Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Definition of Success - Looking At Congestion

We treat traffic congestion as a stand-alone problem.  Too many cars and drivers. Not enough roadway
to accomodate the demand for transportation and mobility.  Yet overlooked in this seemingly endless
discussion of traffic congestion is how we use land.  How do we define home ownership and upward
mobility--as well as physical mobility?  The greater Los Angeles metropolitan area has some 11 million
residents, and if only a subset used a vehicle, it's not hard to see why we have traffic congestion.
People need to get to work, school, health care, appointments, care for a relative, shop or seek
public services. 

Los Angeles needs in-fill development and much more high density housing.  Just pause and think for a moment.
Whenever a developer proposes a high density housing unit within the borders of Los Angeles, one of the first
things that happens is the objections of neighbors.   "We don't want that condo unit in our area.  We have
a nice residential neighborhood and that condo unit might attract too many people.  A condo might upset
the topography and look of the neighborhood."

Unspoken is the fear that high density housing might be used for low or moderate income families.  People
talk about finding affordable housing or helping those with moderate incomes, but they also don't want them
in their neighborhood.  This is hard to admit and this is why developers tend to push the boundaries and add
to more urban sprawl.  Is it a smart move for a land developer to move his construction crews and materials some
50 miles outward from a city center just to build a housing development?  What are the developer's hurdles
and costs?

If in-fill development and high density housing were made a higher priority and given the tag of success in 
home ownership and upward mobility, would we see so many families having to commute 30 to 75 miles
each day from home to work?  Could transit be dovetailed to more centralized development so families 
would not need to buy a car--and just maybe go into car-sharing programs instead?  We have defined success
and home ownership as being that detached, ranch-style home in the suburbs.  We have made the
traffic patterns and land use patterns reflect our perception of success.  It starts with basics.  How do we educate
our young about success and upward mobility?  What is their picture of success--to struggle like
their parents at trying to own a costly and remotely located detached dwelling?

We all complain about the lack of affordable housing in Los Angeles and the need to commute further and
further into the hinterlands for an affordable home.  Yet how did we get here?  Did we help shape this
pattern of land use and perception of success and upward mobility?  Europeans have for generations used
bicycles and public transit, such as trolleys and buses, to get to their destination.  They have done this because
the price of fuel is much higher in Europe than in the U.S.  We have kept the price of petroleum-based fuel artificially low
to spur the car market and exhibit another indicator of success--owning a car.  We complain about congestion and
try various gimmicks to spur ride-sharing, tele-commuting and build some expensive subway systems.  These
efforts are add-ons, and they only mitigate just some of the congestion.

What we suggest and need is a wholesale re-making of what home ownership should be.  We should drop the
fears about high density housing and learn to be neighbors again vs. living in our stereo-bedecked vehicle
zooming the 75 miles from home to work and fighting the long delays returning home.  It would make sense
economically, socially and in terms of energy consumption, lower vehicle miles traveled and lowered
emissions and warming.  The solution is within us and how we perceive what home ownership can be. 
We can change that perception and habit.  It will take patience and public education, but it can be done.  The
alternative is more blogs and academic discussions about how we can tame traffic congestion and nibble around
the edges of the problem again.

Norman Dong
Senior Transportation Planner/Caltrans (Retired)

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