Proposition T in Santa Monica is my Candidate for the Worst Urban Planning Idea of the Year.
Photo of Traffic in Santa Monica by Joel and Kristina's Flickr Page
(As we approach Election Day, LA Streetsblog will continue to take a look at the ballot propositions and measures that will effect transportation on this fall's ballot. The following opinion piece is by LEED Certified architect Neal Payton. The title doesn't leave a lot to the imagination as far as his views. If you would like to write a piece on any local or state ballot measure that effects transportation, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org)
Proposition T in Santa Monica is my Candidate for the Worst Urban Planning Idea of the Year. <
By Neal I. Payton
I know what you are thinking. This title demonstrates a wee bit of hyperbole, that it’s a tad exaggerated. Well let me explain my reasoning:
Last Spring, an earnest and eager young man approached me as I was walking out of my local Trader Joe’s, shopping bags in hand, and asked, “Would you like to fight traffic in Santa Monica? We’re gathering signatures to stop, ‘over-development’ by limiting commercial development in the future. It’s the Residents’ Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT).” Well none of us wants to be overwrought, overweight, or overtaxed, but those are so difficult to control, so, while I didn’t sign the petition, I imagine the prospect of not being ‘overdeveloped,’ sounded pretty good to most of my neighbors, because a measure has shown up on the ballot in Santa Monica, this November under the innocuous sounding name, Proposition T.
My biggest problem with the measure, which caps commercial development (retail and office combined) in the city to 75,000 square feet per year (about half of the current average), is that it wont’ work for its intended purpose --fighting traffic.
Now the Proposition T proponents are clever and careful to correct me. They don’t claim that RIFT will reduce traffic, only that it will slow the rate of traffic increase. So, of course, we’ll never know if it has worked or not, because there is no base line How do we know how fast traffic would have increased? How do we know if Proposition T reduced that growth by 10%, 50%, none or even made matters worse? Another way to frame their argument it seems to me, is that traffic in Santa Monica is terrible, and the RIFT backers have crafted a measure that will allow it to get worse slower than it would have otherwise gotten worse. Sounds amazingly half-baked, as even my six-year old noted, who said, “that’s just dumb.” I mean if you went to a doctor, with a chronic and debilitating disease, and she offered you a therapy that would slow your rate of decline, but you knew that other therapies existed that, over time, would actually allow you to see an improvement, wouldn’t you fire that doctor?
The Proposition T literature loudly proclaims, in bold type, “Our city’s own traffic consultant says we can’t fit any more cars or our gridlocked streets.” How is a measure that acknowledges a problem, but then fails to provide anything resembling an adequate solution acceptable? (By the way the City uses a lot of traffic consultants, so I’d like to know which one made such an inane and unprofessional remark.)
In other words, why doesn’t this measure attack the root cause of the problem, which is how people get around, to work, to shop or to play? We know that there are cities with far greater density with less traffic burdens. The reason, this measure doesn’t attack the root cause, is that by doing so, the Prop-T advocates would acknowledge the value of appropriately designed mixed-use development to the long term health of the city. This measure uses the traffic as a Trojan horse to fight something more at the heart of every development issue in the city, which is what kind of City does Santa Monica want to be? Proposition T backers, would like to put a wall around this city and freeze it as is.
How do I know? Well again, look at the literature, from a recent “Yes Prop T” mailing, “And more development is coming, Lot’s more. Our City Council just voted to INCREASE new building heights on all of our major boulevards from Wilshire to Pico to as high as six stories tall.”
So what does this have to do with Proposition T? Not one thing. Proposition T does not in any way affect the building heights in the city. This is just a scare tactic. It is intended to get the reader to distrust all developers, those interlopers, again from the brochure, “some from San Francisco and Beverly Hills,” who would continue to do work in this city, and contribute to its evolution and its tax base.
It is pretty clear to me that if the well intentioned folks who crafted Proposition T had spent the time constructing a measure that would be truly effective at reducing traffic, they would not have chosen such a blunt instrument. Their tool is the product of a methodology born in the 1960's and refined slightly, over the next several decades, until its ossification in publications put out by the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), that have been, dare I say it, fundamentally discredited by contemporary practitioners of the art and practice of City and Town Planning.
The ITE's methodology, based on empirical data from the suburbs, assumed that a certain number of trips would be generated by each 100-200 square feet of office or retail space. To this assumption, no mitigating factors were allowed (such as the fact that someone might walk from store to store, or from home to work, etc.). Moreover, these assumptions were applied pretty much equally over the cross-section of urbanism that covers virtually every metropolitan area of the country (from suburb to inner city). The methodology also assumed that all parking would be free to the driver (at least seemingly free. See, The High Cost of Free Parking, by Donald Shoup, for a complete disputation of that assumption).
Moreover, residential development, which is unaffected by Prop T, will probably increase as a result So if one thinks that voting for Proposition T, will somehow change or overturn what the Council has just passed than they are in for a disappointment. All that will be achieved is the certainty that this six-story development is almost exclusively residential, i.e., a mono-culture, of one use, where the possibility of realizing more walkable areas of the city are diminished.
Is that all? No. It also makes unlikely the possibility of creating more humane and pedestrian friendly edges along its most disgusting corridors, diminishes the city’s efforts to clean-up abandoned industrial lands, minimizes the likelihood of the purple-line subway extension into the city, reduces the city’s effort to fight global warming, is biased against lower income residents, and seriously stresses the city’s fiscal health. And oh, did I mention that because it’s based upon flawed assumptions and methodologies, it won’t work at reducing traffic?