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.

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  1. Chris Fuhrman says:

    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).

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  2. MikeM says:

    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.

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  3. Jerry Tsai says:

    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.

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  4. Jason M Stokes says:

    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).

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  5. keith says:

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

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  6. Andrew Mackenzie says:

    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.

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  7. Lee says:

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

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  8. Robert says:

    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/

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