By Robin Heffler
Urban planning and public policy experts, transportation leaders, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa gathered downtown at the Japanese American National Museum on Friday, March 19, to share research, observations, proposals, and recommendations at a conference on “Changing Lanes: Bold Ideas to Solve L.A.’s Traffic Problem.” The event was the second of the School of Public Affairs’ Rosenfield Forums, which bring together UCLA scholars and national and local thought leaders for discussions on innovative approaches to formidable national policy challenges.
“Los Angeles is one of the areas that is thinking most progressively about tackling the traffic problem,” said Dean Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr., who welcomed some 150 participants to the conference.
Richard Katz, member of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (MTA) Board of Directors, and a former California Assembly member, sees signs that L.A. residents are beginning to embrace the idea of public transit. One, he said, is passage of Measure R, the 2008 Los Angeles County ballot measure that was approved by voters in the midst of a recession to impose a half-cent sales tax to pay for subways, light-rail, dedicated busways, and highway improvements over a 30-year period.
Fast-tracking Measure R
In his keynote remarks, Villaraigosa spoke about his support of the “30/10 Initiative,” a plan to complete Measure R’s 12 transit projects in 10 years instead of 30 by seeking federal assistance, such as loan guarantees. “This will generate 166,000 jobs, cut emissions, and save money during the soft construction market,” he said. The Mayor was introduced by Michael Dukakis, former governor of Massachusetts and 1988 Democratic Presidential nominee, who now serves as a UCLA professor of public policy, and lives in both Los Angeles and Boston. Dukakis said the measure needs “a sense of urgency to get it done, strong political leadership, and excellent management.”
In the first of three panel discussions, Brian Taylor, UCLA professor and chair of Urban Planning and director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, joined Art Leahy, chief executive officer of the MTA, in talking about “Tackling Traffic Congestion in Los Angeles.”
Cause of L.A.’s Traffic
L.A.’s congestion ranks number one in the U.S., Taylor said, because its suburbs are much more densely populated than the suburbs of other metropolitan areas, even New York. L.A. also has fewer lane miles of road per person than all but one major U.S. city, and contrary to popular perception, L.A. residents actually drive less than most Americans, not more.
The high population densities and relative lack of roads is a recipe for chronic congestion, according to Taylor. Given this, Taylor suggested that efforts to “build our way out of congestion with highway and public transit investments would continue to prove futile; that the goal should be to give residents better options to driving in congestion – such as walking, biking, public transit, and congestion toll lanes – rather than trying to eliminate congestion.”
In densely population locations, people have many more options for travel because each mode of transportation has a substantial number of users to support that market. “Manhattan is very congested, but people can walk, bike, and take mass transit, taxis, etc., in contrast to suburban Houston, where there are few choices but to drive.”
In addition to moving ahead on Measure R projects, Leahy said the MTA is facilitating “densification,” supporting the construction of high-rise residences around several of its stations.
A second panel focused on “Global and Local Views: How We Get Around.” Randall Crane, UCLA professor and vice chair of urban planning and director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, said that as individual incomes rise, so does demand for cars, citing China and India as examples. Driving restrictions can backfire, he said, but integrating land use and transportation planning is very useful.
Effective international models of transportation planning were a focus of panelist Robert Cervero, UC Berkeley professor of city and regional planning and director of the California Transportation Center. He cited Singapore’s imposition of fixed and user-related automobile fees after a 30-year campaign of building high-quality mass transit, and Zurich’s plural mobility options, including world-class public transportation and a car-sharing program.
Cervero also noted that while the U.S. primarily has publicly provided mass transportation and private land development, 100 years ago the government gave franchises to the railroads. Public-private partnerships are in effect internationally, he said, and could be reintroduced to the U.S. on a trial basis, with land development rights given near public transportation.
The third panel discussed “Using Prices to Reduce Congestion.” Robert Poole, director of Transportation Policy at the Reason Foundation, spoke about the advantages of freeway “HOT Lanes.” These high-occupancy toll lanes for both individual vehicles and buses cost one-quarter of rail lines, he said, with most of the costs covered by the tolls. Poole added that the flexible pricing and automated enforcement they require work best with registered carpools using cars equipped with transponders.
His co-panelist was Donald Shoup, UCLA professor of urban planning, who spoke about the value and methods of increasing parking rates on street meters to control congestion. Shoup suggested raising the price of curbside parking to a level where one of every eight spaces on a street is available at any given time. This worked well in Old Town Pasadena, he said, and also brought in revenue both for that neighborhood and the larger city.
The Rosenfield Forum on "Changing Lanes" was made possible by the Ann C. Rosenfield Fund at the UCLA Foundation under the auspices of its director, David A. Leveton. The event was preceded by a private dinner with keynote speaker, California State Senator Alan Lowenthal (27th district), who gave an address on efforts in Sacremento to reduce traffic congestion and alleviate its negative impact on the environment and public health.
View photos from the event on Flickr.