Why The 2-Hour Commute Is A Public Policy Success

 

The Los Angeles Times is running an all-week series on traffic congestion in L.A. and how miserable everybody’s commute is. The topic is a sure-fire winner among readers, and the personal stories of commuters are interesting and well-told. But the Times appears to have taken the position that the problem can be solved by simply building more highways and denying development projects that would generate traffic. Good luck getting that package through the Legislature!

The policy debate about what to do was contained mostly in Monday’s story, written by Jeffrey L. Rabin and Dan Weikel. The nerdy parts of the article are very well-done for a general-circulation newspaper – probably because both writers (especially Rabin) are experienced hands at covering the growth wars. The article basically lays out the California Environmental Quality Act process in layperson’s terms, even the “Statement of Overriding Consideration” that a government agency adopts when a project’s impacts cannot be fully mitigated. The story also documents highway underinvestment in California relative to increases in both population growth and driving.

Yet the story is framed around the killer, 72-mile-each-way commute of Aundraya Reliford. Poor Aundraya drives from her home in Rialto every morning to the nearby Metrolink station, takes the train to Union Station in downtown L.A., where she transfers to her junker car and then makes the killer commute across town to Santa Monica, where she works at MTV. Elapsed time: Two hours and 40 minutes each way.

Rabin and Weikel even track the history of the Water Garden project in Santa Monica, where Reliford works, noting that it was approved with a Statement of Overriding Consideration on traffic. As I noted above, the article also takes the state to task for underinvesting in highway construction. It concludes with poor Aundraya saying: “At the rate things are going, there's certainly going to be a time when I have to pull out."

The pairing of the nerdy policy discussion with the compelling story of the long-distance commuter creates a weird dynamic. What is the Times really saying? That we should spend more money on highways and approve fewer office buildings on the Westside? So that Aundraya Reliford can drive faster from Rialto to Santa Monica, where she won’t have a job because the Water Garden project wouldn’t have been built?

This is the problem with journalism about growth that focuses on traffic and on the sexiest traffic story, which is the nightmarish long commute. Yes, traffic in L.A. is horrible. But most people in L.A. have short commutes. In terms of distance, the average commute in L.A. is actually getting shorter. And the problem on the Westside isn’t only too many jobs, but also not enough housing – a problem that doesn’t get solved by not adopting Statements of Overriding Considerations and building more highways. (Almost any housing project on the Westside would also require a Statement of Overriding Consideration on traffic.)

The Times seems to suggest that transportation policy has failed because we cannot figure out how to provide one person with a comfortable, fast way to commute 72 miles across one of the most densely crowded landscapes in the world every single day. Most of the commenters on the Times web site pointed something out that the writers didn’t mention: Maybe poor Aundraya ought to live closer to work, or work closer to home. I agree. If poor Aundraya has to give up the ghost on her 72-mile commute because it’s just too hellish, I’d say that’s a public policy success, not a public policy failure.

– Bill Fulton