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The Road to San Dimas

By Frank Gruber

On Monday, Governor Davis came to Rancho Cucamonga to dedicate the first six-mile stretch of a 28-mile extension of the Foothill Freeway.

"Primacy of the Car Is Over, California Governor Declares," ran the headline in the New York Times on Tuesday. "Standing atop eight lanes of grooved pavement ... Gov. Gray Davis ... dedicated the latest section of freeway to be built in California and declared that it would be the last."

The story was the lead article in the "National Report" section, and then in an editorial in Wednesday's paper entitled, "The Last Freeway," the Grey Lady ruminated on the implications of the stunning fact that at present California has no plans for new freeways.

Yesterday, the Times continued the theme with an op-ed piece about how cities around the nation are turning central city freeways into parks.

The Los Angeles Times viewed the ribbon-cutting in less epochal terms. Its headline read: "Extension Makes Foothill Freeway an Easier Street," and quoted "traffic-weary neighbors" saying things like, "It's going to help ease congestion from Rialto to San Dimas."

But the local paper did not ignore the historical context, as the lead paragraph of their story also included the point that the Foothill "may be the state's last major freeway extension project."

What does this mean? Are we really at the end of the freeway era that started in the 1930's?

Just think: archaeologists digging 10,000 years from now will find a battered green sign saying "EAST San Bernardino" under a pile of concrete and styrofoam cups and date the whole pile from between 1940, when the Arroyo Parkway opened, to 2006, when construction should end on the last segment of the Foothill.

There are other signs that Southern California is about to enter a new era, as yet undefined, in the continual process of redefinition that has characterized the region ever since the Europeans arrived.

According to "Sprawl Hits the Wall," the essential study the Southern California Studies Center at USC published earlier this year, for the first time in our history much of our population growth -- 40 percent -- is occurring in existing areas with little "raw" land and most of our growth is due not to immigration, but to "natural increase," the excess of births over deaths.

If Southern California is becoming more dense, if new freeways will not open up new deserts for new houses, what are the implications? While today we may be suffering a freeway "hangover," we have to admit that the party was pretty good. Can we sustain the prosperity and quality of life that defined Southern California to the world?

One thing is clear. To make this work is going to take money and lots of it. The need for investment, both public and private, will be huge.

First and most obviously, for transportation. Right now, people are fretting that for all the money we have spent on mass transit, there has not been much improvement in traffic or large increases in the percentage of commuters using transit.

We need to relax about ridership. Just as freeways start out empty, and end up full, mass transit projects will gain riders as land use decisions are made to take advantage of the transportation opportunities. Already, the MTA has had to retrofit the Long Beach light rail line, our oldest, to allow for longer trains.

Nor should we have unreasonable expectations. All drivers do not need to switch to public transportation for public transportation to be successful or for our existing freeways to continue to be effective. As happened back in 1984, with the Olympics, a relatively small reduction in motorists can go a long way toward improving traffic. While because of latent demand the freeways will never flow as smoothly as originally intended, we can keep them moving with incremental improvements in public transportation.

And with land-use decisions. If by bringing jobs and housing closer together we can reduce the average commute distance, our freeways and streets can serve more people without increasing the amount of traffic.

Certainly better transit and better land-use decisions will be as effective as adding more road capacity. Just as the 105 did not relieve traffic on the 10, the Foothill extension will not "ease congestion from Rialto to San Dimas."

Besides transportation, to accommodate density we will need to make huge investments in housing, schools and parks, as well as the rest of our infrastructure. But increasing density will save us from having to build the same infrastructure in outlying areas with much less efficiency.

Consider parks. People like to blame density for a lack of open space, but that's not the case. In Santa Monica, for instance, aside from the beach, we have 141 acres of parks and 3,609 acres of residential. If our housing was only five percent more dense, saving 180 acres, and our founders had set aside that land for parks, we would have more than twice the park land we have now.

Now, unfortunately, we have to use the wealth created by density, reflected in the increase in property values, to buy land for parks, but we must keep in mind that the poverty of the public realm in Southern California is not a product of density, but of lack of density.

Au revoir, but let's hope not goodbye, to John Catoe, who is leaving Santa Monica and its wonderful bus line for the bigger pond of the MTA, where he will surely do great work. I was privileged to see John in action when I was on the Planning Commission and the Design Working Group for the downtown plan, but I really became a believer when he changed the slogan written on the backs of bus stop benches.

The benches used to say "Courtesy of Santa Monica Municipal Bus Lines," which was like doctors putting a sign on the seats in their waiting room, "Courtesy of Such and Such Medical Group." In an action indicative of his view that transit riders were clients, not cattle, John replaced the "Courtesy of" signs with, simply, "The Big Blue Bus."

I expect to write more about this next week, but anyone interested in planning, or anyone who complains about planning decisions, should attend the next meeting of the Downtown Parking Task Force, Thursday, September 6, 6:30 to 8:45, at Ken Edwards Center. City staff intends to release and discuss an unprecedented (for Santa Monica, at least) analysis of how the availability of additional parking will affect traffic.

As I have said before, these sparsely-attended meetings, where top-flight consultants present information and analysis to an extremely capable task force, provide the intellectual content of a post-graduate seminar in a real world setting. "Not just for planning junkies."

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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