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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. Royce says:

    You see this? I would never have believed it.

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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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