Los Angeles Transportation Facts and Fiction: Sprawl

In a previous post I challenged you to identify which of six common stereotypes about transportation and land use in Los Angeles is actually true. The first is that Los Angeles has developed in a low-density, sprawling pattern.

Answer: False.

As of the 2000 census, the Los Angeles region’s urbanized area had the highest population density in the nation. Yes, that was the word “highest,” not a smudge on your monitor. At 7,068 people per square mile, Los Angeles is considerably denser than New York-Newark, which ranks fourth at 5,309 people per square mile (behind San Francisco-Oakland and San Jose as well as Los Angeles). How could this be?

Facts and Fiction

Eric Morris discusses stereotypes about Los Angeles transportation in this six-part series.

It is true that Los Angeles’s downtown disappoints, especially when compared with such thriving urban cores as Midtown Manhattan, Downtown San Francisco, or Chicago’s Loop. See this paper from my U.C.L.A. colleagues Donald Shoup and Michael Manville for more on this phenomenon and why it may have occurred.

However, despite the fact that Los Angeles’s center is comparatively low-density, its peripheral areas are considerably denser than the suburbs of other cities.

Los Angeles’s homes sit on very small lots, in part due to the difficulty of providing water infrastructure to new developments. (Other southwestern cities share this trait.) Moreover, Los Angeles has a large immigrant population that lives at very high densities. The area also has very few vacant lots.

So if the fundamental characteristic of sprawl is low density, Los Angeles is the least-sprawling city in the nation. (The least dense among the 40 largest metro areas is Atlanta.)

If you already flunked the quiz, you may need to stop watching Annie Hall so often and take a trip to Southern California to see for yourself. For those of you still alive in the competition, there are five stereotypes to go:

  • Angelenos spend more time stuck in traffic than any other drivers in the nation.
  • Los Angeles’s mass-transit system is underdeveloped and inadequate.
  • 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.
  • Los Angeles’s air is choked with smog.
  • Los Angeles is dominated by an overbuilt freeway system that promotes autodependence.

More in the next post.

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  1. cirby says:

    “So if the fundamental characteristic of sprawl is low density”

    It’s not.

    The fundamental characteristic of sprawl is not low population density, it’s the tendency of higher population areas to spread into surrounding lower population areas. While LA has a lot of very high density residential zones (mostly characterized by apartments and condos, not houses), it also has a lot of low population zones – which are on the edges of the LA basin (or on the other side of the San Bernardino mountains, for example). LA has hit a population spike because there aren’t as many unpopulated zones connected directly to the megalopolis – you have to cross the mountains to get to the truly unpopulated areas (which are mostly high and low desert). The high density “edges” of LA are what happened when sprawl ran into the mountains and stalled.

    While low population density is usually found on the edges of a sprawling metropolis, it’s not the defining characteristic of the entire area.

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  2. Nathan says:

    Dang. I was so sure about the sprawl one. I live an hour outside of LA. I thought I would have had this thing down, but I am out the first day. This looks like it will be an awesome series of posts. I am very excited.

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  3. Paul says:

    I think the LA low-density myth is obviously disprovable, but the others are less clearly true or false.

    - “Angelenos spend more time stuck in traffic than any other drivers in the nation.” True, depending on what you mean by “Angelenos”. I’m 90% certain that LA and Washington DC are the top two metro areas for commute time.

    - “Los Angeles’s mass-transit system is underdeveloped and inadequate.” With subjective terms like underdeveloped and inadequate I don’t know how you intend to prove this true or false. But I think it’s pretty clear that LA’s transit system is does not match the city’s scale.

    - “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.

    - “Los Angeles’s air is choked with smog.” I wouldn’t be surprised if this is not true.

    - “Los Angeles is dominated by an overbuilt freeway system that promotes autodependence.” If only one of these are true, it’s this one.

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  4. Marton says:

    Comparing LA density to the entirety of the New York metro area is disingenious. The New York metro has a proper center – NYC – with a density of of 27000/sq mi – and hence proper proper public transport. LA doesn’t.Of course if you include the Hamptons and bucolic Litchfield, Connecticut, into your statistics for New York, you can prove anything…

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  5. Peter says:

    This first item is “false” largely because of the manner in which the federal government defines “urbanized area”. The New York urbanized area contains parts of NY, NJ, and CT, and many of the areas included would hardly be considered urban or urbanized by most people (e.g. High Bridge, NJ). Redefining the geography – that is redefining what is considered LA and what is considered NYC – could easily yield a different conclusion regarding population densities.

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  6. Brian says:

    >you may need to stop watching Annie Hall so often

    ouch.

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  7. Alex B. says:

    You can’t simply equate density with sprawl.

    Sprawl, in my mind, is the combination of several factors, of which density is only one. The others are connectivity, auto-dependence, and land use diversity.

    These all play into each other, of course.

    Density itself is a limited metric, something more like weighted density tells us a lot more about the character of an area:
    http://austinzoning.typepad.com/austincontrarian/2008/03/weighted-densit.html

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  8. Jeff says:

    as an erswhile New Yorker-turned-Angeleno, I can also attest to a related underappreciated fact about Los Angeles: that many of its neighborhoods are delightfully walkable. I even had a friend who lived near me in Los Feliz and didn’t own a car!!! I suppose you need a certain amount of density to support that kind of thing.

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