Los Angeles transportation needs more bang for buck

150 150 Matthew Grant Anson

Los Angeles skyline and 110 freeway (Photo Credit: Kevin Stanchfield/Flickr)

What’s more important, how far you can get in 30 minutes, or what you can get to in 30 minutes?

This was the question posed by planning and land use expert Jeff Jacobberger at his “Stuck In Traffic” discussion in Los Angeles last week, setting the stage for an in-depth conversation that attempted to flip the popular transit narrative on its head.

The event, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles, sought to rethink transportation and land use in L.A., and it used that initial question as a guide toward analyzing why the region is the congestion trap that it is.

“If you think about access in terms of congestion, you think about how far can I get in 30 minutes, not what can I get to in 30 minutes,” Jacobberger said.

But the reality, says Jacobberger, is that the distance you are capable of traveling isn’t always the best measure of the quality of our transportation system – what’s more important is what things you have access to where you already live. In short,“why in the world do I need to get to West Covina?”

Los Angeles itself poses a unique challenge. The metro area of L.A. is actually far denser than the metro area of New York City, and L.A.’s transportation network is already crippled by car use. To solve the congestion problem, vehicles need to be taken off the street. It may sound an impossible task, but Jacobberger points to a Boston study that found that removing just a small percentage of the cars leads to congestion reduction.

“That study says that if you reduce drivers by one percent in 15 census tracts, you can get an 18 percent reduction in traffic congestion in the entire Boston area,” he said.

Jacobberger points to the West Side of Los Angeles as an example where the common credo of not building developments in already congested areas doesn’t fit the data. “We tend to oppose housing more than other developments,” he said. “Over 300,000 people a day travel into the West Side, so a lot of that traffic isn’t from too many people living over there, it’s not enough people living there.”

Plus, housing developments aren’t the congestion creators that the public thinks they are. “All trips aren’t equal, but I don’t think we always think about what’s generating trips and what’s generating traffic,” Jacobberger said. “The San Diego Association of Governments did a study on trip generations, and a 1000-foot Starbucks creates an estimated 700 trips a day, while a 100-unit apartment building generates 600 trips a day.”

Getting people out of cars won’t be possible if they lack access to public transportation, which is why L.A. has to be prudent about how it’s situating its transit stations. “What you want to do is have as much development packed around those transit stations as possible so that transit becomes an option,” Jacobberger said. “Sometimes our zoning and planning is about the way we want the world to be, but our zoning should reflect the way the world is and the way people think it’s going to be. Not necessarily what we want it to be.”

A comprehensive, results-oriented approach to infrastructure planning is a key tentpole of the California Economic Summit, which is why Jacobberger’s candor is especially welcome in the congested sea of infrastructure opinions. Los Angeles, and California as a whole, can’t continue to limit themselves to popular narratives and stereotypes that stifle land use possibilities and inhibit new, outside-the-box solutions to old, unsolved problems.


Matthew Grant Anson

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