The primary cause of traffic congestion is economic vitality. Consider the pre-COVID traffic in thriving cities such as Boston (worst in the nation in 2019) or San Francisco. Contrast that with Detroit, with a faltering economy and lesser congestion.
Here in Santa Monica that axiom has been made abundantly clear by the Coronavirus shutdown last spring. Traffic disappeared almost overnight, but so did jobs – that’s certainly not the way to reduce congestion.
Let’s take a deeper dive into this by looking at the impacts of the Great Recession in 2008. Traffic also declined during that period in Santa Monica and the region, although to a lesser extent than earlier in 2020. Why? Again, primarily because people lost jobs and weren’t driving to work.
However, the ensuing recovery saw an increase in congestion beyond 2007 levels. As more people went back to work new car ownership outpaced the population growth in LA County: incomes increased, gas prices declined and low interest rates made auto purchases and leases inexpensive by historic standards. At the same time, mass transit ridership declined, primarily because the low-income households which had used transit in the past could now afford autos:
While a full recovery from the COVID-induced recession is at least two years away, we can reasonably expect economic vitality in the future to contribute to local traffic. So what can be done? While there are no easy answers — there rarely are for these sort of challenges or they’d already be in place — we can increase the mobility options and thus reduce congestion in our city.
Santa Monica’s traffic derives roughly equally from three sectors:
1. Through trips from regional drivers using Santa Monica’s streets to get to a destination.
2. Commuters living elsewhere driving to jobs in our city, as we have more jobs than housing, what’s known as a jobs-housing imbalance.
3. Us, the residents of Santa Monica, driving to work, taking kids to school, running errands, etc.
There’s not a lot that can be done about the first factor, as if someone wants to drive from Pacific Palisades to the Marina via Santa Monica our streets are public and accessible to all. The planned increases in regional mass transit by Metro may help, but for many driving will always be more convenient. Congestion pricing, i.e. charging to drive into Santa Monica, is one possible solution but there are political and technological challenges.
We’ve worked hard on the second category of out-of-town commuters, requiring local employers to employ Transportation Demand Management (TDM) programs to reduce their Average Vehicle Ridership (AVR), meaning businesses have to show they are reducing the number of workers who travel in single occupancy vehicles and increase their commuting by transit, bicycle, shared rides (carpooling) or other non-auto means of mobility.
Then there’s us. Many think the City Council wants people to get rid of their cars. Not true, although a conversion to electric vehicles will greatly reduce pollution and carbon emissions. Instead, we want to create options for some of our local travel that are cleaner and more efficient, as studies show that if we all replaced one car trip in ten with another mode of mobility congestion would decrease significantly. To that end we have:
1. Revitalized the Big Blue Bus, which after showing declining ridership in line with the regional data recovered riders prior to COVID-19.
2. Invested significantly in Safe Routes to School, so parents are more comfortable with their kids walking or biking to neighborhood schools.
3. Added many miles of green bike lanes (paid for by fees charged to e-scooter and e-bike companies for use of the public right-of-way) — and safer protected bike lanes in which cyclists are physically separated from autos are on the way, with improvements to Broadway, 17th Street and Ocean Avenue coming soon.
4. Created the regulations and fees to allow e-scooters and e-bikes to operate in Santa Monica. Controversial as these may be, the data shows they have significantly reduced the Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) in our city.
5. Planned land use so that residents in many neighborhoods have more convenient access to the goods and services they need. Nowhere is this more evident than in our downtown, where the close proximity of housing, jobs and daily needs has yielded the lowest car ownership in our city.
6. Our Mobility Division, formerly part of the Community Development department, is being moved into the Big Blue Bus so that we have one department looking holistically at transportation options in our city. We expect to be able to leverage BBB’s relationships with other government entities such as Caltrans and LA Metro to work on regional mobility solutions and to use its prowess in seeking grants (75% of BBB’s funding comes from grants) to obtain new funding for transit and mobility projects.
With better infrastructure and more options for our daily trips, we can all do our part to minimize congestion and reduce our city’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Finally, some argue that new development contributes to traffic when the issue is much more nuanced. Different land uses generate different levels of trips. For instance, medical offices are among the highest producers of car trips — hundreds of patients daily visit medical buildings. For that reason our land use standards make it challenging to build new medical offices in our city. Hotels, on the other hand, generate a lot less traffic, as 82% of visitors do not use a car once they arrive in Santa Monica.
Housing has been the primary focus of new development here in recent years. It potentially adds more car trips to our streets, but since most of the housing built is in our downtown where levels of car ownership are significantly lower than in our other neighborhoods, due to the walkability and access to mass transit, the traffic impacts are minimized. In addition, housing near the jobs downtown helps to address the jobs-housing imbalance mentioned earlier — someone who might have previously commuted to work from outside our borders can now live close to their employment. In fact, the environmental analysis of our land use standards, which promote housing downtown and on the transit-served boulevards, showed that over time there will be no increase in “peak pm trips.”