it. The problem in LA is that the land where it’s easy to sprawl is too far from the locations with high job growth – even given LA’s polycentrism.
Walker writes in Human Transit that “eventually… the reality of the contradiction overwhelms the best rhetorical efforts”.
This is where we are with land use planning in California. Every city general plan, and every politician, will tell you that affordability is important. But when the steel hits the rails, that piece of land is too special to develop, that neighborhood can’t possibly support any redevelopment, and that building is too unique to be demolished. For a while, the terrible economy of the early 1990s and pre-existing housing slack masked the problem in LA, but no more.
Actions speak louder than words. No matter how loudly they claim to care – if they think Expo/Westwood and Expo/Western should stay SFRs forever, if they support the proposed downzoning in Echo Park, if they opposed the seven years and 8,000 page EIR in the making Bergamot Station plan – they don’t care about affordability in a meaningful way. The real world outcomes confirm that: the sprawl gets stopped, and the neighborhoods get protected, but housing prices and rents continue to rise.
Our current policies prioritize stopping sprawl and neighborhood preservation, with little regard for affordability. It’s important that we realize this and have this conversation. If you’re a renter in LA, you need to ask yourself how important it is to you that SFR owners are protected from change. Are you willing to pay higher rents for that? Because that’s the option you’re being presented. If that doesn’t sound like a great tradeoff, we need to do something about it.