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. 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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  2. Peter says:

    Eric Jones;

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


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