So, how long is your commute?

150 150 Ed Coghlan

A Gold Line train passes through a transit-oriented housing development in Pasadena. (Photo Credit: Chris “LA Wad”/Flickr)

When you meet someone at a party in Los Angeles the conversation can go pretty much like this.

“Where do you work?”

“Where do you live?”

And the two of you most likely start sizing up the answer to the real question.

“How long is your commute?”

The answer often is mind boggling because L.A. County has always struggled with balancing with the connection between where workers live and where they work.

That’s why a recent summit at UCLA put on by the Los Angeles Business Council on the topic of transit housing piqued our interest. The discussion sits at the intersection of jobs, the transportation infrastructure in L.A., and the development of housing along transit corridors.

But this is more than an L.A. story. Many of our urban areas are congested, housing prices are high. Imagine a world where you can walk or ride your bike to nearby public transit that will take you for your job. It’s cheaper, better for the environment and less of a hassle.

Housing developers in L.A. are paying attention to the opportunity transit corridors represent but have sizeable barriers to overcome.

“Any plan for co-locating jobs and housing near major transit centers must rely on a careful understanding of the nexus between land use and transportation,” said Jeff Farrington of 4site, a local developer. “If Los Angeles can’t muster the political will to increase allowable densities and give developers more flexibility for projects near transit stations, then the City has little hope of accommodating its population growth and satisfying demand to improve our standard of living at the same time.”

In particular, city planners are interested in more “workforce housing,” which they define as affordable to families earning between 50 and 120 percent of the Area Median Income.  

Expanding the transit corridor in L.A. County offers the best (and perhaps last) hope for developing new housing for workers. One of the big problems to solve is that land near public transit can be quite costly and there are few incentive programs for developers, said a co-author of a study presented at the transit summit.

Getting people out of their cars and into housing near transit in spread-out L.A. is a challenge affected by two pieces of recent legislation: SB 375, a 2008 law which requires regions to plan housing and infrastructure under “sustainable communities strategies, ” and the signing of SB 743, which ostensibly was aimed to keep the NBA Sacramento Kings in Sacramento by approving a new arena but also looks like a step towards helping transit-oriented and infill development.

“I have been an outspoken critic of CEQA for the barriers it puts up to the creation of sustainable cities,” Gabe Metcalf, executive director of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR), said after SB 743 was signed. “The [traffic congestion] and specific plan changes in Steinberg’s bill are a real step forward for the cities of California, as we try to become more walkable and focus growth around transit. This is the kind of thinking we will need to embrace as a state if we want to make SB 375, and the planning intent behind it, a reality.”

In San Diego, city planners are equally hopeful.

“What I’m telling my staff is, start mapping this stuff. It’s clear that the state is sending us a message that CEQA is starting to look a whole different in infill and transit priority areas, ” said Bill Fulton, Planning Director for the city of San Diego.

The whole topic of housing has been identified as a main initiative for the upcoming California Economic Summit, which will be held on November 7 and 8 in Los Angeles. Take a look at the Action Team charter for the housing initiative.

In addition, the Summit will tackle workforce development, regulatory reform, modernizing infrastructure, working landscapes, advancing manufacturing and access to capital as issues that must be addressed if California is going to create more middle class jobs and enhance the state’s ability to compete in a global economy. 


Ed Coghlan

All stories by: Ed Coghlan