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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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