Critics who dismiss the new transportation policies of current or potential elected officials claim that Southern California’s car culture never will change. They’re missing the point. Shifts in housing, demographics, the economy and fuel prices may be permanent, signaling a shift from suburbia to the city core now in progress, and slavish devotion to denying mass transit and supporting bigger highways to suburbia are as relevant as MySpace or the Pontiac Aztec.

We survived Carmageddon in mid-July, but can we survive spending billions more on highways?

It’s common to believe the mind-set that Los Angeles can’t be changed. But the economic recovery, traffic and gas prices signal a new era. A shift in housing demands in and around Los Angeles is a significant factor affecting those issues, and may signal an opportunity to achieve solutions once thought unthinkable for a city entrenched in the car culture.

Economic reports and forecasts about the California economy published in recent weeks confirm what most people probably figured out for themselves – the recovery is happening much more slowly than hoped (if at all). The UCLA Anderson Forecast, in its 2011 second quarter report, cited the housing and automobile sectors as “major culprits” and that “until consumers start buying homes and cars, the recovery remains in the future.”

The same forecast noted a significant shift in demand for residential construction, away from single-family housing (particularly in outlying areas) and toward condominiums and apartments. This is not good news for areas like Riverside, where growth was spurred by folks who wanted a big house and were willing to commute long distances. Less demand for housing in outlying areas means fewer construction jobs in those areas, if significant numbers of people (especially younger people) prefer to live in an apartment or condo closer to work.

Fewer cars traveling in and out of the city could mean a reduction in volume for freeways such as the 91, 14 and even stretches of the 10, but what will this mean for those who live and work in already traffic-choked areas such as Mid-Wilshire, along Ventura Boulevard and the entire Westside? More apartments and condominiums in those areas would mean even more people and more cars.

That’s where the opportunity to look at things differently hit me, and I started looking at ideas I admittedly scoffed at for years. Greater density of people living in multifamily housing, seemingly the utopia of urban planners, might make mass-transit options feasible in Los Angeles. Arguments as to why mass transit never will work here, and why Angelenos won’t surrender their cars, revolve around the “fact” Los Angeles is too spread out. But if people are shifting their tastes and demand for housing so greater density is being created, a shift away from our one-car, one-person approach can be encouraged.

The continuing and historic focus on widening freeways, such as the ongoing efforts on the San Diego (405) Freeway, is oft criticized by urban planners – does anyone really doubt those new lanes will be as choked with traffic as the current ones in a year or less? Did you notice the 405 was packed again, as usual, the week after the traffic nirvana that Carmageddon proved to be?

Rethinking mass transit

This increasing density in housing appears a reality, so maybe it is time to take more seriously some of what in years past were (and perhaps still are) viewed as pie-in-the-sky, ain’t-never-gonna-work-in-L.A. ideas on mass transportation: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s support for the extension of the subway system; the bus-only lanes being created on Wilshire Boulevard; Anschutz Entertainment Group’s football stadium proposal and expressed desire to have it serviced by mass transit sufficient to have a 100 percent walk-in Super Bowl; potential mayoral candidate and developer Rick Caruso’s musings about Grove-like (and Red Car reminiscent) trolleys.

Obviously, each have pros and cons, and perhaps each is relatively easy to dismiss as too costly in these budget constrained times. Personally, I would rather see the mayor’s 30/10 funding proposal used to fund construction not of subways, but rather elevated trains (a proposal at least once, and perhaps still, espoused by Caruso), which seems far more cost effective and likely to succeed (although admittedly not a perfect solution either).

Whatever the solution, the time seems right to take advantage of the shift in the housing culture to change the transportation culture of this city. Traffic relief and job creation are the obvious benefits, and may help bring the much sought after economic recovery of this city closer to fruition. If Carmageddon proved anything, it is that Angelenos can and will change their behavior with the right motivation.

Chauncey Swalwell is a partner who specializes in commercial real estate at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP in Century City.

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