Is it just me or is Pasadena feeling more and more like LA’s Westside these days? With so much new residential infill development and the resulting increase in traffic, Pasadena is feeling less like our beloved “small town” and more like an extension of LA. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that Pasadena has issued 2,100 permits for above-moderate-income housing since 2013, but what IS surprising (and concerning) is the way in which developers have been able to get their infill projects past our city planners without appropriate CEQA studies.
On October 7th, the Pasadena Star News reported that 13 out of 14 developments approved by Pasadena city staff in 2017 and 2018 were granted infill exemptions. Per city policy, infill exemptions allow developers to bypass any significant studies of environmental impacts as defined by CEQA pertaining to traffic, noise, air quality, or water quality in the neighborhood, thus making developments easier to qualify and cheaper to build. The resulting massive, high-density projects create more traffic congestion and failing intersections, but you would never know it based on the new metrics Pasadena uses to observe and predict these issues.
Pasadena’s recently retired Director of Transportation and the city staff are to thank for the shortcuts around CEQA checks and balances that have led to ballooning infill development here. He felt that monitoring intersections and keeping them high-functioning was a roadblock to commerce, basically saying that an over-reliance on roadway level of service (LOS) metrics was keeping us from building infill properties, including projects like the controversial 253 South Los Robles development. He designed, presented, and successfully sold the city on a new system to evaluate transportation facilities called “vehicle miles traveled” (VMT), which resulted in the over-development and jammed roadways causing Pasadena residents so much frustration these days.
The previous transportation director was quoted in Salud America saying, “The requirements put on developers to mitigate traffic impacts was stifling infill development and roadway improvement projects were destroying the fabric of the community. Eliminating congestion is counterproductive to commerce” (This City Ditched its Car-Centric Traditions to Better Serve All Transportation Users). Eliminating congestion may be counterproductive to commerce, but it is certainly not counterproductive to the small-town feel Pasadena residents have said time and time again they want, value, and prioritize for our city.*
Simply put, CEQA is being bypassed and local traffic congestion is not being mitigated because our evaluation of traffic volume has been adjusted precisely to allow for more development. We no longer rely on LOS to gauge the flow of traffic, but have adopted VMT—a broad-brush tool used in transportation planning that attempts to predict the amount of travel for ALL vehicles in a geographic region over a given period of time (typically a single day), which can then be converted to a one-year total. Under the previous LOS metric, traffic studies in Pasadena focused solely on how our intersections were performing, but now with VMT as the primary metric, reducing vehicle usage is the goal (in favor of pedestrians, bikes, and buses). According to this measurement, when people drive less, VMT goes down (success), but this theoretical success is completely dependent on people giving up their cars in favor of riding bikes, taking buses, or walking. Ask yourself: is this realistic?
Think of the intersection of Marengo and California: at peak hours this intersection would likely receive an F grade under the LOS metric. Cars regularly get stuck in the middle of the intersection and block pedestrian crossways because the traffic lights cannot clear the volume of waiting cars. The intersection is unsafe during these times because it is running over capacity; too many cars are trying to pass through an impacted intersection. Should we really be adding more development with high vehicle trips to our roads if our intersections are already unsafe? Assuming that people will happily give up their cars to ride a bike on an already dangerously congested road is a gamble we should not take. Will you be ditching your car for the bus or bike as you scramble to the store with kids in tow?
The truth is that the only tool we have to properly evaluate and mitigate congestion at intersections is LOS. VMT does not do this, as it is primarily a tool to deal with air quality issues. Sadly, our city is ignoring the importance of LOS. Grant Johnson, Traffic Engineer of Prism Engineering, recently prepared a traffic report for the Madison Heights Neighborhood Association. In it he states,
“The elimination of LOS and delay from an [environmental impact report] does not mean that a city, a county, or even a state can eliminate the need to create and maintain an efficient transportation system. Why else would we still be using traffic signals in every city if efficiency was not important? Why not just use a stop sign instead? The answer is, it is important and cannot be ignored.”
But in fact, it is being ignored by the city every time a project is given an infill exemption. When the city created a system to allow for more infill development, they did not consider current residents’ quality of life. They have they totally forgotten us in the name of commerce and housing development.
Compounding the insufficiencies of VMT, the city doesn’t even utilize the most updated technology on the market to evaluate our intersections in order to provide accurate information needed to maintain safety as we add more cars to the road (see Prism Engineering’s report for City Council on 1/13 for more details on this). The only way we can currently properly assess safety is through CEQA via an environmental impact report (EIR), however the numerous infill exemptions provided by the city council and staff have proven that safety simply doesn’t matter anymore.
Moreover, we are now spending significant transportation funds on buses and bike lanes and very little on roadway improvements. The concept behind this spending trend is known as “induced demand:” the idea that traffic will become so impacted from new development and the generation of vehicle trips that Pasadena will experience an induced demand for buses and bikes. Theoretically, when residents opt for alternate modes of transportation, cars are removed from the road and traffic improves. The city has bought into the idea of induced demand and has invested our transportation impact fees on these alternative modes of transportation. To this effect, Pasadena spent $2,700,000 on a now-abandoned bike-share program (“Pasadena’s Quick Exit from Bike Share Program is a Blow for Metro”, LA Times September 8, 2018),and has earmarked $100,000,000 to buy 200 new buses by 2035. Bob Poole, Reason Foundation’s Director of Transportation Policy, points out (“Induced Demand is the Latest Excuse to do Nothing for Roads”, Washington Policy Center January 2, 2020), “infrastructure providers are supposed to provide the vital facilities that people are willing to pay for, not tell them that their preferences are wrong.”
Attempting to inspire residents to change their habits and give up their cars in favor of bikes by allowing traffic to devolve into gridlock will reduce overall quality of life for residents, make our intersections even more dangerous, and is simply a terrible idea. Pasadena’s current policy is resulting in CEQA exemptions for nearly every new infill development. Such a policy is untenable, irresponsible, and will only lead to residents fearing for their safety and suffering a reduced quality of life.
*Through nine months of community outreach, 3,000 Pasadena residents, business owners, and community leaders provided thousands of comments on issues related to land use, mobility, open space and conservation. According to the General Plan Update Outreach Report May 2010, we were already complaining about traffic congestion and it was identified by residents as “one of the most challenging issues facing the city,” and that “people expressed worry that future high-density development, traffic and poor design of new buildings could cause a decline in the City’s quality of life.” The report goes on to say that “the phrase ‘small-town feel’ may have been the single most prevalent comment heard throughout the outreach process. When asked to explain this sentiment, participants described Pasadena as accessible, neighborly, manageable, having a strong sense of place, having a strong community spirit, family-oriented, and interactive.”
Erika Foy is a Pasadena resident who is a Vice President of the Madison Heights Neighborhood Association.