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Prop 30 & AB 2097 - Trojan Horses for Corporations

GUEST COMMENTARY - Last month, Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 2097, which prohibits cities from imposing parking minimums on either commercial or residential buildings built “close to transit,” which essentially means there needs to be a bus within a half-mile radius that runs four times an hour during peak traffic times.

The theory is that people will use public transportation if their destination or starting points are buildings that meet these criteria.  If people don’t drive, but use public transportation, then we can effectively reduce our carbon footprint and counter the deleterious impacts of greenhouse gas emissions.

At least that’s the “official” story.

At the same time Newsom signed AB 2097, he has been appearing in TV ads opposing Proposition 30.  Prop 30, according to Wikipedia, “would raise taxes on the wealthy to fund wildfire management and electric vehicle incentives and infrastructure.” 

Yet according to Newsom, Prop 30 is nothing of the sort.  It is not a clean air initiative aimed at combatting climate change; according to Newsom, Prop 30 is really a “Trojan horse” for “corporate welfare,” with the beneficiary of the welfare being Lyft, one of the big-money donors behind the initiative.

Governor Newsom should know a whole lot about Trojan horses, as almost all of the self-described “housing” legislation he has signed (some 40 bills this year alone), including AB 2097, is a Trojan horse for developers, the Real Estate Industry, and the Urban Growth Machine. 

On the surface, AB 2097 is about public transportation, reducing VMT (vehicle miles travelled), and climate change, but once you scratch its very thin veneer, it’s ultimately all ‘bout the money – perhaps even more so than Prop 30, which – like most corporate-sponsored ballot initiatives -- is indeed a Trojan horse, as the governor suggests.

Behind AB 2097 is not just the predilection of Sacramento politicians for FSD (free shit for developers), but also a carefully crafted narrative that automobiles are intrinsically evil, which we hear from some self-appointed mobility advocates, who seem to forget that multi-modal mobility also includes driving.  The “cars are evil” narrative, using some pretty standardized tropes, neatly serves the forced density/forced growth agenda of those Sacramento politicians who are addicted to corporate cash.

It’s one thing to suggest that the romanticizing of cars and car culture as a symbol of “freedom” should not be the basis for making public policy.  But it’s entirely another thing to ignore the reality of the utilitarian nature of cars for actual living human beings.

We often hear sloganeering from the anti-car crowd about building buildings for people, not cars.  Eliminate parking and parking lots. Do away with parking structures, and build housing for people instead!

These slogans so glibly forget that the storage spaces and parking built for cars are not for the cars themselves -- as if cars were some kind of anthropomorphic creatures that existed on their own -- but for people who use cars. In other words, cars are mainly a utilitarian tool for human beings to get from one place to another. 

For families who use cars for various activities, including shopping, cars often provide obvious advantages over public transportation. For people who prefer on-demand, point-to-point mobility – for obvious reasons, including comfort and convenience – a car is often simply a more time-efficient way of getting from one place to another from a purely utilitarian perspective.  This especially holds true in Southern California.

The “Google maps test” is often the simplest way to comprehend the frequently vast differences between cars and public transportation when it comes to getting from point A to point B.

Let’s say you wanted to get from the Arcadia City Hall to Disneyland on a Wednesday at 2pm. It would take you 44 minutes to drive, and 2 hours 28 minutes by public transportation.  It would take you 30 minutes to drive from Duarte City Hall to Dodger Stadium, and an hour 28 minutes to use public transportation.  It would take you 21 minutes to drive from Inglewood City Hall to Santa Monica City Hall, and 57 minutes taking public transportation.

In cities like London and New York, it might actually be quicker to take public transportation than to drive.  And in those cities, people use public transportation not necessarily because they have to, but because they want to. In some respects, this represents the democratization of public transportation.  But that isn’t even the ambition of the public transportation agencies in California.  In fact, LACMTA (Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority) has suggested that their “goal” is for public transportation to take no more than two and a half times the duration of a trip by automobile.   Talk about aiming low and missing…

Urban supremacist “agglomerationists” like Glaeser, Gyourko, et al justify forced urban densification with the supposed increase in productivity and GDP it creates. Let’s not even discuss whether GDP should be the measure of all things or whether treating human beings like widgets whose sole function is to “produce” is dehumanizing or not, but let’s just examine the impact on productivity of all that wasted time on public transportation vis-à-vis cars in areas in which public transportation engenders significantly greater travel times than driving. 

Just think of all the collective additional time spent by real human beings on public transportation that could be spent more “productively,” including the ability to spend more time with one’s family, on leisure activities, or in artistic pursuits – notwithstanding the urban supremacists’ dismissal of such activities when it comes to their ultimate goal of GDP and economic growth. 

How many hundreds of thousands of collectively wasted hours are lost because of the differential between ineffective public transportation and driving?  Shocked that the urban supremacists have never put resources into a detailed study that would quantify the loss of hours and impacts on potential productivity?

Don’t be.

Turns out that urban supremacists aren’t all that interested in logic or the truth; like time-share salespersons, they’re only really interested in selling us a bill of neoliberal goods.

By demonizing cars and ignoring their real-world utilitarian benefits for real people – including greater access to job markets and increased economic mobility – the Urban Growth Machine shills will hew to their bogus claims of equity, the environment, and affordability.  But, as usual for them, it’s really all ‘bout the money.

What is indisputably true is that parking can cost a lot to build.  While it makes perfect sense to adjust parking minimums to the actual need, acting as if there is no need thanks to the existence of inefficient public transportation is crafting a narrative of which even Virgil would be proud.

And the narrative not only ensures a massive measure of corporate welfare (reducing construction costs means greater profits for developers), but it also means that any real-world impacts will necessarily be transferred from the private sector to the public sector – yet another form of corporate welfare.

Let’s be clear. People who don’t have a car should not have to pay for parking spaces they aren’t using.  And perhaps for buildings with reduced amounts of parking built under the premise that people don’t need parking, covenants and other measures can ensure that the theory becomes a reality.

But in reality, many people will still have cars, which they will choose to use for a variety of reasons, including not wanting to waste time or having access to a wider variety of employment.  But under AB 2097, for new buildings with insufficient parking to meet the actual needs of the residents and/or customers, providing parking will no longer be the responsibility of developers of new residential and/or commercial projects.  In what amounts to another unfunded state mandate, those who choose to use cars, despite the “if you don’t build it, they won’t come in cars” theory designed to save developers money, will naturally end up trying to park in the public right of way. And if they can’t find parking because not enough is available, they may end up circling the streets in the search for parking.  Not exactly great for VMT or carbon emissions, is it now?

Who cares about that?  The main thing is it’s great for developer profits. 

The same ideologues who have for-profit developers’ interests at heart are naturally going to support continuing to spend billions of dollars on public transportation projects that post-Covid will see even less usage, continuing a pre-Covid trend.  They will be happy to pour billions of taxpayer dollars into transit agencies whose goal is “to assure service is no more than 2.5x slower than driving.”  

It’s odd how the Yimby supporters of AB 2097 who are so fond of citing the “law of supply and demand” as gospel have evidently never heard of the “law of diminishing returns.” 

If nothing else, notwithstanding the real-world diminishing returns of public funding spent on shiny transit projects, public transportation serves as a great alibi to save developers a buck or a pound. 

And yet taking away choice and trying to force people into inefficient public transportation isn’t just a matter of robbing human beings of one of our most valuable commodities: time. It’s also a matter of forcing people into situations in which they may not feel safe, in which they may be exposed to sexual harassment, in which they may be more likely to become victims of crime

Of course, we need to work to reduce transportation-related carbon emissions – and despite the glib dismissals of some urban supremacists, we should not ignore the considerable potential of remote work both as a way to reduce our carbon footprint and to offer people a greater variety of lifestyle choices.  Of course, we need to work to make public transportation safer, more convenient, and more efficient; and creating public transportation that can provide competitive on-demand, point-to-point mobility should remain an important public policy goal.  

But if in pursuing these goals we deprive people of transportation choices, if we deny the poorest among us an important tool in the quest for economic mobility, and if we end up robbing people of their precious time, then the ostensible goal of AB 2097, along with a raft of other deceptively-framed bills, would be nothing more than a Trojan horse for the very kind of corporate welfare that the Governor has so self-righteously decried in Prop. 30. 

For all the high-falutin’ rhetoric, and despite the negative impacts on real people, AB 2097 and the other “housing”-cum-real-estate bills are the most Trojan of horses, the most blatant kind of developer shilling imaginable. 

The sheer chutzpah of the Governor’s dual embrace/rejection of corporate welfare brings to mind Gore Vidal’s famous comment about Tom Hayden, which in this case even deserves an addendum: “He has given opportunism – and hypocrisy – a bad name.”

   (John Mirisch has served on the Beverly Hills City Council since 2009, including three terms as mayor. During his first term as mayor, he created the city’s Sunshine Task Force to increase transparency and public participation in local government. He is currently a garden-variety councilmember.)