Infrastructure
February 18, 2021

SkyTrain for LA?

When SkyTrain opened for Expo in 1985, it was hoped it could become a popular alternative for rapid transit.   Other than in a handful of cities, like Kuala Lumpur, it hasn’t.   But maybe a technology of the 80s, like music and fashion, is coming back.

Consider the global impact if a SkyTrain-like transit alternative happened in a trend centre like Los Angeles.

They don’t call it SkyTrain, of course.  When they see an elevated train, Americans think of monorail (cue The Simpsons).  One of the two bidders for the project calls it LA SkyRail Express .  The technology may be different but the scale and purpose is the same.  (The other bidder is for more conventional light-rail rapid transit.

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On Thursday, the Eno Transportation Centre presented another of their webinars, this one with an irresistible title:

The webinar hosts three authors from the UCLA Luskin Centre for History and Policy who summarize the results of a just-released study:

We examined a century of programs to reduce congestion and found that several strategies were pursued over and over again in different eras. Los Angeles repeatedly built new street, highway, and transit capacity, regulated drivers and vehicle traffic flows, increased the use of information about traffic conditions, and controlled land use to influence traffic.

So what were the consequences?  No surprise, but here’s the spoiler anyway:

Congestion has been addressed in every era and in numerous ways, but always has returned.

The report gives the details decade by decade – every possibility from expanded road capacity to land use.  Except one:

Congestion pricing … based on proven theory of human economic behavior promoted for a century, proven in application to sectors of the economy other than transportation, and enabled by recent advances in telecommunications technology. It has a proven track record …

Big picture conclusion: except for a handful of cities in the world, congestion (or mobility) pricing is a policy intervention that has often been proposed but never adopted.  Despite the fact it works.  And may be the only thing that does.

TransLink, the Province, Metro Vancouver – they’ve all studied the issue, most recently in 2018 with the Mobility Pricing Independent Commission.  The conclusion was the same: some form of road pricing makes sense.  And then saw the concept under whatever name rejected by most political leaders literally within a day of its release.

Within a few hours of the Eno webinar, there was another Zoomy opportunity to get a local perspective.  A coalition of transportation interests – Moving in a Livable Region – held an all-candidates forum online with representatives from each party:

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KCET, the #2 public television station in the US, airs Artbound, an art and culture series now in its ninth season.
Urban planner Michael Gordon recommends this episode from season 8 (just under one hour) on ‘The Third Los Angeles,’ presented by Christopher Hawthorne, who was at the time urban and architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times; he is now the City’s Chief Design Officer.
Here, Hawthorne looks at “the future of Los Angeles by examining its architecture, urban planning, transportation and changing demographics, giving us a glimpse of Los Angeles as a model of urban renewal for the nation and the world.”

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From Bloomberg:

In Los Angeles, it’s perfectly legal to build a new apartment without a refrigerator, a balcony, or air conditioning. But you can’t build one without plenty of parking. In most cases, in fact, you have to build at least two spaces per unit — and no fudging with tandem or compact spaces. That makes housing much more expensive. Removing parking requirements would be one of the simplest ways to ease California’s housing crisis …
Angelenos tend to assume that if the law doesn’t require builders to provide at least a couple of spaces per dwelling, cars will be endlessly circling the block looking for spots on the street. But that’s not the case.
In 1999, the city created a natural experiment with the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, designed to encourage the transformation of vacant commercial buildings in the historic core into housing. Among other provisions, the ordinance exempted converted buildings from parking requirements. Developers couldn’t subtract parking, but they didn’t have to add it. “The law created a set of downtown buildings that faced the same market conditions as other properties — the same amenities, crime levels, and transit access — but that did not have minimum parking requirements,” writes UCLA planning professor Michael Manville in a study of the results. “The ARO therefore lets us compare what unregulated developers did with what they would have had to do if they were regulated.”
Manville estimates that between 1999 and 2008 developers created at least 6,900 new housing units in the exempted area, or more than three-quarters of those added in downtown L.A. …
What mattered, it turned out, was the flexibility the exemption provided. Some luxury buildings opted for more spots than required, upping the average, while one building provided no parking at all. Most important, the exemption allowed developers to rent parking off-site, sometimes in uncovered surface lots, instead of digging expensive garages. They met residents’ needs in ways city regulations would normally prohibit.
“Removing parking requirements doesn’t remove the problem (buyers might still want parking), but it does remove the one-size-fits-all solution,” Manville writes. “Developers can provide parking in the way they think is best, the same way they already provide pools, fitness centers and other amenities.” The result was “more housing with less parking, often in buildings and neighborhoods they had long ignored.”
The experiment worked in downtown. There’s no reason to think it couldn’t work throughout the city, especially if combined with another key ingredient in the downtown trial: eliminating free street parking. “When cities don’t give on-street spaces away for free, developers will provide — and drivers will pay for — spaces off-street,” writes Manville. Let the market work.
 

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