Pedestrians run across the crosswalk on Colorado Avenue and Second Street on Thursday afternoon. (Photo by Paul Alvarez Jr.)
Pedestrians run across the crosswalk on Colorado Avenue and Second Street on Thursday afternoon. (Photo by Paul Alvarez Jr.)

CITYWIDE — Anyone who’s taken a spin west down Interstate 10 in the morning or east during the evening knows that anything but wheels are spinning in the face of the thick commuter traffic.

City Hall is in the middle of an update to its policies to cut down on congestion by delivering the promised “no new net trips” during peak commute hours set down in the 2010 Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), which is supposed to dictate development in the city by the sea for the next 20 years or so.

But almost 20 percent of Santa Monica’s biggest employers find themselves unable to comply with current regulations, instead opting to pay for the option to drive into the city.

Laws to improve air quality in California allow entities like the South Coast Air Quality Management District to require employers of a certain size to limit air pollutants emitted by employees traveling to and from work.

Alternatively, companies can buy special credits produced when high-polluting, often old, cars are taken off the road and scrapped, removing a source of carbon monoxide, particulate matter and other chemicals that contribute to the Southland’s infamous air quality problems.

Although the AQMD’s restrictions apply to businesses with 250 employees or more, Santa Monica officials chose stricter policies, imposing requirements on businesses with 50 or more employees.

These “emission reduction plans” ask employers to ensure that roughly one-third of employees find alternative ways to work, be it carpooling, the bus, bicycling, walking or telecommuting. That helps them meet the standard 1.5 “average vehicle ridership,” a measure of how many cars are carrying workers to the job site on any given day.

Not every company feels it can meet that standard, however.

Of the 160 companies that fall under the ordinance, 31 choose to buy credits to meet the gap between City Hall’s requirements and what they and their employees are able to accomplish in terms of trip and emissions reduction.

That measure is determined by an annual survey undertaken by the employer where they track their employees’ car use for a week.

Macerich, the company that owns and operates Santa Monica Place and other malls across the country, falls into that category.

The company has 250 employees at its corporate headquarters in Santa Monica, and offers them ride share and alternative working hours to help with their commutes, said Genene Kruger, senior vice president of human resources at the company.

However, the company still needs to top off with credits to provide “flexibility to support the time and travel needs of our employees when they cannot carpool or telecommute,” Kruger said.

Roughly 29 percent of the companies that do not meet the standards are major grocery story chains, including the Trader Joe’s on Pico Boulevard, Albertsons, Vons and two of the three Whole Foods Markets in the city.

The final Whole Foods, the largest in the city at 23rd Street and Wilshire Boulevard, used to do the same, but managed to work with city officials to bring the number of cars traveling to the site down, said Jacquilyne Brooks de Camarillo, transportation management coordinator with City Hall.

The supermarket was in constant conflict with its neighbors over parking around the store, which residents said was often occupied by employees who moved their cars every few hours to get around parking restrictions.

Rather than continue to buy credits and perpetuate the problem, the site created a “commute buddy” program, which identified employees who could travel together either on foot, by carpool or on the bus.

That helped employees who leave work at odd hours, after buses have stopped running and before many would feel comfortable walking home from work alone.

Finding ways to meet vehicle ridership targets does more than just solve problems with neighbors — it can save a business money.

All employers with 50 or more employees must pay $12.28 per person to City Hall to support costs associated with monitoring City Hall’s rules, but those that can demonstrate that they’ve met their targets for three years get a discount unavailable to those who buy credits.

It also provides a level of certainty about costs, since the price of a credit can vary greatly year to year.

That’s because a credit is a commodity traded on the open market. They’re created when the AQMD pays a car owner to take their smoggy vehicle off the road earlier than they might otherwise have, said Sam Atwood, spokesperson for the AQMD.

“Typically, older vehicles are higher polluting. In some cases, we get what are known as ‘gross polluters,’ which can emit 500 times as much as a newer vehicle,” Atwood said. “What this program does is get these older cars off the road sooner than would otherwise occur if the owner drove it into the ground.”

The estimated pollution savings are translated into credits, which can then be sold to professional brokers, similar to carbon credits bought and sold by businesses.

That means credits can be relatively cheap or extremely expensive, and an employer has to purchase enough for the year, said Brooks de Camarillo.

City officials hope that it will soon be easier for employers, both large and small, to coordinate ride sharing programs and other forms of trip reduction. After all, the majority of businesses in Santa Monica don’t fall under existing rules, nor do their employees who commute.

The LUCE calls for “transportation management associations,” groups of employers that work together to widen the pool of possible carpool compatriots to make it easier for people to find their ideal “commute buddy.”

No such association exists today, but a pilot van pooling project in the Bergamot area is just getting off the ground to try to capture employees from various businesses in the district.

Next, officials will try out a different program in Downtown, Brooks de Camarillo said.

“We’re looking at the Downtown, being more transit and bicycle heavy,” Brooks de Camarillo said. “We need to make one that is customized to the Downtown.”

Efforts continue even as a move to strengthen trip reduction measures makes its way to the Planning Commission, which will consider a new ordinance that raises the bar on carpooling and applies certain restrictions to new construction and even residential buildings for the first time.

It also raises deeper policy questions about housing production in the city, which is jobs-rich and housing-poor.

“The number one antidote to the ‘commute and pollute’ problem is proximity. Putting worker-affordable housing near jobs makes the use of mass transit more likely, and in some cases can mean walking or biking to work,” said Councilmember Kevin McKeown. “Car-pooling and emission credits will continue to be needed stopgaps until we correct decades of unwise regional land use.”

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