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.

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



  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


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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:

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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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  9. AdamB says:

    Disagree on account of your definition being based on a faulty measure – population density. The point of the sprawl variable is not to point out how many people are in a given area, but how far those people have to travel to do the things they want or need to do. In NYC, if you want to go shopping, get dinner, see a show, grab some drinks at a bar, and end your night at a club, you can park your car once and do it all on foot. Try doing that in LA and you might want to time yourself because you’re about to walk the LA Marathon course. It’s not the density of people in the burbs that’s creating problems in LA, it’s the density of attractions in the city. And the lack of viable public transportation options, but thats a matter for a different day.

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  10. Matt says:

    If sprawl meant density, and you ignored the other fallacies of your conclusion, you might have a point.

    Sprawl means sprawl, not density. Is this so hard?

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  11. Jerry Tsai says:

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

    By using “develop” in that sentence, you implied we should examine L.A. across time, but you use recent cross-sectional data to refute the statement. I’m therefore not convinced that the statement is false as you claim. Los Angeles was much less dense 50 years ago and gradually became more dense.

    Additionally, you did not define sprawl. For most non-technical people, sprawl IS fairly even density across an ever-growing area. Metro regions like NYC/Newark obviously a case where an area of high density (like NYC) is supported with a sprawling area like the Newark area.

    A large difference here is that much traffic goes in and out of NYC, while LA has no strong centers (or multiple centers, depending on how you wish to think about them).

    Citing the average density figure was illuminating, but poorly supported your contention. No one who has lived in NYC, Boston, San Francisco, etc., would ever think of those cities in the same way as they do of Los Angeles.

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  12. Jason M Stokes says:

    I called this one on the previous post. I knew this disingenuous argument was going to come through. Read Sprawl: A Compact History by Robert Bruegmann if you want more of the same argument.

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  13. Harlan says:

    You can prove anything with the wrong statistics. The point is not that the *mean* density is higher or lower, the question is whether *more people* live in a high-density vs low-density area. The shapes of the distributions are different. In NYC, more people live in dense neighborhoods, while in LA, more people live in less-dense neighborhoods. It is correct to say that the *median New-Yorker* lives in a denser neighborhood than the *median Angeleno*. And, from a transportation point of view, that’s what matters.

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  14. silby says:

    Los Angeles is spread out – Manhattan is compact. Seems like were dealing with semantics here. I think LA defines sprawl regardless of density…

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  15. Jeffrey says:

    This is skewed based on the measurements. The NY area includes CT and NJ. CT is easily an hour from the city. San Bernardino is an hour from LA. Yet SB-Riverside is another whole area based on the numbers.

    Didn’t Freakonomics teach us to take a closer look at the numbers to find the reality of a situation? Flawed numbers, flawed post.

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  16. Brian says:

    With a little adjustment using numbers from here and assuming the census’ defined urban areas don’t overlap:

    After adding Camarillo, Lancaster/Palmdale, Mission Viejo, Oxnard, Riverside/San Bernardino, Santa Clarita, Simi Valley, Temecula/Murrieta, Thousand Oaks, and Vicorville/Hesperia the density is pulled down to 5471, virtually the same as NY. However, this presumably is not including the empty hills/mountains/deserts between those LA suburbs, which I believe would pull the LA average down further.

    There may be similar calculations to be done on NY, but I am not intimately familiar with that area.

    The fact that the general LA region includes at least 11 different areas that are separately defined by the census as urban areas would seem to PROVE the sprawl hypothesis.

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  17. Heather says:

    I agree with many of the previous posts reguarding issues with the definition of “urbanized area.” Los Angeles City runs about 7,400 people/sq mile (lining up fairly closely with the urban area’s number). But New York City (without the surrounding areas) runs 17,100 people/sq mile.

    The point about small lots and few vacant lots, while terrific, is more relevant when discussing units/sq mile. Especially since LA averages 3 people per unit and NY is closer to the US average of 2.6.
    Los Angeles (city) runs 2,686 units per sq mile and New York City runs 6,839 units per sq mile. But LA’s urbanized area (2,300 units/sq mile) looks more dense than NY’s urbanized area (1,900 units/sq mile).

    Harlan’s point is really clear here. The LA urbanized area is a more consistent level of density across the whole area — high density, but sprawling. NY’s urbanized area is characterized by a greater variety in the levels of density (from Manhattan to the Hamptons).

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  18. Eric M. Jones says:

    Having lived in both LA and NYC, I join the others who say that Los Angeles DEFINES sprawl. To jigger the statistics to make some point is disingenuous.

    The extreme population density of NYC 27,000/square mile might cause the surrounding area to be industrial infrastrucure (rail yards, docks and the like) to support the Big Apple. There may be other details that skew the statistics on closer examination.

    Just because the government says something doesn’t make it true. Those attitudes are like SO LAST CENTURY…

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  19. prowsej says:

    Here is a seven-page rebuttal of what you are saying from three geography grad students, complete with maps: http://lewis.sppsr.ucla.edu/GIScontest/OsgoogEtAl_LANYDensity_report.pdf

    This post is just wrong. We all love the “folks things know that just ain’t so” meme, but only when you can actually overturn the conventional wisdom without resorting to numbers that are fudged, either through ignorance or deceitfulness.

    In sum: you are comparing apples and oranges. According to your definition of “urban area” NYC is 2-3 TIMES the geographic size of LA. That just isn’t supported by looking at the actual city limits.

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  20. Royce says:

    You see this? I would never have believed it.

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  21. Chris Bradford says:

    Heather and Harlan, you are talking about weighted density (see Alex B.’s link above to my chart).

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  22. Chris Fuhrman says:

    For much of Los Angeles proper, the statistics that support a higher density of development are true. Yes, Temecula, Victorville and Santa Clarita are large, suburban areas; L.A. as a city, though, has countless neighborhoods within 10 miles of downtown that are quite dense and mix multi-unit housing with single-family homes.

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  23. Kent says:

    If you try to measure sprawl in the LA ‘megalopolis’ by including San Bernardino and Riverside Counties you are going to get a very low and meaningless number. Look at a map, those counties are gigantic and stretch all the way to the Arizona/Nevada borders. By construction you are going to have a very large denominator. LA does have very high population densities. Can anyone think of a better definition of sprawl?

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  24. Eric M. Jones says:

    By the way…Manhattan has a density of 70,595 residents per square mile (and a lot more who aren’t residents). If the 54,555 square miles of New York State had the same density, the population would be 3.85 billion people (not so long ago, the entire population on the planet.) [Not my idea originally ].

    On the other hand, all the humanity on the planet only weighs as much as 50 clouds.

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  25. Chris M. says:

    People who live in NYC have lived in the city proper in New York, which has clearly delineated boundaries. These definitely change the perception of the city, but are no barrier to the support structure that allows the city to function. Ignoring the surrounding areas that support New York is as much of a logical fallacy as ignoring Los Angeles’. It’s easy to do, of course; the boundaries are right there, how can you not see them?

    As to the five remaining stereotypes, Los Angeles’ public transportation system is not good, compared to San Francisco or Chicago, the cities I have experience with. It also has a huge number of freeways. Either 2 or 5 is accurate as far as I can tell; I’m looking forward to seeing what the evidence against either stereotype is.

    From personal experience, the city never stops around the core of Los Angeles the way it does other places, based on having lived in the area and traveled in and out of the city. It’s stifling, but it does lead to high population density as well. The blank spots tend to be hills, which look like a big gap, but often aren’t relative to the size of the urban areas on either side.

    San Francisco has a very small high-rise urban core, only about half a mile square. The rest of the city reminds me of Los Angeles in terms of density, very tightly packed, three-story or so buildings.

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  26. Philip says:

    It should be noted that the LA’s core is large and dense by any standard:

    *The most dense census tract in LA has a population density of 79,725 people per square mile.

    *Los Angeles has the largest census area of 10,000+ people per square mile in the US, larger than NYC.

    See more here:


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  27. Robert Garcia says:

    Your February 9 post says the first myth you presented is that “Los Angeles has developed in a low-density, sprawling pattern.”
    Actually that is the second myth you presented on February 5. The first is “1. Los Angeles’s air is choked with smog.”

    I previously posted comment 56 to your February 5 post.

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  28. Naskar says:

    A low variance between very dense areas and areas of very low-density will give you sprawl. Not mean density itself.

    The NYC metro is a perfect counter-example of sprawl, with one extremely high density area (Manhattan) and low density “suburbs”. Los Angeles has many medium density areas, like Houston for instance. Both are the definition of sprawling patterns.

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  29. J says:

    “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”

    By that standard, any growth at all would qualifiy as “sprawl”. Is that really what you mean?

    “only when you can actually overturn the conventional wisdom without resorting to numbers that are fudged, either through ignorance or deceitfulness”

    Or arbitrarily redefining terms so the evidence supports your premise. Even Alvy Singer would probably concede you’re being a little unfair to the kettle here.

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  30. Dan C says:

    There is so much misinformation flying about here it’s insane. Cities and their development patterns are incredibly complex and cannot be simplified by any of the descriptions offered in this chain. I’ve studied the densities of all major US metros/urban areas/cities/etc. and can tell you that NYC is completely different from any city in the US, and really shouldn’t be compared to any of the others. There is nothing close to the densities or scale found in NYC anywhere else in the US. The suburbs of NYC, however, are typical american sprawl.
    If you look at all the other urban areas we think of as “city like”: SF, Chicago, Boston, Philly, DC, you can add Los Angeles because within this group the urban cores are statistically similar. Chicago has the largest urban core but it still doesn’t begin to compare to NYC even as a ratio to the urban area size. Los Angeles and SF have very high suburban densities compared to the others.
    After those, the urban areas in the US are more similar to Houston or Phoenix, with almost entirely suburban housing/development patterns. Los Angeles firmly deserves to belong in the second group, and should not be included in this group.

    In other words, there are three types of cities in the US:
    1. NYC
    2. SF, CHI, PHIL, LA, BOS, DC
    3. All others

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  31. Planner says:

    I’ve read comments arguing that since SoCal doesn’t concentrate it’s commercial areas in one bucket, it’s not a ‘real’ city. Again, the Carrie Bradshaw-like myopia of NYCers creates a fantasy world where the entire world is Manhattan or bust. Tokyo and Paris are just a couple of examples that multi-nodal cities are just as much as an urban place as singular ones.

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  32. Jeremy R says:

    “Los Angeles has many medium density areas, like Houston for instance. Both are the definition of sprawling patterns.”

    Except, All of Houston’s population across 508 sq miles can fit into 157 sq miles designated as “central” los angeles. That is quite a huge distance.

    The truth is LA’s low density tracts are like Houston’s high density tracts, so what is medium for LA is certainly not medium for Houston.

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  33. Adam says:

    As an Angeleno, you got me on the edge of my seat! Finish the quiz! Please!

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  34. iluvhatemail says:

    Yeah, I think you already struck out because as a long-time resident of Los Angeles, a sprawl defines exactly what has happened here. Not so much building up, as building out.

    # Angelenos spend more time stuck in traffic than any other drivers in the nation. – TRUE, I spend 3 hours total a day in traffic

    # Los Angeles’s mass-transit system is underdeveloped and inadequate. – TRUE, unless your destination is near a subway line, be prepared to spend hours on a bus

    # 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. – FALSE, a lot Angelenos’ shop & play near their turf

    # Los Angeles’s air is choked with smog. -TRUE, everyone i know who visits complains of the burning eye syndrome which even affect me when returning on vacation.

    # Los Angeles is dominated by an overbuilt freeway system that promotes autodependence. – FALSE, the truth is, the freeways are built enough for the traffic they face.

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  35. Matt M. says:

    One of the main reasons why LA is deemed to not be dense is that many of its affluent residents live in houses in the lowest density areas of the city, while many poorer and middle class residents live in dense neighborhoods filled with apartments and condos. If it were the other way around everyone would not feel that LA is low density, but when people think of the stereotype of LA they are thinking Playboy Mansion or a house in the Hollywood Hills not an apartment dweller in Mid-Wilshire or Sawtelle (just doesn’t fit the image or make for a good movie even though it is much more the norm).

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  36. andy says:

    Rather than just thinking of this in a statistical way, think of how development exists in the New York area as compared to Los Angeles.

    New York has extremely dense areas of living in such places as Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan. Outside of the city proper, there are suburbs where people may live only 15 miles outside of NYC (like Scarsdale, NY or Ridgewood, NJ) but have large properties that might be an acre or two.

    Los Angeles, by contrast, is packed with housing and apartment living whose density and development is barely indistinguishable from one district to the next. You can travel from Van Nuys to Palm Springs, and never enter an agricultural, rural, small town or wilderness area.

    Just dividing the population by the square miles and coming up with an average does not really tell the story of how very different the two cities are in their qualities of life.

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  37. whoanellie says:

    In my mind, sprawl is illogical, unplanned, and wastes resources. I don’t particularly classify LA in this way; they saw a population boom later than NY or Chicago, had the ability to grow (in area) and the means to do it (a roadway system). Chicago and NY had highways/roadways installed after they were an established city, and they are much smaller in land area. Why do you think LA doesn’t have a true downtown? Because you didn’t ever have to walk anywhere to buy milk, go to the bank, or mail a letter – you could drive to all of these places. I would love to compare the number of homes in LA that have an original driveway (off street parking) vs. the homes in NY or Chicago. This is a good indicator of when the neighborhoods were established.

    As for the myths, I would guess that the time in traffic is true, although I hear Atlanta is dealing with this issue as well as places like Houston. I don’t believe the highway system is overbuilt – overbuilt systems wouldn’t result in traffic problems, and the statement seems like an opinion rather than a fact. Smog problems tend to exist where physcial geography prevent the movement of air – like Mexico City. I’ve never been to LA, but being near the coast must help this situation. Finally, although people may sit in traffic, I have a feeling they aren’t traveling far – LA’s dense, remember?

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  38. Josh S says:

    The American Lung Association ranking you mention is highly flawed. They used one reading from one location on one day to do their rankings. The average reading around Pittsburgh is half that mentioned by the ALA (which makes Pittsburgh below average, not the worst in the nation). See:

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  39. Philip Orton says:

    To me, sprawl means that a city spreads out into all available surrounding areas, and there are few green spaces. This is Los Angeles. I am visiting now, and it blows my mind how far you can drive in some directions and still be in suburbia. City limits have nothing to do with sprawl – it is about the entire metropolitan area.

    And how on earth can you compare “Newark-New York” with it’s huge uninhabitable open spaces (Meadowlands, Hudson, etc). Nobody in their right mind would consider those two cities part of an interconnected metropolitan area. That’s like calling San Diego/ Tijuana a single metropolitan area.

    Maybe LA doesn’t have the nation’s worst sprawl, but it is pretty bad. People know sprawl when they see it …

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  40. Tag says:

    I realize this a dead thread at this point, but I thought I’d chime in.

    1. Nice to see people citing the Austin Contrarian’s efforts to get these numbers right. Measuring population densities is not straightforward, and, yes, this post is as disingenuous as many other commenters have said.

    2. That said, Los Angeles IS surprisingly dense, and getting denser. But the actual, on-the-ground shape of that density is troubling. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley and every time I go back I see more three- to five-story buildings popping up on the main streets, especially those that lead to a 101 on-ramp. These buildings are single-use. Residential buildings, no commercial space, and worse, with two parking spaces per unit, as dictated by the city’s zoning code. Dense though the development may be, the valley feels no more walkable for it.

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  41. mar says:

    The problem with Los Angeles is not so much lack of mass transit or poor planning, but peoples’ need to live in certain neighborhoods despite the far distance from their work, play, etc. Complaining about sprawl is a luxury. I live in the Westside and I know many people who commute to East LA, Calabassas, and Long Beach because they refuse to live in those “unappealing” areas. They have no right to complain. Likewise, I know people who work in the Westside but live in areas like San Gabriel Valley and Northridge because those are the only cities they can afford their 3 car garage, 5 bedroom homes. Meanwhile, the majority of Angelenos (many of whom are working class) are rational and live close to where they work, which is why LA’s average commute time (around 25 minutes, if I remember correctly) is actually much less than NYC. People in cities across the nation are stuck in traffic during rush hour and it will become worse the farther you live from your work.
    I know plenty of people who rarely drive because they’re able to live in sustainable cities such as West LA, Pasadena, or Downtown/Koreatown. These areas have great public transportation. To expect a cohesive and efficient mass transit system covering the entirety of LA County is kind of ridiculous. I’m sick of people comparing LA to NY. Most people are referring to just Manhattan anyway, which is about the same size as Santa Monica and Westwood (together). The only people who complain about living in LA are those who treat LA County like a city, when it really is larger than most states and many countries.
    Angelenos are addicted to their cars and it’s this love affair that perpetuates the sprawl, not the “overbuilt freeway system”. Any new infrastructure, be it home or business, must cater to the car by building cavernous parking lots and multi-lane streets, rendering our communities unwalkable. What came first: the car or the parking lot?
    As for LA’s smog, it pales in comparison to many big international cities I’ve been to such as Beijing, Bangkok, and Jakarta. There’s a lot of room for improvement, however, and one can see this on post-rain days when snow-capped mountains are actually visible. It’s unfair to compare LA to cities such as Seattle and Denver when our infrastructure is so much larger.

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  42. Peter says:

    Eric Jones;

    Yeah, but let’s see a cloud play clarinet!


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