Sunday, October 5, 2008

Reason #8. This measure will hurt our city's efforts to halt global warming.

Now you might ask how could a measure aimed at reducing traffic by capping commercial development contribute to global warming? Well, as suggested in previous posts, it’s because this measure simply won’t reduce traffic, not one little bit. Indeed it will more than likely increase it.

How can this be you ask? Isn't it a given that less commercial development= less traffic? Isn't that what RIFT's supporters confidently argue on their own web site?

“Despite what the opposition claims, traffic engineers agree that new development creates more traffic.”

Well, no it isn't a given. The fallacy is evident when one asks the question, what traffic engineers are they talking about? Not one competent traffic engineer I know (and I actually know at least 50 working in small towns to large cities--and in universities) would ever make such a bold claim. Most traffic engineers will tell you the effect on traffic depends on factors including: what kind of development, what's in the area, what the context is, how much parking is provided, what sort of Transportation Demand Management programs are part of the project, if congestion pricing part of the equation, etc. So the question remains: What kind of development are those traffic engineers talking about? Not all new development creates new traffic.

But supporters continue:

“And the city itself has said that commercial development creates far more traffic than any other kind.”

As we’ve seen from Reason #9 below, this comment is unsupportable. It was made by one traffic engineer with the City who is using outdated ITE standards (for more on ITE Standards see Reason #9 published below). But the argument goes on to say:

“Without some limits on commercial growth, traffic will continue to worsen every year. Developers know it, the city knows it, and so do residents.”

Now this is the kind of argument worthy of Sarah Palin (okay, I couldn’t resist). If proponents of RIFT say it over and over, than I must know it? Is this a faith-based initiative? Developers don’t necessarily know it, because it’s not necessarily true. The arguments sound so much like the Republican Vice Presidential nominee: circular reasoning, no specifics, and a proponent who doesn't really understand the complexities inherent in the issues.

“Our only hope for curbing traffic growth is to slow down the type of development that generates the most traffic.”

Well, on this point I do agree, but that type of development, the kind that generates the most traffic, is the low-density, single-use development that got us here in the first place. Unfortunately, that development is precisely the opposite of what Proposition T aims to accomplish.

So let’s get back to global warming. We know that 40% of carbon emissions come from transportation, so every effort to reduce single-occupancy vehicle use should be the highest priority. Yet when Terry O'Day, Executive Director of Environment Now, claims that RIFT will actually cause global warming, his comments are met with a patronizing dismissal by the Prop-T proponents. The pro-RIFT website features the comment that "he's a reasonable young man," as if to say, but totally naive. Well since Mr. O'Day can hardly be considered a tool of the developers, and doesn't strike one as naive, there must be another explanation for his assertion.

Let me attempt to provide it by asking these questions: Does anyone really think that putting a cap on commercial development in Santa Monica will somehow make the demand go away? Does anyone  think that the demand will not simply be satisfied somewhere else, like West L.A, Venice, Marina D.R or Culver City? From a tax revenue point of view, our loss is their gain. But wait a minute, people will still have to drive there. Santa Monicans will drive further, and folks coming in will cut through Santa Monica to get there. Moreover, the possibilities for true mixed-use development here in S.M. will be diminished, and we will return to making housing-only bedroom communities. What do you think that will do to the traffic? That's what O'Day means by arguing that true mixed-use development adjacent to transit is an ESSENTIAL part of the project to reduce, and ultimately reverse global warming. We do not live in a little cocoon here in Santa Monica

Wouldn’t it make sense, therefore, to locate a mix of jobs and housing at, say the future light rail stop at Bergamot Station, so folks could take public transit to work? Walking, bicycling and using public transit to get to jobs and retail services are effective at doing reducing global warming. Minimizing Vehicle-Miles-Traveled (VMTs) is another method. That is, even if you have to drive in your car, if you drive less, you burn less fuel and emit less carbon. Proposition T, will clearly have the opposite effect. Santa Monicans will drive further to get to services outside of the city.  Medical office workers and patients will drive between hospitals and doctors’ offices where they could have otherwise walked. Employees will drive through Santa Monica on their way to new jobs in Venice and Marina Del Rey, where they would have previously stopped in Santa Monica.

But maybe you're thinking: Look, I get what you saying, but don't we have to do something? Yes, and there's plenty the city could do. We could emulate cities like Belleview, WA, or Boulder, CO, cities that, like Santa Monica, lack rail transit, but have made serious inroads into traffic congestion without mindless development caps:

In downtown Bellevue, utilizing Transportation Demand Managment techniques, the drive-alone commute rate fell by 30% from 1990 to 2000, falling from 81% driving alone to 57%.

In Boulder, since 1995, the drive-alone rate for employees working downtown has fallen almost 30%, from 56% driving alone to 36%, while the transit mode share (busses) has more
than doubled from 15% to 34%.

Finally, in downtown Stockholm, Sweden, six months into the trial of a "congestion pricing" experiment, the average traffic reduction across the control points between 6:30 AM and 6:29 PM has been 22% -- IN SIX MONTHS.

Where do I get these examples? Well Santa Monica is hardly the first city in Southern California to wrestle with these issues. A traffic reduction strategy report compiled for the City of Pasadena pointed me in this direction. It's available at:

So, once again I'm not arguing for the status quo and for doing nothing. I am arguing for a more thoughtful land use strategy that combines a mixing of uses with robust Transportation Demand Managment techniques that allow us to create a much more vital, equitable, convenient, and sustainable city than we have today. Proposition T takes us in the opposite direction.

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