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By Road, Rail and Foot, a Revitalized Metropolis

Smart transit, along with well-conceived housing, will spur downtown revival.

October 19, 2003|Hank Dittmar and Gloria Ohland | Hank Dittmar is president and Gloria Ohland is a staff member at Reconnecting America. Their forthcoming book is "The New Transit Town: Best Practices in Transit-Oriented Development."

Debates about transportation and cities almost always generate more heat than light.

Take the bus-versus-rail debate that's raged here. Advocates of each mode have extolled the virtues of one while dismissing the other with disdain. But there's nothing like a transit strike to make it clear that this is a false dichotomy. A city as big and complex as Los Angeles needs both bus and rail -- along with shuttles, car-sharing, bicycle lanes, a better walking environment and every other alternative to commuters driving alone in their cars that's available.

Another false debate is the one about cars versus transit, with champions of the automobile contending we shouldn't waste money on transit when so few people use it. But this argument ignores the fact that each transportation mode works best in an environment where housing density and land use and government policy support it. In Los Angeles, ever since the postwar years, these factors have all been aligned to support auto use.

A third debate pits advocates of smart growth against free-market enthusiasts, who argue that the reason developers build single-family homes in ever-more-distant suburbs is that people want such housing. No amount of social engineering, they contend, can buck the economic forces driving this outward sprawl.

Luckily, even as we debated these things, Los Angeles continued to invest in public transit, including the six popular Metro Rapid bus lines and the Gold Line, which offers rail service between Los Angeles and Pasadena. There are now 411 miles of rail and 89 stations in L.A. County, which is less than half the rail system we had in the 1920s but enough to provide the opportunity for significant transit-oriented growth and development.

It's just in time, too, with the recent uptick in smog to the region and the clear repudiation by communities of plans to expand the Ventura and Long Beach freeways -- in spite of intolerable traffic. That traffic, combined with tectonic shifts in demographics, consumer preferences and employer-location strategies, has made social engineering unnecessary. It's shifting consumer demand away from single-family homes in the suburbs and toward transit-oriented development in the city.

Dowell Myers of USC has estimated that 30% to 50% of the demand for new housing in the Southland will be for smaller residences in dense, walkable communities. There have been media reports recently about how people are factoring commute times into their home-buying decisions. And there are other trends at play, too.

One is a resurgence of interest and investment in America's downtowns, driven by demographic changes that include the aging of baby boomers, the increase in immigration and the preponderance of "nontraditional" households without children. These are individuals and families who are less interested in a quarter-acre lot in a distant subdivision than they are in the diversity, cultural richness and 24/7 lifestyle of cities.

At the same time, America's suburbs are maturing and becoming increasingly diverse. In the competition with newer suburbs to remain attractive to businesses, employers and residents, they're having to reinvent themselves and become more than bedroom communities: They're having to become more like traditional cities, with town centers that provide urban amenities. Monrovia, Valencia, Santa Clarita, Fullerton and Brea are among those suburbs that have created successful downtowns in their search for a sense of place and a soul.

Another trend is a renewed interest in rail. Virtually every major American city planning or constructing some form of rail or busway system, and states are joining to plan high-speed rail systems to link metropolitan regions in the West, Midwest, Northeast and South. But the new popularity of rail also has a downside: Competition for federal funds is so intense that the wait for new project funding is almost 50 years.

At the convergence of all these trends is a potentially substantial market for a new form of walkable, dense, mixed-use development that supports increased transit use, walking and biking. This transit-oriented development holds the promise of revitalizing neighborhoods while reducing environmental impacts. These neighborhoods also lower transportation costs by as much as 20% for families, which is significant because transportation is the second-highest expense after housing for many families.

This is the kind of development that occurred in the day when real estate barons, not public transit agencies, owned and operated transit lines not to profit from fare box revenues but because it made the land around stations profitable to develop. That link between mass transit and development was broken in the postwar years when cars became the preferred mode of travel and government enacted policies that made driving convenient and the suburbs developable.

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