October 16, 2020

From LA to BC, the Futile Future of Congestion Pricing


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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In cities where there is a shortage of housing and people are living in unorthodox dwellings, how do you carry out a census count? The New York Times reports on  the challenges of ensuring that every person is accounted for in the census, which is used as the base for planning and funding cities. Federal resources are tied to the census which is done every ten years, with the next in 2020. In New York City planning department staff have already spent fifteen months reviewing addresses, finding 439,000 that the federal Census Bureau had missed, representing 13 per cent of the housing stock. These units were in illegal basement, attic, and garages, “revealed by extra door bells and mailboxes.”
Disasters and construction need to be factored in, especially with Houston’s displacement of people with Hurricane Harvey and the thousands of new built units and addresses that will be constructed in New York City in the next two years.How much federal money is tied to the decennial census?  In San Jose California as many as 70,000 residents were not counted, resulting in $20 million dollars annually  not being allocated federally for the city.
This spring, volunteers will use a texting app the city tested in December to identify these and similar units for inclusion in the Census Bureau’s master list. The app will not be available to building code enforcement or to officials for immigration enforcement.  “A nonprofit founded by the former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, Cities of Service, is hoping to spread the tool to other cities that will be receiving their address databases from the census in the coming weeks.
People forget it is an enumeration of the population, but it’s an enumeration of the population in housing units and in group-quarters facilities,” said Joe Salvo, the director of the New York City planning department’s population division. “Essentially, everyone needs to be put down on a map. Everybody needs a recognized address.”
You can find out more how federal funding is allocated through the ten-year census count at this Brookings Institute website.


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February 22, 2018

For the next week, PT founder Gord Price will be in Los Angeles – with his phone and camera.  Follow him on Instagram (@pricetags) and check in with his observations and images as he explores the city.

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It is not a good thing to smash your Tesla into the back of a parked fire truck on San Francisco Bay Bridge. A Tesla driver just did and was reported to be twice over the legal level for blood alcohol. His defense? The car was driving. As reported in the Vancouver Sun “according to the California Highway Patrol, the driver explained that his Tesla electric vehicle “had been set on autopilot,” obviating the need for him to be in control of the vehicle or, well, sober.”
The California Highway Patrol nixed that idea, and the driver was sent to jail.  But it also brings up an interesting point~is the car the designated driver if someone is intoxicated? Wasn’t the whole idea of autopilot to give the driver the luxury of paying attention to other things besides driving? Even though cars are like dens on wheels loaded with lots of fun gadgetry, Tesla still states its autopilot system is “not fully autonomous”. You can drive fast, have a good time, but “the company instructs drivers to be alert because they are ultimately responsible for their vehicle and whatever it smacks into.”
In 2016  there was the deadly crash when a Tesla Model S and its driver failed to see a tractor-trailer turning onto a divided highway. The driver had relied on the autopilot, and in the “last 37 minutes of his drive, he had his hands on the wheel for just 25 seconds. He also ignored seven dashboard warnings and six audible warnings.” Some reports have cited that he was watching a  movie  at the time of the crash.
While Elon Musk has been saying that there will be no need for an instrument panel in future vehicles, Tesla crashes have been  attracting interest from investigators. Autopilots were supposed to protect occupants and “even pedestrians” from crashes.
While it has not been determined whether the autopilot was on when the Tesla plowed into the fire truck at over 100 kilometers per hour, the firemen did note that the vehicle was unable to engage the autopilot after. “The car was towed, they said. “No, it didn’t drive itself to the tow yard.”

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Los Angeles is a city where residents have had a say in development over the past fifty years.  The Economist  writes that in 1960 that city had a population of 2.5 million and a zoned capacity for 10 million. By 2010 the population was nearly 4 million people but its zoned capacity had been reduced to 4.2 million.
While increasing density would be a prudent way to increase population and housing choice, Angelenos are fond of the single family house and have actively campaigned against density.  In 2014 half of Los Angeles was zoned for single family housing and  the city has 8,474 people per square mile~The City of Vancouver has over 13,000 people per square mile.
This is a city of  entrenched single family home owners. As Jan Breidenbach of the  University of Southern California observes “A good place to start is for politicians never again to utter the words ‘preserve neighbourhood character’,” says Jan Breidenbach of the University of Southern California. “In reality what they’re saying is, ‘Keep out’.”
There was even a  “Neighbourhood Integrity Initiative” measure that would have delayed construction  for two years on projects that do not met existing rules on zoning and height in Los Angeles. This was defeated in March of 2017 but shows the challenge in residents who like low density dwellings but also live in the second largest American city. and are wary of density. Since 1969 citizens have pushed city planning to curb density, with slow growth into the 1980’s. It was the Proposition U that limited high-rise building development and cut the allowable floor space of new commercial construction by half outside of the downtown. And that was in 1986. Proposition backers wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1987  “We’re tired of the overdevelopment, the excessive traffic and the inadequate planning that are increasingly plaguing the people of Los Angeles.”
Seems like not much has changed in thirty years.


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Its seemed like a simple thing, but became a icon in Los Angeles without really trying. When British designer Paul Smith opened up shop on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood 11 years ago he painted the concrete wall a very very bright pink. Originally thinking that this would attract passing motorists, this wall has become the message for thousands of Instagram photo takers with over 44,000 posts on the tag #pinkwall.
Paul Smith’s Pink Wall has even been featured in where Dani Mau noted “One visitor I spoke to even referred to it as a “landmark,” and as of a few months ago, it has its own security guard tasked with preventing cars from colliding with photo-takers and attempting to enforce the no-professional-cameras rule.There wasn’t one moment during my time there that the wall wasn’t at least 70-percent occupied by friend groups, couples and even entire families taking photos without any detectable shame or embarrassment.
Visitors tended not to take a quick shot and leave, but rather spend upwards of 10 minutes crafting the perfect photograph, pausing to look at the results, giggle, and start over with a new pose. The scene was more reminiscent of what might go down in front of Niagara Falls or the Eiffel Tower than your typical Instagram wall. “
Now Paul Smith’s products are not cheap, and certainly many of the folks taking photos with the pink wall may not be able to afford his products-yet. “While knowing about a brand doesn’t translate to sales now, that doesn’t mean it can’t in the future…Well, perhaps 20 years from now, when they’re celebrating a recent job promotion by treating themselves to a new work outfit (Paul Smith) or cocktail dress (Dolce), they’ll remember the brand that provided so many exciting Instagram moments during their youth.”


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We all love those ‘what-could-have-been’ features that compile pics of projects, preferably outlandish, that never got built.
The Guardian has a whole series of them.
Here’s the one from Los Angles, with a few examples:

. International Marketland – 1959 – WL Couverly

WL Couverly’s lavish drawings of the Las Vegas-like ‘Marketland’, in what was the hinterlands of Orange County, turned out to be the promotional materials for an elaborate scheme by a shady developer, Charles Camarata. The Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Pyramid of Cheops, the Parthenon, Babylonian towers, a Jewish temple, a Moorish mosque, a geodesic dome … nothing was missing – except money. Camarata never paid for the land and soon landed in bankruptcy court, his scheme a shambles.


Santa Monica offshore freeway – 1965 – John Drescher and Moffat and Nichol

Perhaps no infrastructure in Los Angeles has ever been as ambitious, or destructive, as the Santa Monica offshore freeway; a testament to the city’s mid-century car fever and its appetite to reinvent the future. Hovering over the Santa Monica bay, the $600m raised causeway, lifted over a 30,000 ft-long chain of man-made islands, would connect the 10 Freeway in Santa Monica to the Pacific Coast highway in Malibu. Stymied by budget shortages and citizen anger, governor Pat Brown vetoed the project in September 1965.

 . . Trump Tower – 1989 – Johnson Fain

In LA, Trump bragged he was going to spend a billion dollars on what he claimed would become the world’s tallest building. His architect Bill Fain delivered a gilded 125-storey office tower etched in a diamond-patterned exoskeleton. It would have dwarfed everything in its shadow – looking over one of the city’s poorest immigrant communities. David Martin also devised a skyscraper: ‘When I told Ivana [Trump] the basis of the idea was to put two diamonds together, she lit up,’ Martin said. ‘I think they were divorced a week later.’

 More here.


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