For the first time, the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) has included new land use policies in its regional transportation plan. Essentially, the plan calls for infill and redevelopment in urban areas, and compact growth in outlying areas. That type of development pattern would, at least in theory, let more people work close to their job sites, and increase the convenience of public transportation and carpooling.

Previous attempts to mesh land use planning with transportation planning have hit practical and political hurdles. For the 2004 update of the regional transportation plan (RTP), which must be updated every three years, SCAG planners had little choice but to consider land use.

If planners based the RTP on current growth trends, as SCAG has in the past, the metropolitan region would fall out of compliance with federal air quality mandates, explained Mark Butala, SCAG senior regional planner. So SCAG turned to its regional growth visioning project, known as COMPASS. (The visioning document is scheduled for adoption by the SCAG board early this month.) Planners combined the growth trends with the principles that were developed as part of the COMPASS project to determine the projections for the transportation plan.

The agency then put forward “bookend” scenarios. One called for a significant intensification of development in already urbanized areas. The other alternative spread out growth to the fringe, with major urban development in the Antelope Valley, the Coachella Valley and San Bernardino’s high desert.

Those two scenarios got people’s attention, said Bev Perry, a Brea City Council member who recently completed a year as SCAG president. The resulting “vision” was a hybrid that calls for infill development on underutilized sites, focusing growth along transit corridors and nodes, adding density to certain transportation corridors, building housing near job centers, providing a variety of housing and preserving open space.

“The bottom line is this: For a 2% change in land use, we get enormous benefits on the transportation and air quality side,” Perry said.

“We’re not getting the congestion relief that we need, and we’re not getting it because of the land use factor,” Perry continued. “We never looked at land use before. It’s like the stars aligned this time.”

The RTP — which calls for no less than $213 billion in road, rail, port and airport improvements by 2030 — was adopted in early April.

Of course, SCAG has no land use authority. So getting even a 2% change will require cooperation from the region’s 187 cities and 6 counties. During the planning process, SCAG attempted to start lining up local support. SCAG planners rolled out the vision to all 14 subregions and negotiated with city officials while pouring over fairly small-scale maps. Those sessions produced a great deal of useful feedback, Butala said.

“In almost every case, we were able to accommodate the changes requested by the locals,” said Butala, who recognizes that the road is still paved with political pitfalls. “We were very concerned with local control … but we’ve gotten a lot of support for this. People are starting to see the need to look beyond their city limits.”

It is a significant development that SCAG has included land use in the RTP, said Jeffrey Lambert, a former City of Santa Clarita planning director who is now working as a private consultant. But SCAG has been criticized in the past for being too academic, and not pragmatic enough, noted Lambert, who has participated in the RTP and COMPASS efforts as a representative of California Chapter of the American Planning Association (CCAPA) and the Urban Land Institute (ULI).

“What’s been missing in the past is some partnership beyond SCAG’s elected officials. They don’t think seven years down the line. They aren’t in office that long,” said Lambert. That’s where entities such as CCAPA and ULI may help. Planners and developers who support the concepts that SCAG is pushing “need to turn it into reality, really fast. We need a good example right away or the plan will be forgotten, like so many others,” he said. “I think there’s enough momentum to ensure that happens.”

Still, getting city councils to modify general plans and approve potentially unpopular projects can be difficult, Lambert noted. On-the-ground examples and political leadership can help convinced reluctant council members, he said.

Exactly what will be required of the cities is unclear. SCAG planners intend to concentrate on implementation during the 2004-05 fiscal year, Butala said. The level of changes to local land use plans and practices that are needed to comply with the RTP depends on individual situations, Perry said. The RTP assumes that existing growth patterns will remain in effect until 2010, at which time modest changes would begin to take effect. Some cities are already on the right track, Perry said.

While the land use-transportation connection in the RTP is a first for SCAG, other regional entities are also trying to forge the same link. For example, the San Diego Association of Governments has adopted a Regional Comprehensive Plan that ties transportation funding to “smart growth” (see CP&DR Local Watch, April 2004). The Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the Bay Area has a Livable Communities and Housing Incentive Program that provides financial incentives for pedestrian- and transit-oriented development.

And, maybe most importantly, during recent speaking engagements Business Housing and Transportation Secretary Sunne Wright McPeak has been touting the need for development that makes better use of existing transportation infrastructure.

Bev Perry, City of Brea, (714) 990-7718.
Jeffrey Lambert, Lambert Consulting, (661) 313-0467.
Mark Butala, Southern California Association of Governments, (213) 236-1945.
SCAG website: