Transportation headlines, special edition: LA Streetsblog's post "You can't fix traffic, you are the traffic" is a must read

Traffic on the 405. Photo by malingering, via Flickr creative commons.

Traffic on the 405. Photo by malingering, via Flickr creative commons.

If you have three minutes to spare, I highly recommend Damien Newton's post in response to an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times griping about Westside traffic.

In the Times, editorial writer Carla Hall complained that Los Angeles City Council candidates for the Westside seat (11th district) didn't say much about fixing traffic at a recent Streetsblog forum. She's a longtime Brentwood resident and motorist and doesn't think transit and cycling improvements will help improve her commute to downtown Los Angeles.

I thought the article was intended to be more provocative than informative — it's hard to blame Westside motorists for venting/blowing their stack. Damien apparently thought likewise.

I think the issue that we both had was the notion that traffic can be fixed solely by focusing on traffic. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of evidence from around the world that traffic gets “fixed” — chokepoints can be smoothed, roads can be managed differently (i.e. the ExpressLanes) but it's pretty hard to make traffic go poof and vanish without without wrecking the economy or making it literally illegal or too expensive to drive.

Take it away, Damien:

But to your specific problem, living in Brentwood and commuting via car Downtown there are really only three solutions: move, get a new job, or get over it. That commute is a result of decisions you made and are making. Thanks to a wife that makes quite a bit more than I do, we could live in Brentwood if we wanted to, but we live in Mar Vista. Why? Because the Expo Line and Bike Path are coming. Brentwood may have a legendary private school system and some of the nicest real estate in L.A., but Mar Vista will have much better bike and transit options.It’s all part of the decisions we make. It’s the governments job to make it possible for you to live where you want and can afford and work where you want and can get a job. It’s not their job to make it as easy and smooth as possible. Your commute is part of the price you pay to live in Brentwood and work Downtown.And if you think there are too many cars on the street, remember that you are in one of them. You’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.

In my job as government mouthpiece, I'll take the time here to mention some Metro projects that I think will improve mobility on the Westside.

The first two are the Expo Line Phase Two and the Foothill Extension Gold Line. When both projects open in a few years, Metro's rail network will gain 18 miles of track and make it possible to ride from Azusa, Long Beach, North Hollywood and downtown L.A. to Santa Monica. I think that will make it easier for some people to reach their jobs on the Westside and/or Westsiders escape the Westside. Hey Kurt Russell: “Escape from the Westside” — I'd go see it!

The second is the I-405 Sepulveda Pass Improvements Project, which is adding a northbound carpool lane to the 405 between the 10 and 101 freeways and making a host of other fixes. Among those are a widened Sunset Boulevard bridge over the 405 and new Wilshire Boulevard on- and 0ff-ramps. Both of those are designed to improve traffic flow better around the 405 on Sunset and Wilshire boulevards — two sources of chronic frustration for Brentwood motorists. The carpool lane will perhaps encourage more carpooling or transit use between the Valley and the Westside.

The Wilshire bus lane project will add about 7.7 miles of peak period bus lanes from the Santa Monica-Los Angeles border to just west of downtown on Wilshire. The project is designed to shave a few minutes off local and rapid bus travel in the corridor. It should help until the subway gets built (see below) and once the subway is built, the bus lanes should help speed surface travel to areas between rail stations.

The Westside Subway Extension will end at the VA Hospital in Westwood and make it possible to travel downtown in 25 minutes, mostly under Wilshire Boulevard. The line doesn't quite reach Brentwood, but it's close and should help provide an alternative to driving for those visiting the VA, students and staff at UCLA and workers in Westwood, Century City and Beverly Hills. Of course, the subway isn't currently scheduled to reach Westwood until 2036, but Measure J (which narrowly lost at the polls with 66.1 percent of the votes) would have accelerated that to the early 2020s. There are other efforts by Metro to secure the funds needed to build projects more quickly so that all commuters can enjoy their benefits. Those efforts would likely benefit from media coverage and/or discussion.

The Sepulveda Pass Transit Corridor is seeking to build transit between the Westside and the San Fernando Valley via the pass. Among options under study are bus rapid transit, a rail line and a rail line in conjunction with a tolled tunnel for motorists. The project is also under study as a public-private partnership as a way to perhaps get it built sooner. In my view, a rail line between the Valley that intersects both the Expo Line and the subway could provide a tremendous alternative to driving that would likely be faster than driving.

Of course, these are all big taxpayer-funded projects. They need and deserve media scrutiny to help ensure they are the best projects they can be. It would also be tremendous if other influential media outlets in the area could look at transportation issues and improvements that may help the Westside and other areas of Southern California grappling with traffic congestion.

20 replies

  1. Mr. Hymon,
    I grew up in Cincinnati as well, and if you know your local history you may be familiar with the fact that there was a plan (post-WWI) to to build a subway where the drained Miami/Erie Canal was. Sufficient funding did not materialize and we got Central Parkway (and, later, the masssive traffic jams on I-75) instead. My father would sometimes point out to me the gates to the never used tunnels. A tragedy in the history of my hometown.

    • Hi Mike;

      I used to live right near Central Parkway in lower Clifton and am very familiar with the old subway project. It would be great if they one day can use the tunnels for something other than the yearly tour!

      Go Reds, Go Bengals!

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  2. @ Frustrated with TAP

    The indiscriminate use of “NIMBY” is more in line with Curbed commentary, along with back of the napkin cost-benefit analysis of building a high-rise apartment building.

    I felt the article was impulsive and unhelpful. The writer conveyed a condescending attitude instead or recognizing that in fact, our transit planning is imperfect and there are cost-effective, seemingly better alternatives to what we currently prioritize. The writer made me feel as if he was the equal and opposite of the double-decking 405 supporters, which would make him just as easy to discredit.

  3. The Tax Foundation issued a report in January showing that we Californians subsidize road building at nearly 70 percent. As it appears that drivers don’t pay for the roads anymore anyway, I would subversively suggest making traffic worse. That is, we should take out travel lanes on major through ways and replace them with bike paths, street car lines, and bus lanes. When traffic is slow enough, people will have incentives to try alternate transportation. Of course, they will always have the option of continuing in the climate-controlled comfort of their cars, albeit slowly.

  4. I think property developers should just buy out the NIMBYs homes in LA for more than its worth to shut them up. They’ll think they got a deal and move out to the suburbs. Good riddance.

    Then the property developers can move into demolish those homes and build a 20 story condo, 10 2-bedrooms units in each floor for a total of 200 units to sell.

    They can do this everywhere to reduce prices back to affordability range. Then they can sell each unit for $200,000 and property developers can make $40,000,000 easily out of a plot of land where a single family single story home used to sit.

    Those NIMBY homes have a lot of land space if you consider the wasted use of front lawns and backyards in each of them.

  5. One of the huge problems on the Westside is that it’s been adding jobs faster than housing. With that pattern, people are forced to commute in, and many of them are going to feel (rightly or wrongly) that transit is not a convenient and time competitive option. And of course it runs up the price of existing housing. While I think the “Not!” is the primary motivation for NIMBYs, restricting the housing supply has the side benefit (for them) of increasing property values.
    This jobs/housing imbalance is not only true in Beverly Hills, but also in the Westside portions of the city of Los Angeles and in Santa Monica too. It’s been a big battle to get the city of LA and Santa Monica to approve housing near the planned Expo Line stations, even though developers are eager to build it.
    Building housing and commercial uses together doesn’t guarantee that people will make shorter commutes, but it makes those commutes possible. Given the level of traffic congestion in LA, people will seek opportunities to shorten their commutes. It would also be helpful to focus more job growth on Downtown LA, the one place which has direct transit service from all directions.

  6. Cinda,

    That maybe possible, but we already have a lot of small and service sector businesses that already does this.

    For example, take a look at Walgreens or CVS. Or Dominos or Papa Johns. McDonalds and Carl’s Jr? Ralphs and Vons? People don’t live way out in the suburbs to commute 20 miles a day just to flip burgers at McDs or stock boxes of cereal at Ralphs. They usually are hired from local communities.

    What a lot of people miss is that there are a lot of type of jobs. Not everyone has a white collar job in an office building in Downtown LA. If you look at the bigger scale, there are a vast number of Angelenos that fall into the “I live in an apartment and work at retail and service sector nearby,” a work-life sector that often gets missed out when it comes to city planning and transit planning.

    What would be better is to ease zoning laws a bit to allow certain businesses to be operated closer to residential areas that accomplishes several things at once. For example why not build an office building right next to a high rise condo? Build some high rise condos where the bottom floors are shopping malls? This accomplishes things like more businesses hiring people from locals (being right next door or right above them) and reducing traffic (being you can just walk to work instead).

    Unfortunately, unless people’s mindset changes about being scared up the wazoo that “oh noes it’s going to create more traffic,” we’re not likely to overturn zoning laws and other bureaucratic red tape that prevents these from happening.

  7. The other thing that no one seems to think about, especially when they don’t have kids of their own, is schools and other after school events for kids. Whereas when Steve and I were growing up we went to our neighborhood schools and primarily played with other kids in the neighborhood, or at most organized sports teams within a close distance, nowadays because of horrible neighborhood schools in some otherwise desirable areas, specialized schools like charter and magnet schools, and kids exploring their interests in more structured ways by doing club sports, dance, piano, gymnastics, etc. classes, you have more and more people driving longer distances to get their kids to wherever they have to go.

    Most middle class parents still don’t feel safe enough to have their kids ride Metro to those destinations themselves even though today’s kids have much more of a leash than I ever had, since cell phones were uncommon in the 90’s. Incidentally this is why afternoon traffic always seems worse than morning traffic – it’s not just the people going to work but all the added load in parents running errands for and with their kids.

    • Hi Henry;

      Excellent point and you’re right on. As a kid in the ’70s in Cincinnati I often walked to my elementary school with a whole gaggle of my friends. In bad weather, we got a lift. Then we moved to the ‘burbs and I began taking the bus to school.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  8. I agree with everyone that it all comes back to housing sucks in LA. What people end up doing is renting apartments or looking to buy homes that are affordable way out in the suburbs. And people wonder why traffic is so bad.

    I think generally, most people who are sitting in traffic *want* to live in LA closer to where they work, but there are no places to live nearby in an affordable price range. All we have are expensive condos that only the rich can afford so they have to settle for living in a house way out in the suburbs and dealing with bumper to bumper traffic and wasting gas at it.

    There has to be a way to solve this. We cannot continue to expand the suburbs forever. We need to start building residences higher and denser. Those who say it’ll cause more traffic jams can just shove it. That’s why we’re building bicycle lanes and livable cities where one isn’t supposed to even need a car to get around. They’re the ones still stuck in the one-car-per-person mindset that it’s ingrained to city planning. This mindset has become part of LA so badly that even our city politicians can’t get over this idea that “in LA, you need a car.”

    I hope politicians are reading The Source. They need to realize that we need a housing solution in LA just as a transit solution in LA. How else are we supposed to get our economy back up and running when middle class in LA can’t even afford their own place of residence in LA? Do you expect us to move to Riverside and commute all the way from there and suck up the high gas prices? Do you expect us to put sign bank paperwork to put down $400k, $500k mortgages for a condo? C’mon!

    • Hi Proudly Liberal;

      It doesn’t help that many residents who say they hate traffic are also the ones that encourage elected officials to kill residential developments and/or discourage re-zoning to allow more residences to be built (i.e. for example on commercial corridors).

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  9. Why doesn’t she just take a bus to the Red Line which was built to Westwood in the late-90’s…ooooh, wait…it was blocked, and by who?

    OK, maybe she can just use the La Cienega/Laurel Canyon Freeway to the Valley…huh?

  10. I have no problems with projects being analyzed to make sure we get our best bang for the buck, but lets not analyze to the point of things taking for ever to be build and at increased cost. As for choices, people choose to live where they can afford to live and the lucky ones are those who can live close to work. Transit is not the cure all, but its the best tool in the tool box. Remember, freeways took decades to build and growth habits, living habits, work habits changed and followed. The same will happen with transit as more and more lines are added.

  11. How about tax incentives for businesses who hire people who live within a 5- to 10-mile radius of their business?

  12. Steve,

    I have liked most of what you have written but your implied support of this divisive and highly subjective opinion piece by Damian is not conducive to a civil debate. Streetsblog Los Angeles has done some nice work but I suspect that they haven’t seen a bike lane that they wouldn’t support 1000%.

    Attempting a solution, any solution, requires a broad and even handed approach without resorting to name calling like schoolyard kids. I wonder if Carla Hill will respond in kind?

    • Hi In the Valley;

      Thanks, but I don’t believe I called anyone any names. I strongly disagree with the view that there’s a way to fix traffic. If it was fixable, it would have been fixed by now.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  13. This would make sense only if something were done to actually encourage people to live closer to where they work.

    As it stands today, housing prices in LA aren’t really the best or affordable for middle income families. Condos near Downtown LA cost $400,000 or more, far more than most middle income families can afford. The average price of townhouses or condos within LA County is far more than the national average. The average price of an one bedroom apartment in LA is over $1,000 per month.

    What do you expect people to do when most middle income families can only afford $200,000 in mortgage payments? They live way out in the suburbs where housing costs are cheaper and they commute into the city. And you expect traffic won’t be bad? Duh.

    You can’t expect everyone to be wealthy enough to afford $400k price range condos so that they’re in walking distance or one station away from work. The reality is, most Angelenos are not wealthy. They cannot afford condos or homes in LA at today’s market prices. It needs to go down to affordable levels. Most middle income residents in LA still rent apartments because of this.

    If you want to curb traffic, fix the housing situation first. Real estate prices has to go down to affordable levels, otherwise, people will continue to just live out in the suburbs, some even extending to San Bernardino or Riverside Counties where housing prices are more affordable, which creates more commuting traffic.

    • I agree that a big way to improve mobility in the region is for people to live closer to their jobs and/or transit. I also think one obvious way to accomplish that is to build a lot of housing near transit as a way to possibly keep prices down. But the idea of building housing — especially in areas where there’s already traffic — is politically difficult and is often fought on the grounds that it makes traffic worse.

      I’m all for doing things to improve traffic. But I think we have to think long and hard about the impacts of those things on neighborhoods, livability, etc.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  14. I couldn’t agree more! Specifically, a rail line from the valley to all intersecting Metro lines would have been money better spent than the current 405 widening project – where is the long range planning among our highly paid government officials!