City Talk: Deciphering the Gobbledygook

GELFAND’S WORLD--Sometimes I overreact. At least that's what various relatives have told me over the years. But on Saturday, I found that a room full of people agreed with me in being exasperated with our government representatives. The occasion was the monthly meeting of the LA Neighborhood Council Coalition (LANCC). The context was a preliminary report from the LA Department of Transportation (LADOT) and the city's planning department about an expected update to something called the Transportation Demand Management (TDM) Ordinance. 

Ordinarily this would have been a snoozer (and not worth writing about) -- members of the city bureaucracy discussing how words on paper will give way to a similar set of words on paper, without apparent effect on our lives. But this involved something that affects all of us. The transportation crunch is at the top of the list when you ask a group of Angelenos what needs fixing. 

There is a critical policy element here that involves the personal interests of elected officials: Over the past few years, the subjects of transportation and high rise development have become intertwined in a way that a lot of people oppose, because it involves allowing additional high rise buildings as long as they are near the new rail lines or bus lines. This idea seems to be loved by growth oriented electeds and by the bureaucracy. 

So we were treated to a discussion of a possible upgrade to the Transportation Demand Management ordinance. I would have been less irritated if somebody had started out by explaining to me what TDM is supposed to mean in practice. 

A quick review of the city's old ordinance or a review of a jargon-filled report allowed me to understand what TDM is supposed to be about. 

TDM is what the city does when it can't do anything else about traffic congestion and lack of parking. That's not supposed to be as cynical as it sounds. If you visit Westwood or Downtown, you will understand the nature of the problem. If you have a couple hundred thousand people passing over a few square blocks and competing for parking spaces that aren't there, what do you do about it? 

So the city enacts laws about ride sharing in the hope that some people (even a few) will be willing to catch a ride to work with a stranger, or offer a ride to a stranger. That's the idea behind requiring that businesses set up bulletin boards providing ridesharing options (essential information), hoping that businesses will offer a few dollars to employees who engage in ridesharing (the carrot) and otherwise limit the number of parking spaces for solo drivers (the stick). Large organizations such as Cedars Sinai Medical Center fall under other regulations and create their own systems for moving employees to work and back home. For these large organizations, the system seems to be partially effective. 

At this level, TDM isn't a terrible idea. If it can reduce the demand for parking by five percent (maybe ten percent on a good day), then it will have achieved its not-so-lofty goal. It's not exactly designed to turn L.A. into a futuristic fantasy-scape, but it probably doesn't do any harm. 

But, as the city's representatives explained, the TDM ordinance is due for updating and revision. 

There is one characteristic of long-time LANCC participants that it may be useful to explain. The meeting was full of people who have been following (for a good number of years) the way that developer money and the city's elected officials form a symbiotic relationship. Lancc participants (as most neighborhood council participants) are extremely skeptical of the idea of concentrating new construction and new mass transit projects along defined corridors. As one LANCC participant pointed out, the new high rise construction in the increasingly pricey central city area will pencil out to $2300 a month for a tiny apartment. It's something that working class people won't be able to afford. 

It was obvious that people were concerned that a new TDM ordinance will push this approach. What has been a benign set of requirements in the past could, under the wrong political circumstances, become a set of official policies that will harm the less wealthy people who have to get to work on time and don't have a high speed rail line at their beck and call. 

So the city's planning people walked into a meeting that wasn't inclined to be friendly. It got even less friendly when the presentation seemed to imply (or at least did not deny) that the city leaders would be pushing a continuation of the concentrated transit corridor idea. 

Things got worse as we were presented with slides full of jargon and vague terminology, but without the kind of specifics that might sooth worried residents. To give you an example, here are the contents of one of the slides in the presentation which I copied as best I could. 

TDM Program Objectives 





Administratively Manageable

Performance Focused 

I might have gotten one of the word endings wrong -- I'm not sure, but what does it matter considering the overall lack of anything being communicated here? If I understood this part of the presentation at all, it seemed to be that whatever the new TDM ordinance turns out to be, it needs to have some elasticity built in because every project is going to be a little different. In other words, we need to be able to ignore the new ordinance when it doesn't suit our desires. Or to take a more benign view by using Greg Nelson's phrase from the early days of the neighborhood council system, "One size doesn't fit all." 

What was lacking in the presentation was any sense of how the essential flexibility can be built into the system, or how it would be anything other than a system which allows developers to buy favors from the City Council for the right price. If that sounds a little too cynical to you, then take a look at the wording in the original ordinance which allows the City Council to forgive requirements provided that the Council provides the required findings. Or remind yourselves of the $600,000 payoff to elected officials that greased the way for a development in the southbay and got so much coverage in the LA Times. 

Vehicle Miles Traveled or VMT 

Along the way, we were treated to a potentially harmful concept that the planners seem to have embraced. The underlying idea is not bad in and of itself -- it's the notion of having a metric for what is desirable and what is not. It would be nice if you could, indeed, measure some specific thing that relates directly to good vs. bad. Unfortunately, the planners have seized on the idea of VMT as a critical measure. What caught my eye was an attempt to associate reductions in VMT with improvements in health and in the reduction of global warming. This would make sense provided that technology (i.e.: the mix of gasoline and diesel fueled cars and trucks) remains unchanged. Burning a gallon of gas or diesel generates a certain specific amount of carbon dioxide. (Note, by the way, that the use of catalytic converters does not reduce the level of CO2, but actually makes the production of CO2 more efficient.) 

But we're talking about two different things here. VMT certainly is a factor in traffic congestion. It is not something that has to be correlated with CO2 production, because vehicular technology is evolving. As transportation becomes more electrified, greenhouse gas emissions go down, and that is true even when you factor in the emissions of a natural gas fired power plant as the source of electric energy. 

The planners also seem to have a vision that involves getting increasing numbers of people out of cars and onto bicycles. At the least, they seemed to be implying, society should provide the nudge towards this goal. 

This strikes me as unclear thinking. Redesigning the Los Angeles economy so that people live near to where they work would be the required precondition. If we had any chance of success at doing this, then transportation would be the least of our worries when Utopia arrives. I suspect that the planners have inserted wishful thinking about a bicycle centered lifestyle in the full realization that it won't come about, but under the necessity of pretending to the elected leadership (their bosses) that they are about to make some progress with regard to traffic. 

The other ominous thing revealed in the presentation is that the suggestions for a revised TDM ordinance will be revealed soon. The lesson -- and in light of what we heard, the warning -- is that LADOT will be shopping its policy pronouncements around town in the next few months. 

I'm going to go a little contrarian here and just paste in the announcement for this agenda item to show the level of gobbledygook we're getting from people who pretend to be thoughtful leaders: 

 "... City Planning, The City of Los Angeles is in the process of updating the Transportation Demand Management ordinance, which was adopted in 1993. The update will include context-based, project-specific strategies to increase equitable and multimodal access to goods and services. Over time, additional strategies can be included as transportation technologies and innovations emerge. The ordinance update will help implement Mayor Garcetti's sustainability goals to fight climate change and create a more resilient City. The City of Los Angeles is also proposing a series of minor ordinance revisions to align procedural sections of the Code and Specific Plan terminology with the Mobility Plan 2035." 

There is one more problem. As one of my fellow Lancc participants put it, "This sounds like a done deal." Interestingly, we didn't hear much of a retort over that claim, just the explanation that everyone will have a chance to comment on the plan, and the department will have to respond to each comment. That sure sounds like a done deal, doesn't it? We've been down that road many times before -- everything from the introduction of the toll lanes on the 110 ("FasTrak") to environmental impact studies coming from the harbor. They read and answer the comments, then do precisely what they wanted to do all along. 

Meanwhile, residents in Venice and the valley will complain about the so-called road diets (i.e.: reducing the number of lanes on a street in order to achieve some other desired end such as bicycle lanes). It's interesting that complaining to the LADOT and to planning doesn't achieve much, but threatening to recall a City Council member moves mountains -- or at least results in moving the stripes painted on city streets.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at