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.

Chris Bradford

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

Chris Fuhrman

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.


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?

Eric M. Jones

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.

Chris M.

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.



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:


Robert Garcia

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.


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.


"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.

Dan C

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
3. All others



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.

Jeremy R

"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.


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


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.


Matt M.

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).


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.


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?


Josh S

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:

Philip Orton

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 ...


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.