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Something Is Missing in This Red Line Picture

Monday, July 10, 2000
Los Angeles Times Commentary

Los Angeles: Routing of Metro and bus lines needs to be connected to land use and not based on politics.

Glenn Gritzner and Katherine Perez are executive directors of the Southern California Transportation Coalition and Land Use Coalition

The opening of the latest (and perhaps last) leg of the MTA's Red Line occurred with much fanfare and promise about the city's brightened future. At the same time, less-noticed but equally important new findings in a study from UC Berkeley researchers released by the California Department of Housing and Community Development tell us that our region's difficulties with housing construction are because of politics and not from a lack of available land, as many think.

Many people do not recognize that these two events are inextricably linked. Ultimately, it is our failure to realize this vital connection between land use and transportation that threatens the region's economic future and quality of life for millions of Californians.

The Red Line has the potential to be a great boon to both San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles city residents. But its routing and shortening of the line were mainly determined by political considerations. Similarly, the debate over where to put new rapid transit bus lines is more about the strength of homeowner groups and less about where the lines best integrate with the city.

Now relate that to the land-use debate. As an affordable-housing developer said recently, "We used to have communism to be against. Now we have density." That only mildly overstates the intensity of residents' opposition to further density in their neighborhoods. Yet we know that increased density around public transportation is beneficial to all involved. It gets people out of their cars, improves the quality of life and connects people to the larger region. In addition, the region's cities with some of the highest home values are among the densest--Santa Monica, Pasadena and West Hollywood, which is the most densely populated city west of the Mississippi. Yet density remains anathema to homeowners and policymakers.

Keep in mind that many of the same groups that oppose new housing developments (read: density) because of concerns about increased traffic and congestion also fight new public transportation projects in their neighborhoods. The contradictions are obvious.

What happens as a result? Developers look to build housing where it's easier and cheaper for them--usually outlying areas with available land. This causes sprawl. And what happens as a result of sprawl? Congestion. And what does congestion result in? Smog, stress on transportation infrastructure and reduced productivity, not to mention the social cost of less time with our families.

The Berkeley housing study also found a strong relationship between transportation problems and the lack of affordable housing close to job centers or transit opportunities. For first-time home buyers, commute times increased by 50% between 1985 and 1991. If, in response, jobs continue to follow commuters to distant suburbs, older areas will be left even further behind economically.

We pretend that good transportation decisions can be made without considering the effects on surrounding land uses. How will a given route affect businesses? What kind of homes exist there? Has any planning taken place to identify community needs for particular services? Too often, these sorts of questions are overlooked or given short shrift. Conversely, new development runs haphazard over the region, with no thought to how transportation serves those developments.

The region's continued health and prosperous future depends on decision-makers recognizing the link between transportation and land use, providing more transportation options for both urban and suburban dwellers, and realizing that not all of the region's housing needs can be met by building on the urban fringe.

Complaining about traffic, affordable housing, getting to work, parking and smog has long been a Southern California pastime. But the region's decision-makers have the tools to fix those problems. The only question is whether they will use them.

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times. May not be reproduced or retransmitted without permission.

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