Thoughts on Downtown Growth and Traffic

As of this writing L.A.’s mayor and council continue to negotiate over whether to allow the city to sell “air rights” over the Convention Center to developers to “further downtown’s residential boom” by allowing taller residential projects than the zoning code currently allows.

This is quintessential “smart growth” as it is has been defined over the past 15 years in Los Angeles and other major metropolitan centers.  Because downtown isn’t the Westside or the San Fernando Valley, this particular smart growth initiative has blossomed in ways that others have not.  There are no homeowner groups eyeballing these new downtown projects from the competing philosophical perspective that growth is growth and growth is bad. 

One of the biggest assumptions behind the downtown residential boom is that these new people won’t use their cars as much.  Could be, although the parking situation downtown is a far cry from Manhattan’s.  In Manhattan and a few other urban centers with lots of residents, owning a car is a costly nuisance.  Urban planners in Los Angeles and elsewhere evidently hope this will eventually become the case in cities all over the country.  

This scenario is hard for me to imagine, I must admit.  Sure, there are lots of jobs downtown, but there are a lot more jobs not downtown.  Will every couple moving into one of these new downtown digs want to confine themselves to both working downtown in perpetuity?  Unlikely.  If a better gig opens up in Burbank or Santa Monica, then they just become another traffic-clogging commuter.   If their downtown employer subsidizes parking, isn’t it likely a downtown dweller would take advantage of it just the same way a commuter from Temecula would? 

Downtown is a lot cooler than it was, and in theory LA Live will make it cooler still.  But not cool enough to stay their all the time.  When I lived in New Jersey and drove into Manhattan to visit my carless friends, I don’t know who they were happier to see:  Me or my car.  My car meant they could catch up on their grocery shopping…or go to Connecticut to smell clean air and see real trees.

The expansion of residential options by building housing downtown is a fine justification for it.  L.A. has a housing shortage, and if downtown is where the homeowner-group-afflicted political system will tolerate new housing, then downtown is where it should go.  But beyond that, I don’t think policymakers should hope for much else to change.  Traffic congestion in Los Angeles is still awaiting a solution.

These thoughts are prompted by a new treatise in this month’s Reason, just posted online, whose title tells you what the writers, Sam Staley and Ted Balaker, think about city planners: “How Traffic Jams are Made in City Hall.”  The specific cases they discuss are in Minneapolis and Atlanta, but there are lots of correspondences with L.A.  The whole thing is worth reading, assuming you don’t get too upset when received wisdom is challenged.  An excerpt:

In 2005 the Urban Transportation Monitor, a biweekly industry newsletter, surveyed more than 600 transportation professionals to find out their thoughts on traffic congestion. About 19 percent responded. Of those, 45 percent thought the profession was “doing all it can do” to stop congestion. Half thought congestion was the result of too many people using their cars, and 45 percent attributed it primarily to the desire to live in low-density suburbs.

The preferred solutions were predictable: 51 percent thought mass transit should be improved or expanded, and 50 percent thought the government should manage demand better by getting people to telecommute or carpool. Only 29 percent believed increased highway capacity could be a cost-effective way to reduce congestion significantly. (The survey did not ask whether new capacity should be provided if it were privately funded.)

Many believed the problem is simply too many cars. Fifty-one percent said one of “the main reasons for the high level of congestion in many metropolitan areas” is the desire “of many to use cars for all their trips.” Indeed, of the 11 options offered by the survey, that was the biggest vote getter. For traffic engineers, planners, and other transportation professionals, the solution to traffic jam is to keep us from using our automobiles.

The planning profession clings tenaciously to its foundational myths. Even as overwhelming evidence to the contrary piles up, planners keep claiming that cars are inefficient and socially destructive; that expanding road capacity isn’t practical; and, most fundamentally, that the government can determine how we choose to travel by planning where and how we live.

That last assumption is the logical conclusion of a rather sophisticated (if largely incorrect) way of looking at human behavior. It’s rooted in a common-sense observation: How we live influences how we travel. If we live on a farm, we are going to travel by car. Buses simply don’t go out to farms to pick people up and take them into town for work or to buy groceries. Trains don’t either. A neighbor might, but she would probably be driving a car and doing this as a service because you don’t have a car. School buses are the exception that proves the rule. They pick up a large number of kids, but only because they’re being delivered to one destination, the school building.

The flip side is the experience of the Manhattanite. If someone lives in the densest neighborhood of an American city, cars are costly, frustrating, and inefficient. Most Manhattan residents can get to their destination far more efficiently using the subway, taking a bus, or walking. Because parking is so costly, they also can get around fairly efficiently using taxis.

So people in dense urban areas have more choices, and personal automobiles are inefficient ways to get around town. Congestion, in fact, leads people to use alternative modes of transportation. Many regional planners, like those in Atlanta, conclude that the way a region develops dictates how people are likely to travel and what transportation strategies are most feasible. And the way to influence development patterns, they believe, is to carefully plan where and how much to invest in the transportation system. But proximity to work is only one of many factors people consider when finding a home; other criteria, such as price, neighborhood safety, and proximity to good schools, are often deemed more important than living close to the office.

Of course, Atlanta is not Manhattan. In fact, it’s virtually the opposite. At 1,783 people per square mile, Atlanta is the poster child for low-density residential development. The New York metropolitan area is three times as dense, with 5,309 people per square mile. Manhattan’s density is even higher: more than 50,000 people per square mile.

According to the Atlanta commission, “Land use is an important determinant of how people choose to travel. No other variable impacts [mobility] to a greater extent. The Regional Development Plan policies help shape future growth and protect existing stable areas by encouraging appropriate land use, transportation, and environmental decisions.”

To say this is an exaggeration would be charitable. While land use can influence travel behavior in small and crude ways, to claim that it is the biggest factor distorts the mainstream research on the subject. A 2004 study sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) cautioned against the tendency to “overemphasize vertically mixed uses such as ground-floor retail and upper-level residential.” In particular, it noted that “outside of dense urban locations, building mixed-use products in today’s marketplace can be a complex and risky proposition; few believe that being near a train station fundamentally changes this market reality.”

This isn’t to say that these developments can’t generate more transit riders. The FTA study found that those living near rail stations were five to six times more likely to commute using transit than other residents. While those seem like dramatic effects, the majority of commuters near transit stations (often two-thirds or more) still use cars to get to work. Moreover, many of the people living in these transit areas were transit users already. They just moved so they could be closer to transit.

Put differently, if 5 percent of a region commutes using transit-about the national average-then 25 or 30 percent of those living in a transit-oriented development will commute using transit. This is consistent with case studies of transit use in San Francisco and Chicago. (Incidentally, those results invariably come from studies of predominantly heavy rail commuter systems, such as subways. Light rail and buses are more fashionable in planning circles these days, but they’re also slower and carry fewer riders.)

To get such high use rates, densities have to be very high. The traditional American home with a private yard doesn’t fit this model. The typical new house in the United States is built on about one-fifth of an acre. A study in San Francisco found that doubling densities from 10 units per acre to 20 units per acre would increase transit’s commute share from 20 percent to 24 percent.

In short, even cramming four times more people into the typical U.S. subdivision of 4-5 units per acre would produce only a modest uptick in transit use. And it isn’t an uptick for the region. It’s an uptick for the neighborhood-those living within a quarter mile of a transit stop. There is virtually no effect beyond the immediate vicinity of the transit stop, regardless of density.

At these densities, Americans would literally have to give up any hope of having a decent-sized yard and most would have to live in townhouses. The land use pattern would have to fundamentally change, resembling the landscape more common in the carless 19th century than in the highly mobile and adaptable 21st century.

Forget, at least for the moment, whether the government should effect such a sweeping change. It almost certainly can’t. In a forthcoming report, Adrian Moore of the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit organization that publishes this magazine) and Randal O’Toole of the Thoreau Institute examine data from the National Personal Transportation Survey and find that doubling an urban area’s density would, at most, reduce the total number of car trips by 10 percent to 20 percent. No U.S. urban area has managed to double its density or to reduce car travel by such magnitudes.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Downtown Growth and Traffic

  1. If urban/suburban and mass transit planning were a science, someone would have worked out a roadmap by now. Every city/town/county is very different and one solution does not fit all.
    What is most disconcerting to me in St. Louis, is that the people in the, now, near suburbs of St. Louis (i.e St. Charles – what I call the “promised land”) didn’t want anything to do with light rail extension from the city of St. Louis because of the fears of “imported crime element”. And these same people now want bridge expansion or a new bridge to bring them across the Missouri River to ease their commute to their jobs or entertainment in the city. If you want to live 40 miles from work and prevent light rail expansion, have nice ride on the existing bridges or swim across the river. Just don’t expect me to fund your commute from the “promised land” to your job or entertainment.

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