The LookOut columns | What I Say

Frank Gruber

The Decline of Westside Civilization?

By Frank J. Gruber

Columnist Steve Lopez of the L.A. Times has been making a one-writer argument for the continued relevance of the major metropolitan daily newspaper in the era of the 24-hour news cycle.

He's shown in numerous instances that only by means of a medium that reaches a million or so readers (emphasis on the written word there) can anyone get everyone talking about any one thing.

Mr. Lopez's most recent cause has been traffic, specifically Westside traffic, although one can argue that at least here in the trenches, traffic was one topic that didn't need touting. I'm guessing, for instance, that in singles bars throughout the Westside "how was your commute today" long ago passed "what's your sign" in the top ten list of pick-up lines.

It was refreshing to read in Mr. Lopez's first column on Westside traffic two weeks ago that the first cause he gave for the traffic problems on the Westside was the failure to build mixed-income housing near all the jobs that have been attracted to the area, although it was disappointing when he blamed the problem on the "thousands of people commuting to jobs in Santa Monica and thereabouts."

Why pick on Santa Monica? It is true that Santa Monica overbuilt office jobs while hardly building any housing, but L.A. politicians like Zev Yaroslavsky and Bill Rosendahl are passing the buck when they focus on us.

What got built in Santa Monica was small potatoes compared to Century City, Westwood, the Wilshire Corridor, etc., and no one out-NIMBY'd the residents of Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Cheviot Hills, Pacific Palisades, etc., when it came to keeping out apartments.

The interchange of the 10 and the 405 proved to be an irresistible magnet for jobs, but the Westside traffic problem goes far beyond the development that has occurred within three miles of that point. Look at a map; while downtown L.A. is still at the center of the region, the Westside is at the center of "405-Land" -- a metropolis within the megalopolis that extends from Chatsworth to Long Beach, at least.

East-west traffic is not simply backed-up from mid-afternoon on, it's particularly backed up to the 405 -- in either direction. Going east or west, get past the 405, and the traffic on Olympic or Pico typically picks up speed.

As the email responses to Mr. Lopez's columns have shown, everyone up and down the 405 has big complaints about traffic. The worst traffic I've experienced in the region is around where my sister-in-law lives -- in Costa Mesa. Maybe we're getting all this attention because until recently traffic on the Westside wasn't so bad compared to every place else.

So what to do? I'll start with a simple suggestion: let's not do everything we've done before that's got us into this mess. For instance:

Let's not expect that increasing the capacity of roads, especially to the detriment of other aspects of our quality of life, will solve the problem. (Memo to Supervisor Yaroslavsky: making Pico and Olympic one-way boulevards is a monumentally bad idea.)

Let's not expect that opposing the construction of housing will solve the problem. (Memo to Beverly Hills NIMBYs and Steve Lopez: more housing near Century City is a good thing. Vancouver, British Columbia has shown how concentrating housing near jobs actually reduces car trips.)

Let's not expect that opposing public transit will solve the problem. (Memo to Cheviot Hills residents: get over your paranoia and get behind Expo Rail. You'll be happy you did. Memo to Council Member Rosendahl and other politicians: don't oppose bus-only lanes -- build them even if it means taking lanes from private cars.)

Let's not build more office towers until we have a subway. (Memo to the Federal Government: put the new F.B.I. building in downtown L.A. near the Federal Courthouse and transit.)

Instead of doing everything we've done before, let's do something radical. Let's do something about cars.

I know what you're saying. "Traffic? Cars? What could they possibly have to do with each other?"

Economists have pointed out that congestion is a cost we pay for a transportation system that is oriented nearly 100% toward making private automobile travel really cheap.

Point being that the more we encourage people to drive -- by making it cheaper and easier -- the more congestion we'll get because in an economic theorem made popular by the late Milton Friedman, "there is no such thing as a free lunch."

In our case, Prof. Friedman could have said, there is no such as free parking. Or free highway capacity. Or free one-way streets.

This cost is not fairly allocated either. Efficient users of the roads -- the passengers on a bus -- pay the same price as inefficient users -- solo drivers.

Congestion is not the only cost we pay for an auto-centric transportation system. In the words of UCLA professor and parking deep-thinker Donald Shoup, as quoted in a Times article Saturday about the "lack" of parking along Third Street between the Grove and the Beverly Center, "'We've got expensive housing but free parking. . . . We've got our priorities the wrong way around.'"

When traffic gets bad, meaning the costs (delay, aggravation) of otherwise cheap driving increase, there is one way to buy out of the problem. You can buy housing near what you drive to -- which, for most people, at the most congested times of day, is their job. That means that housing prices go up.

We see this in Santa Monica. Sunset Park, Ocean Park and the Pico Neighborhood used to be blue-collar and middle-management neighborhoods. Now high income executives and professionals have bid up the prices of houses in these neighborhoods -- paying close to a $1,000 per square foot to live near their jobs.

And who complains most vociferously about Westside traffic? Wouldn't you know it -- the same fortunate few who can afford to live here. They bite the hand that feeds the value of their real estate.

They also whine about how suddenly isolated they are. One of the interesting subplots in Mr. Lopez's columns on Westside traffic is the plight of well-heeled Westside music lovers who can't get to downtown L.A. for the Phil or the opera, and the fear that the Phil and the opera will lose their customer base.

There is some truth to this -- my wife and I are subscribers to the Phil and the opera and I assure you that we would never subscribe to a weeknight series. But I'm not sure the future is so dire.

As traffic gets worse, two trends are happening that are good for music. One is that tens of thousands of people are moving to downtown L.A. I submit that when 200,000 middle or upper income people live in and around downtown, the Phil and the opera will have no trouble selling all their tickets. (It also wouldn't be a bad thing if the Phil and the opera had to cultivate audiences that aren't so -- how should I say it -- oh well -- so white.)

The other positive trend is that concert music is moving closer to the Westside audience. Perhaps traffic will dissuade me from attending a few concerts in downtown L.A. over the course of a year, but I won't mind so much if I can attend Jacaranda chamber music concerts at First Presbyterian Church, or concerts at SMC's new Madison Site Theater (when it opens).

These trends also create a virtuous circle. When the Phil sells a ticket to a resident of downtown L.A. who doesn't use the Santa Monica Freeway, or when a Phil ticket buyer goes to a concert on the Westside instead of driving to the Music Center, slots open up on the freeway.
Okay, you say, chamber music may on occasion be a reasonable alternative to the Phil, but what about the Dodgers? How are we supposed to get to Dodger Stadium?

There may be no baseball alternatives, but there are transportation alternatives. Thousands of people take direct buses to the Hollywood Bowl, in part because parking is so difficult there. Why can't the Big Blue Bus run buses to Dodger Stadium?

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