Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Confronting Congestion in Southern California

Traffic congestion isn't a new problem.  It's been around for a long time but we have treated it as a
stand-alone problem of too many cars and not enough transit and ride-sharing options.  The problem
is much more complex and inter-connected than just too many cars.  The problem goes to the heart
of how we plan and develop urban areas in general.

Land use drives traffic patterns.  When we centralize jobs, schools and health care into a relatively
confined area, we create the dense traffic patterns.  When we take the time to plan and plot where
job growth will happen and furnish new transit, pedestrian and bicycle options around the development
we build into the planning measures of mitigation.  Too often in the past (and it continues as we think about
it) we allow land use and development remain as autonomous business decisions.

It also doesn't help that local municipalities have added to the congestion because new development, whether
in urban sprawl, new strip malls, or shopping complexes, because new development was the "work around" to
Proposition 13 passed around 1979 to cap property taxes.  New development was the loophole that would
enable local governments to get uncapped property taxes, sales taxes and generate growth at the same time.
What does this mean to planning?  It means that taken as a whole all the stakeholders--from investors, businesses,
employers, schools and home builders--have to communicate and make compromises to prevent the ad nauseum
congestion we currently see.

The latter is hard to do.  Who is going to get businesses and local government to work together?  What incentive or
driving force exists to get all the stakeholders to think more system-wide and more holistically about planning
and land use? Tough assignment, when you think about it.  Yet the current patterns of land use, congestion, commute
times, air pollution and energy consumption are not sustainable.  When we talk of sustainable we are talking about
the long-term and our real future.  We are talking about doing things that we won't have to regret later.  Our past
policies (or lack of policies) have helped create the immense traffic delays and bone-tiring traffic we now see.

There are many ways to tackle this.  Start on a small scale.  Talk about transit-oriented development.  Talk about
in-fill development where we work with smaller clusters of stakeholders and parcels of property to try and test
the methods by which we communicate, analyze, compromise and empower local communities to come to the
table.   We should also look at poor and under-served communities who are too often left out of the discussions 
and made the victims of big-city planning--some used to call this Environmental Justice.  Not a theory.  But a practical
reality which directly addresses public participation and equity in urban planning.  

The "system" is taken as an unconquerable whole and allowed to be autonomous.  We can't change things, or can we?
It takes commitment and it takes some persuasion and patience.  But the sooner urban planners, businesses, home
builders and community based organizations work closely together to create a better future--the sooner our urban areas
will look and feel like livable communities where the roads and concrete in toto will not overwhelm us.

A side note...i hope I contributed this blog correctly.  If not, somebody speak up and get these thoughts into
the right hands.  With pleasure and personal hopes...N. Dong (Retired Senior Transportation Planner--Caltrans).