By Dick Platkin, November 13, 2015
PLATKIN ON PLANNING-In general, the public pays little attention to the City of LA’s legally required General Plan, including its mandatory and optional Elements. But the required Circulation Element, called the Mobility Plan or MP 2035, is different, at least among that small minority of Angelenos who care about local government. This might be why the Los Angeles Times and KPCC have regularly reported on the Mobility Plan.
I find this new General Plan Element problematic, but not for the reasons presented publicly and privately by the Element’s critics, including those who have filed a lawsuit to overturn it.
To understand why MP 2035 is problematic, let’s take a broad look at LA’s transportation realities:
- Los Angeles continues to have the worst traffic congestion and the worst air in the entire United States.
- The city’s built environment heavily favors automobile driving through its road system and its auto-centric buildings.
- METRO and related bus systems are over-priced, unreliable, and uncomfortable, with bus fares steadily rising in conjunction with service cutbacks. As a result, transit ridership is flat.
- Even though LA is an ideal urban area for bicycling because of its wide, flat roads and balmy climate, most bicyclists are reluctant to take to the streets because of potholes, the lack of protected bike lanes, and missing bicycle infrastructure at public and private buildings.
- The City of Los Angeles is subject to numerous statewide laws and regulations in California regarding planning. In particular, the Complete Streets Act requires each city to plan for all transportation modes (options), not just cars. In addition, the State’s far-reaching climate change legislation and regulations also shape local transportation planning.
- People’s transportation behavior invariably reflects a city’s built environment. It not only shapes everyone’s realistic transportation options, but it forms our personal habits. As a result, most Angelenos rely on private cars for the bulk of their local trips. The exceptions are the transit dependent (disabled, elderly, students, and poor), as well as the early adapters, those who have consciously moved to Downtown LA or the Wilshire Corridor to use subways, busses, and their feet.
If we look at other criticisms of the Mobility Element, nearly all of them deal with complaints about bureaucratic procedure, not substance based on the most basic transportation question of all: Is the purpose of LA’s transportation system to move cars or to move people?
Other complaints are peripheral, such as objections to the addition of a bicycle lane to specific streets, such as 6th Street in the Miracle Mile, Westwood Boulevard in West LA, or Central Avenue in South LA.
And, other complaints are just plain mindless, such as the charge that an elitist minority of bicycle riders have imposed their youthful lifestyle of the rest of Angelenos, whose choice to drive their car is, by now, a life-ling habit. Really? In reality the car still reins supreme in Los Angeles, whether one looks at streets or buildings.
In fact, City Hall only has a few employees who deal with bicycle lanes and bicycle infrastructure. This for a simple reason. The City budget ignores bicycling, while the lion’s share of public resources are devoted to maintaining 6,500 miles of roadway, with the goal moving cars as fast as possible.
Despite all the hoopla, Los Angeles only has about 500 miles of bike lanes, most of which are just a line painted on the street, not the protected lanes that are already common in New York and other bicycle-friendly cities.
Lurking behind many of the procedural and anecdotal charges about the Mobility Element is the belief, I think, that the bicycle, pedestrian, and transit advocates who strongly support the Element are unwitting proxies for developers. Since the Element endorses Transit Oriented Development (TOD) and since these advocates of alternative transportation modes support the Mobility Element, they are, whether they know it or not, the cheerleaders for real estate speculation.
This suspicion, however, is baseless for several reasons. First, for the past 20 years adopted public policy in Los Angeles called for Transit Oriented Development (TOD). When it has appeared, however, it is not because of a few pages in the General Plan Framework’s Transportation Chapter, but because a real estate speculator saw a financial opportunity. Second, when their projects needed discretionary zoning approvals, they were granted to them reflexively at a “business-friendly” City Hall, not because the Framework had a TOD policy.
The Mobility Element’s Real Problems: If the objections to the new Mobility Plan are largely based on anecdote and procedure, rather than substance, what, then, is so problematic about this Plan, which otherwise seems to be so well-intentioned and consistent with the principles of sustainable city planning?
The answer is that in Los Angeles the General Plan is nothing more than a legal requirement imposed by the State of California and repeated in the City Charter. It is not taken seriously by any branch of City government, whether the Executive or Legislative, as evidenced by the following:
- The General Plan is not kept up to date. As one looks through its seven required elements, as well as optional elements, such as the General Plan Framework, they have different base years and different horizon years. To their credit, though, they often have overlapping policies. This means that the very policies that irked the Mobility Plan’s critics, such as Transit Oriented Districts, as expanded in the Framework’s Transportation Improvement and Mitigation Program (TIMP), have been on the books for years in other General Plan Elements. These precursors of the Mobility Element have quietly gathered dust, to the point that both professional planners and neighborhood planning activists pay no heed to them.
- The City of Los Angeles’s budgeting process is entirely separate from the planning process. The vast array of policies and programs presented in the General Plan’s elements, including the new Mobility Element, are totally ignored when the City Administrative Office, the Mayor’s Office, and the City Council divide up the pie.
- Likewise the City’s legislative process is totally disconnected from the General Plan, other than tacking on voluminous ordinances to up-zone and up-plan swaths of LA through Community Plans Updates.
- The land use approval process in Los Angeles also proceeds on a parallel track, independent of adopted General Plan policies. Nearly every application for an entitlement is “Approved with conditions.” While these approvals require a finding of consistency with the General Plan, this finding is nothing more than boilerplate language habitually copied from one approval to another.
- Despite the State of California’s general plan guidelines, elaborate monitoring programs detailed in the General Plan Framework and its EIR, and several law suits, the City has no way to determine if any Mobility Element programs will have been implemented or if any of its policy goals will have been achieved. This is because the monitoring program does not exist.
Its only implementing ordinance addresses street standards. It has no attached budget allocations or departmental work programs, and there is no systematic way to know if any of its programs are implemented or the Mobility Element’s goals have been achieved.
Will it make walking, biking, and driving safer? Will people switch transportation modes when they are offered better options? Will congestion go up or down in different neighborhoods? Will emergency vehicles be hemmed in by worsening traffic jams? Will air quality improve? Other than by anecdote, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, these will be, “Unknown unknowns.”
Both the doom and gloom predicted by the Element’s critics, as well as the important safety features, enhanced transportation options, and sustainable behavior foreseen by the Element’s supporters will remain speculation. Like budget allocations, implementing ordinances, and work programs, the data and supporting analysis will not be there.
This is the real problem facing the Mobility Element and the other General Plan elements in Los Angeles. They are totally oblique to a planning process that is entirely driven by market forces and delivered to City Hall by well-paid and, in turn, generous land use attorneys, lobbyists, and expediters.