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In defeating Measure S, did LA vote for denser, taller buildings?

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It’s more about the way we move

Public Transportation Gains Popularity Amid High Gas Prices Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

The sound defeat of Measure S by a more than 2-to-1 margin signifies that Angelenos don’t want the slowed-growth LA proposed by the ballot measure. But it’s also not a starter pistol to commence building the supertall LA of Her. Rather it affirms a deeper, stronger, and more sustained behavioral shift that’s already underway in the city—choosing how we get around.

As the results poured in Tuesday night, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne mused that the percentage of voters saying no to Measure S might get close to the 71 percent who said yes to Measure M in November. “That'll be a very strong mandate for a new and more urban LA,” he wrote.

While the no votes for S—the anti-development measure that would have halted the construction of some larger and taller buildings—likely won’t hit 71 percent, they’re still climbing, currently at 68.85 percent. [Update: The final certified tally was 70.40 percent.]

Not everyone voted no on S for the same reason, and the people who did vote in this election only make up 11.45 percent of Angelenos (that’s a county figure, the number will go up as provisional ballots and city-only data is released [Update: Los Angeles city turnout was around 20 percent.]). But Hawthorne is right—Measure M winning and Measure S losing are part of the same mandate, one which was affirmed today when Mayor Eric Garcetti signed an executive directive that will make it easier for the city to build more transit-oriented housing.

A still from the movie Her.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The 71 percent of Angelenos who approved Measure M in November were not just voting for a permanent sales tax increase to fund a more robust public system, they were voting for a more inclusive LA. They were voting for more interaction with their city and engagement with their fellow citizens. When M passed, Angelenos voted for the vibrancy of more crowded sidewalks, the value of living closer to neighbors, and the many positive benefits of building more sustainable communities.

Measure M painted a clear picture of LA’s future, and it was one that the group behind Measure S actively campaigned against. They donated money to defeat M and blamed transit-oriented development for creating more traffic.

Measure S not only would have stopped the bigger developments around rail lines, it would have made it more difficult to propose new projects that would turn car-centric infrastructure like parking lots into housing. And Measure S would have also specifically preserved outrageous parking minimums for new development, perpetuating an expensive, outdated, and inefficient use of our land.

If Measure M was a rallying cry for the city to demand better transportation infrastructure, Measure S was the last, gasping attempt at trying to convince us that LA will never give up its cars.

“While the rejection of Measure S doesn’t mean our work is done, it does mean that, in conjunction with Measure M’s passage in November, Angelenos are embracing a future where active transportation is essential in shaping our growth,” said Tamika Butler, executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, and one of the smartest voices on transportation equity in LA.

Making it easier for more Angelenos to access more transportation options illustrates why it is not just critical for LA to build as many housing units as possible, as quickly as possible. Where those units are located is really the only thing that matters. Housing needs to be clustered in dense, efficient neighborhoods along transit corridors, which will give more people the flexibility to ride trains and buses for their commutes and walk and bike for their daily errands.

On the morning of election day, a Los Angeles Times story framed the grow-or-no debate within the bigger planetary picture, stating that there’s no way the state would achieve its ambitious climate change goals without incentivizing denser development.

“Getting people out of their cars in favor of walking, cycling or riding mass transit will require the development of new, closely packed housing near jobs and commercial centers at a rate not seen in the United States since at least before World War II,” wrote Liam Dillon.

That was pretty much exactly the opposite of what Measure S was all about. Whether it was the reason it failed doesn’t matter. It failed, and now the city has a mandate to move forward.

At the heart of it, LA’s housing crisis is actually a transportation crisis. Because residential development has been blocked or pushed out of many areas where people already work, they are forced to live farther away from their jobs. This creates more traffic, because more people are driving longer distances to get where they need to go. It’s a vicious cycle that is reinforced every time we widen a road, or chop a building’s height, or opt for a bigger parking lot.

Getting single-passenger cars off the road in Los Angeles needs to be city’s top priority —and it starts by building for the future where fewer of us will be driving.

This story was updated on March 20, 2017 with the certified election results.