Putting new modes in multi-modal

The silicon-enabled “new economy” is now disrupting transportation much as it previously disrupted retail, journalism, entertainment, publishing, etc. Starting with ride-sharing, and now with dockless scooters and e-bikes, infusions of new money and new ideas are colliding with a transportation system that had been locked for decades into a 20th century model that massively privileged drivers of privately-owned automobiles. While scraps of investment were thrown to “mass” transit, culturally the norms were that for car drivers, the ideal was maximal personal freedom and choice, but if you travelled by other means, nearly all aspects of the trip would be constrained.

This even applied to walking: the demands of drivers restricted walkers to skinny sidewalks and caused the criminalizing of walking under the invented concept of “jaywalking.”

Now much of this has been turned on its head, in large part because freedom to drive became a monster that consumed itself, in the form of traffic congestion. When people finally realized that infinitely increasing road capacity and space dedicated to parking was not only impossible but also counter-productive for reducing congestion, governments started to implement policies that allowed for reducing driver freedom and increasing the cost of driving, particularly in cities.

A pivotal moment was London’s implementation of congestion pricing in 2003. While only a few cities have followed with their own direct congestion-pricing programs, many, including Santa Monica, have significantly increased the cost of parking in downtown areas, which is another form of congestion pricing. Cities have expanded car-free zones, narrowed streets, and expanded facilities for pedestrians and alternatives to cars, such as wider sidewalks and bike lanes. Car manufacturers are planning for the decline of individual car ownership.

Meanwhile, in cities and regions like L.A., the public has voted to tax themselves to invest in transit. Yet for a long time many of the controversies about transit involved how to please car-drivers. It was controversial when the City decided to provide little parking at Santa Monica Expo stations. Now, with Uber and Lyft, as well as public bike-sharing programs, and with significant reductions in the use of the City’s existing parking garages, and given at the same time the success of Expo, those debates over parking seem like what they were: from another century.

And now scooters. Like everyone else, I was confused last September when Birds first appeared lined up on downtown Santa Monica sidewalks. Then I saw people riding them. And like everyone who wasn’t riding them, I got indignant, especially when I saw scooters being ridden on sidewalks.

But I’ve come around. I mean, talk about another mode in “mixed-modal.” For years transit planners have been worrying about the “last mile” problem, and sure enough someone comes along with an option that works for many transit users (not all, of course—nothing works for all) and which requires zero public capital investment. Wow. We should be trying everything we can to make this work.

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Vehicles that are not scooters blocking traffic.

Government planners are naturally uncomfortable working with for-profit partners, in a context, transit, that traditionally requires subsidy. But it’s not the first time public/private partnerships have built transportation systems. The transcontinental railroads were a public/private partnership, and since World War II America has built a tremendous continent-wide transport system consisting of airlines, airports, interstate highways, and rental cars. (But open only to those with credit cards.)

As for the criticisms of scooters and scooter riders, one need not wage generational war to realize that scooter use needs to be subject to rules. But non-riders should calm down. Frankly, while as a daily cyclist my hackles were at first raised by having to share “my” bike lanes, my attitude started to change when I realized that the complaints about scooter riders were often the same complaints made against us cyclists.

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Vehicles that are not scooters blocking an intersection (during the scrambled-walk phase).

Two things to remember are (i) that these scooters are a new thing and if Bird had asked to be regulated ahead of time, no one in City Hall would have known what to do with them, and (ii) that with education and outreach, people can change behaviors, particularly if the admonitions to change come from the peer group.

Put it this way: if dog owners can learn to clean up after their pets, and if smokers can learn not to smoke everywhere they want, two advances in social etiquette no one would have predicted 30 years ago, scooter riders can learn not to ride on sidewalks.

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Behavior modification in process.

Also, we have to be mindful of how people exaggerate the importance of new and recent occurrences. A few weeks ago, there was outrage on Facebook because of an accident on the beach bike path that involved a scooter. Accidents are bad, and motorized vehicles shouldn’t be on the bike path, but every weekend there are accidents on the bike path. As a cyclist who rides the bike path, let me say that three pedestrians walking side-by-side, blocking a lane, or racing roller-bladers sweeping from side-to-side, shouldn’t be on the bike path, either.

People didn’t need scooters to do stupid things.

And if the City is so concerned about helmets, how come it doesn’t make Breeze bike users wear them?

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Parked vehicles that are not scooters taking up valuable space.

I only have a few things to say about the competition over which two scooter companies get to participate in the City’s pilot program. To begin with, the City gets points for having the program, rather than reacting to scooters by banning them or making arbitrary limits on them as other cities have done. You can’t regulate something you don’t know about.

As for the competition among the companies, I’m less sure that the City is taking the right approach. (By way of disclosure, I’m friends with three locals who work for Bird.) As has been reported, the City asked interested companies to submit applications, answering a series of questions. A staff committee then graded the applications and made recommendations based on those grades. Unfortunately, it seems that the committee limited its review to the applications, without, it seems, considering the “real world.” (The final decision will now be made by the Director of Planning, David Martin, who apparently is not limited to the applications or bound by the recommendations.)

The result was that the committee recommended two companies for the pilot, neither of which has operated a scooter business previously. One company is owned by Uber, and the other by Lyft.

Uber happens to be one of the most reviled companies in the real world, a company that seems to treat everyone badly. I can’t see why Santa Monica would want to enter into a pilot program with an Uber company.

I’m a fan and user of Lyft’s car-sharing service, and the company is in business already with the Big Blue Bus on a program to give last-mile access to low-income transit users. As I said, however, Lyft has never operated a scooter program before and it shows in Lyft’s application.

The advantage of filing an application when you don’t have experience in a field is that you can say anything. Lyft’s application is full of clauses like, “we are committed to working with the City,” or “Lyft looks forward to working with the City,” or “Lyft proposes to work with the City.” The application tells us that Lyft “is in the process of acquiring” a company it expects will “maximize the quality of our Santa Monica presence.” It’s all air.

The City committee graded Bird’s application low, and after reading it I’m not surprised. It’s shorter and sparser than the Lyft application. Their motto seemed to be, “just the facts, ma’am.”

I also detect, however, in the committee’s shunning of Bird and Lime, the two existing scooter companies, a tendency in Santa Monica to ignore realities in the service of an ideal of fairness. This tendency does not in fact guarantee fairness, and along the way it tends to screw up results.

Ignoring the realities of Bird and Lime reminds me of how, when evaluating proposals to redevelop the Bergamot Station art center, the City ignored Wayne Blank, the master lessee of the galleries for decades, and truly the inventor of the art scene there. Blank was also the owner of important adjacent properties. When the process of determining the development team the City would work with began, it was hard for me to envision the City choosing any team that didn’t include Blank.

But that’s what the City did, and the whole process crashed and burned. The City has had to start all over at Bergamot. That’s what happens when you ignore reality.

Thanks for reading.

Turns out that when it comes to local politics we’re not so exceptional

In the last couple of posts I’ve been trying, mostly by means of rereading Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, to put anti-development politics in Santa Monica into a regional context. I’ve recently read, however, another book (and reviewed it on Huffington Post), that gives a national context for politics that we think of as quintessentially local.

The book is Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, written by Benjamin Ross, who is, among other things, a transportation activist from Maryland. In the book Ross traces the history of how America, which celebrates few concepts as highly as private property and democracy, paradoxically created a regulatory system for land that (i) subordinates an individual property owner’s rights to the rights of the group (either neighbors through a homeowner’s association or government through zoning), and (ii) reserves power over real property to only a few citizens.

Adding irony to paradox, this red-blooded American system of land control has its origins in proto-socialist ideas and ideals of pre-Civil War communalist utopians. After various false starts these ideas coalesced into a replicable format in a New Jersey suburb called Llewellyn Park laid out in 1857. The formula included controls on what individual owners could build on their properties.

As one of the first purchasers of a home site in Llewellyn Park put it (as quoted by Ross), “[e]ach Llewellyn Park property owner . . .‘possesses the whole park in common, so that the fortunate purchaser of two or three acres becomes a virtual owner of the whole five hundred.’” As Ross describes the impact of this, “[h]ere in germ is the belief of today’s suburban homeowner that property rights include a veto over building on neighbors’ land – an understanding shared by even the most ardent defenders of private property.”

From 19th century private covenants evolved 20th century zoning, which developers and governments used to assure purchasers of home sites that their neighbors would be just like them, to the exclusion of anyone else. Restrictions on the use of one’s property, Ross finds, were primarily for the purpose of preserving status, although they were also marketed as a way to preserve property values. (In classical economics, however, let alone American ideology, property values are maximized when the property owner is free to exploit the property to its highest potential.)

Clearly, citizens have an interest in regulating all uses of property and, in many cases regulation can enhance the value of property. These decisions about regulating property, however, are supposed to be made through a democratic process. What Ross finds objectionable is that decisions about real property are typically made by the property owners themselves, either through private covenants or because most land use decisions are left to local governments that only represent the people already living there.

Citizens who are affected by these decisions—such as people needing places to live—have no vote or say in the matter. If you think that this didn’t apply to Santa Monica, note that much of Santa Monica’s residential land was developed with restrictive covenants that kept out minorities. The covenants were outlawed more than 60 years ago, but to this day few minorities live where there were restrictive covenants. The minority citizens never got to vote on the restrictions.

Ross finds that people invested socially and economically in the way things are find ingenious ways to rationalize their self-interest in the status quo—specifically in the exclusion of newcomers. In his words,

Unwilling to admit – and often unable to recognize – the status-seeking motivations that lurk behind their agenda, opponents of development search for any convenient excuse to oppose something that might be built nearby. Traffic is a perennial objection, blessed by the Supreme Court in Euclid v. Ambler [the 1926 case that found zoning to be constitutional] and never since out of favor. Another common tactic is to go after the builder rather than the building. Homeowners appeal to the sympathies of the uninvolved, presenting themselves as innocent victims of oppressive developers.

Now, does this describe Santa Monica anti-development politics or what? Everyone here likes to think of our beautiful town as special, exceptional in its loveliness as well as its traffic problem, but it turns out that people all over the country have been using traffic to justify exclusionary zoning since (at least) the 1920s. (As someone who hates traffic, I wish they’d come up with something that worked.)

“[T]o go after the builder rather than the building.” So it’s not only in Santa Monica that whenever there’s no fact-based or logical argument against a development, the opponents play the “greedy developer” card (that is unless the developer is a non-profit, in which case they can play the “neighborhood character” card). Developers want to make a buck, and because they typically take big risks and work in a cyclical industry they want to make big bucks, but are they are any more greedy than, say, movie producers, who also work in a high risk industry? Or restaurant owners? Or anyone else in business?

Meanwhile, who in Santa Monica (aside from a few apartment owners) benefit from the housing crisis, which causes property values to skyrocket? In an era of scarcity of homes to buy, who benefits from restricting development of market-rate housing, particularly condominiums? Keep in mind that it’s not like anyone is proposing to build apartments or condos in single-family zones.

Homeowners “presenting themselves as innocent victims.” Hmmm. It’s been breathtaking to hear recently the kvetching from some Santa Monica homeowners about increased water rates, and mandatory 20% reductions in water use that will be imposed on some of them. And of course all that’s been turned into another rhetorical tool against building (water-efficient) apartments. Look—it’s hard to think that life has treated unfairly folks who own homes in Santa Monica, whether they’ve been sitting on their capital gains and low Prop. 13 tax rates for years or have enough dough to have bought in recently.

There’s more in the book than I can describe here. Ross shows how every well-intentioned movement you can think of, from environmentalism, to historic preservation, to growth boundaries, to expanded public participation in the planning process, to negotiating for community benefits, etc., etc., gets twisted to become yet another exclusionary tool. He even points out that residents who manage to move into apartments or condos in desirable places then often want to raise the drawbridges themselves.

However, Ross ends on optimistic note. For various reasons Americans are becoming more comfortable with city living, and these cultural changes are driving an urban renaissance.

Like in Santa Monica.

Thanks for reading.

Running Around

One reason I love living in Santa Monica is that it’s convenient. Traffic is often congested, but if you’ve got errands to do, you can put together a list and get a lot done efficiently. Santa Monica is also the home of fantastic stores and businesses, that are fun to shop at in any case. Yesterday I had a long list of errands, and I also wanted to drop my dad’s apartment and spend some time with him. I decided to keep a log and take photos along the route.

I left my house, on Beverly Avenue in Ocean Park, at 11:08. My first stop was going to be my dad’s – he lives in one of the “new” apartments built in downtown Santa Monica after the City liberalized zoning in the mid-’90s to encourage residential development downtown by allowing double the square footage of development for housing in what as a commercial zone. My parents moved here (from Philadelphia) in 2003. My mother died in 2007 and now my dad, at 92, lives there alone – he manages with help from his housekeeper Blanca Gonzales, who comes in every morning and makes him breakfast.

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Entrance to my dad’s apartment building on Sixth Street

Downtown Santa Monica is a great place to grow (or be) old in. My dad never had or needed a car here, since there’s a supermarket (Von’s) he can walk to, all kinds of services, the library, movie theaters, etc. Most of his doctors are near St. John’s, just a short bus ride up Santa Monica Boulevard. When I hear homeowners in Santa Monica, many of them boomers like me, or even older, protest against development of apartments and condos in Santa Monica, I wonder where they expect to live once they can’t drive; do they want to go straight from their house to the nursing home?

As much as I look forward to the Expo line arriving in Santa Monica, it’s made it harder for me to reach my dad’s place, which is on Sixth Street just north of Colorado Avenue. I used to drive (or bike) up Fourth Street and turn right on Colorado, but Colorado is now permanently one-way westbound on the block between Fourth and Fifth. To reach Dad’s Now I need either to take Fourth up to Broadway and then Broadway to Sixth, or take Lincoln to Colorado, which is what I did yesterday.

It took me eight minutes – which was slower than the four or five minutes it used to take, but when I arrived there at 11:16 I immediately found a parking place — in front of Ninjin, a little Japanese neighborhood “trattoria” on Colorado where Dad and I are regulars.

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My car parked in front of Ninjin, around the corner from my dad’s apartment.

I spent about 45 minutes at my dad’s. Every other Saturday Blanca is there with her friend Letty for four hours to do a thorough cleaning of his apartment and this was one of those Saturdays. He was just finishing breakfast and I had a cup of coffee and half a bagel with some slices of the gravlax he still makes. Here he is with Blanca and Letty:

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My dad, Blanca and Letty.

I got back in my car at 12:02 – my next destination was the Bank of America at Fourth and Arizona. I needed to use the ATM to deposit a check and get some cash. The Saturday traffic in downtown Santa Monica was starting to build up, especially on Colorado, but I headed up Fifth, took Santa Monica Boulevard to Fourth and I arrived there at 12:06. Four minutes of travel time.

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The Bank of America in downtown Santa Monica. This property is due to be redeveloped as part of the City’s big plans for the parcels it’s assembled on Arizona Avenue between Fourth and Fifth.

It took me six minutes to do my banking, and I was back in the car at 12:12. My next stop was Fisher Hardware at Colorado and Lincoln, where I needed to buy a new garden hose. I took Arizona to Seventh, Seventh to Colorado, and arrived at Fisher at 12:18. Six minutes of driving.

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My car in the Fisher parking lot.

I love hardware stores. I enjoyed myself wandering around looking for garden hoses, which turned out to be  displayed right near the entrance. I found the hose I wanted and also a long-neck outdoor floodlight that I needed. I spent nine minutes there and left at 12:27.

My next stop was the CVS on Lincoln just south of Santa Monica Boulevard, where I needed to pick up a prescription. From Fisher I took a left on Lincoln, drove up a few blocks, getting to CVS at 12:32 – five minutes.

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I had to wait in the prescription line, but I was only in CVS for eight minutes. I left at 12:40 and headed towards the 1100 block of Wilshire for the most fun part of my errands.

Between 10th and 15th, more or less from Santa Monica Seafood to Tehran Market, there are a great bunch of food shops on Wilshire, and I love to shop there. I found a parking spot near 12th Street and plunked a dollar in the meter for an hour of parking.

My first stop, however, wasn’t for food — it was at Elias Tailor Shop on 11th Street just south of Wilshire.

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You don’t find tailor shops like Elias in Anytown, U.S.A. Whenever we have a need for some sophisticated alterations, we go there. This time I had a jacket I’d purchased on a recent vacation, and I needed the sleeves shortened while keeping the cuffs. No problem for Elias. I dropped it off last week and yesterday I was there to pick it up.

After putting my jacket in the car, I was heading to two of my favorite stores in Santa Monica – two outposts of Eastern European cuisine, the Ukraina Delicatessen on the northeast corner of 12th and Wilshire, which, notwithstanding the name, specializes in everything Russian (particularly smoked fish!), and J & T European Gourmet Food and Deli, which has everything Polish, most famously sausages and smoked meats made on the premises.

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The Ukraina – note a couple of other great food places nearby, Beachy Cream and Callahan’s

I was shopping for Father’s Day brunch, and I was in the market for smoked fish. At Ukraina they have all kinds – salmon (in various forms), sturgeon, trout, a couple of fishes that apparently only have Russian names, mackerel, and wonderful herring (again in many forms). I bought various kinds, as well as some salami for my dad and some interesting ham for me. The Russian woman behind the counter plied me with samples and that may be the exception to the rule that there is no free lunch.

Then I crossed the street to J & T. I’d been there the week before and at home we were still working through the sausage I’d bought then, but I was looking to restock up on their smoked bacon. I bought half-pounds of two different types.

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In all I spent 45 minutes in Elias and the two deli’s. My next stop was across town – Trader Joe’s on Pico. I left at 1:30, headed down 11th to Olympic, took 20th to Pico, and got to TJ’s at 1:42 – twelve minutes driving.

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Trader Joe’s from — where else? — the parking lot.

I spent 15 minutes inside everyone’s favorite, “we-make-the-choices-for-you” grocery store – I only needed a few items. A few years ago, before the new store opened in West L.A., the store manager told me that this little store on Pico Boulevard was the second highest grossing Trader Joe’s west of the Mississippi. It’s always seemed to me that you could stand in the store and visualize mounds of food continuously entering from the back and flowing out past the cash registers.

My next stop – my last – was our cleaners in the mini-mall at Pico and Lincoln. I left TJ’s at 1:57 and arrived at the cleaners at 2:05 – eight minutes.

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I was five minutes dropping off and picking up laundry, back in my car at 2:10, and home at 2:13.

Whew. If you were keeping track, I was gone for three hours, five minutes, of which 50 minutes were spent driving. I made nine stops: my dad’s, the bank, Fisher Hardware, CVS, Elias, Ukraina, J&T, Trader Joe’s, and the cleaners.

You could look at my experience several ways. Probably someone is saying, “if traffic were better you wouldn’t have been in the car for 50 minutes.” Another person might say, “if you lived in the suburbs, you could have done most of this with one stop at the mall.”

But the way I look at it, only in a city could I have done all these things in this time frame – including visiting my elderly father (I live in a single-family house, and in most places in America, apartments like my dad’s don’t exist near single-family houses) and including finding shops like Fisher, Elias and the two delis. The traffic is part of the package, and you’re not going to find 20 types of Polish sausage at a mall.

Sure, 50 minutes is a lot of driving for what could only have been a few miles (next time I’ll track the odometer), but what I look at is how short the time was between the stops. (My cyclist friends are thinking that I should have been on my bike, but I don’t have a cargo cart!) My sister lives in the country and although there is no traffic congestion to speak of, it takes her 20 minutes just to get to a supermarket.

It would be great to reduce traffic congestion in Santa Monica, but in the meantime I’m going to enjoy the good things we have here.

Thanks for reading.

Track Records and Traffic Engineers

The other shoe has dropped, and we won’t be seeing Jeff Tumlin at any public meetings in Santa Monica. It’s too bad, because Tumlin had an ability to help people see the forest instead of the trees when it came to managing traffic. Simply put, what Tumlin was telling us, and which a lot of Santa Monicans came to understand during the LUCE process, was that if you want to reduce the amount of traffic, you need to address your policies to the amount of traffic, and that you can’t control traffic indirectly by trying to prohibit development, because in a growing region ultimately development is going to happen.

A couple of days ago I was talking to a friend, a Santa Monica resident who is active in the city and her neighborhood but not particularly involved in the politics of land-use. She had, however, been following the Tumlin controversy, and she told me that people she was talking to from the anti-Tumlin side were saying that his “theories” about reducing traffic through reducing parking and increasing density and access to alternative forms of transportation had never been proved, and that “real” traffic engineers scoffed at the theories because there was no “track record.”

I was kind of stunned. You mean, traffic engineers are bragging about their track records? Who else do they want to blame for the transportation and quality of life disasters of the past half-century? To be blunt, traffic engineers were presented with a problem of how to facilitate movement in a growing region, and they blew it.

Ever since the ’20s Southern Californians have been complaining about traffic. The solution from traffic engineers and other planners (okay, the traffic engineers weren’t working alone) was always to solve the problem by (i) increasing road capacity (meaning freeways and six and eight lane “boulevards” with vestigial sidewalks), (ii) dispersing development (sprawl), and (iii) requiring parking everywhere. On the short run, when the concrete was fresh, these policies could help some people get around in their cars (while impoverishing the urban core, but that’s another story), but on the not-so-long term the result not only was our long regional traffic nightmare, but also some of the ugliest urban vistas in creation, elephantine carbon-footprints, and a world where millions need to drive to the gym to get the exercise equivalent of a good walk.

So let’s get this straight: now that there’s no room to build more freeways or to widen the boulevards, now that we’ve reached the limits of sprawl, and now that we can’t build an 800 square-foot apartment without building 700 square feet of parking, the traffic engineers are saying that people who want to try another approach don’t have a track record?

I should say at this point that what Tumlin proposes has by now gone beyond the theoretical stage (and didn’t originate with him anyway, as he would tell you in second). Nonetheless, let’s assume, like the intelligent design folks say about Darwinism, that we’re just talking about theory, and let’s acknowledge that in the history of urban planning, like in the history of everything else, there have been some disastrous theories.

But does that mean we have to keep banging our heads with something that didn’t work?

What Jeff Tumlin proposes for Santa Monica isn’t for the benefit of developers. It’s for the benefit of us.

Thanks for reading.