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Paradigm Shift on the California Riviera

At first blush, the rest of California may not have much to learn from a high-priced, semi-isolated Spanish Revival paradise by the sea. But, roughly halfway through this week’s conference of the American Planning Association California Chapter, held in Pasadena, Santa Barbara yielded what might be the conference's two most compelling pieces of data: 

  • Among all the people who live in Santa Barbara’s downtown core and immediate surrounding neighborhoods, 10 percent commute outside the city for work. 
  • Among all the people who work in downtown Santa Barbara, 39 percent commute into the city from somewhere else. 
Hm. 

These numbers come from Rob Dayton, principal transportation planner in the Santa Barbara Department of Public Works. They illustrate a truism that planners in big cities know well but that is counterintuitive to many suburban planers and — more importantly — to many of the opponents of growth in center cities. Dayton's numbers attest to the jobs-housing imbalance, in all its Mediterranean glory. (CP&DR doesn’t cover Santa Barbara very often — in part because, being built-out, it doesn’t have a lot of development.) 

This data lead to an obvious conclusion: the more residents a downtown accommodates, the less driving there is in the aggregate. That’s doubly true if you believe in a world in which people do not equate self-worth with a steering wheel. 

Santa Barbara is acting on this data sensibly: by encouraging development — commercial and residential — in its downtown core. Though Santa Barbara's street grid that is saturated, as Dayton said, a development’s traffic impact depends largely on its location. He expects that developments in the core will generate half the traffic of developments in outlying areas of the city. 

This is exactly the kind of logic that eludes many of the opponents of development. In Santa Monica, for instance, voters will soon consider a ballot measure, Measure LV, that would all but freeze residential development. Proponents argue in part that development automatically incurs traffic and they fight like mad against it, ignoring the fact that the people with the most incentive to occupy new units are exactly those who are commuting into Santa Monica. Meanwhile, the westbound Interstate 10 looks like an evacuation route every morning. 

Disregard for the jobs-housing imbalance is much the same in Los Angeles, where traffic gridlock is cited as the reason to oppose pretty much everything, especially in sites in West L.A. that would likely house — you guessed it — workers who commute to Santa Monica. 

Dayton’s Santa Barbara data is of course no revelation for anyone who has paid any attention to center cities in the past decade. But his way of getting around the NIMBY freakout is. He’s using vehicle miles traveled (VMT) measurements rather than level of service (LOS).
That change, which will be blessed statewide with the imminent implementation of SB 743, enables the city to essentially evaluate traffic impacts — and, crucially, CEQA analysis — from potential development in its entire downtown area in one fell-swoop. (The conference's host city, Pasadena, happens to have been the first city in California to implement VMT metrics; see CP&DR coverage.)

Dayton said the impacts of any particular downtown development can be performed "on the back of a napkin." That’s because VMT enables the city to account for the non-impact of all those downtown workers who, with closer-in housing, will no longer be gumming up intersections after they spill off Highway 101. 

Dayton stressed that Santa Barbara’s plan is new and not yet implemented. But if a place as near-perfect as Santa Barbara can accept that, sometimes, a little development can be a good thing, maybe there’s hope yet for the rest of coastal California. 
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