WINTER 2013 — In December 2011, City and Regional Planning professor Robert Cervero received a request from Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office to help create transit-oriented solutions for the famously car-centric city. Could he come to L.A. in two days to participate in an important meeting?
Cervero, a global expert on transit and director of UCTC could not; he was out of the country working on another project.
Instead, he tapped one of his graduate students, Ian Carlton, who has a joint master’s degree in transportation engineering and city and regional planning, and is pursuing a Ph.D. from the Department of City and Regional Planning with a specialization in transit planning and real estate development.
Carlton, who had studied Los Angeles and its transit plan for his dissertation, signed on as a consultant and met monthly at City Hall with the Mayor’s team, which included representatives from the Offices of Transportation and Economic and Business Policy, the Departments of City Planning, Housing, and Transportation, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, the Bureau of Engineering, the recently disbanded Community Redevelopment Agency, and Metro.
Less than a year later, in late November, the Mayor’s office released an 86-page strategy for the city’s transportation future. The white paper
, “Developing and Implementing the City of Los Angeles’ Transit Corridors Strategy: Coordinated Action Toward a Transit-Oriented Metropolis” was authored by Carlton, Cervero, and two UC Berkeley planning students, Michael Rhodes and Ethan Lavine.
The Berkeley team also developed a database of 172 prioritized small and large things Los Angeles could do to gradually encourage Angelenos onto transit.
As Carlton explained, some are very simple.
“We said, ‘Your city employees get free parking. Why is that? And when you shut down streets for parades, you analyze the effects on vehicular traffic, but not on bus routes. You leave that to the transit agency to figure out. And when you have a big event in the city, you issue parking directions but not transit directions.'”
"The fact that the Mayor’s transportation platform includes the words “transit orientation” is a reflection of our work. Perhaps the greatest contribution the Berkeley team made was moving the city from a rigid (and unworkable) definition of Transit-Oriented Development to a broader version the team called “transit orientation.”
By doing so, the team unshackled Los Angeles from the prevailing notion of TOD as a series of “nodes,” or stand-alone transit stations, around which developers would be expected to build parks, dense housing, restaurants, etc. where residents could live, work and play.
They replaced it with a more realistic strategy that focused on transit corridors.
“The fact that the Mayor’s transportation platform includes the words “transit orientation” is a reflection of our work,” said Carlton.
Robert Cervero acknowledged the importance of such a change. “This is a study that the Los Angeles Mayor’s office has firmly embraced, and in my view represents a huge breakthrough in the field of transit and urbanism.”
The Trouble with TOD
Despite its reputation as a city where the car is king, Los Angeles has a long and storied history of mass transit. Since 1873, Los Angeles County has been served by more than 220 private and public companies operating transit systems that have included horse cars, cable cars, incline railways, steam trains, electric streetcars, interurban cars, trolley buses, and gas or diesel powered buses. In fact, in the early decades of the 20th century, Los Angeles had the largest public transit system in the world.
At the mayor’s urging, in 2008 Los Angeles County passed Measure R, a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for transportation projects and improvements over a 30-year period. It is no secret that Villaraigosa hopes to establish his legacy as the “transit mayor.”
Carlton says Los Angeles eagerly adopted the idea of transit-oriented development a couple of decades ago. But for a number of reasons, efforts stalled. Part of the problem was TOD’s restrictive definition, the varied and sometimes conflicting ways it was understood by city leaders, and a focus on politically unpopular means of implementing the urban vision.
“When people hear ‘transit-oriented development’ they think of a subway stop or light rail station surrounded by rings of ever decreasing density,” he explained. “Tall towers closest to the station, smaller buildings a bit further out, and finally garden apartments.”
In many cases, land use policies cannot be modified to allow this vision. In other cases where policies are relaxed, developing dense nodes in the middle of auto-oriented settings backfires, increasing congestion on roads leading to the very transit stations built to relieve traffic jams.
“Not every transit station needs to be conceived as a perfect ringed city. In fact, in most cases, it won’t work as planned,” he explained. “This is something Robert Cervero has been stressing for years.”
LA has focused its efforts on making development easier near transit with the hope that it will transform the surrounding neighborhoods. But zoning changes have been contested and highly politicized. In cases where zoning was relaxed, the real estate market for development centered around bus or subway stations failed to respond.
“No matter how noble a real estate project’s goal or inspirational its design, it is unlikely to succeed if it does not fulfill a need that exists in the current marketplace,” the UC Berkeley authors wrote.
“Developers show up and look at zoning rules for a particular type of building and say they simply don’t see it working in that location,” said Carlton.
Carlton delivered another reality check. “The U.S. builds only about three percent more square footage a year. Development isn’t changing the world as fast as people think it will.”
As far as real estate investment is concerned, he suggests Angelenos stop thinking about shiny new glass towers and focus on transforming old warehouses into something else. Such conversions are already underway in the city’s downtown.
“It’s easier to take an existing building and transform it into some other use than to build a whole new building—and that’s a new focus for Los Angeles. We need to think about that type of conversion for all these other transit corridors.”
Apart from the lack of interest on the part of developers, the traditional definition of TOD is unrealistic in other ways. Cities are simply not made up of neighborhoods where everybody lives, works and plays within a half mile. It’s more likely to have a transit node for shopping, another for working, and a third for living.
“Look at Manhattan,” says Carlton. “You have a rail line from lower Manhattan with high density towers to high density apartments in northern Manhattan and out to the suburbs to single family homes with parks and drives.”
The Berkeley team began with an extensive search of LA’s existing transportation policies and provided an analysis of transit-oriented development attempts from around the globe that failed, succeeded, or fell somewhere in between.
“The hard work of that ad-hoc committee, which included Professor Cervero and students like Ian Carlton, resulted in a study outlining the necessary steps for Los Angeles to create a unified Transit-Oriented Development plan and implement it."--Mayor Villaraigosa
At monthly meetings, Carlton and Cervero helped the city develop a list of goals that transit orientation must embrace, including preserving and enhancing employment, economic development, providing affordable and workforce housing, and developing community services along transit lines.
They also suggested the city form a central entity aimed at streamlining and organizing the city’s efforts to create transit corridors throughout the city. The mayor did.
Last month, Villaraigosa praised the study and the work of the Berkeley team.
“In early 2012, I tasked my City department heads with developing and implementing a strategy for transit oriented development,” he wrote in an email. “The hard work of that ad-hoc committee, which included Professor Cervero and students like Ian Carlton, resulted in a study outlining the necessary steps for Los Angeles to create a unified Transit Oriented Development plan and implement it.
“That study provided my office with the guidance necessary to create Los Angeles' Transit Corridor Cabinet, the nation's first municipal cabinet designed to coordinate City departments around prioritized action items so that the City can, with one voice, collaborate with external players who influence the future development of Los Angeles. Thanks to these efforts, we are changing the way Los Angeles moves and lives. Smart planning is no longer an afterthought, but a guiding principle for the Los Angeles of the 21st century. Professor Cervero’s team provided a solid blueprint to ensure that we maximize our transportation investments to make our City a better place to live.”