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Smart growth? Wise up

Though the concept hasn't delivered on its promise of getting us out of our cars, that doesn't mean it's a failure.

July 11, 2007

SMART GROWTH, we want so badly to believe in you. You were centrally planned by the greatest minds of our time, conceived in an atmosphere of collective purpose and self-criticism, built to the greenest specifications and fired by a bold vision: victory over the individual will and the creation of a new citizenry for a new century.

If only you would work.

A recent Times look at how four "smart-growth" or "transit-oriented" developments (TODs) have transformed local traffic patterns raised the dismaying possibility that they may be doing the opposite of what advocates promised. New Urbanist planners have long hoped that building high-density, mixed-use, multiple-unit developments on or near public transit lines would encourage Angelenos to leave their cars and start taking buses and trains. Instead, the properties that Times reporters studied have substantially increased vehicular traffic.

Evidence for TODs' ability to reduce congestion has been failing to pile up for quite some time. According to Federal Highway Administration statistics, between 1990 and 2000, during which time the Metropolitan Transportation Authority introduced the Blue, Green and Red lines, the percentage of L.A. residents taking mass transit -- bus and rail combined -- increased from a paltry 4.5% to a measly 4.6%. Since then, statistics haven't been much more encouraging. The best evidence is that TODs may produce some marginal percentage increases in transit ridership -- and these percentage increases are swamped by the large numbers of new residents and shoppers attracted by high-density, mixed-use developments.

A growing region needs housing, and this alone may be justification for the billions of public and private dollars that are being spent on new multi-unit developments. But the magical thinking that has informed so much of this development -- the belief that, in the words of one New Urbanist manifesto, "transit, pedestrian and bicycle systems should maximize access and mobility throughout the region while reducing dependence upon the automobile" -- has failed, at least so far, to prove itself on the ground.

Still, if the TODs that are radically transforming Hollywood, downtown and other neighborhoods have not compelled people to change their behavior, they do have the potential to attract the kind of residents who seek a traditional walking-around urban experience. Reducing the rate of congestion growth will require a vast array of policy solutions and options for residents, and smart growth may be part of that.

We still want to believe.

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