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Frank Gruber

100 Solutions or One?

By Frank Gruber

Twenty-five years from now when activist Jerry Rubin is an old man and the 100 or so ficus trees that aren't being removed from Second and Fourth Streets this year are dying as they reach the ends of their life spans -- that is if they haven't died already from disease -- the younger generations of humans then living in Santa Monica will be grateful that back in 2007 the City replaced 54 old ficus with 139 gingko saplings.

In a forest, nature sees to it that there are always trees in different stages of growth. In an urban forest, people have to do the job. You can't wait until all the trees on a street die on their own.

Planting trees is how we give the future a reason to remember us fondly.

* * *

That was quite a workshop the Planning Department threw on Saturday on the circulation element of the general plan. Attendance was high -- about 140 people registered -- and nearly all of them stayed the entire five hours.

Reports of the demise of public interest in the land use and circulation element update process (LUCE) seem premature.

There were two components to the workshop. The first was mutli-part lecture on mobility in general and in Santa Monica in particular by Jeffrey Tumlin, the City's consultant. Much of the lecture was, using Mr. Tumlin's word, "wonkish," but the audience, based on the questions they asked, ate up Mr. Tumlin's theories, concepts and data.

The second component was "table work" during which participants working in small groups both evaluated different approaches identified by Mr. Tumlin and formulated their own proposals and ideas. They marked up big maps of the city, which later were displayed around the room, and presented their ideas at the end of the day.

Photos by Frank Gruber

As I mentioned above, there was nothing simplistic about Mr. Tumlin's talk. It was so not simplistic that it's hard for me to summarize it here. Suffice it to say that he dug deeply into all the factors that cause traffic congestion in Santa Monica, and suggested actions that the City could take, realistically, to alleviate the problem if not "solve" it.

These actions did not involve simply making cars move faster. In fact, he argued that the City's bigger goals at times, on certain streets, could be better served by slowing traffic. Mr. Tumlin's advice was to focus as much or more on quality of life and "accessibility" rather than "mobility." As he pointed out, mobility is itself not a goal, but a means to achieve ends -- to "access" them.

In other words, if the problem is how long it takes to get somewhere, the problem can be solved either by speeding up the journey (the traditional approach that has created the current untenable situation) or by bringing the destination closer to the starting point.

What was interesting about Mr. Tumlin's analysis was how well residents "got it." We're so used to the dialogue about traffic in Santa Monica being dumbed down by the regulars who attend City Council meetings -- and sometimes by council members themselves (remember "it's the traffic, stupid"?) -- that it was almost shocking to see how sophisticated Santa Monicans are.

Although not really. Whenever a large, representative group of residents come to a LUCE event, going back to the very first event that occurred in January 2005 in the same cafeteria at John Adams Middle School, they show a much more subtle grasp of urbanism than the sloganeering and vitriol that typifies the testimony at council meetings.

An example of the dumbing down of the discussion about traffic in Santa Monica is the controversy over how the City measures traffic. This issue, which seems as if it should be technical, has become political.

Anti-growth groups like the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City have argued that the City's efforts to evaluate traffic flow at intersections during peak periods do not capture the enormity of the traffic problem in Santa Monica, and that therefore until the City has counted every car (more or less), the City should not allow more development.

Mr. Tumlin's analysis turned the issue on its head. What he pointed out is that the City's analysis of traffic, which solely evaluates the movement of cars, fails not because it doesn't count enough cars, but because it doesn't evaluate anything else -- such as movement by other means, or by the impact on the environment of different transportation alternatives.

The City's overall goal is to be sustainable, but the City, when it comes to transportation, only measures travel by car, the least sustainable alternative. Counting more cars isn't going to solve anything.

Streets, for instance, are only evaluated by how many cars they are expected to accommodate ("arterial, collector, feeder, local"), not by their other functions (retail, residential, industrial, etc.). A single-passenger car is counted the same as a 40-passenger bus as it goes through an intersection.

Meanwhile, by focusing on cars and how fast they get through intersections, the City ignores the duration of a trip, which is more important than its speed. If my supermarket is less than a quarter mile away, I don't care if I have to wait a minute for a green at the one big intersection between it and me.

As I said, the Santa Monicans at the workshop ate this up. Their ideas elaborated on the "metrics" needed to measure mobility holistically. But then this isn't surprising, given the history. If you go back and read the City's 1984 general plan, you'll find that the goal even then was to reduce miles traveled by car.

At the end of the workshop, I was left with only one suggestion. As one participant had said in a comment, the employees who commute into Santa Monica, and who create (and suffer from) our worst traffic congestion, were not present.

When you think about it, it's the commuters who are crucial to improving mobility and accessibility in Santa Monica. Our traffic problems reach their peak in the afternoon when thousands of them leave the city in all directions.

The planners need to hear from these commuters about what transportation services they need that would get them out of their cars, and for the benefit of them and us, the City needs to design future transit with their needs in mind. And there is no reason to wait for Expo rail or the Subway to the Sea.

Mr. Tumlin said many things, but one summarized everything. He offered no magic bullet, no big solution. He said there was none. But that didn't mean we were helpless. We can still improve the quality of our mobile lives, even in a changing world.

What he said was that "one big solution will not work as well as 100 small solutions."

Amen to that.

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