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When More is Less

By Frank Gruber

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) hosted two public "scoping sessions" last week to garner public comment on a proposal to add a northbound "high occupancy vehicle (HOV)/carpool lane" to the 405 between the 10 and the 101.

If later this decade, or even in the next decade, you are stuck on the 405 in an interminable construction zone, you may think back to 2002 and recall that it all started at these scoping sessions.

In 1999 the Surface Transportation Policy Project published a study showing that the delays caused by the construction of many highway "improvements" may never be made up, because before the completed improvement has created more cumulative mobility than was lost during construction, traffic "induced" by the improvement will have returned congestion back to where it was before the start of construction. (See

The 405/HOV lane project is one of more than 140 transportation projects Governor Davis bundled together in a multi-billion dollar initiative he optimistically called the "Traffic Congestion Relief Program" (TCRP). A quick look at the project list reveals that about half the projects are sensible improvements to public transportation, while the other half are futile attempts to wring a bit more capacity from the existing network of highways.

One TCRP project is a $4.5 million study of a 40-mile stretch of the 101 from downtown L.A. to Thousand Oaks. As quoted in the L.A. Times, our normally clear-eyed State Senator Sheila Kuehl obtained funding for this project when she was in the Assembly. According to Kuehl, this three-year analysis "is not going to be just another study."

Wonderful, but what's to study? For years NIMBYs have frustrated efforts to build cross Valley mass transportation, at the same time that restrictive zoning in the Valley and unrestricted growth on the fringes have pushed and pulled development west into Ventura County and north into the Antelope Valley.

A better use of $4.5 million would be to buy 20 buses for the MTA's popular Metro Rapid service.

But I should not criticize Kuehl. The best chance to do something about traffic is encapsulated in her recently enacted bill requiring large new developments outside urban areas to show that they have enough water. If Kuehl's new law creates de facto "urban growth boundaries," then California may have taken its first steps to assert control over the automobile.

Since the 1920s, politicians at every level of government have promised to do something about traffic. But their knee-jerk, bread and circuses solution of adding more and more roadway capacity has consistently backfired, as these highways and widened streets have induced more traffic, directly by enticing drivers to the (temporarily) open road and indirectly by encouraging land-use patterns that require more driving.

The total miles travelled by car have increased much faster than population, indicating that traffic congestion is not caused by population growth and attendant development, but by the pattern of growth and how we invest in transportation infrastructure.

Does anyone think traffic can be fixed? Before you answer that question, consider that the interchange between the 405 and the 101 was built to handle 200,000 cars a day, but at present handles 530,000.

In other words, even assuming only a minimal increase in drivers, to reach the standards the traffic engineers in the 1950s originally envisioned, we would need to build two more 405s and two more 101s.

Try this free association test: I say "northbound HOV lane over the Sepulveda Pass." If you respond with "useless," congratulations. You have proven your sanity.

If I then say, "costs $450 million," and you say "pork barrel," then you should be governor.

What does this mean for Santa Monica? In our city, politicians' promises to "fix traffic" focus on the alleged impacts created by specific buildings that in many if not most cases merely redirect traffic that already exists. Santa Monica evaluates traffic intersection by intersection, sometimes basing decisions whether to "mitigate" traffic (i.e., add capacity) on the addition of even one new car to an intersection.

Traffic "in gross," however, results from bigger, regional decisions. A driver who would commute from Ahmanson Ranch or Newhall to downtown L.A., Hollywood, the South Bay or Santa Monica, creates traffic all along the way. Increasing the capacity of the 405 will not relieve congestion on the freeway, but it will put more cars on the street, reducing mobility overall.

When it comes to highways, more is less.

About 50 people attended the Caltrans scoping session in West L.A., including Santa Monica City Council Member Kevin McKeown and Planning Commissioner Darrell Clarke.

Notwithstanding the absurdity of even the idea of spending $450 million for the HOV lane, there are grounds for optimism.

For one, even if the governor still wants to spend billions on non-solutions, the professionals at Caltrans are no fools. They know all about how additional capacity induces traffic. As Ron Kosinski, Caltrans Deputy District Director for Environmental Planning, told me, "the state realizes we cannot build ourselves out of congestion."

According to Kosinski and other Caltrans officials, no decision has been made to build the HOV lane and studies are underway to evaluate various mass transit alternatives, some of them quite dramatic. An MTA representative confirmed this. Caltrans and the MTA will release the results of these studies in October, at which time there will be another round of hearings.

In the meantime, or at least until January 30, you can send comments about the project to Ron Kosinski at the Division of Environmental Planning, Mail Stop 16A, Caltrans, District 7, 120 South Spring Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012.

* * *

When I started writing this column the public process for designing the Virginia Park expansion was, to say the least, well underway. I have kept my two cents in my pocket, not wanting to advertise my ignorance of what had gone on before.

I did, however, watch most of the public testimony at the City Council hearing Tuesday night. While it appeared that Karen Ginsberg and the rest of the City's planners had good answers to the criticisms raised against the plan, the public discussion was fascinating.

Residents spoke earnestly and intelligently about important questions that do not necessarily have definitive answers. Will community be better served or created by landscaping that is friendlier to a farmers market and outdoor classes for seniors than it is for soccer? I sure don't know, but it was wonderful to hear people argue about it.

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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