Pearl-grasping and the Reason Foundation’s Regional Mobility Plan for Southern California

It seems that the required response to the Reason Foundation’s Mobility Plan for Southern California is to grasp our pearls and get all sniffy about how bad it is, but folks, you gotta understand: I’ve been doing this a long time, and just about all plans with a strong point of view also usually have aspects that are politically, economically, or physically not very likely. I’ve sat through presentations about hovering pod cars and harvest-your-own locavore restaurants on high speed rail. Plans are supposed to have vision, and sometimes, vision shows us the impractical as well as the practical. The plan seems to have been authored by Baruch Feigenbaum. This is, on its face, odd: planners like me usually assume a plan is going to be produced not by single individuals, but via a process, and I am pretty sure that if I authored a plan on my own there would be some pretty outre parts to it, too. I don’t know Mr. Feigenbaum, btw, so I have neither animus nor affection.

Conceptually, I like how the plan addresses one, single issue with a cost-benefit perspective. I think the intellectual backlash on cost-benefit assessment has been well-deserved, but agencies have continued to use cost-benefit language, weakly and not very convincingly, because so many of the projects being schilled tout assumed benefits from climate change to obesity prevention. But here we have an explicit touting up of envisioned toll revenues and project costs. I have my problems with the assumptions on the cost side, but I usually do. At least when these are stated, and connected to a price that people would be expected to pay, we get some clarity on the balance sheet. Now, I do agree that cost-benefit isn’t everything, but it also should not be *discounted* when we look at making public investments simply because it might not make the rail projects we love so much look as shiny as we want them to look. If we don’t think about the balance sheet at least some, our investments are likely to disappoint.

I also think that we could be doing a bit more with express buses and BRT in southern California. I question the use of the BRT label for parts of the proposed network; I doubt we’d necessarily need BRT in the strictest sense on the freeway lengths where it is outlined, but I think the intent is simply to suggest the sort of dedicated lane suburban busways we find in Toronto. I’d actually like to see about a year’s serious experimentation with the idea before I got all “This is stupid” over it. Right now, people in those locations can either carpool, drive alone, or take Metrolink, and that’s not much of a choice set. Yes, Metro already has some of these ideas in their plans, but what of it? New plans always include things from existing plans if either the former or the latter are any good.

Further, southern California could do, in theory, a lot more with corridor management than it does. This plan emphasizes managed arterials, and by managed, we should think managed and priced. I am less sanguine about the prospect of pricing arterials than I am about pricing freeways. I’d like to see people get used freeway pricing first. The general theory is the same: replace unpredictable congestion costs with explicit prices as way to a) help people decide whether they value a trip enough to pay for it and b) generate revenue to pay for the system. I’m just a little worried that it’s much easier to Waze your way around arterials where you have to pay and get on streets not really designed for high traffic volumes, and while I have no sympathy for West siders pissed that they might have to deal in their backyards with traffic when they, themselves, drive constantly, displacing traffic from roads with higher design standards to lower design standards might present a safety loss. It might be, in theory, that the arterial was managed so well with prices (and other improvements) that it would take traffic off those streets onto the managed arterials because the value for money would be so good, but theory isn’t decisive here. It is an empirical question.

That said, the reason we do not have as much corridor management as I would like isn’t that local area professionals are not smart enough to see the advantages, but as usual, disparate jurisdictions and interests within those jurisdictions disagree on the ends for corridor management. For residents, the ends are to slow traffic down and get it to go elsewhere. That’s hardly a congestion solution. From a regional perspective, the idea is to increase throughput overall. And because those two are irreconcilable in one mode (the auto), we have…bike lanes, transit, and walking proposal galore that may, or may not, improve congestion.

Finally, I think the plan highlights points where the problems of auto congestion really are severe. We discuss the TTI report about overall levels of congestion every year, and we all sigh when LA comes out on top…and we all drive in the region all the time, and then go to places, like Washington DC, and then figure out that David Levinson is actually right: congestion is much worse in those regions than it really is on a day-to-day basis in Los Angeles. Yes, you get more delay in the aggregate when you cause 10 million people 10 minutes of delay than you do when you cause 1 million people 30 minutes of delay, but qualitatively, those are very different experiences. To wit, LA has some bad bottlenecks that generate quite significant delays as a part of the total, and we just physically are not going to get more out of the infrastructure that is there, even with better management, and in those places, the Reason plan puts in tunnels. Now, I don’t think these are feasible, but I also would point out: if you don’t like those, then what’s your idea? Those are places where, if this were a different plan produced by different people, the map would have little red links decrying these as “problem zones.” Treating those problem zones as problems strikes me as a useful idea, even when the alternative offered may not be, and even though we know these are problem areas already.

We could decide, as UCLA’s Brian Taylor has urged us, to just say that congestion isn’t a problem to solve, but a condition of urban life. I’m willing to go there to some degree, but my urban economist hat notes that if you really hate sprawl, those problem zones actually do represent a problem because they note areas where there are strong economic incentives to move activity to the other side of the bottleneck–maybe not in the next 10 years, but in the next 20 to 30.

I think a lot of pearl-grasping is just that the people who think of themselves as the legitimate commentators/experts on LA transport are pissed because their favorite thing, rail rail rail and more rail, isn’t a feature of this plan, and/or because they think Reason is trying to advocate for more freeways using pricing as cover and/or they themselves get a lot of political mileage out of the fact that the freeway system is hardly optimal. Yes, the plan includes new infrastructure, but the 710, for example, has been on every map everybody who doesn’t live in South Pass has produced for 50 years. I never hear this kind of flouncing around when some architect produces a Tokyo-style train map for LA that would cost so much money we would have no money left for anything else and would also be empty for large portions of the network because it puts the same amount of investment in places that have acre lots as in places where we have good, rail-supporting densities. Instead, these are greeted with rapturous sighs about how wonderful that would be because that’s an awesome vision. And I generally don’t mind, and even like those kinds of visions, too, even though I don’t tend to get poetic about them.

My point is, simply, that good ideas come from lots of places; sometimes good ideas are mixed all up with silly ones, even, and I guess I am disappointed in the response. Reason hardly needs me to speak up for it, but I would prefer we discuss rather than screech or belittle, even when presented with visions and concepts that run counter to our own.

7 thoughts on “Pearl-grasping and the Reason Foundation’s Regional Mobility Plan for Southern California

  1. Oh there is no difference here in Toronto. The foamers and their love of rail with the dream maps as sponsored by Spacing Magazine.

    The Koch-propped Reason foundation just doesn’t realize that more often than not, they spew such garbage, someone is bound to believe it.

    In our cities, we need to have a reasonable discussion on egional transportation. Just this morning the Neptis foundation who is ever critical of provincial policies released an excellent paper on how policy makers got it all wrong when it came to regional planning and economic development. The hope is that there will be better planning in their policy updates.

    I am also about to write a blog post with my review of Street Smart by Sam Schwartz. I find that we circle jerk around the same issues without a resolution.

    Don’t get me started about the 710 tunnel though. 🙂

  2. Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for being open to hearing what the Reason Foundation has proposed here. There are a couple overarching reasons that I take issue with their proposal, but obviously it’s easier to take issue with someone’s ideas than to propose your own. Therefore I’ll offer a few ideas afterward.

    –> You and I and most folks already know that doubling down on car-oriented infrastructure isn’t environmentally viable. Period. As much as we love our cars, continuing to rely on them 10-20-30 years from now the way we have for the past several decades will only get us even more rapidly into the environmental quagmire that is already rapidly depleting California of its precious water and will start eating up and into our coastal cities, like Long Beach, where a foot of rise in the oceans will cover a good portion of the city in water. If we’re ever to do our part to dramatically reduce our CO2 emissions, the obvious first place to look is at our cars.
    –> And that doesn’t get fixed with electric cars, which still require energy to build and to drive.
    –> Car ownership is expensive. Some of us are fortunate enough to only see this cost as one more monthly bill among myriad others. For many people, however, having an automobile, while still very much a necessity for much of living in LA, is a barrier to entry – forcing them to not take a job or to have to commute for hours on the bus because they can’t afford a car. The cost of vehicle ownership – and its implications – is a tremendous drag on our local economy.
    –> There are serious neighborhood issues to consider. The Reason plan contemplates flyovers of streets along and through LA’s myriad neighborhoods. Think about the impact that a single overpass has on the street life below it. Now imagine that times 1,000, as you have elevated or cut-out freeway-style roadways slicing up and down many of our streets. Yes, this infrastructure would be intended to make it easier to get across town without hitting traffic lights, but it would also obliterate LA’s street life.
    –> Induced demand is something that doesn’t get enough attention and deserves it, particularly in light of your mention of congestion and what that says about travel demands to get from certain points to other points. Placing the focus of our infrastructure on moving private vehicles more quickly through our city places outward pressures on development, as further and further locations are more accessible – until the point that even the expanded road network (that has come at $700B in cost) is not enough and needs even more flyovers, car lanes, cut-throughs, and toll lanes than were anticipated in 2015. We’ve literally been down this road already, as freeway expansions have made it possible to live further out in places like Santa Clarita, Riverside, and Tustin, while still expecting a certain car commute into the city.
    –> Finally, what’s the point in spending all this money in the first place? We’re assuming that the layout and design of LA is never going to change, so the only way to make it work is to spend two-thirds of a trillion dollars for construction of (and utterly neglecting the likely over one trillion in ongoing maintenance costs of) thousands of new miles of tunnels, flyovers, cut-throughs, etc. It’s like a colleague of mine who pointed out that he could either spend $15 million to add 50 more parking spaces at one transit station or $15 dollars on a sign that said “hey, just drive a mile down the road to the next transit station that has plentiful parking.” Ultimately, the Reason plan contemplates a transportation network independent of and solely in service to an existing, fixed demand and land uses, and it proposes spending trillions (including maintenance costs here) in service to those existing demands and uses.

    –> Focus on CHOICE. Ostensibly, the new Mobility Plan 2035 is about giving people choices, although to date it has only been portrayed in the press as being about bikes versus cars. Consider though, as you rightly point out, that congestion in cities like DC or NYC can be and often is worse than our notorious traffic jams in LA. However, in DC or NYC you don’t *have* to drive as much for trips as you do here in LA. Give people reasonable choices – safe biking, quality transit, walkable destinations – and you can accomplish far more in terms of access at much less cost than is contemplated by the Reason Foundation.
    –> The City of Los Angeles’ urban residential density averages just north of 8,000 people per square mile. In neighborhoods like Koreatown, East Hollywood, and MacArthur Park, residential densities exceed 30,000 and, in some cases, 40,000 people per square mile. Traffic isn’t good in these areas, but it’s no worse than, say, Santa Monica (11,000 people per square mile), Beverly Hills (6,000 people per square mile), or West Hollywood (18,000 people per square mile). Why? Just look at the travel mode share, where these neighborhoods have transit ridership mode share around 30-40% and lots more people able to conduct many of their trips on foot or by bike. So…. LA needs to consider its transportation network in the context of its land use. We have a robust transit system with excess capacity along many of its stretches and room to grow along most corridors. We can increase residential densities along the existing transit network by 2-3 times its current levels by learning from the examples of existing neighborhoods like Koreatown, East Hollywood, or MacArthur Park. This can be done in a way that will minimize its impact on vehicular traffic.
    –> It should not be all about “rail rail rail and more rail.” We can learn from the example of Curitiba, Brazil, where high-functioning bus-rapid transit has allowed for low-cost capital solutions that have quickly changed transit-mode shares. Corridors like Wilshire, Century, Alameda, La Brea, Ventura, Van Nuys, San Fernando, and others are primed for rapid bus lines that travel in traffic-separated, signal-prioritized lanes and that stop at pre-pay stations, allowing short boarding times and giving riders frequent and fast service. Rail may be what gets votes at the ballot box, but it is not the only solution.

    Overall, I appreciate that Reason is taking a stab at some effort to get LA’s streets moving more quickly. Ultimately, though, their proposals double-down on policies and ideas that have led to LA’s air quality and traffic congestion being at or near the nation’s worst, with our rates of traffic deaths exceeding every other major American city, and with rates of air quality illness and deaths and sedentary-related illness and death that are a direct result of our reliance on private automobiles to the exclusion of all else.

  3. Reason’s plan seems compatible with driverless cars.
    On the other hand, Reason’s Plan sounds like part of a science fiction trilogy.

  4. As an advocate of cost-effective rail, I agree that the Reason plan has some value. I am sure they didn’t mean to, but their plan points out how expensive and financially unsustainable the continuation of the car culture and transportation monoculture is. The irony is that with widespread road pricing on freeways, the “need” for the vast majority of their proposed roadway capacity expansions disappears. The plan also provides a useful basis for estimating how much VMT might decline with widespread pricing–e.g., a $2.00 each way for their proposed Tarzana-Santa Monica tunnel reduces projected traffic by 25%-30%. A side benefit is that pricing would allow transit fares to be raised sufficiently to cover operating costs on the busier routes, assuming vouchers for students, the poor, frail seniors, etc.

    • I think that’s right: the $710 billion price tag for me does two things: it shows how expensive upgrading would be and it puts the CAHSR project costs into perspective.

  5. It would be nice if the Reason Foundation came up with a plan that wasn’t half baked and hypocritical. For one example, these toll lanes would not be free except for buses and government registered vanpools, but they want government to “educate” citizens when they are kicked out of the carpool lane since all existing carpool lanes would be made toll. “In order for such express lane policies to be enacted, it is important for planning agencies in Southern California to work closely with the public to explain the magnitude of the congestion problem, the true cost of congestion to the economy and quality of life, and the merits of congestion pricing.” (p. 55) This is unprecedented in North American history.

    When you look at “engineering” drawings that eliminate freeway movements for no apparent reason (p. 45, where the NB I-605 to WB SR-60 movement is completely eliminated), failure to use proper measurement precision (p. 190), and estimates that are wildly optimistic for the 500+ grade separations in the “managed arterial network” (basically recreating the 1950’s freeway system in practice, and does anyone seriously think that you can grade separate Santa Monica over La Cienega for $42 million when ACE Construction Authority just spent $100 million to grade separate one railroad crossing?) (p. 165) this is totally bonkers. None of the authors has ever engineered a road (buses have grade limitations that these express lanes would have to adopt), gone through the eminent domain process (which the government they hate so much would have to administer), or dealt with racial minorities who have the power of Title VI of the Federal Civil Rights Act behind them (which has required MTA to cancel a service change because they failed to account for minority interests).

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