The LookOut columns
What I Say About Frank Gruber

Email Frank

Survey This, Part 1

By Frank Gruber

I hope I haven't been too boring lately with all the statistics about what Santa Monica is and isn't, because the numbers just keep on coming. I'm sitting at my desk with four new surveys, two specifically about Santa Monica.

The four new surveys are (1) the latest Santa Monica Resident Survey (reported on Thursday in The Lookout ("Homelessness Again Tops List of Resident Concerns," February 10, 2005), (2) an "Economic & Demographic Profile" the City's Economic Development Division has put together, (3) the annual "State of the Region" report of the Southern California Association of Government (SCAG), and (4) a report from the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development on California's Demographic Futures. (Links to all four reports are listed below.)

If you want to be hyper-informed about your city and your megalopolis, then spend some time with these four reports. In the meantime, I'll touch on some highlights this week and next.

I'll start with the Santa Monica Resident Survey. The City has now been taking the city's temperature for more than five years, and the most fruitful use of the new survey is to compare it to past findings and look for trends.

One of the more publicized features of the survey is the part where residents are asked to name "the one or two most important issues facing the City;" i.e., the part of the survey where the City asks residents, unprompted, to air their grievances -- but only up to two of them. (More than one-third of respondents listed only one.)

I put together this table to show the percentage of residents who mentioned different issues over five years:

Too many homeless
Too much growth
Lack of affordable housing
Lack of homeless services
Environmental issues

While concern about traffic has gone up, and concerns about growth, affordability of housing, and the environment have gone down, one can argue that the numbers on the whole are consistent in the sense that no majority of Santa Monicans can, even with two choices, agree on the importance of any one issue at any one time.

But since respondents are limited to two complaints there is something of a "zero sum" quality to the result. In other words, if suddenly there were no homeless problem, the 39 percent who mentioned "too many homeless," and the six percent who mentioned the lack of services for the homeless, would have to pick something else. The numbers for other issues would increase, but that wouldn't mean that those problems were any worse.

The flipside of that is that to the extent people may recall and mention first whatever issues were featured in a recent election, they don't have the opportunity to mention a third complaint that may be just as bothersome.

When prompted with "closed ended" questions about how they rate specific problems, the responses are even more consistent over time, although the survey did not include this kind of question in 2000. Here are the results for 2002 and 2005, showing the percentage of respondents who consider certain problems selected by the survey-makers "serious" or "very serious":

Lack/Affordable Housing

Considering the plus/minus 5 percent margin of error, there has been no change in three years.

But the problem with "prompts" is the power of suggestion: when reminded of a problem, it's easy to answer, "yes, that's serious," but we don't know what people mean by their responses. For instance, I consider nearly all efforts to ameliorate traffic congestion to be counter-productive, but that doesn't mean I don't fume and consider it a serious problem when I am caught in it.

I suspect both business owners downtown and John Maceri of Ocean Park Community Center consider homelessness to be a big problem, but other than that, they may not agree on much. (In the man bites dog department the survey found that more Santa Monicans [33 percent] say the City spends too little on homeless services than say it spends too much [17 percent].)

Sometimes the "trends," such as they are, don't have an obvious connection to observable facts. In the open-ended survey, fewer people are complaining about the lack of affordable housing than before, but we know that housing prices and rents have increased the past five years. I.e., the problem has got worse; but perhaps as Santa Monicans on average have become wealthier, they care less about it.

More people are complaining about traffic, but given the comparative states of the economy in 2000 and 2005, there's no reason to believe traffic has become significantly worse. It may simply be that because of lingering concern about the economy, fewer people are expressing opposition to growth, and have shifted anti-growth concerns to the generic category of traffic.

In any case, the City Council did the right thing last Tuesday night. After considering the survey results, as well as public testimony, the Council consensus was that the overriding priorities for the coming year should be dealing with homelessness and gang violence. I.e., they gave themselves the hard assignments.

What the resident survey doesn't measure is what people like about Santa Monica. There is no open-ended question along the lines of "name the one or two things you like" about the city. Partly that is because the purpose of the survey is to find out how well residents rate municipal services.

But while it's great to learn that 80 percent of residents have a positive attitude toward the City's collecting of trash, there are no prompts along the lines of "how do you rate the following possible causes of happiness, from very conducive to happiness to not very conducive to happiness," and then listing items ranging from the cluster of ethnic grocery stores around 12th & Wilshire, to the ability to send your kid out to the corner store at night to get ice cream, to the existence of Vidiots, or to driving home at night down PCH guided by the Ferris wheel?

* * *

If the resident survey tends to focus on what people believe could be better in Santa Monica, the City's Economic & Demographic Profile tends to show Santa Monica's strengths. For instance, the city has a highly educated population (55 percent of residents over age 25 have a least a B.A.), 60 percent of working residents are in management, professional and related occupations, and the city has a correspondingly high average household income of about $80,000 (as of 2000).

I.e., people who can choose where to live choose to live here.

Santa Monica has a strong economy, although it's been changing. Fisher Lumber, Paper Mate and Allen Janitorial Supply close; and Yahoo moves in, taking the place of MGM.

Santa Monica is changing, has changed over several decades, from a small city with an economy based substantially on small manufacturing and blue-collar jobs (and tourism) to a city that has an economy based on information (and tourism).

But some things haven't changed. Now, as 50 years ago, Santa Monica is an employment center, producing goods for a worldwide market, entertaining visitors from the region and around the world.

Santa Monica's population is about the same, too. Around 85,000 now, it was 83,249 according to the 1960 census.

Of course, back in 1960, it was a short commute from a bungalow in Sunset Park or the Pico Neighborhood to a job at Douglas or in the manufacturing belt along Colorado. That was a good thing, too, because there was no freeway; Santa Monica's municipal bus system developed its reach into Los Angeles not so Santa Monicans could commute to jobs there, but so working stiffs from L.A. could come here.

Now "information workers" pour off the freeway at 26th Street to reach their jobs at the Water Garden, the Arboretum, and the soon to be renamed "Yahoo Center."

According to the Economic & Demographic Profile there are now about 74,000 jobs in Santa Monica.

But the traffic on Cloverfield (and 4th, Lincoln, and Wilshire, etc.) is two-way. About 47,000 residents of Santa Monica had jobs in 2000 and two-thirds of them worked outside the city. But not far outside the city: according to the Profile, the average commute time of residents is 25 minutes, and since it takes ten minutes or so to get from the middle of Santa Monica to the edge, clearly most Santa Monicans work within the local "sub-region."

Let's run the numbers: two-thirds of 47,000 is about 32,000 Santa Monicans who work outside the city. Subtract the remaining 15,000 from Santa Monica's 74,000 jobs, and you have 59,000 people who commute in.

Thirty-two thousand out, 59,000 in; are we connected to the region or what?

And on that regional note, I'll end part one of this two-parter. Next week part two will consider the findings in the SCAG and USC regional surveys.

Here are the links to the four surveys:

2005 Santa Monica Resident Survey

Santa Monica's Economic & Demographic Profile

Southern California Association of Governments, State of the Region 2004

USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, California Demographic Futures:

Copyright 1999-2005 All Rights Reserved.