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What’s driving our planners

The SCV’s habits and modes of transportation take the wheel for urban planners

Posted: August 20, 2009 10:49 p.m.
Updated: August 21, 2009 4:55 a.m.

First in a series. The Signal examines transportation issues as they relate to planned communities.

 

Master-planned communities. The concept has been around at least since the nation’s capital was built, and always the plans are conceived with movement in mind, says Rob Kent, urban planning professor.

But while planners consider how to get people to work, to the market and back home as efficiently as possible, engineering behavior is not so simple.

Especially when the movement depends heavily on the automobile.  

“The problem is that in most planned communities the physical layout is for the car,” Kent said in a recent interview. “The streets and their dimensions are for cars, creating a space without a lot of walkable distances.”

The words “planned community” is as ubiquitous in the Santa Clarita Valley as words like “strip mall” or “homeowners association.”

The idea of a planned community was seeded in the Santa Clarita Valley in the 1960s with the birth of the master-planned community of Valencia.

Tax codes, onion fields

In the 1960s, Los Angeles County changed its tax code and began assessing the onion fields and farms of the Santa Clarita Valley for “highest and best use,” which translated into residential development.

The Newhall Land and Farming Company, which owned the land, brought in Victor Gruen, who was dubbed “the father of new urbanism.”

“Gruen embraced the European principles of walkability,” said Marlee Lauffer, spokeswoman for Newhall Land. “Valencia is planned as a series of neighborhood villages with either a park, school or shopping at the core of each village.”

Weaving through the village is a road network of local streets with residences on them, collector streets that accept traffic from the local streets, and  arterial roads on which collector streets dump their traffic. The arterial roads connect the villages, Lauffer said.

Kent chairs the urban planning and design department at California State University at Northridge. He defines a walkable distance as 500 meters or less — in American terms, just over a quarter of a mile.

“There are supposed to be organic places that resemble the center of commercial life,” Kent said. Within each village are markets, pharmacies and places to purchase basic goods and services.

More than a village
Urban planners like Kent consider the village concept a failure in reducing the number of car trips within the planned community.

What’s driving people to drive more?

Kent’s answer is habits and consumerism.

“We’re trained to drive,” he said. “California cultural orientation is toward the car.”

Consumers are also trained to gather their needs from various sources. “There is very little loyalty to a supermarket,” he said.

Kent cites studies by economic geographers indicating that consumers will shop locally for low-order, or basic, needs. However, specialty items will drive consumers to leave their “village” to shop.

“We go to Trader Joe’s across town to buy that bottle of wine or that special cheese,” Kent said.

Lauffer agreed that specialty items put residents back into their cars and contribute to additional shopping trips and traffic. “People are always going to drive to Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods for specialty items,” she said.

Paseos are for walking
Under Gruen’s master plan, the idea was to get people out of their cars in the evening and on the weekends to walk, Lauffer said. To help people get out of their cars on the weekends, Gruen and Valencia’s planners included 30 miles of paseos in Valencia.

“You can walk behind your cul-de-sac to you neighbor’s home,” she said. People could also walk to the store or to school.  

However, the paseo systems are rarely used for more than recreational walking or social visits, Kent said. “I think they are attractive and support walking,” he said. “But most people don’t use the paseos for transit. They use it for recreation.”

Lauffer agreed, adding that people may walk to a local shopping mall for dinner, but they’re still going to get into the car to buy groceries.

Paseos offer some advantages, Kent noted. “They take pedestrians off the street, which helps car traffic move,” he said.

Cul-de-sacked
When people think of planned communities they often think of cul-de-sacs, Kent said. Valencia is no exception. “(Cul-de-sacs) are designed with the intention of allowing kids to play in the street without worrying about cars,” he added.

But the serenity of the cul-de-sac comes with a price. “It forces traffic onto main arterial roads and doesn’t allow traffic onto side streets,” he said. “There are no back roads from one place to the next.”

Lauffer said it isn’t dumping cars on arterial streets that creates traffic in the Santa Clarita Valley; it’s the lack of arterial roads.

Soledad Canyon Road, which becomes Valencia Boulevard west of Bouquet Canyon Road, serves as the arterial connection to all the communities in the city of Santa Clarita.

That robs Santa Clarita Valley residents and those who work here of travel options — and creates traffic.

Planners see the answer in completion of the cross-valley connector, a road marred by delays.

“When the cross-valley connector is complete, it’s going to relieve major tension on Soledad/Valencia (Boulevard),” Lauffer said.  

Avoiding bottlenecks
But Kent said connector roads alone won’t solve Santa Clarita’s long-term traffic problems. Keeping Santa Clarita from turning into one bottleneck takes smart planning, and Kent warns against adding dense development in Santa Clarita’s core.

“If people start building apartments, that could create congestion like what’s seen in the San Fernando Valley,” he said. “You can’t put the volume of traffic from apartment buildings onto a road network like Santa Clarita’s, (which is) built for single-family homes.”

Looking ahead
Moving forward, Newhall Land and Farming will employ improved design techniques in its continued development of Valencia and its future development of Newhall Ranch. The Newhall Ranch development is 21,000 homes that will be built between Interstate 5 and Highway 126.

“There are probably a couple of things we could have done better in planning Valencia,” Lauffer said.

One of them would be making the community more walkable.

“People have changed,” Lauffer said. “When we developed Valencia, people didn’t walk to work. They do now.”

Connecting the paseos to industrial areas didn’t come to the planned communities in Valencia until the 1980s.

The newer communities in Valencia and the plans for Newhall Ranch will include connections from the paseos to adjacent industrial parks when completed.

Bridgeport, for example, has those connections to allow walking into the industrial areas.

The oft-maligned cul-de-sac design will be modified in Newhall Ranch, Lauffer said. Newhall Ranch will come with more arterial roads to connect its villages and fewer cul-de-sacs. The move away from cul-de-sacs will give motorists more secondary routes between locations, she said.

Changes in attitudes about design and differences in the landscape are also driving the plans for Newhall Ranch, Lauffer said.

“Valencia is mainly flat, where Newhall Ranch has hills,” she said. “We’ll need to employ a different design to develop that community.”

 

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