In the man-bites-dog department, Santa Monica Patch recently linked to a story that showed that the average commuting time for most of the roughly 48,000 workers who live in Santa Monica was about 25 minutes — less than that of workers who lived in most of the rest of the L.A. region.
Actually, the story the Patch linked to was from WNYC, the public radio station in New York, and it was about long-distance commutes into New York City. The article, however, included an interactive map that provided access to data about commuting that the U.S. Census had obtained through its American Community Survey. The map is interactive in that you can enter a zipcode and move the map to that location; by moving the cursor over the map, you get the average commute times for different zipcodes.
The Patch entered a zipcode from Santa Monica (you can do this, too) and found that even though the consensus on the Westside is that traffic is worse here than anywhere else, in fact there is a swath of zipcodes running from the beach in Santa Monica to Westwood and Rancho Park where commuting times are lower than those in most of the rest of the L.A. region.
The average commute for someone who lives in 90404, in the center of Santa Monica, is 24.3 minutes, which is slightly less than the national average of 25.4 minutes. Being anywhere near the national average is quite good for L.A.
So how can it be that it’s often so hard to get around in Santa Monica, but Santa Monicans who work have relatively good commutes? The answer is that there are a lot of jobs in and near Santa Monica. While we often focus on the downside of our city’s being a job center, for people with jobs who live here it’s a good deal. Because Santa Monica and the Westside have a lot of jobs the average Santa Monican has a shorter commute than the average person who lives in a more suburban part of the region farther from jobs.
And it’s not only Santa Monicans with jobs on the Westside who benefit. My wife teaches at USC and her commute, depending on when she leaves the house, averages around 25 minutes. But more significant, her commute is no worse, and perhaps better, than it was 20 years ago. Because of all the jobs in Santa Monica and on the Westside, when she leaves for work she’s sharing the road with fewer Westsiders; remember when the commuting pattern was the opposite of what it is today? It’s not that there are fewer jobs east of the 405, there are fewer people going to them from the Westside.
I have long argued that in the ’80s the City permitted too much office development — 9 million square feet rather than the 4.5 million forecast in the 1984 General Plan — because that unbalanced development threatened Santa Monica’s historic character as a sub-regional center for both jobs and housing. (Imagine if those extra 4.5 million square feet had been developed as housing rather than offices — our traffic situation would be better and the School District probably wouldn’t need to import out-of-district kids to balance the books.)
But it’s still important to analyze the reality of who (aside from developers) gains from any kind of development.
In this case, it’s not only commuters, but also homeowners who have benefited from the concentration of jobs. Because people want to live near their jobs, and have shorter commutes, a lot of people want to live in Santa Monica and that goes a long way to explain why home values were relatively stable here during the downturn (and why most current development proposals are for housing). Santa Monicans who expect their equity to help pay for their retirements should be happy that people want to live here.
But we all wear different hats at different times. My wife and I commute, and we also own a home, but we also like to visit friends who live east of Centinela and we like to attend events in downtown L.A. When traffic has you trapped in Santa Monica in the late afternoon and evening, it’s hard to remember your good commute or even think about what the house next door just sold for.
Thanks for reading.