More Buildings (Closer Together) = Fewer Cars

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NoOnSYesOnLABuildingsI’m taking a quick break from resisting our national political situation to focus on some local, Los Angeles-based issues.  Though I don’t tend to write about it much here on the blog, I have my master’s degree in City Planning, and am a committed urbanist.   I’m a big believer in the idea that we need to re-build our cities to make them work for humans (rather than our cars).  As things are now, in almost every city, town, and suburb in America, most people have no transportation choices.  This is because most places in America have been built expressly for cars, with distances between destinations (home and work, home and school, school and shopping) so vast, that they cannot be affordably or reasonably served by any other form of transportation.

The only way to give people options– the option to walk and bike, the option to take the bus—is to ‘fill in’ our very spread out cities with more destinations.  Most importantly, in many places, this means building more affordable housing within the existing urban footprint, as a way to address the quickly increasing costs of cities, and ensure that it’s not just the wealthy that benefit from the density of opportunities that they offer.

And here is where we run into problems.  In cities and neighborhoods all across the country, even here in ostensibly ‘liberal’ California, owners of low-rise, single family homes in residential neighborhoods have worked to make it almost impossible to build more affordable, multi-story housing within the existing urban fabric of communities.  While there is certainly some back-door racism involved, (concern that ‘those people’ will potentially lower housing prices), I think the genuine source of most NIMBY-ism is traffic.

Traffic has certainly become worse over the past 30 years in all of our ‘healthy’ cities.  More people, with more destinations vastly spread out from one another mean more and longer car trips.  And because destinations have largely continued to sprawl further and further, there continue to be few other transportation options for people to move into when they decide that traffic is too bad.  When infill development starts to happen in cities, it creates ‘blips’ in this already untenable flow of vehicular traffic, which quickly turn into gridlock.  Sadly, this means that the ultimate solution to traffic (more destinations, more transportation options) is mis-identified as the cause of problem (because it does exacerbate traffic in the short term).  So long as we continue to mis-identify the cause of the problem, we will continue to deny ourselves the solution.

Here in Los Angeles, we have a ballot measure S that will go to a vote on March 7 that is designed to shut down infill development, and preserve the gridlocked status quo.  The backers of this initiative are playing off exactly this loathing of traffic to make their case, saying that infill development destroys quality of life and the “integrity of our neighborhoods.”  It’s easy to want to believe them.  But the truth is that the only way out for our cities is to make driving more expensive, more difficult, and slower. The way to do that and provide better options for people  is to build multi-story, affordable, infill housing development.  Yes, traffic will become worse. But what we get on the other side of this period of gridlock is a city that works better for everyone.

For a long time, I’ve worked on these issues only within the scope of my professional life.  I’ve sat on the sidelines and watched as many good initiatives and projects were killed by the selfishness and misunderstanding of NIMBY communities.   LA’s Measure S has forced me into the game.   Thanks to a well-funded and extremely confusing ad campaign, it could possibly pass, and will likely undermine the progressive, transit and local-hire supporting measures that LA voters approved just four months ago in November.

Part of the reason for my silence is the difficulty of communicating these issues.  But as the stakes get higher (climate change, obesity crisis), the cost of not trying to explain how we can save ourselves become very high.  I’m going to commit to working harder to be an advocate for these issues, to do the heavy lift of explaining how it works.  I just hope I’m not getting into the game too late.

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