The drive to Los Angelization

by Carolyn Chase

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

In honor of the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, this SDET takes a special look at the "Los Angelization" paradigm with respect to transportation and what we could do to create a better future for San Diego. In this issue's special primer on transportation issues, learn how Los Angelization unfolds upon us as a multibillion-dollar monster we have every reason to tame.

I always wondered, exactly what IS the defining characteristic of the growth paradigm of "Los Angelization"? 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. Tooling around town in an 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 San Diego 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.

Unfortunately, Kenneth E. Sulzer, the executive director of SANDAG -- the agency responsible for the RTP -- is resorting to blaming the victims. In responses to 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's 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 have 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 so 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 task 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." 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? It's utterly unbalanced

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. 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. SANDAG's current structure does not allow enough consideration or debate of the many alternative paths to address these issues. State Senator Steve Peace's proposal (RITA -- Regional Infrastructure Transportation Agency) to change the way regional transportation decisions are made has accurately identified many problems with the current system.

The SANDAG Board was told by staff that they had to adopt the 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.

What can the public do? A new group, the San Diego Coalition for Transportation Choices has been formed by citizens, environmentalists, developers and transportation professionals to provide the outside pressure needed to stop our currently relentless drive to Los Angelization. Please sign their basic petitions to elected officials:

Carolyn Chase is a founder of San Diego Earth Works, organizers of Earth Day in Balboa Park. She may be reached at .