Blueprint for Los Angelization

by Carolyn Chase


Over the years, we've heard a lot about "Los Angelization" - all of it negative. The last round of managed growth sentiment in San Diego was epitomized in the 80s by PLAN (Prevent Los Angelization Now). While PLAN fizzled with the fortunes of Peter Navarro, the use of "Los Angelization" still resonates with San Diegans - as an epithet.

I always wondered, exactly what does it mean? What IS the defining characteristic of the growth paradigm of "Los Angelization" that San Diegans so readily rail against? Since I was born in LA, and married a third-generation San Diegan, it seems to me that I'm in the perfect position to pontificate on this burning cultural question. After all, if we can't specifically identify "Los Angelization" for what it is, then how can we properly prevent it?

The most poetic capturing of "Los Angelization" is certainly singer Joni Mitchell's time-proven lament of our cultural predilection to, "Pave Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot." This was perhaps the first popular complaint about the negative linkages between transportation and land use!

Smog is also one of the bad LA things that people can name. What's up with smog? Having clamped down on most industrial sources, smog is now mainly the result of so-called "mobile point source emissions" - which is bureaucracy-speak for cars, trucks and diesel buses. The sheer volume of vehicles stuck in traffic belching exhaust drives pollution emissions like so many tiny local ovens heating the world. For decades, the Clean Air Act and especially California regulations have steadily ratcheted down many car pollution emissions. Now, as the new electric/gas combo cars (Honda Insight, Toyota Prius) catch on with consumers, exhaust emissions could be reduced even more. As I tool around town in my all-electric Saturn EV-1, I joke that we are all going to have a fine time being stuck in traffic in our "clean cars."

So I've come to believe that the main "feature" of Los Angelization is the way they have built their region to be a perpetual traffic machine: more roads, more cars, more traffic, more taxes - more roads, more cars, more traffic, more taxes. There is never enough transit in the right places at sufficient times for people to be able to get out of their cars even if they wanted to. Los Angelization is more roads that get clogged and more expensive trains that don't provide service often enough to the right locations to matter. Buses are considered "low class" for the "lower classes." The entire dysfunctional growth paradigm requires tax increases to feed.

We are trapped in a vicious cycle of taxing, spending and building that never deals with the fact that we can't build our way out of certain kinds of problems. The more roads you build - without a market-driven transit network - the more people drive. Which brings us to the sprawl question.

What is Los Angeles if not the foremost example in the nation of a "sprawling metropolis?" Like milk spilled on a table, roads and housing poured out upon the land. And it was good. Until everybody tried to drive everywhere, mostly at the same times, and with precious little thought about mobility alternatives. Sprawl development patterns - without a transit-network designed to fulfill market demands for mobility complementary to the car - equals horrendous traffic congestion. This drives demands for more roads, thinking that will solve the problem. That just starts us around the vicious cycle again.

The proposed 2020 Regional Transportation Plan IS that same paradigm: a blueprint for Los Angelization. The RTP is dominated by: more road capacity, transit with insufficient services that isn't market-designed, and without the necessary commuter linkages or incentives for land use required to make the plan work.

Prevent Los Angelization Now may not have had the leadership to succeed, but the basic concept is still sound and is needed now more than ever.

But diehard freeway devotees, planners, builders and the vast majority of politicians in San Diego still cleave - often without even realizing it - to the Los Angelization paradigm. The environmental documents for the RTP don't even give the public a chance to consider alternatives that would significantly increase transit's market share.

Regardless of more than 1400 comments, most of which expressed these concerns, SANDAG is expected to adopt the new RTP at their February 25th public hearing.

Unfortunately, SANDAG executive director Kenneth E. Sulzer is resorting to blaming the victims. In his recent response to my criticisms of the RTP, he stated that, "until we change our travel habits -- most of us preferring to drive by ourselves -- we will always be at risk..." Is our regional leader for billions of dollars of transportation planning and funding telling us that Los Angelization is really only the marketplace choice? Scholarly research refutes this. People want convenient, quick and comfortable mobility - not specifically a car. Besides, it's not simply a market choice. Anyone who's ever had to - or tried to - depend on our cobbled-together transit system to get around understands this.

Contrary to SANDAG's persistent claims of how difficult it is to get people out of their cars, most San Diegans have showed that they are willing to use public transit. SANDAG's own polls show that fully 60% of San Diegans had ridden public transit at least once in the prior year. But the failure stories of San Diegans who try to use transit regularly are legion mostly because services do not run often enough to the right places.

A major policy shift is needed is that transportation agencies can provide the services at the times and locations needed so more people could get out of their cars. This is the major thing that Los Angeles has never accomplished or really even tried, and San Diego is following in their footsteps.

Sulzer also states that the RTP is "balanced." First, I question that "balance" is the appropriate standard for the regional movement of people and goods. It should be about mobility performance goals and the lowest cost ways to achieve them. Second, I ask, balance of what? It's not balanced by funding, with 2/3 going to roads and 1/3 to transit. It's not balanced by market share, with something like 97% of all trips being planned to be by car and only 3% by transit. Where's the balance you're talking about, Mr. Sulzer?

Change is always difficult. As Pogo observed, "We have met the enemy and they are us." People want what they want and mostly we want what we've always had - to drive wherever we want without traffic. This is a reasonable request at a certain scale. But as long as San Diego deals with population growth and transportation as proposed in this RTP our quality of life will continue to erode. It will drive us into Los Angelization, big time.

The public interest in this plan - along with the tax increases that it proposes - is unprecedented. But the revised plan that Sulzer states will include "all the comments" won't even come out far enough in advance of the Board meeting for any additional serious review. All those comments have caused SANDAG to agree to make significant fixes and additions to both the Environmental Impact Report and the RTP. They should also be arranging that the revised EIR and RTP is reissued and recirculated for a new round of review and public comment.

Unfortunately, SANDAG directors seem to have been put "on rails" for an adoption of this plan. Some probably think it is the best thing. But faced with massive agendas, many Board and Transportation Subcommittee members leave meetings early when public testimony goes on "too long" to match their busy schedules. I haven't made up my mind about State Senator Steve Peace's proposal (RITA - Regional Infrastructure Transportation Agency) to change the way regional transportation decisions are made, but I can register my strong opinion that SANDAG's current structure does not allow enough consideration or debate of the many alternative paths to address these issues.

The Board has essentially been told by staff that they have to adopt this RTP or they risk losing federal funding. What I'm asking is, why should San Diegans be enthusiastic about their tax dollars - at any level - paying for the Los Angelization that it entails? A tax increase may indeed be warranted to deal with transportation infrastructure needs, but I say not one more cent for Los Angelization.

Comments can still be given to SANDAG via a toll-free number: (888) 472-6324. The plan is also on its Internet website: