Thursday, September 11, 2014

It's Cheaper to Fix LA's Roads Than to Keep Fixing the Damage They Cause Our Cars. A Lot Cheaper.

According to a new study by TRIP (via Curbed LA), the poor quality of LA's roads costs drivers an average of $955 each year – more than any of the other California metro areas studied. For reference, that's more expensive than a year's worth of 30-day Metro passes, which would currently run you $900. Measure R, which is helping us build high-capacity transit, new road capacity, and funding bus operations throughout the county, costs each resident about $25 a year.

TRIP estimates that the additional costs associated with poor roads (i.e., additional wear and tear, increased maintenance and replacement costs, etc.) cost California drivers roughly $17 billion each year. That's in addition to the normal wear and tear that occurs even on pristine roads. LA County probably accounts for roughly $5 billion of that, given its size and the worse road condition here. (Sixty-five percent of our roads are rated "poor." Only 11 percent are rated "fair" or better.) The City of LA's share is probably roughly $2 billion per year, based on population.

The City has estimated that fixing all of its major roads would cost us about $3.9 billion – a terrifying number, until you consider that we're already spending that every two years as our crumbling roads shake, rattle, and jolt our cars to pieces. The obvious response should be to charge drivers a fraction of that amount each year – $100 or $200 at most, or $10-15 per month – to get our roads back up to speed, with a bit thrown in from all residents, since we all benefit from good roads (just some much more than others).

Unfortunately, that's probably not very likely. Drivers generally seem more interested in blaming the city's politicians and "moochers" like transit riders and cyclists, rather than taking responsibility for the roads they use every day. The ultimate question is, how much do drivers value the right to continue blaming everyone but themselves? If it's more than $1,000 a year, we can expect LA's poor road conditions to persist for a long, long time.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Since 1999, Downtown LA Has Built a Fifth of All Housing In Los Angeles

In a city of 470 square miles, Downtown LA is a speck: five square miles, barely one percent of the total area. And yet, since 1999, approximately one-fifth of all residential construction in the city has occurred in this relatively tiny space. And there's a lot more coming.

Downtown makes up one percent of the land area in Los Angeles, but it's accounted for twenty percent of new residential construction since the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance in 1999. Chart by Shane Phillips.

According to the Downtown Center Business Improvement District's 2014 Market Report, nearly 20,000 units have been built Downtown since the approval of the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance in 1999. Another 20,000 are in the development pipeline, likely to be built in the next 5-10 years. In contrast, data from the California Department of Finance (12) show that the city has added approximately 98,000 new units in the last 15 years.

This focused growth has paid off in a big way, as most locals can attest to, and it's a testament to what good policy can accomplish. Downtown LA is now a Walker's Paradise, a Top-Five World Destination, or America's Next Great City – take your pick. In less than 15 years it's gone from a place to sweep under the rug to a symbol of the city's evolving embrace of urbanism and multi-modalism. 

At the same time, this doesn't bode well for affordability across the metro area. Part of the reason that so much growth has gone Downtown is because most of the city is essentially off-limits to new development. While other neighborhoods fight to limit the construction of new housing, increasing pressure on the price of existing homes, Downtown has taken a very different tack, attempting to discourage under-utilization of valuable land in the urban core. 

But one neighborhood can only do so much. Without concentrated, transit-oriented growth across more of the city we won't make a dent in the demand for housing. And with 500,000 people already spending too much on their homes, the problem is only going to get worse.

Monday, September 1, 2014

No, Americans Are (Still) Not Driving More

The U.S. Department of Transportation is reporting that driving is at a six-year high, but beware the hype. As James Brasuell at Planetizen notes, these numbers are not adjusted for population and thus don't account for the growing number of residents living in the country. As always, the better question to ask is how much the average American is driving, and the answer to that is the same as it's been for years: less and less.

Here's what vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) look like when adjusted for population growth, zoomed in to start in 2005 when VMT plateaued, and eventually began to fall:

Suddenly the surge in driving doesn't look so impressive.

The DOT is reporting these numbers in order to justify President Obama's new transportation bill, the GROW AMERICA Act, but their motivations are misguided. Although the bill is a positive step forward in the national transportation policy debate – emphasizing highway repair, transit investment, and increased local control of transportation funds – Americans should be skeptical of any suggestion that spending more money on accommodating cars will do anything to ease their commutes. We've been doing that for decades, and even though VMT has been stagnant and per-capita VMT has steadily and consistently declined, we've got virtually nothing to show for it.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Reason Foundation's Broken Logic, Summed Up in Two Sentences

Real-life American humans waiting to ride a high-speed rail train (!!!).
This is from a year ago, but I just came across it while doing some other research and it was too perfect to pass up. Here's Baruch Feigenbaum from the Reason Foundation arguing why high-speed rail could never work in the U.S. These sentences are literally back to back in the same paragraph:
A U.S. high-speed rail line would need ridership of 6 million to 9 million people per year to break even. The high-speed Acela service, despite operating in the busy Northeast Corridor, averages only 3.4 million passengers per year.
With Acela capturing barely half the "minimum" break-even ridership, one might imagine after reading Feigenbaum's article that the rail service has been a catastrophic failure. Clearly, we shouldn't waste our money on any more high-speed rail boondoggles. A quick look at actual facts, however, shows that Acela is doing quite well: despite its trains, which can only travel a maximum of 150 mph; its decrepit tracks, which don't allow the trains to travel anywhere near its max speed for most of its length; and the fact that it has to share many miles of those tracks with freight, Acela is killing it.

Here's Amtrak's most recently monthly report, which shows Acela has generated over $240 million in operating profit – literally more than half of its revenues – since the beginning of the fiscal year:

Taken from the June 2014 Amtrak Monthly Performance Report, page C-1.
But you won't find Reason acknowledging uncomfortable facts like these. Unfortunately, this kind of poorly-researched, easily refutable analysis permeates the Reason's baldly politically-motivated work. For another example, you can look to Reason's roundly-criticized "report" from a few years ago, in which two of their writers declared the LA Metro Expo (light rail) Line a failure literally days after it opened. A year later, the Expo Line hit its 2020 ridership projections seven years ahead of schedule. It's almost as though they don't respect their readers enough to expect them to do any of their own research!

If I were running a Metro or any other transportation authority I'd be treating Reason's jabs and low-blows as a badge of honor. And if their previous reports are any indication, California's impending high-speed rail service is in for a bright, prosperous future.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Subtle Signs of Progress in the Urban Highway Debate

A rendering of Denver's planned I-70 widening, bury, and cap. Photo from
Last Friday, Streetsblog highlighted a project moving forward in Denver to widen, bury, and partially cap an elevated freeway that runs through the city, leaving neighborhoods divided and disinvested in a city that's otherwise booming economically. It's a sad story, especially given Denver's tendency toward smart transportation and development policy, and because bigger freeways don't do much of anything to improve traffic in the long term. It's also somewhat surprising, as other cities across the country (and the world) have seen aging urban freeways as an opportunity to heal the wounds of the past rather than doubling down on destructive development from a bygone era.

All that said, I'd like to note that even in this backwards proposal there's hope to be gleaned. First, take a look up above at the rendering for the planned highway. Now, imagine that this same highway widening had been proposed 20 or 30 years ago. Back then, would the officials proposing this expansion have bothered with extra "treats" like a freeway cap park? (They're also "promising a network of parks, open space, and transit" according to Streetsblog.) Would they be burying it in order to lessen the impact on the surrounding communities?

I think it would be a lot less likely, and small consolation though it may be, we should take heart that we're moving the needle toward transportation and development policy that acknowledges the needs of more than just drivers. It's a lot more consideration than was offered to pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, and local residents in decades past, even if that consideration is still woefully insufficient.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Why Nature Lovers Should Live Apart From Nature

I saw this quote recently and was struck by how poignantly it describes the importance of urbanism to the environmental movement, even if it wasn't the person's original intent:

Much like the flower, for many of us, to love nature is to destroy it. We move from the city to the suburb or the rural town to be closer to nature, and to make it habitable (for us) we clear-cut it for new development, pave it over and turn woods and grasslands into manicured lawns, pollute it with our vehicles, etc. In our efforts to possess a small slice of "nature," we change the meaning of the word, leaving us with something beautiful, perhaps, but far from natural. This strain of thinking is very popular in places like the Bay Area, where there's a belief that we have to sharply limit development in cities in order to preserve some semblance of nature — "how can a place so gray possibly be green?"

But environmentalism is about much more than surrounding ourselves with greenery; in fact, its true meaning is exactly the opposite. Real environmentalism means surrounding ourselves with steel, concrete, and other human beings, leaving nature to itself instead of attempting to own it and shape it to our own selfish needs. What makes cities so important is that they allow us to express our love and appreciation for nature in a healthy way: from a distance, as a societal and environmental resource that can be preserved far into the future.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Preparing for LA's Future: Fewer Parking Podiums, More Car-Share Spaces

A parking podium under construction at Wilshire & Vermont in Koreatown. Photo by Muji.

Pretty much everyone hates parking podiums.

For one, they're almost universally reviled from an architectural and aesthetic standpoint. And, even when they're built unobtrusively — as with the upcoming Broadway @ 4th building, where floors 2 through 6 will be dedicated to parking — they're a massive wasted opportunity to provide more space for people to live and work in some of the most desirable areas in the city. The same goes for pretty much every parking structure with more spaces than drivers, but podiums have a particularly unpleasant effect on the street-level experience of urban denizens. With the changing demographics of cities and the declining demand for parking in urban areas, more needs to be done to mitigate the blighting impacts of overbuilt parking facilities, now and especially into the future.

In recognition of this need, the Los Angeles City Council last year adopted a bicycle parking ordinance that allowed developers to replace up to 30 percent of their required parking spaces with bicycle parking. Not only does this make bicycling a more attractive choice, it reduces the total space that developers need to devote to parking (bikes and cars together), lowering the cost of new development and opening up land to a more diverse set of uses. In a place like Downtown LA, in addition to many other transit-oriented cities around the country, a better option would be to simply eliminate parking minimums entirely, but the bike parking ordinance is a start.

In that spirit (and because parking podiums suck) we should provide another incentive: allowing developers to reduce their parking burden with spaces dedicated to car-share services like Zipcar and Car2Go*.

Each car-share vehicle is estimated to take between
9 and 13 (and up to 32) privately owned cars off the road.
Studies have shown that each car-share vehicle takes between 9 and 13 cars off the road — and, under more optimistic study parameters, as many as 32. By allowing builders to contract with car-share services in their private parking garages in return for decreased parking requirements, the city can decrease VMT, save its residents thousands of dollars per household on the costs of car ownership, and leave more space for productive uses like new homes, offices, and hotel rooms. It can also reduce the cost of construction — parking garages can cost upwards of $30,000 or even $50,000 per space to build — and ultimately open the door to more affordable housing across the city.

This is a sensible step forward on the above merits alone, but it becomes even more appealing in light of the coming advances in driverless technology. If mass car ownership is truly to become a thing of the past, which seems likely in the coming decades, all of this space dedicated to parking is going to look extremely foolish when we no longer need a place to store our vehicles for 95 percent of the day. Reducing that space now with a reliable bridge technology like car-sharing is a smart compromise that will better prepare us for a future of greatly diminished car-dependence, and it will have the added bonus of enriching our city and its residents in the mean time.

*These are actual "sharing" services, compared to companies like Uber and Lyft which are more properly described as next-gen taxi services.