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Counting Cars

By Frank Gruber

"environment" n . . . 1. the circumstances, objects, or conditions by which one is surrounded." -- Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary

Happily I can report that Wednesday evening the Planning Commission approved the condo development at 2121 Virginia Avenue, the one I wrote about last week. ("WHAT I SAY: Who Cares," March 14, 2005)

The end was anti-climactic. Four more months, a few fewer car trips, and no one fretted about impeding traffic on Virginia Avenue. What was excruciating in November took less than a half-hour in March.

Perhaps the change in attitude resulted from the short course in traffic the Commission took Tuesday evening with the City Council. ("Talking Traffic," March 17, 2005)

That "seminar" on counting cars and such may alter fundamentally the way the City looks at future development, and, in so doing, encourage development that is truly environmentally responsible, and which creates a city that is ever more livable in all (or nearly all) senses of the word.

Why should a jargon-heavy conversation about transportation have such potential? The reason is encapsulated in the word "environmental," as in "California Environmental Quality Act" (CEQA).

It is CEQA (in fact the case law and regulations that CEQA spawned) that requires measuring and making predictions about traffic. Decision-makers then factor the data into their decisions. The primary message of the traffic experts last Tuesday was to remind Santa Monica's decision-makers that when one measures traffic, one is measuring means not ends.

That's not the way Santa Monica has done it. Santa Monica has for years elevated the concerns of a person who happens to be driving at a given moment ahead of the interests of everyone else to such an extent that four months ago several members of the Planning Commission could seriously consider rejecting homes for twelve families because every ten minutes or so there would be another car on Virginia Avenue.

The City adopted its approach -- "fairly arbitrarily" according to Council Member Ken Genser -- in response to complaints about traffic, but without considering any other aspect of the "circumstances, objects, or conditions by which one is surrounded."

A few weeks ago the City sponsored, as part of the land use and circulation element update, a workshop on neighborhood traffic. Planning staff distributed a questionnaire asking participants to rate their level of disagreement or agreement with various statements having to do with issues like cut-through traffic and speed humps.

The final statement was this: "I would rather live in a busy, successful community like Santa Monica than in a community with no traffic."

Afterwards I asked staff for a tabulation of responses to this statement; the results were that of 33 responses, 25 were positive -- and this was at a workshop designed to attract people with complaints about traffic.

Whenever we are stuck in traffic my wife gets mad at me for seeming not to hate traffic enough, so I don't want to say that traffic isn't important. In fact, I hate traffic and that's why I drive as little as possible. But when it comes to planning, it's important to keep traffic in perspective, not incidentally because efforts to improve traffic often make traffic worse. (If Caltrans double-decked the 405, would that make traffic on east-west streets better or worse?)

Keep traffic in perspective: that was the basic advice the experts gave to the City Council and the Planning Commission. They used technical language, but there are many examples in Santa Monica that illustrate their point.

For instance, they recommended taking into account the specifics of location before choosing how to evaluate transportation needs at any given place. Consider that on a typically busy day, ten cars will be backed up between the Promenade and Fourth Street on Santa Monica Boulevard. But on the "don't walk" signal, 50 or even 75 pedestrians will be "backing up" on the Promenade to cross the street.

At the same time, over on Olympic Boulevard, cars will be traveling as fast as they can. Few pedestrians will be using the street.

Does it make sense to use the same methods and standards to evaluate traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard as it passes the Third Street Promenade and Olympic as it passes 14th Street? No, but that's what the City's standards did. Even worse, because the "Level of Service" (LOS) at intersections downtown is typically lower than the LOS of intersections on Olympic, under the City's standards less of a change downtown constituted a "significant" impact under CEQA than a change on Olympic.

Third & Santa Monica: Count People Not Cars (Photos by Frank Gruber)

Although the City has caused the writing of many amusing if not hilarious traffic analyses in environmental impact reports, one of my favorites had to do with the Boulangerie apartment project. Years before Howard Jacobs started planning his project the City, in response to residents' demands to slow traffic on Fourth Street, reduced Fourth Street from four lanes to two and then, later, installed stop signs at the Bicknell corner. The predictable effect was to back up traffic.

Then along came the proposed development, and the EIR found "significant environmental impact" because new residents would add a few cars to the Fourth and Bicknell intersection -- which had a bad LOS only because the City had installed the stop signs. (Incidentally, if the City had installed a roundabout, like the one at Strand, instead of stop signs, the City would have slowed traffic and there would have been no back up.)

Fourth & Bicknell: Backed Up by Design

The panelists also made the point that as traffic gets worse, people choose not to drive. This tendency itself reduces traffic, but it has the unfortunate result that people have fewer choices. The way to counteract this effect is to increase convenience by allowing the building of more uses closer to more people (or more people closer to more uses).

For instance, someday the traffic to downtown L.A. may be so bad Santa Monica's music lovers will make fewer trips to Disney Hall, but they won't be so unhappy if they can hear alternative concerts at Santa Monica College's new Madison theater. Then their not driving will free road space for someone else's choices.

Another problem with evaluating traffic with reference only to how fast it is moving, is that the method ultimately encourages more driving and defeats its purpose. This happens because the environmental review typically requires "mitigations" that attract more drivers and encourages more dispersal of population.

For example, considering again the Boulangerie project, we know that owners of cars who live in more densely populated areas with both housing and jobs drive, on average, less. But no one calculated in the Boulangerie EIR how many fewer miles the tenants there would drive because they would be living in relatively dense and jobs rich Santa Monica than they would drive if they lived in areas on the fringe like Antelope Valley or Riverside, where most housing in the region is being built.

Ultimately, what this all means is that when considering life in a city, the definition of "environment" has to encompass more than what gets measured in an EIR. The livability of a site is just as important as the hydrology. The best way to explain this to unhappy motorists is to remind them that there is life after they park their cars, too.

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