The first time I tried to park in Downtown San Francisco, I figured taking the car would be a piece of cake because of the rows of meters I saw lining the streets. I ended up having to pay $20 to park in a garage that day as those meters — which seemed so plentiful and friendly — proved to be treacherous and vindictive because no matter how many quarters I fed them, they only gave me 15 minutes.

I’ve since learned the way it goes in that town is you can bring your car into the city, but if you don’t want it ticketed (or damaged), you’d better keep it off the streets. You drive in San Francisco and you pay the price, one way or another. Pretty soon afterward I was introduced to BART, the incredible Bay Area Rapid Transit system that can literally get you door-to-door faster than a car.

After last week’s meeting to discuss Santa Monica’s Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) as it moves toward a final City Council vote, it becomes necessary to talk about public transportation’s benefits and, more importantly, its limitations. Because the plan for how to deal with the rise in the number of new car trips into and out of Santa Monica as our city grows over the next 25 years is a little suspect. It would appear that the Expo Light Rail line and its three local stops are expected to mitigate part of the increase in vehicle traffic and we residents of Santa Monica are supposed to change our driving habits to make up for the rest (unlike San Francisco, we are not going to make our city’s visitors take responsibility for their vehicles).

If that’s going to be the plan for how to deal with the massive influx of non-resident cars clogging our streets for scheduled events like the L.A. Marathon, Twilight Dance Series, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day, plus the weekly or even daily visitors who come here just to walk around, then the City Council simply cannot vote to certify the LUCE.

Public transportation systems in cities like Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago are safely shuttling people to and from shows, sporting events, monuments, and museums while minimizing the negative impact from cars. Those cities are designed (dare I say “planned?”) around efficient public transportation infrastructure that maximizes the jobs/housing balance. We don’t have that here because Los Angeles is designed around freeways, not subways. L.A.’s jobs/housing balance is out of whack, which is all the more reason why Santa Monica has to find our own solution to our traffic problems. To rely on the Expo Light Rail line alone to serve as enough of a counter-balance to meet our stated goal of “no net new trips” is unrealistic at best. We have to ask ourselves how likely it is that Angelenos en masse are going to abandon their cars when they bring their families to Santa Monica?

I think that critical question was overlooked in the drafting of the LUCE and I think that was a predictable outcome when non-locals were hired to consult on very local issues. If the number of actual riders of the Expo Light Rail line doesn’t match up with the number of projected riders, then the pressure will fall on Santa Monica residents to reduce our vehicle usage to stay on track. Essentially, the LUCE envisions us as leading the charge to get the city of Los Angeles to embrace public transportation, despite the fact that it’s never happened before. And there will be traffic hell to pay if we don’t succeed.

Keep in mind the fact that we already use the Big Blue Bus, shuttle services for our hospitals and Santa Monica College, bike lanes, electric cars, and our city fleet is the greenest in the country. If you live in Santa Monica and you’re not using some alternative form of transportation it’s because you can’t or you really, really don’t want to. I don’t blame you, either. I know what it’s like to live within a mile of your kid’s school and still be scrambling to get them dropped off and picked up on time. And since it’s your money that pays to keep the city functioning, it’s perfectly reasonable for you to expect to drive your car.

Instead of relying on squishy concepts like “transportation demand management (TDM)” and requiring residents to pick up the slack if TDM and Expo Light Rail service don’t work as advertised, Santa Monica should take the same approach that other destination cities and beachfront communities have taken: We could give local vehicles a resident sticker and reserve a certain amount of parking capacity for locals only. At the same time, we could make Bergamot Transit Village into a transportation hub where visitors could “park and ride” rented bicycles, scooters, and local cars (electric or hybrid) to get around town.

What we can’t do is just keep building and hoping for the best because if we build it, they will come. And when they come, they’ll have to park somewhere.

Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider with four-quadrant crossover appeal whose experience with Saint John’s Health Center has totally undermined his faith in development agreements or transportation demand management plans to be of any benefit to his community. His past columns are archived at www.ifyoumissedit.com and he can be reached at kennymack@gmail.com.

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