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.


"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.



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.


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.



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...


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.


>you may need to stop watching Annie Hall so often


Alex B.

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:


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.


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.


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?

Jerry Tsai

"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.


Jason M Stokes

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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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).


Eric M. Jones

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...


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.


You see this? I would never have believed it.