Martin Wachs, distinguished professor emeritus of urban planning, spoke to the San Diego Union-Tribune about the county’s newest plan for improving traffic. The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) proposed a controversial plan to invest in a high-speed commuter rail and implement congestion pricing on existing freeways. The proposal shelves planned freeway expansions, which experts have found does little to solve traffic congestion. According to Wachs, “the only proven way to reduce traffic is congestion pricing.” While the policy has been politically unpopular in the U.S., it has “increased highway capacity in the 30 or 40 places it’s been done around the world.” While the rail would not necessarily reduce traffic congestion, it would accommodate population growth in the region while reducing greenhouse gases from cars and trucks. “Transit enables higher density development and reduces vehicle miles traveled in relation to the population, whereas highways are associated with more dispersed growth,” Wachs explained.
By Claudia Bustamante
Los Angeles is populous and diverse, but that distinction also produces inequality. There are disparities in housing costs. Amenities vary across neighborhoods. Many low-income families struggle to make ends meet despite impressive gains in employment.
During an inaugural event focusing on regional growth and equity, the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies convened a group of experts to discuss how to leverage a sweeping, taxpayer-supported $120-billion investment in Los Angeles’ transportation system to address decades-old disparities.
Following the 2016 passage of Measure M, Metro committed $52 billion in sales tax revenue for capital investments throughout the county. The agency is looking to accelerate 28 projects by the time Los Angeles hosts the 2028 Summer Olympics. Senate Bill 1 approved in 2017 designated another $54 billion to fix roads, to relieve congestion, and to improve transit and trade corridors throughout California.
“The question is how can we improve the quality of communities by taking advantage of the ongoing and major regional investments in public transit,” said Evelyn Blumenberg MA UP ’90 Ph.D. ’95, director of the Lewis Center and professor of urban planning, at “InterActions LA: Inspiring Quality Transit Neighborhoods,” held April 18, 2019, at The California Endowment.
“It is precisely in these moments of rapid change when there is a window of opportunity to do something different,” Blumenberg said. “Hopefully, it’s to engage in more equitable outcomes that better connect residents to economic opportunities, that protect and expand affordable housing, and that improve the health and robustness of the L.A. region.”
Paul Ong, UCLA Luskin research professor and director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, has done extensive research on the role of urban structures on the reproduction of inequality. He said this topic is an important one for discussion.
“We, as a society, make neighborhoods,” Ong said, “and neighborhoods make us. The type of neighborhood we live in determines not only today’s quality of life but the trajectory over generations.”
Multiple approaches to improve neighborhoods were discussed. They include progressive housing and land use policies, stationary design, neighborhood amenities and community engagement.
Key among the discussion was the need to focus on people who use transit and their specific needs. For example, women, older adults and people with disabilities make up about 60 percent of Los Angeles’ transit ridership. Those transit users have specific concerns about safety and security while walking to stations, waiting and riding transit, said Madeline Brozen MA UP ’11, deputy director of the Lewis Center.
“If we’re not planning for specific groups in an intentional way, it’s not likely we’re going to see the shifts we want to see from these investments,” Brozen said.
Julia Stein, project director at the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA Law, said the city’s Transit Oriented Communities program, which provides incentives to developers to build near major transit stops and include affordable housing units, provides an opportunity to address some issues.
Since the program’s inception in 2017, about 2,400 affordable units have been proposed, of which 42 percent are reserved for extremely low-income households.
Attendees also heard about specific efforts being conducted in the city by nonprofit organizations, including improvements along Avenue 26 near Lincoln Heights and Cypress Park spearheaded by LA-Mas. The nonprofit agency engaged with community members to generate design improvements and creative wayfinding on a quarter-mile stretch near the Metro Gold Line station.
The end result was impressive, but Avital Aboody from LA-Mas said the permitting process was complex, expensive and time-consuming.
“We had the expertise and time to navigate this process, but that may not be the case for community members or grassroots organizations that may want to do this in their community,” she said.
Lessons Learned Outside L.A.
Outside California, the Twin Cities region in Minnesota has a reputation for being progressive. But the community deals with stark racial disparities, which date back to decades of systemic racism, like redlining, according to Owen Duckworth, director of organizing and policy at the Alliance, a Minnesota-based coalition of community-based organizations and advocacy groups.
Now that the region is investing in transit infrastructure such as an expansion of a rail line that connects downtown Minneapolis to St. Paul, there is an opportunity for communities to have greater impact.
“Government agencies want to deliver on equity. That’s the buzzword,” Duckworth said. “We can’t have equitable outcomes by continuing inequitable processes in planning.”
Another theme echoed by many panelists is community engagement — making sure residents’ input is not merely tokenized by developers and government organizations.
Community members provide valuable insights as experts in their own neighborhoods.
“Our partners want to be partners to government agencies in community development, but there’s no compensation for these organizations. They mostly volunteer their time,” said Thomas Yee of LA THRIVES.
“Everything from here on out needs to be collaborative. We need to get away from silos. We need to work together,” Yee added.
Blumenberg ended the event by saying it is clear that multiple objectives must be met to ensure quality transit neighborhoods. To name a few, planners must consider housing, traffic, environmental concerns, access to opportunities, safety and security issues around mobility.
The solutions must be equally diverse — tailored to the different neighborhoods and communities throughout the region, she said.
By Les Dunseith
The rising cost of housing continues to be the single biggest factor undermining residents’ satisfaction with life in Los Angeles County, according to the fourth annual Quality of Life Index.
The survey, a joint project of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and The California Endowment, found dissatisfaction with housing affordability to be particularly strong among a group designated by researchers as “struggling,” which includes mostly younger residents, those with household incomes of $60,000 or less per year, renters and people without a college degree. Their housing satisfaction rating of 37 was in contrast to the 48 rating among a group designated as “comfortable,” which includes mostly older homeowners with higher incomes and more education.
The cost of living category is the lowest-rated of any in the survey. More than half of respondents said that what they “pay for housing, mortgages or rents” is the most important factor in their cost of living and the primary reason that satisfaction with cost of living has declined by eight points since the first index was released in 2016.
‘In Los Angeles County, the one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that we are paying too much money just to have a place to live.’ — Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at UCLA Luskin
“Since the inception of the report, people have been concerned about their cost of housing, and their level of dissatisfaction just continues to get worse,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at UCLA Luskin.
At a rating of 42, cost of living was again the lowest-rated category in the 2019 survey — below education at 49. Transportation and traffic (50) also rated negatively in the survey, which has a midpoint of 55. Three categories fell into a middle tier of satisfaction: the environment (56), jobs and the economy (59), and public safety (60). Survey respondents expressed the most satisfaction in the categories of race relations and neighborhood quality (both 68), and health care (69).
Residents were asked to rate their quality of life on a scale of 10 to 100 in the nine categories and 40 subcategories of the survey. The overall rating this year among all nine issues was 56, the same as 2018 but a decline from 59 in the first two years of the survey. Researchers noted that the overall Quality of Life Index score would have been 60 this year if the rating for housing had simply been .
“In Los Angeles County, the one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that we are paying too much money just to have a place to live,” Yaroslavsky said.
More than half of respondents (57 percent) said they, a close friend or a family member has considered moving from their neighborhood in the last few years because of rising housing costs. This is an increase of 10 percentage points since the question was first asked in 2017. About two-thirds of respondents younger than age 50 said they had considered such a move.
A quarter of all respondents — the same number as in the previous survey — said they or someone they know have worried about becoming homeless in the last few years.
Key transportation findings
In addition to the questions used to develop the Quality of Life Index, the survey asked a number of other questions about important issues facing the Los Angeles region. Several of those questions were on topics of transportation and traffic.
- Half of respondents said they commute longer than 30 minutes a day, a slight increase from 2017.
- Nearly four in 10 people said they use on-demand, shared transportation — such as Uber or Lyft, and Bird or Lime scooters — at least once or twice a month. The number varied widely by age, with just over half of those under age 50 saying they use shared transportation but less than a third over age 50 reporting such usage. Six in 10 of respondents over age 65 have never done so.
- Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of respondents said they oppose charging a fee for use of designated roadways at peak periods of the day, an idea known as congestion pricing that has been touted by proponents as a way to reduce traffic and improve driving speeds on California streets and freeways.
“Even if policymakers who are studying congestion pricing determine that it presents the best hope of reducing the time we are stuck in traffic, it’s clear that officials face an uphill battle in trying to get the public to support it,” Yaroslavsky said.
Key growth and development findings
- Respondents were asked whether they believe that people whose homes were burned in recent wildfires should be allowed to rebuild, and 76 percent said yes.
- Conversely, 73 percent of respondents do not think that construction of new homes should be allowed in areas of Los Angeles County that are identified as being at high risk of wildfires.
- A majority of people surveyed (62 percent) believe that the construction of new apartment buildings should be confined to areas zoned for multiple-family dwellings. Less than a third (29 percent) say apartments should be allowed anywhere, including in single-family zones.
- Respondents are split about the impact of recent building development and growth in their community: 44 percent say they are having a positive impact, but 47 percent say they are having a negative impact.
Yaroslavsky pointed out that respondents’ household incomes have risen over the four years that the index has been conducted. In 2016, for example, 27 percent of respondents reported household incomes under $30,000 a year. By 2019, that income level was reported by 19 percent of respondents. Similarly, the percentage reporting an annual household income of more than $150,000 rose from 9 percent in 2016 to 13 percent in the latest survey.
The 2019 UCLA Luskin Quality of Life Index survey is based on interviews with a random sample of 1,406 county residents from March 1 to 20. Interviews were conducted in both English and Spanish.
The Quality of Life Index was prepared in partnership with the public opinion research firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates.
The survey results are being released this year to coincide with a research-informed, cross-sector conference about the major issues facing the Los Angeles region known as “Luskin Summit 2019: Livable L.A.” The inaugural Luskin Summit also commemorates the 25th anniversary of UCLA Luskin.
In a National Geographic article exploring transit-oriented development in cities across the globe, Associate Professor of Urban Planning Michael Manville commented on the challenges facing Los Angeles. The article focused on architect Peter Calthorpe, who highlights the negative effects of car-oriented urban environments on climate, air quality and congestion, in addition to time and money wasted by drivers. Urban planners look to transit-oriented development to remake healthy urban spaces and reverse the damage caused by dependence on automobiles. Calthorpe imagines an urban utopia where cities would stop expanding, pave less and heat the air and the planet around them less. He recommends dense clusters of walkable communities around a web of rapid transit to support a growing population. Manville weighed in on the urban environment of Los Angeles, where residents continue to rely on cars despite efforts to improve public transit. The conundrum, Manville said, is that “driving’s too cheap [and] housing’s too expensive.”
Associate Professor of Urban Planning Michael Manville, an established expert on congestion pricing as a traffic-management strategy, commented to several news outlets after New York officials approved a plan to charge motorists more than $10 to drive into Manhattan’s busiest neighborhoods. Manville told Pacific Standard, “To an economist, you could have congestion charging in Manhattan, take all the money, put it in cash form, and then sink it in the harbor, and it would still be an incredibly beneficial program.” The New York Times, American Prospect and Wired also consulted Manville, who is on the faculty of UCLA Luskin’s Institute of Transportation Studies, to provide context. Congestion pricing is under serious consideration in Southern California, and Manville explained the ramifications in an extended conversation with Peter Tilden on KABC radio. He was also cited in a San Diego Union-Tribune piece and, further afield, in a Vietnamese Best Forum article, translated here.
Martin Wachs, professor emeritus of urban planning, commented on the prospect of congestion pricing in Los Angeles on KPCC’s Airtalk. To reduce traffic, New York passed a proposal to implement congestion pricing in the form of tolls on vehicles entering Manhattan, prompting speculation about the prospect of congestion pricing in other big cities like Los Angeles. In Stockholm, Wachs explained, citizens voted to implement congestion pricing after a seven-month trial period because “they valued the reduction of congestion more highly than they were worried about the cost of entering the congested area.” Wachs predicts that “the Manhattan experiment will reveal how Americans feel about congestion pricing.” While some critics argue that congestion pricing is regressive taxation, Wachs responded that “congestion itself is regressive. Congestion pricing provides an alternative, but it doesn’t require the low-income person to pay the fee if there is an alternative,” such as public transit.
Martin Wachs, distinguished professor emeritus of urban planning, was quoted in a San Diego Tribune article about two proposed tax hikes that would serve to fund a new and dramatically improved public transit system for the San Diego area. It is speculated that the success of the new transportation bill might not be entirely secure, mostly due to the amount of money that San Diegans would have to pay with the introduction of not one but two tax increases. Wachs said he thinks the bill would have increased success if it was limited to a single tax increase. Furthermore, officials must make clear to voters exactly what implications the bill and any subsequent tax increases would have, he said. “It’s pretty clear that voters need to have a relatively straightforward understanding of what is happening, and they will vote ‘no’ if they don’t understand what the measure is or they think another measure is coming soon,” he said.
Urban Planning Professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris shed light on women’s interactions with transportation systems in a Rewire article explaining female riders’ frustrations with rideshare services. Loukaitou-Sideris said sexual harassment is incredibly common in transportation settings around the world. Incidents of sexual harassment and uncomfortable behavior with rideshare drivers have prompted requests for increased safety measures, especially for women. While nearly 45% of female rideshare users have expressed their preference for a female driver, only 20-30% of Lyft and Uber drivers are female, and neither rideshare service allows female riders to request a female driver. Loukaitou-Sideris’ research on women-only public transportation in other countries, such as women-only train cars, found that women worried such an arrangement would “perpetuate discrimination” by taking away the option to sit in other cars of the train. Many women express their desire to be able to safely use the same service as men, instead of needing a women-only solution.
Michael Manville, associate professor of urban planning, was quoted in a Voice of OC article about subsidies to local car dealerships in Santa Ana. Amid fears of lowered levels of commerce in the wake of rising sales taxes, Santa Ana officials said they are reinvesting in the local economy through the automotive industry, by subsidizing a number of car dealerships in hopes that city residents will see direct benefits. This subsidy is designed to push residents to spend their money at local car dealerships rather than going elsewhere to purchase cars. The article noted that a number of the dealerships have been important campaign contributors to some city officials. “The city seems to be concerned about the sale of automobiles as opposed to other sales and is taking steps to selectively exempt or cushion those sales from whatever it imagines the impact of the sales tax increase will be,” Manville said.
In an LAist article, Urban Planning Professor Martin Wachs commented on the history behind the lack of one-way streets in Los Angeles compared to East Coast cities. Los Angeles built wide roads to accommodate the automobiles and streetcars popular in the first half of the 20th century, Wachs said. The wide streets and long blocks characteristic of Los Angeles would make one-way streets difficult, he added. Los Angeles experimented by converting Pico and Olympic to one-way streets to ease traffic for the 1984 Olympics, but complaints from residents and business owners resulted in the restoration of two-way traffic. “One-way streets tend to work best when blocks are short and streets are narrow, so cars can easily loop around to reach their destination. When there are five or six lanes of traffic, like Venice Boulevard, cars have to merge over too many lanes to make a turn and the flow of traffic gets messy,” Wachs explained.
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