In the debates about traffic in Santa Monica, the connection with new development goes hand in hand. New developments are the perennial punching bag and target of choice for traffic congestion finger pointing. Never mind the fact that buildings don’t drive cars, people do…
There are a lot of significant simultaneous developments in various stages in Santa Monica right now, from float ups to shovels in the ground, to polishing paint. I thought I would talk generally rather than single out particular ones. Few issues become as contentious and dividing in Santa Monica as the debate around the appropriate scale and types of new development. The internal drama ripping apart the Wilshire-Montana Neighborhood Association is a testament to this contention, as was the heated rhetoric around Measure T in 2008 that would have placed a hard cap on all commercial development in the city had it passed.
I can understand and relate to some of the anti-development point of view. There were poorly designed mega projects in Santa Monica’s past that induced a lot of new car trips, while doing little to tie into the fabric of the rest of city. Projects including the Yahoo Center and the Water Gardens are cringe worthy for anyone interested in fostering truly walkable urbanism. Their overbuilt garages suck in car trips like giant vacuum cleaners over the Westside. Given this, it is not an entirely unreasonable assumption for some to imagine that if those projects created new congestion in the city, any more projects would all do the same, perhaps along some linear growth that would accumulate to a breaking point of gridlock carmageddon.
Real life is a little more complicated. Because there are numerous variables that go into the traffic equation, many of which are not captured in traditional traffic modeling, a practice that is notoriously opaque in its methodology. Some traffic engineers I know may take offense to this, but it’s important to make a distinction here between traffic engineers and many of the studies they produce, and real science. Anyone who has read Jane Jacobs final book before passing away, Dark Age Ahead (2004), may recall that she wastes no time in digging into American traffic engineering specifically, as a pseudoscience practice that routinely gets away with frequently repeating past mistakes, ignoring the lessons of its own data, or failing to draw upon thinking beyond itself.
In this vein, Charles Marohn of Strong Towns, a certified planner and licensed civil engineer himself, recently wrote about what he calls the projections fallacy. First of all, if you go back to past traffic projects for many projects, they are nearly always wrong, a clue that something is amiss in the models and assumptions that are being made to fashion many of these projections.
“These models are failing to account for things like consumer preference, the ability to access financing, overall market growth, cost of construction materials, gas prices, government employment levels, and on and on and on…. We assume all drivers make predictable traffic decisions. They don’t.”
It’s also important to note changes in the big picture view, U.S. vehicle miles traveled, in total, and especially on a per person basis has declined since 2008. This is an absolutely dramatic departure from the status quo of almost never ending growth in the past 40 years, with present no growth outlasting the pauses created by the two 70’s oil crisises. Having come to understand some of the economics, energy and social trends behind this shift, I feel fairly confident in saying every traffic engineering model developed before 2008 is effectively useless for charting where we are really going in the next 20 years.
The standard way of looking at traffic is you measure this tweak or that tweak and what it may do to intersections in an area, and sometimes the models can come close to approximating what happens. These models assume as a given the stability of the root conditions that both enable driving, and the demand for their use.
However geological, geopolitical, and sociological trends have as much to do with the future of how much traffic will be at any given intersection as signal timing and lane striping. Adding these other variables introduces a lot of uncertainty that is difficult to predict. Given the reality we live in at this unique moment in history, with critical resources drawing down, the climate heating up, young people starting to turn their backs on car culture, and widespread turmoil in energy exporting nations; there is simply too much uncertainty to confidently project that future traffic growth may behave as it had before.
Due to Santa Monica’s EIR process for new projects, we’ll got lots of little disjointed traffic studies about how many trips will be generated for each one. Some are taking these studies based on flawed models and adding them all up into a compounded mess. However there are complex network effects at play when every you introduce something new to a city. Some people may drive to a new housing or commercial project, but some may move into a new housing unit and stop commuting by car everyday. This stuff is not linear and involves a lot of human decision making. It’s messy and not always easy to quantify no matter what may be thrown into a computer simulation.
Take for example the phenomenon occurring every weekday at lunch behind Pennsylvania Avenue between Stewart and 26th. It’s a small one way street largely to serve parking lots for adjacent office buildings and studios. In the past year and half or so it’s turned into a vibrant temporary commercial corridor because of food trucks pulling into the space.
It is often assumed that any new commercial development will always induce many new car trips. That was the underlying logic of the Measure T effort in 2008 driven by the group anti-development group Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City. These food trucks coming into that street act as a proxy for presently lacking ground floor retail space in the area, and if anything they have reduced car trips by enticing more people already working in the area to walk to lunch. People who might have otherwise driven out for more choices. I see this choice to walk to one of the trucks instead of departing elsewhere playing out every day amongst co-workers at my place of employment in the immediate area.
As I have come to read more deeply into the history, the policy, trends, energy use and psychology involved in automobile traffic and congestion dilemmas, I’ve developed a skepticism toward any one claiming to have it all figured out, whether that be a certified expert, an upset citizen group trumping up numbers, or a developer trying to downplay their impact. Santa Monica as a city and it’s staff are much further ahead in grasping what the future really has in store than most places. Many of the design mistakes of the past that produced things like the Water Gardens and Yahoo Center have been chucked as unacceptable, and a no growth in car trips goal is assumed in the LUCE even as new developments are built along the Expo Line. I’m confident this goal is accomplishable.
As for my own loose predictions, I see Santa Monica in 20 years looking back and wondering how we could have been so preoccupied with fears of ever growing traffic. Car use will have declined, and traffic congestion will have become a receding concern, even if the local population of Santa Monica may be a little higher than it is now. More people will ride public transit, walk or bike to get around the city. Far more important matters than worrying about the delay of drivers will take center stage in public life and debate. These changes may come very gradually overtime, barely perceptible at first, but there is little doubt in my mind that the automobile will play a slowly diminishing role in American life as time goes on. A new trajectory is beginning to emerge, and I see few signs pointing to a return to robust driving growth.
I also expect my readers to take in my own conjectures with a healthy dose of skepticism, and to judge them against your own instincts and sources of information. I routinely doubt myself and look for information that might suggest my thinking is off track. However given the best information I have to go on, I do not expect vehicle miles traveled in cars to go back into perpetual growth rates seen prior to 2008. Should there be any recoveries in that direction , I expect they will be fairly short lived gasps before further decline, and not lasting second winds.
There are aspects of architectural design that very much can and do influence trip generation and traffic congestion, and I’ll continue to debate and analyze those particular issues as projects come up in this column. However I believe that we have reached an inflection point in the history of American car culture, and assumptions that many have now about what will cause unmanageable levels of congestion, will simply be proven dead wrong in time.