The passage of Prop 1a is a great opportunity and for me somewhat surprising given this is the first time I’ve voted in a major election outside of California. (As is of course the disappointing passage of Prop 8). The California High Speed Rail Blog has published an excellent list of Next Steps concerning where to go from here to support the High Speed Rail system. In my mind the biggest thing on that list as far as forward thinking planning has to support of current infrastructure (point 6). However, supporting existing rail infrastructure alone is simply one piece of the puzzle. A drastic restructuring of zoning and city planning must simultaneously occur to not only ensure the success of the system but to restructure California to absorb the overwhelming population growth expected in the coming decades.

To be sure, California is going to grow larger and the High Speed Rail project is a landmark affirmation for focusing that growth in existing urban centers in the state. However, the cities themselves need to act resolutely to capitalize on the significant investment to enact change. While in the past several decades urban centers across the state have been financing transit infrastructure improvements — the latest and most notable being Los Angeles county’s Measure R; what has lagged in the state is significant rewriting of archaic and stymying zoning laws which choke smarter planning on a statewide level.

Outside of San Francisco city and county which has a transit-first building code most urban centers in California are hung up by building codes and zoning policies from the middle of the 20th century which effectively subsidize the use of automobiles. While transit villages and smart growth projects such as the one near Oakland’s Fruitvale BART station are little bubbles of sustainability and transit integration that work on a small-scale; far greater reaching restructuring and vision are needed for California to build sustainably on a large-scale. One of the biggest blunders of the 50’s era car-centric planning is the requirement for parking spaces on a per unit basis on developments. There was an excellent article on this that I posted about a while ago. The AP has taken down the original reference but here is a mirror.

This simple but ridiculous law is the major reason why most bay area residents drive to their nearest BART station. It’s also the reason that most California urban residents outside of San Francisco, despite having access to excellent transit infrastructure find it impossible to go without a car. Los Angeles is 9th in terms of ridership for transit systems in the U.S. Of course, in terms of per capita ridership it ranks much lower but is it a question of instinct and habit or infrastructure? While having extremely high transit ridership and significant infrastructure the city at large is still car-centric.

Downtown Sacramento is incredibly well served by transit, walkable; but each new development is still providing ample parking for nearly every resident in the building. Take this development for example according to Google maps it’s 0.3 miles walking distance to the downtown Amtrak station — one of the busiest in the country in terms of ridership. It’s within a mile of every light rail line in the city; connecting it to far-reaching suburbs. One block away is the Westfield shopping center boasting over 4000 public parking spots. So what compelling reason can honestly be given for including in the plans over 1100 dedicated parking stalls? In downtown San Jose and San Diego the situation is similar.

To be sure getting people out of their cars is no easy task and includes a number of cultural as well as legal hurdles. It shouldn’t, however, be considered impossible. Living now in New York I see buildings go up all the time without accommodating parking spaces. I’m not saying California cities should become Manhattan. Height restrictions as well as community outreach on developments will be necessary to ensure restraint with development. But not allowing business to grow without providing parking just wont make sense in every case. In fact, it is a significant burden to development in certain situations.

Let’s take the example of cities that are well served by transit but where residents still choose to own a car. I know several people in San Francisco who use public transportation and walk on a daily basis but also choose to burden themselves with a car and an insane parking situation. Why? Because they need a car for traveling outside SF. The only reliable way to get around outside the city or to travel to other cities is by automobile (excepting of course Berkeley and downtown Oakland which are well serviced by BART). I found myself in a similar situation while living in Santa Cruz which despite its position as a relatively small city has excellent public transit and is easily walkable in areas. I needed my car not for my commute from downtown to the University of California where I worked but for weekend trips and trips outside the city. What the CA High Speed Rail system will do for people in this situation is provide a backbone of transit infrastructure that means finally giving up owning a car completely. Excellent intra-city transit cannot be jettisoned at the borders of a city.

In most cases, a back-bone infrastructure has to be echoed in turn by cities reciprocally developing more walkable areas and better linkage to transit. I’m not saying California should change overnight in drastic ways but let’s say, for example, zoning restrictions for parking and integration of retail and residential development were thrown out within 0.5 miles or even 1 mile of a rail stop or major transit center in the state. Cities have been easing these restrictions but I’m saying lets throw them out. Suddenly buildings can sprout up on small lots and density of development can double the value of land. Downtown areas in Los Angeles, Fresno, San Jose, Sacramento; even Stockton can finally fully revitalize with a major boom in construction since those hard to develop small lots suddenly can be used.

Bulb out corners, make streets smaller, provide bike lanes, plant trees, include cars but narrow the streets and widen the sidewalks. Get people out of their cars! Think it can’t be done in California? Think it’s an ideological issue that Californians simply wont get out of their cars? I give you one plain and straightforward example: any given University of California campus. Berkeley has 7000 parking spots for over 30,000 students not to mention the faculty population. Of the over 21,613 students, faculty and staff of UC Santa Barbara less than 9300 drive to campus. Even car obsessed Los Angeles has only 22000 for over 55000 students and staff on their UC campus. Now ponder those statistics not through the eyes of a frustrated driver circling the lot of a UC campus (as I know I’ve been there myself). Instead imagine the campuses themselves. Do they strike you as epicenters of urban density and conjure up images of tenements or midtown Manhattan?

These campuses are not only lovely and beautiful examples of California architecture and ingenuity but excellent examples of walkable, car-less environments. Perhaps these bubbles of car-less culture can be applied at large across California urban centers so that those outside the ivory towers can live and work in neighborhoods (if not entire cities) of walkable, bike-friendly, transit-friendly, sustainable elegance. The CA High Speed Rail project is an exciting opportunity. Capitalize on it, California!

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