Los Angeles Transportation: Facts and Fiction

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We at U.C.L.A. hear from reporters a lot, and they are often looking for a few quotes to help write a familiar script. In it, Los Angeles is cast in the role of the nation’s transportation dystopia: a sprawling, smog-choked, auto-obsessed spaghetti bowl of freeways which meander from one bland suburban destination to the next. The heroes of the picture are cities like San Francisco, or especially New York, which are said to have created vastly more livable urban forms based on density and mass transit.

But this stereotype is as trite and clichéd as any that has spewed from the printer of the most dim-witted Hollywood hack. And it is just as fictitious. The secret is that Los Angeles doesn’t fit the role it’s been typecast in.

I have not yet been granted authorization to distribute the coveted Freakonomics schwag, but challenge yourself with the following quiz anyway.

Exactly one of the following statements about transportation in Los Angeles is indisputably true. Two are (at best) half-truths, and the rest are flat-out myths. Can you figure out which of the following is accurate?

1. Los Angeles has developed in a low-density, sprawling pattern.

2. Los Angeles’s air is choked with smog.

3. Angelenos spend more time stuck in traffic than any other drivers in the nation.

4. Thanks to the great distances between far-flung destinations, and perhaps to Angelenos’ famed “love affair” with the car, Angelenos drive considerably more miles than most Americans.

5. Los Angeles is dominated by an overbuilt freeway system that promotes autodependence.

6. Los Angeles’s mass transit system is underdeveloped and inadequate.

Answers to follow over the next few weeks.


Chris Fuhrman

No. 1 has not been true for years.
No. 2 is somewhat true, with some neighborhoods fitting that pattern but many developing with significant density.
No. 3 is not true from my experience.
No. 4 doesn't feel true today. The drives might take longer, but the mileage between most destinations is not that considerable.
No. 5 might be true if the autodependence part were looked at separately. The area is not dominated by freeways, though. Many areas, some high-traffic districts, are far from any freeway.
No. 6 is true as it pertains to the Westside. The light rail is severely limited and buses are packed (and not especially time concerned).

MikeM

Every single one of those could be either true or false, dependent upon only how you define the following terms:

1. "choked"
2. "low-density"
3. "stuck"
4. "considerably"
5. "overbuilt"
6. "inadequate"

I will grant that #4 might be either true or false regardless of how you reasonable define the terms, but still, these are non-facts.

Jerry Tsai

Now an Angeleno for about 3 years, here is my take as to which assertions are true, half-truths, and flat-out myths:

TRUE
2. Los Angeles has developed in a low-density, sprawling pattern.

HALF-TRUTHS
1. Los Angeles's air is choked with smog.

5. Los Angeles is dominated by an overbuilt freeway system that promotes auto dependence.

FLAT-OUT MYTHS
3. Angelenos spend more time stuck in traffic than any other drivers in the nation.

4. Thanks to the great distances between far-flung destinations, and perhaps to Angelenos' famed “love affair” with the car, Angelenos drive considerably more miles than most Americans.

6. Los Angeles's mass transit system is underdeveloped and inadequate.

Jason M Stokes

I assume we're going to hear all about how #2 is a half truth, that Los Angeles is one of the densest cities in the nation, blah blah blah.

It's all about measurement. True, the average density of greater L.A. is greater than the average density of greater NYC - but the peak density is much, much, much lower - thereby eliminating true "urban" environments and promoting, as you mention, autocentric sprawl.

This will be a series of ridiculous, pro-sprawl arguments on how wonderful L.A. is. Take 5 minutes, walk the built environment, and develop your own opinion. I have mine (which should be obvious), but don't like the tendency of planners to massage the data to fit their needs (on either side of the debate).

keith

My guess is that 2 is true, while 5 and 6 are the "half truths"

Andrew Mackenzie

1. Not a truism, but the air is usually worse down there than other cities.

2. Basically true - but there are pockets where there is more population density.

3. I think this is true - there are not many other places where you could be in a traffic jam in the middle of night - IE midnight near hollywood.

4. Definitely true

5. True

6. The fundamental problem with Mass transit is that it needs population density to support it - thus it's effective in NYC, but not in LA. This is also why the misguided idea of the bullet train will end up being a $40B boondoggle - if you compare it's economics vs other countries, it doesn't add up.

Lee

I think either 2 or 4 is the true one. I'll go with 2 (largely because 4 has the word "considerably").

Robert

Slightly OT, but saw the LA "Train Trench" mentioned on the TV recently - very cool idea. Would like more cities to consider this kind of thing - good for transportation, good for environment, saves lives - this is the kind of "stimulus" project I can believe in...

http://www.railway-technology.com/projects/alameda/

Jairi Sanchez

Number six is very true anywhere in Los Angeles.

Brandon@TX

1 is partly true.
2 is false.
3 is false.
4 is false.
5 is true.
6 is partly true.

Damien

The question of smog is subjective, but it is much improved in recent decades.

There is certainly a lot of low-density sprawl in LA county, but also lots of high density areas in the City of LA.

Regular traffic is avoidable, but the tradeoffs are usually high. (Smaller residences at higher costs, lower paying jobs, etc.) The trade-offs are conceivably higher in LA so it is possible that Angelinos are willing to spend more time in traffic.

The distances within Los Angeles are not that great. It is no more than 20 miles of driving between Santa Monica, LAX, Downtown, Hollywood, and the valley. Higher mileages probably come from residents of more remote regions ie small towns in Montana.

Overbuilt is subjective, but Los Angeles does have a very impressive freeway system and it does indubitably promote auto-dependency.

Underdeveloped and Inadequate are both subjective but the LA subway system is about as extensive as Boston's. The bus system is so dense that complete route maps are illegible.

Numbers one, two, five and six are highly subjective. Numbers three is also highly subjective when you consider the strong qualification "considerably". That leaves only number two to be measurably and indisputably true.

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Christopher Lastrapes

1. Not true.
2. Not true. Would not classify them as low-density, but is sprawling. So there could be a half-truth.
3. Not true. Not true. See places like Houston, Dallas and Atlanta.
4. Not true. A lot of what people need are close, such as grocery stores, restaurants and gas stations.
5. Not true. Yes, there is a lot of freeways, so I give you a quarter-truth there.
6. True.

By the way, Atlanta is the worst city in the U.S. for driving. Look at a map. Then look at the names. It often takes 10 minutes to drive a mile, sometimes more.

Rob

This is a fun game... let's see how well I do.

1. No, most of the time... I think Houston has taken this crown.

2. I'm from Chicago, so L.A. doesn't seem all that low-density to me. Certainly other, less mountainous cities like Las Vegas fits the pattern better. So this is half-true.

3. No... I actually think San Jose / San Francisco took this title.

4. This doesn't strike me as true. People that are on average further away from resources (think Alaska) would probably put on more miles per household.

5. I actually think L.A.'s freeway system is built appropriately for the metropolis. We certainly know that traffic would be far, far worse if the freeways/tollways didn't exist.

6. Probably half true. It depends on which particular mode of transit you're looking at, too - here, Metra and Pace (suburban mass transit) run relatively well even though they don't serve nearly as many people as the city of Chicago's CTA.

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addicted

Never having visited the west coast, I can't really answer this except to say that my parents who traveled the US extensively, when they came here 2 years ago, hated LA's transportation (being tourists, they were limited to public transportation) more than any other city, including NYC and San Francisco.

Joel

1. Partly true, though this implies a drastic extreme that is not true. Phoenix and Atlanta (to name a couple examples) are worse.
2. LA's metropolitan statistical area (a conurbation defined by the Census Bureau) actually has the highest mean density of any in the US. So again, this depends on the definition of 'low density' and the nuance of the statement, but LA is more uniformly dense across a larger area than most central cities (not even to mention suburbs). Much of LA proper currently exists at densities to support transit (as evidenced by relatively high bus ridership), though that transit may not be the same as, say, the New York subway.
3. If this is not currently true, it has been in the past. The Texas Transportation Institute's Urban Mobility Report, published annually, ranks cities by total and per capita hours spent in congested conditions. LA has topped that list before.
4. Per capita, probably not (I think the TTI report mentioned above also calculates this for metro areas). As an aggregate, probably so, but that is a function of LA's considerably larger population than that of most metro areas.
5. I would not say this is, in the author's words, 'indisputably true.' It is a highly loaded statement with particular semantic implications (planners and engineers use the word 'overbuilt' to mean far more capacity for traffic than actual traffic, which is not really the case on LA's freeway system).
6. I don't see any disputable claim about this. High-demand areas for transit do not have adequate service to meet that demand, and rapid transit has only been emerging in the last 15 years. LA is geographically vast, and relying on surface transit in mixed traffic (e.g. buses) does not make transit competitive.

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mudlock

According to the Texas Transportation Institute's 2007 Urban Mobility Report (as reported by the LA times and other papers), #3 is true: Commuters in Los Angeles lose more time sitting in traffic than commuters in any other urban area in the country.

I don't do "half-truths".

kip

I've never been to LA but I can tell you #4 is true. I've heard even on recent movies and TV shows that you have to drive an hour to get anywhere in LA, and movies and TV shows are written by people who live and work in LA, so they would know.

QED.

Cindy

#6 is definitely true
#1 and #2 are partly true
#3, #4, and #5 are not true.

Steve

Since I don't live there so I don't have much experience but the traffic jam I encountered one Sunday evening and the 3 hours to go less than 40 miles earlier in that week left me with an indelible impression.

Perhaps people obtain the experience needed to avoid these problems. I live in a place that is probably (on a per capita basis) worse than LA. I know what to avoid and when. At least I can take public transit to work although it sounds like it has LA's problems.

John Brennan

1. Los Angeles's air is choked with smog.

Partial true. Pittburgh worse than L.A. on particulates. See American Lung Association rankings.

2. Los Angeles has developed in a low-density, sprawling pattern.

Partial true. L.A. is very dense, housing-wise and population-wise compared to other metro areas. Many definintions of sprawl could classify L.A. as sprawling. It is just so big. See Census data. See Peter Gordon's work.

3. Angelenos spend more time stuck in traffic than any other drivers in the nation.

True. 72/year hours vs. 60 for next in line (D.C., San Fran.). TTI study, 2007.

4. Thanks to the great distances between far-flung destinations, and perhaps to Angelenos' famed “love affair” with the car, Angelenos drive considerably more miles than most Americans.

Not true. Per capita vehicle miles traveled, L.A. is much less than other metro areas. See Blueprint for American Prosperity data.

5. Los Angeles is dominated by an overbuilt freeway system that promotes autodependence.

Not true. Overbuilt indicates lack of congestion. Hours spent in traffic truism undercuts this one.

6. Los Angeles's mass transit system is underdeveloped and inadequate.

Not true. See Wendell Cox's work where L.A. Mass transit market share is high relative to other urban areas in the U.S. Also see Peter Gordon's work.

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