California’s New Model for Growth? “Mashable” Metros, With Transportation Options

Bill Fulton | @BillFultonvta | April 5, 2016

Los Angeles, facing South. Image via flickr/PRODaniel Ramirez.

Los Angeles, facing South. Image via flickr/PRODaniel Ramirez.

This item was originally published by the Southern California Association of Governments.

Southern California has always been on the cutting edge of a new livable urban form.

In the days before cars became common, Southern California had the largest interurban system in the nation — a system that didn’t concentrate development regionally but rather distributed it in small centers all across the region from Santa Monica to San Bernardino.

During the suburban era, the regions created dozens of small, self-contained communities from Westchester to Riverside — complete with employment centers, retail, and houses – so that breadwinning Dads and homemaking Moms never had to stray far from home.

And most famously, during the freeway era, Southern California more or less invented a new form of regional mobility: a freeway system allowing people to move easily between suburban homes, urban jobs, and regional amenities – everything from Dodger Stadium to the beach.

Now Southern California is on the cusp of what might be called the post-freeway era. If the region plays its cards right, it will once again create a new type of urban form that becomes the bedrock of metropolitan living – just as Southern California has been doing for the last century or more.

This new urban form won’t be an either-or situation. It won’t be cars or transit; it won’t be houses or apartments; it won’t be downtowns or malls. It’ll be a mash-up. Most people will drive to work. In fact, most people will still drive most places. (Whether they will drive themselves or ride in autonomous cars is another question.) And probably close to half the people will still live in single-family homes.

But increasingly, they’ll do other things as well – walk to the coffee shop, take a train to a big sports event or a concert, ride the bus to work, and live in townhomes or apartment buildings or condominiums. And even if they live in single-family homes and drive most places, they’ll spend more and more of their time in places that are a concentrated mashup of different types of activities.

But the mashup has to be done right. The mashup locations can’t just be giant malls, or giant office parks, or even giant apartment buildings. They have to offer an easily walkable concentration of all three.

Mostly that means three things:

  • Concentrating business centers, civic institutions, and stores together in these mashup locations.
  • Putting great pedestrian and transit infrastructure in place.
  • And using high-density housing just right — to diversify the mashup locations; to create the market for stores, markets, restaurants, and transit in the mashup locations; and to serve as the urban design glue in these activity centers.

A lot of people might think this means that Southern California will have to go through some wrenching transition from a familiar single-family lifestyle to higher density living – something that’s politically difficult, if not downright impossible, in many locations.

The truth of the matter, however, is that the region doesn’t have to go through that transition. Because the transition is already upon us.

The question is not whether Southern California is going to densify. It is densifying. Between 2010 and 2015, according to the state Department of Finance Demographics Research Unit, only 35 percent of all new housing units were single-family detached homes. In the three Southern California coastal counties – Orange, Los Angeles, and Ventura – that figure was 19 percent. (Even in seemingly suburban Ventura County, where I lived for 25 years, only 26 percent of new homes were single-family during that time.)

The question is how this is going to happen — and whether it can be done in a way such that mashup places benefit everybody, including those who don’t live in them.

If you like living in a place like Downtown Los Angeles – or, for that matter, Claremont Village or Downtown Riverside or Valencia Town Center — the benefits are obvious: It’s an easy walk to many businesses and activities, and you can use the region’s emerging transit system to go more and more places. In some cases, you may even be able to get to work without driving. Claremont Village was always a small-scale walkable retail center. But with the addition of housing and more stores in Village West — and the Metrolink station — the Village is now a true mashup place. A two-person household might even be able to get rid of one car — an enormous cost savings.

But if you like living in a single-family home, the benefits should be obvious as well: If your house is a short drive from a mashup place, you may be able to simplify your daily activities. By parking once, you can have easy access to a wide variety of restaurants, food markets, dry cleaners, convenience stores, civic institutions such as libraries, and maybe even a bus or a train that will take you to work and back. You might even find an apartment for your mother-in-law so she doesn’t have to live in your house.

In other words, even though you’ll still have to drive, you won’t have to drive miles and miles every time you want to do one thing. You drive to one place and do many things.

And if you’re the single-family, auto-oriented type, the most important thing to understand about mashup places is more housing in these locations is good for you. Because the more housing that’s built in these locations, the more people will live there. And the more people who live there, using businesses and civic institutions 24/7, the more successful these businesses and institutions will become. More and more of them will locate in these mashup places, giving you more choices and more opportunities close to your subdivision and your single-family house.

As a single-family home dweller, will you still have to deal with more traffic? Yes, but that would happen anyway. Furthermore, the stronger the mashup places are, the less you will have to drive. And once autonomous cars are available — and that will happen soon — then you’ll have the option of traveling in an automobile without having to get frustrated by the traffic.

So there you go: The mashup region. A virtuous cycle of concentrated activities centers with lots of people living, working, and shopping in them, surrounded by single-family neighborhoods that have both the solitude and privacy of a traditional suburb and easy access to all the conveniences of urban life.

As I said at the outset, Southern California has always been at the cutting edge of livable urban form. And if the region takes advantage of the opportunities being presented by growth and change today, it can be on the cutting edge again — to the benefit of everyone in the region.

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4 Responses

  1. Neel says:

    Not sure how traffic disappears with autonomous cars. Isn’t a car on the road, still causing traffic? How is autonomous vehicles different than using an Uber or Lyft? It still has to be on the road, takes up space and somebody has to occupy it. Plus, why own an autonomous car, which will be pricey when it debuts, when its cheaper to rely on Metro and/or Uber/Lyft? Car ownership can cost somewhere around $11K a year, whereas the same can be achieved, much less, with Metro and Uber/Lyft/taxi dependence.

    • Kinder Institute says:

      The conventional thinking seems to be that few everyday consumers will actually own autonomous vehicle, and instead they’ll be part of a Uber or Lyft-like service. Some experts think autonomous vehicles will lead to more efficient travel on the road, since without the human element of risk, they’ll be able to travel very close to each other.

    • Kinder Institute says:

      Hi Neel, the whole idea behind autonomous cars reducing the amount of traffic essentially boils down to removing human error from the equation. Autonomous cars, in theory, will be more efficient and while there will be the same amount of cars on the road, they will be able to move in unison without much disruption. The system may work best if autonomous cars were viewed as a service, like Uber or Lyft, rather than individually owned.

  2. LloydS says:

    This hardly seems like a new idea. Rather it seems pretty much like a gradual reconfiguration of LA (and similar cities) to something more like what the big East Coast Cities have always been, or have become. An urban core surrounded by suburbs, with a number of denser built nodes in the suburbs. You have the core cities like New York, Philly, and DC; secondary cities like Newark and Wilmington; edge cities like White Plains and Tysons Corner; and smaller town centers like Hempstead, Norristown, and Glen Burnie. LA has its equivalents of all these places. Moreover, as in LA, many of these places have seen their roles as nodes change and grow in recent decades – a Tysons Corner or King of Prussia probably isn’t all that different from a Newport Beach.

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