LA Ignored the Warnings

You could use the title for almost any story about reverses affecting Los Angeles’ economy, but this one happens to be about LAX.  According to LA Biz Observed blogger Mark Lacter, and the Daily Breeze, LAX is facing losses in its lucrative overseas business, business that has a largely unseen positive effect on the Los Angeles economy.  It’s so unseen that City Hall has utterly mismanaged the needed upgrades at LAX for the past 15 years, preferring to listen to NIMBY-minded voters than the economists, labor leaders and airline executives who kept telling them LAX’s huge advantage in international flights was not God-given, and that the airport needed some major fixes or the airlines would go elsewhere.

Sure, Air India’s decision to stop flying out of Los Angeles could be blamed on high fuel prices.  That alibi was already claimed by the Department of World Airports chief executive. But Air India still flies out of San Francisco, and fuel costs just as much up there.

The fact that you could reach dozens of cities overseas via nonstop flights from LAX gave this region an enormous edge economically.  But the locals didn’t care much about that and it was easy and more beneficial to make LAX and its stewards a target for political posturing.  And eventually, much easier for those stewards to tell the city council whatever nonsense it wants to hear.  It’s not their airport.  It’s Los Angeles’.

This is the problem with term limits.  The idea was to force the politicians to focus on their responsibilities as elected officials and not on their electoral fortunes.  This part of term limits has failed. The politicians are much less connected to the city they serve than they were in the days of John Ferraro and Gilbert Lindsey.  In Los Angeles, you now have a political culture built around tearing down city assets rather than protecting them, because having a few notches in your belt positions you for the next campaign.  So what if a critical institution like LAX is weakened?  That’s a trivial concern to the city’s political leadership now.

P.S. Bill Boyarsky has a post explaining what council members really think about when they think about LAX.

Gentlemen, Start Your Lobbyists

cheeseburger.jpgI’m sure the City Council is sincere about wanting to improve the diets and health of the residents of South Los Angeles. But they also have to know what will come of the proposal to impose a moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in that area of the city: A gig for every major lobbyist in town.

McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Jack-in-the-Box and all their franchisee organizations will all want to strangle this idea in the cradle. They will pay whatever it takes. From a legal standpoint, I don’t know how you distinguish a fast-food chain restaurant from an ordinary restaurant, or what careful balance between unhealthy and healthy menu items would qualify a restaurant for the moratorium, but they will be talking about it at City Hall for months if not years. For the lobbyists, all that talk will be billable.

When was the last time the Council tried to take on so many international corporations at one time? Start looking for a new rush of donations from franchise operators’ associations and restaurant-industry PACs.

Amid worries of an obesity epidemic and its related illnesses, including high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, Los Angeles officials, among others around the country, are proposing to limit new fast-food restaurants — a tactic that could be called health zoning.

The City Council will be asked this fall to consider an up to two-year moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in South L.A., a part of the city where fast food is at least as much a practicality as a preference.

“The people don’t want them, but when they don’t have any other options, they may gravitate to what’s there,” said Councilwoman Jan Perry, who proposed the ordinance in June, and whose district includes portions of South L.A. that would be affected by the plan.

In just one-quarter of a mile near USC on Figueroa Street, from Adams Boulevard and south, there are about 20 fast-food outlets.

That particular cluster probably has much more to do with USC kids’ late-night study/beer munchies than with any other part of the neighborhood. They might want to choose another area to make an example of.

“While limiting fast-food restaurants isn’t a solution in itself, it’s an important piece of the puzzle,” said Mark Vallianatos, director of the Center for Food and Justice at Occidental College.

This is “bringing health policy and environmental policy together with land-use planning,” he said. “I think that’s smart, and it’s the wave of the future.”

I think he’s right about the future. I’ve noticed lately the increasing link environmentalists are making between food choices and the health of the planet. I know I read recently something to the effect that one cannot consider themselves an environmentalist and still eat meat. Global warming is as much cow- as car-driven.

The dietary paternalism inherent in this proposal — the claim that City officials know what you should eat — hasn’t registered yet. Maybe it never will. Maybe we all see ourselves as the sheer victims of corporations, and believe it is corporations that are limiting our choices, not government. I’d be curious to see the results of an approval poll comparing the Los Angeles City Council with McDonald’s.

Perhaps the council would win. Maybe all the popularity that fast-food brands have paid so dearly for over the past 40 years will now crash around their deep fryers. But they will not go down without a fight, and in Los Angeles, that means writing a lot of checks.

Gossip Counts the Most*

In the previous post about Live Earth, I tried to weave in a mindblowing article from the Sunday NY Times Magazine, “The Gregarious Brain.” The article is about Williams Syndrome, a genetic developmental disorder. Among its symptoms is extreme friendliness and aggressive conversational gregariousness, which shows up at an early age.

But while the victims of this syndrome are charming in small doses, they often find themselves socially isolated because their lack of social fear leads to a lack of “social savvy.”

Most of us know when our conversation partners have had enough of us. Williams sufferers do not. In studying how the Williams syndrome brain differs from a normal human brain, some neurological scientists believe the development of social skills, in particular the ability to get information about our peers via conversation, was a key to both individual survival and, ultimately, our species’ dominance.

The people with Williams syndrome bring the nature of those social skills into sharper relief.  It’s a tightrope walk between getting what we need out of our association with a group, and managing our (rational) fears about the group members on whom we must depend.

To get across this tightrope, we depend on our ability to suss people out. Our brains are very attuned to getting information about the people in our group. We figure out who to trust by what others say about them. We’re not like Williams syndrome people, friendly to one and all. We are careful, even among people we’ve known and worked with for a long time.

We get the signals we need from gossip.  If we didn’t have access to gossip, our social fabric would fall apart.  An enormous percentage of our mental energies are devoted to gathering and processing gossip, and our brains have evolved accordingly.

We bring the same wary habits to our public acts, as voters and consumers. We are all part of a global “group” now, processing information not just about our local cohorts, but about our cultural, economic and political leaders from what we learn about them in the media.

When the media puts up artificial filters, they say they do it for our own good. But we don’t feel protected. We feel trapped, and we look for a way out. In totalitarian societies, people are willing to risk imprisonment or death to obtain gossip about their governments.  The controls over information in American society are looser, but they undeniably exist.  When the mainstream media sits on information because they don’t think it’s appropriate to answer its consumers’ questions, we now can turn to the internet, the id of mass communication, to get the gossip we need.

Consider the case of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

In the past week or so, we have learned first from blogs, then from the mainstream press, that his wife is divorcing him, because he has been unfaithful to her with a reporter who covers him for Telemundo. There are unconfirmed reports about other affairs; the reporter might or might not be his current girlfriend. All these shenanigans played out during the past year, a difficult year for Villaraigosa politically. His signature issue, school reform, crashed and burned in part because of the mayor’s mistaken judgments and temporary loss of political mastery.

To LA Times columnist Tim Rutten, all this is none of our business, so shame on us for our interest in Villaraigosa’s private life and shame on the bloggers who dug it out.

Hang onto something solid, Rutten bloviates up a stiff wind here:

When it comes to reporting on politics and elected officials, distinguishing between what is properly private and what is necessarily public becomes more difficult all the time.

It’s easy to blame the news media for this — for all the obvious reasons. They include an increasing number of editors willing to take their cue from journalism’s lowest common denominator, the gossip sheets, whether online or on slick paper, that continue to proliferate like informational vermin. By its very nature, gossip does not respect the distinction between public and private because it doesn’t acknowledge the existence of such a dichotomy. In fact, part of gossip’s guilty appeal comes from thumbing its nose at such niceties. The insatiable maw of the 24-hour news cycle also is a factor, as is the generalized collapse of confidence by newspapers engendered by print journalism’s passage through an economically wrenching transformation.

He goes on to point out that prior LA mayors had affairs that weren’t reported “because, even if City Hall reporters had been inclined to pursue the story, it would have been virtually impossible to make it conform to the standards their editors enforced.”

Were those editors — who also covered up the misdeeds of national politicians — more virtuous than today’s? Or were they depriving us of information we could’ve used and were entitled to?

Luckily, an even more senior LA Times‘ columnist gets it intuitively. George Skelton writes today:

Those who claim this is nobody’s business except for the people directly involved ignore the fact that many Angelenos voted for Villaraigosa believing he’d be an inspirational mayor and someone whom Latino kids could look up to as a role model. This infidelity is these voters’ business too. The first Latino mayor of modern L.A. has soiled his image and spoiled their dreams.

Some voters insist that they don’t care about a politician’s dalliances. Fine, they can click the remote or turn the page. Others do care. They’ll factor it into their attitudes about the man.

Outside the Los Angeles Basin, Villaraigosa has been little known. Now, he’s being introduced statewide as a serial philanderer who dumped on his wife years ago, sweet-talked her back into the house, used her as a political prop and returned to the pattern of womanizing. The family breakup is especially disturbing because the mayor and his wife have two teen children.

Later Skelton points out the crucial difference between Villaraigosa and other philandering politicians like Bill Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger: Villaraigosa’s wife has demanded a divorce. Corrina is not “standing by her man.” That’s an important detail. Another crucial difference? Villaraigosa wants more from us. He wants to put the genie back in the bottle, become again “someone whom Latino kids could look up to as a role model,” and run for governor.

Rutten ultimately joins Skelton in condemning Villaraigosa, but for the most weightless of reasons: Because his lover is a journalist!

Villaraigosa’s personal connection with Salinas is a private issue that legitimately concerns only the two of them and their families. No one else has a moral or rhetorical right to an opinion on that aspect of their conduct. However, the fact that Salinas continued to report on the mayor while they were involved in this fashion is a public issue.

(snip)

Villaraigosa knows perfectly well that an intimate relationship with a reporter is bound to raise questions about whether he granted her special access. Worse, it also raises profound conflict-of-interest questions for Telemundo. Has the network’s reporting on his tenure been manicured by a reporter in love with her subject? Has that subject used his mutual affection with the reporter to manipulate coverage of his agenda?

Those aren’t particularly pleasant questions, but Salinas and Villaraigosa have behaved recklessly in an environment that, for better or worse, has become unforgiving.

Yeah, Rutten. That’s probably the first question Mrs. Villaraigosa asked. “Did you grant her…special access??” And then the flying plates.

Rutten is a smart man, but writing like this makes him seem almost as disconnected from reality as the Williams’ syndrome people. The ethics of journalism aren’t the only ethics that matter. In fact they won’t matter, if and when Antonio presents himself to the voters again. We’ll be talking about his affair and whether or not he has found the way back to being seen as trustworthy. We’ll be talking about whether he got his act together and saved his mayoralty. We’ll be talking about whether he’s a good person — or not.

We’ll look for clues to the real Antonio, and if we have to search for them on those dreaded “online media” sites — because the LA Times loves its “standards” more than its readers — that’s where we’ll go. It’ s not because we’ve succumbed to “informational vermin.” It’s because that’s how we’re wired as humans.

*Edited, 7/10/07

Silent Ethics in City Hall

City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s various breaches of the public trust prompted an amusing blog post by City Ethics Commissioner Bill Boyarsky, who was the best reporter and editor the LA Times ever had covering City Hall.

He writes about the “gag rule” that prevents him from saying anything about Delgadillo’s use of staff as go-fers and babysitters, his protracted violation of state law that requires all drivers to have car insurance, his lack of honesty regarding how his city-issued vehicle was damaged, which allowed him initially to charge taxpayers to get it fixed.

It’s apparent Boyarsky the retired journalist is chomping at the bit to say what he thinks about the city attorney’s overweening sense of entitlement. But the gag rule is more than just an inconvenience for a bigmouth. The way Boyarsky describes it, the gag rule is like a contract among insiders not to acknowledge the obvious:

I interpret it this way: Suppose a city official drove a city car to a Sunday baseball game, got drunk and smashed into an MTA bus. More than 250 people witnessed the crash, including 50 on the bus and it was a huge story on TV and in the papers. Then suppose I was asked if I thought the official violated ethics rules governing the use of city cars. Under the rule, I could not comment, no matter how many people saw the crash, no matter how big a story it was. I could not say a thing, even if I had been on the bus, and a reporter tracked me down to the hospital where I was being treated for my injuries.

Who is served by this? Not the public. Not the victims of any alleged violations. No, this system, purportedly designed to enforce unethical behavior by high city officials in fact facilitates it by almost immediately muting public outrage, redirecting it into an airless dark realm, where deals get cut far from public view.

More Boyarsky:

The gag rule is not only stupid, but it’s against the public interest. The chance of a commissioner being disqualified by a comment is remote. Most ethics violations reach us for a vote after attorneys for the accused and the ethics commission staff have settled them behind closed doors. We commissioners are presented with a settlement agreement that has few details. We generally approve the settlement. Usually, discussion is limited.

The gag rule is a big reason why many people consider the ethics commission irrelevant. When allegations of ethical violations are splashed on the news and are being discussed from the harbor to the Valley, ethics commissioners should be able to say more than “no comment.”

So true. In about six months, there will be announcement: The City Attorney and the Ethics Commission have agreed on a settlement. He’s going to pay a fine! Your invitation to the fundraiser to defray the cost of the fine is in the mail. The usual arm-twisting of city contractors and the city’s legal community will then ensue.

In the meantime, none of Delgadillo’s colleagues will have to say anything in response to the public. “It’s in the hands of the ethics commission. Until they act, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to comment,” will be the refrain.

Look…I’m the last guy who would want to see anyone railroaded. It’s good to have a process that permits a dispassionate look at the facts. But Boyarsky describes a process that frustrates any attempt to hold high city officials accountable to the public’s standards of common sense. People are irate about what Delgadillo has already admitted to. Why does he deserve protection from the public’s wrath?

More to Boyarsky’s point: He was nominated to the Ethics Commission because of his experience with the byways of Los Angeles’ government. What is the point of bringing him into the process of policing City Hall ethics, and then putting a muzzle on him?

(In the same post, Boyarsky is funny in describing his battle of wits with a couple of Times reporters who used techniques Boyarsky should have recognized to get him to say more than he should have. Read the whole thing.)

Delgadillo Agonistes*

I’m sure it feels really unfair right now to be City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo.

I mean, like, there’s no proof that his wife with a suspended license drove his city-owned Yukon, no proof that she had an accident, no proof that the repair bill wasn’t appropriately paid by taxpayers.

Like noted civil libertarian Bart Simpson always says,

I didn’t do it. Nobody saw me do it. You can’t prove anything.

But people are jumping to conclusions anyway.

And he must be wondering, why does it have to be now that the LA Times starts imitating the Daily News, with its “Rocky Watch” gimmick? (Although he should be relieved. It’s only on the editorial page. More people watched the Tony Awards than read the LA Times editorial page.)

Just to give Rocky a momentary respite from the gloom that can befall an unfairly accused man, I’ll call up a story from the years when I drove one of those E-plated government cars.

It wasn’t a Yukon. It was a Linda Blair-vomit green Dodge four-door sedan. I used it during part of my time in the office of LA County Supervisor Ed Edelman. It was assigned to me after I’d worked there about two years.

I was living in an old apartment building at the edge of Hancock Park, a block off La Brea, behind a bank. Even though we weren’t supposed to, I parked it at night in the bank’s parking lot, because street parking was rarely available and, well, I had an “E” plate, and the lore back in the early 80s was that you could park an “E” plated car wherever you wanted. Whenever one of my colleagues took me to lunch in those days, they’d always park in the red zone,right in front of the restaurant. When I was new and naive, I’d ask, Aren’t you going to get a ticket? “Nah,” they answered. “I got an E plate.”

So, now, every night and all weekend, there was this ugly green Dart parked in the area of the bank parking lot that was used by all the tenants in this building.

The building was owned by an older woman, who had an adult grandson living with her. This grandson was a serious weed addict. The landlady’s apartment was next to mine. She didn’t know what her grandson liked to do, so he’d usually sit outside on the stoop when he wanted to light up, usually after she went to bed. If my living room window was open, his smoke came blowing in.

One day, I slept in — maybe I was sick. I got in my car to go to work around noon. Grandson was taking out the trash and noticed me opening the door.

“Hey man…that’s your car?”

“Yeah. The County gave it to me to use for business.”

“Aw man….” He shook his head and laughed. “I was sure it was a narc driving that car. I haven’t smoked in weeks ‘cuz I didn’t know who drove that car. I’ve been going crazy.”

I hadn’t really noticed that he’d stopped his nightly al fresco jaybird, but I did notice the smell was back the very night of the day of our conversation.

So, Mr. Delgadillo, I offer my story as the beginning of your cover story. The Mrs. wasn’t driving the Yukon for her convenience. Oh no. It was a drug prevention thing. She’d heard there were a bunch of people smoking pot … er, crack, yeah, that’s the ticket…and she realized they’d stop if she pulled up in a city car. Why, there had been reports of drug use at … um … hairdressers, nail salons, grocery stores …

*Update:  In an awkward press conference late today, Delgadillo admitted he let his wife drive the city-owned Yukon, and that she was the one who crashed it. He went the full apology route.

After avoiding reporters for more than a week, Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo on Monday accepted responsibility by repaying the city for repairs for a 2004 accident in which his wife crashed his city-issued GMC Yukon into a pole.

Delgadillo said he issued a check Monday to the city to pay for the $1,222 repair bill, which was initially completed at taxpayer expense.”

I’m saddened that my wife’s life has become a public issue,” Delgadillo said during a late afternoon news conference at his City Hall office.

“I mishandled the situation, and I apologize,” he said. “Again, I’m sorry and I take full responsibility.”

Delgadillo admitted that he allowed his wife, Michelle, to use the city-owned GMC Yukon “on rare occasions.”

How did the city attorney think he could avoid this outcome?   It’s a fair surmise that his one-week delay in having this press conference entailed a search for Plan B.  What else could he have thought would work to get him out of this jam?

This comment suggests he didn’t think it was any of the public’s business:

“Like any husband, I love my family and I have tried to keep them out of the public eye,” Delgadillo said. “But as an elected official, I am accountable to the public, and I realize that I should have spoken up earlier. That was a mistake.”

Well…we’re certainly on our way to the creation of a political aristocracy, insulated from the consequences of any of their decisions.  The evidence is everywhere.  Perhaps Delgadillo thought he was there already.

Seeing the Real You At Last: Antonio and the Times

It’s striking how the Los Angeles Times has reacted to the demise of Mayor Villaraigosa’s marriage. Its writers and editors seem genuinely shocked, like they’re seeing something about the mayor they had overlooked and now regret their past affection for him.

On Thursday, Steve Lopez literally tore him apart in a column that, if it had been written about President Clinton during the Lewinsky mess, would have earned him a good scolding from MoveOn.Org. The conventional wisdom during that episode was that Clinton’s extramarital dalliance had no connection to his presidential virtues. He erred, but only in his “private life.” But Lopez cut Villaraigosa no slack:

Unless he has had an affair with someone who reports on City Hall, or he otherwise compromised the office of mayor, it probably is none of our business. But Villaraigosa said nothing to dispel the raging rumors, and Corina Villaraigosa filed for divorce the next day, citing irreconcilable differences.

I wouldn’t bet on it, but maybe when it all sinks in, the mayor will wake up and realize it’s time to tame his incorrigible, teenage ways and do at least one job right. The 15-hour days haven’t done us, him or his family any good. He’s spread so thin, all his major goals are unmet.

With a long trail of close friends and supporters who feel Villaraigosa betrayed them to advance his own cause, let’s hope this latest failure, as he calls it, could finally bring the humility he so badly needs.

Today, it’s reporter Duke Helfand’s turn. In a story that relies on anonymous denunciations to a degree I find shocking, Helfand basically depicts the collapse of Villaraigosa’s marriage as evidence of a character flaw that could upend his political career.

The fallout from Villaraigosa’s separation has eroded some of his support.

“I think it removes some of the sheen that I’ve had for him,” said one prominent state leader who has known Villaraigosa and his wife for years but would not be quoted by name for fear of embarrassing them. “You can’t fool the people with a big smile. This is the playground of men in politics.”

Part of Villaraigosa’s problem in the current predicament, many say, arises from past behavior.

He has two adult daughters born out of wedlock, and he publicly acknowledged being unfaithful to his wife in the 1990s. That episode led to an extended separation and alienated for a time many ardent supporters, including Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who declined to comment for this report.

If, as expected, Villaraigosa runs eventually for governor, he can be sure that reporters and bloggers will scrutinize him in minute detail.

“In these kinds of situations, you can always expect a certain amount of prurient interest about what actually caused the split,” said Garry South, a longtime Democratic strategist who ran former Gov. Gray Davis’ 1998 and 2002 campaigns. “But to someone with a high political profile like the mayor, the more telling thing is what comes afterward, in the long run.”

Few in Villaraigosa’s inner circle would speak on the record about his marital woes. But at least one person who has helped guide some of the mayor’s most important public policies said he had lost enthusiasm for him.

“You’re not as motivated,” said the friend. “You don’t do the extra thing that you used to do before. Everybody is holding their breath to find out what’s next.”

Don’t you love that anonymous source who asks Helfand to withheld his or her name for fear of embarrassing the mayor? Really? You think leaving your name off such a harsh comment makes it less embarrassing to him? I also love Helfand’s aside that Supervisor Gloria Molina would not comment. If he hadn’t thrown that in, most readers would have presumed all the negative anonymous quotes were from her.

This passage also made me laugh:

Other political leaders whose personal failings have made front-page news have emerged with their careers largely intact, or enhanced, even if their behavior cost them political points in the short run.

The list of such cases reads like a Who’s Who of modern American politics: — former President Clinton, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart.

Now let’s run through that list of political leaders again, slowly.

Clinton? He has gone down in history as the only president impeached in the 20th century. Nearly two years of his presidency were consumed by the Lewinsky scandal. His second term was basically a waste. Yes, he remained popular, but he lost so much time, and that will permanently affect how history views him.

Gingrich? He never got out from under the reputation of being a guy who asked for a divorce so he could be with a younger woman while his wife was in a hospital with cancer.

Hart? How old is Helfand? His extramarital affair destroyed his campaign for the 1988 Democratic nomination — a campaign in which he had been an early front-runner.

Guiliani is the only politician Helfand mentions who seems to have survived his scandalous behavior — so far. It remains an open question whether the Republican party’s Bible-belt faction will give him a pass.

I don’t think Villaraigosa wants to be in the company of these men.

A former LA Times reporter, Mona Gable, added more fuel to the fire in Huffington Post. In a blog post, she pleads with Hillary Clinton to “dump Antonio” from her presidential campaign.

(A)s anyone who’s lived in LA for 15 minutes knows, Antonio isn’t very popular around here these days. He’s not all that great a mayor. He couldn’t get his school reform bill through giving him power over LAUSD, even though he had several buddies in Sacramento carrying his water. The notorious May Day melee where the LAPD was caught beating up immigrants occurred on his watch. He acted like LA had the Olympics in the bag–then when it didn’t come through, pouted like a two-year-old.

For that matter he isn’t very nice to waiters either.

Hillary is under the illusion that she’s getting a rising political star–a future governor of California! But she might want to do some old-fashioned reporting. Antonio isn’t much liked even among LA’s Latino political elite. He burned a lot of bridges in his relentless quest to become mayor.

And now we have the split from his wife Corina over an alleged affair. Ah, me. When Antonio was Assembly Speaker, I covered him for a brief time in Sacramento. You could hardly walk down a Capitol hallway without hearing titters about his philandering. So when the mayor’s office issued a press release last week announcing the breakup with his wife, it was hardly earth shattering.
And that’s where Antonio should have left it: with a nice dignified press release. But no. He had to hold a press conference, he had to bring in the cameras. He loves the cameras. And he had to trot out two daughters from previous relationships to stand beside him.

This was the most cynical of posturing. Was this supposed to convey what a great dad he is since his two kids with Corina were nowhere in sight?
Naturally reporters thought they had been summoned to ask questions about the end of the mayor’s marriage. Or some such craziness. But Antonio refused to answer any. He refused to say if an affair had led to the split and asked for “privacy” for his family.

So why the press conference? Was it because he knew that the very next day Corina was filing for divorce? Or is there some other scandal?

Hillary, do yourself a favor if you want to win California: dump Antonio.

So much has changed.

When Antonio Villaraigosa ran for mayor the first time, in 2001, the Times‘ yearning for his victory was palpable. When James Hahn used a negative (but true) campaign ad to beat Villaraigosa, the Times and other local media were outraged. Hahn was treated by the LA Times almost as if he was illegitimate — a pretender to the throne. At the time, I joked that Times reporters and editors were like fanboy teenagers with pin-ups of Villaraigosa in their bedrooms. It was so obvious. Antonio could do no wrong, Hahn could do nothing right. In perhaps its final kingmaking performance, the Times put everything it had on ensuring Hahn could not be re-elected, and that Antonio would replace him.

I never thought the Times would turn on Antonio so sharply. Okay, some of it is performance related. Villaraigosa has squandered his mandate mostly through political bumbling, and the Times, to its credit, has not shied away from calling him on it. But most of those stories expressed a certain optimism that he could turn things around.

Surprisingly, it is the marital separation that seems to have pushed the Times over the edge.

All of its stories allude to “swirling” rumors of an affair. That might be the clue. Not the fact of Antonio having an affair — that’s almost always a factor in a marriage’s demise. But the new woman’s identity, perhaps, or something else about the manner of his dalliance — maybe the Times knows something it can’t run with yet, something stomach-churning. And career-threatening.

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.