Let’s Go Glendale!

Having bid a fond “see ya around” to Palms, we turn our eyes to observing Glendale and getting to know this part of the LA region better. An outcome of LA’s legendary traffic and underpowered transit is that it can be punishing to try to experience parts of the region far from where you live. The Valley isn’t that far from the Westside, but the 405 makes it seem far. That problem certainly applies to travel between Palms (the Westside) and the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena area, which stands out even among the many difficult trips in the region.

For readers outside Los Angeles and not familiar with its confusing municipal boundaries, we should perhaps first explain where Glendale is located. Glendale is a separate incorporated city, not part of the City of Los Angeles. Downtown Glendale is about 8-9 miles due north of downtown Los Angeles, though the city’s northern reaches extend over 15 miles from downtown LA. Glendale borders the cities of Burbank, Pasadena, and La Canada-Flintridge, along with an unincorporated neighborhood of LA County known as La Crescenta-Montrose. Glendale also shares two borders with the City of LA – Sunland-Tujunga to the northwest, and Atwater Village, Glassell Park, and Eagle Rock to the south. Lastly, Glendale’s northern limits extend up to the Angeles National Forest in the San Gabriel Mountains. The Verdugo Mountains separate downtown and the southern part of the city from the northern part, located in the Crescenta Valley, a narrow valley between the Verdugos and the San Gabriels.

An unconventional way to define Glendale might be as the valley of the Verdugo Wash. This is a short tributary of the LA River that joins the river near where it takes a sharp right turn from running west to east through the SF Valley and heads south to downtown LA. Like the LA River, it is fully contained in a concrete flood control channel. The Verdugo Wash runs east to the north of downtown Glendale, then gradually turns northeast, north, and northwest as it wraps around the mountains of the same name into the Crescenta Valley. Everything south of the 134 – all of downtown Glendale and many residential areas – actually drains away from the Verdugo Wash, but topography makes one suspect that this area is sort of an alluvial fan deposited by the stream. There might be potential for improvements to the Verdugo Wash like those proposed for the LA River.

Freeways

The primary freeways serving Glendale are the 5, the 2, and the 134, which roughly form an upside down triangle around downtown Glendale. Despite serving Glendale, these portions of the 5 and the 2 are almost entirely in Los Angeles. North of the 134, the 2 continues north through the more mountainous portions of the city, ending at the 210, which serves the Crescenta Valley.

Traffic on the 5 is perhaps not quite as bad as the 10 and the 405 on the Westside, but it’s bad enough. Since the 5 runs the full length of the Golden State, it seems to have a larger volume of background traffic, and a notably higher amount of truck traffic – even if your carpool, like mine, leaves at 5 am. Truck traffic is probably increased by the gap in the 710, which eliminates a potential route around downtown LA between the ports and destinations to the north.

The 134, together with the 101 in the Valley and the 210 east of Pasadena, forms a long, continuous east-west freeway stretching from Ventura to San Bernardino, another heavily used corridor in a region with no shortage of well-used freeways. While the 101 and the 134 in the Valley and the 210 east of Pasadena get heavily congested during peak periods, the 134 between Glendale and Pasadena seems to escape the worst traffic. Astute eyes will note that the short Colorado Street freeway, connecting the 5 to San Fernando Rd and Colorado St in Glendale, looks like an abandoned attempt at routing the 134 through the heart of downtown Glendale. In fact, Caltrans’ small white bridge identifying signs still mark these structures as being located on the 134, so there’s potentially a companion post to Walk Eagle Rock’s post on the 134 being rerouted to avoid downtown Eagle Rock. The selected route for the 134 is not only better for downtown Glendale, but much better for a freeway network than the puzzling location of the Colorado St freeway’s end at Griffith Park.

The 2 is perhaps best known for the portion of the freeway that wasn’t built – the portion from the existing end in Echo Park to the west, through Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Century City to the Westside. This leaves the extant part in Northeast LA and Glendale as one of the more lightly used parts of LA’s network, though congestion on connecting freeways like the 5 can turn parts of it into a giant queue. It’s also the reason it’s hard to get to the Westside from Glendale in the absence of good transit options.

Transit

Ok, enough about freeways, let’s get on to the things that will really interest readers here: transit. At first glance, your LA Metro map makes things look pretty good.

metromap

However, what we have here is a classic case of wide coverage with relatively poor frequency. Here’s a look at some important routes serving Glendale.

metrosched

Routes 90 & 91 serve Glendale Ave, which runs to the east side of downtown and the Crescenta Valley. Route 92 serves Brand Blvd, which is Glendale’s main commercial street. Route 94 & Rapid 794 form a very long route from downtown LA to the independent City of San Fernando, near the northern end of the eponymous Valley. This serves only the western edges of Glendale, but it’s the closest route to me. Finally, Routes 180 & 181, & Rapid 780, serve east-west travel between Pasadena, Glendale, & Hollywood.

Evening and late night headways fall off pretty quickly, making it tough to depend on these routes if you want to do anything other than work your 8 to 5. The two Rapid routes, 780 & 794, don’t run at all late nights or on weekends. Rapid 780 runs with good peak frequencies, and because it’s through-routed as the Rapid for both Routes 180/181 and Route 217 (Fairfax), it sort of functions as the transit route doing what the 2 freeway was supposed to do. (Don’t bother with Route 201, which only runs hourly.) Therefore, when Rapid 780 isn’t running, riders face an additional transfer between Routes 180/191 and Route 217. On top of that; there are the usual reliability issues; on a recent weekday morning my Next Trip app promised 794 service in 42 minutes and 57 minutes. You can sort of see why the BRU complains about this when rail riders get 10-12 minute headways all day, every day.

On the rail side, Metrolink offers a Glendale station at the very southern edge of the city, adjacent to Atwater Village. Frequencies during peak periods are pretty good – there are 30 trains per day – but service ends early, going to hourly or worse at about 6:30pm and ending altogether at 9:30pm. The worst feature of Metrolink is the absurd pricing; a one way ticket from Glendale to Downtown LA is $5.50 to travel a distance of 6 miles, a distance you can double or triple on Metro rail lines for $1.75.

The upside of all of this is that there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit for transit improvements in the area – things that don’t involve, say, building an expensive underperforming light rail line to bridge the gap in the 710 freeway.

As a first take, transit improvements should include improving frequency and spans of service. Options to improve reliability, such as bus lanes and signal priority, should also be explored. On the rail side, Measure R2 plans should explore upgrading these Metrolink Lines to rapid transit frequencies, though that should probably be contingent on upzoning some of the land near the rail corridors.

Development Patterns

Speaking of development, let’s talk a little bit about the built environment in Glendale. As mentioned before, Brand Blvd serves as the heart of downtown, with Glendale’s small skyscraper district (five buildings of 20+ stories, six more of 15-19 stories, almost all outcomes of the late 80s boom) centered on Brand and the 134 freeway. Downtown Glendale has been undergoing a residential and mixed-use mini-boom, with Americana at Brand being the best known development. Since there are many projects in progress or recently completed, it’s probably worth doing two separate posts, one on the commercial projects built in the 1980s and early 1990s, one on the ongoing residential projects. Some people deride Glendale as boring, but having spent a couple evenings on Brand Blvd, I’m willing to say they either don’t know what they’re talking about or are using “boring” as code for “full of retail establishments but not the kind that I like”.

Outside of downtown, there are residential neighborhoods that are actually somewhat similar to, well, to Palms. The residential density of the Census tract I moved to is only a little bit lower than that of the tract I moved from. The biggest difference is that the percentage of single-family residences (SFRs) in my new neighborhood is higher than in Palms, where you might miss the remaining SFRs if you didn’t know where to look. The apartment building stock in Glendale also appears to be newer, with few dingbats and more apartments dating to the 1980s boom, something supported by a casual look at Property Shark. Nevertheless, I’ve done the math, and my apartment building’s 9 units on a 50’x150’ lot are exactly classic R3 dingbat density. When I walk around, though, none of the remaining SFRs are being replaced by apartments, and at first glance the zoning appears to make even existing apartments non-conforming. I’m sure there’s a fascinating story behind that, one we’ll no doubt have to explore in more detail in a future post. . .

Metrolink Ridership Update – April 2015

Time for an update on Metrolink ridership, including FY15Q2 (October-December 2014) data. Here’s the breakdown of data by stations.

stations-20150407

As we’ll see, it looks like the downward trend in ridership has finally started to level out. Hopefully this trend continues and ridership starts to pick up, as Metrolink works to address equipment reliability issues. Of course, the impact of new Metrolink CEO Art Leahy’s move to a different floor at One Gateway has yet to play out.

With that, I’ll let the graphics speak for themselves. Here’s the update of the rolling 12-month averages, broken down by line.

Ventura-20150407 AV-20150407 BG-20150407 SB-20150407 Riverside-20150407 91-20150407 OC-20150407 91OC-20150407 AC-20150407

Here’s a look at the top 10 and bottom 10 stations for ridership gained (or lost) over the period from June 2010 to December 2014 (all based on rolling 12-month averages). The top 10 are unchanged, while in the bottom 10, El Monte, Via Princessa, and San Bernardino replaced Montclair, Santa Clarita, and Pomona North.

abstop-20150407 absbottom-20150407

A Farewell to Palms

A Farewell to Palms

For those who missed it on Twitter, home base for this blog recently relocated from Palms to Glendale. While I’m excited to get to know another part of the LA region much more closely, I won’t lie: I’m really going to miss Palms.

Palms is one of LA’s most low-key neighborhoods. Instead of calling to mind stereotypes, like places as varied as Beverly Hills, Compton, Venice, and Silver Lake do, mentioning Palms is likely to elicit a puzzled expression, even from longer-term LA residents. We’d occasionally joke that when you say you live in Palms, people would think of Palm Springs or Palmdale.

In a way, flying under the radar is one of the greatest strengths of Palms. Rather than getting downzoned in the firestorm of NIMBYism that exploded over so much of the Westside in the early 1970s, Palms remained zoned R3 and R4. This has led to a natural, gradual evolution of the neighborhood’s housing stock, with single-family residences (SFRs) being replaced by dingbats in the 1960s, early-style podiums in the 1980s, and modern podiums in the 2000s to the present. This pattern of development is unavailable today in many LA neighborhoods, because after decades of zoning restraints, land prices are too high for the first stages to pencil out.

Meanwhile, the commercial boulevards of Palms – Motor and Overland Avenues – have grown into a wonderfully chaotic mix of apartments, retail, industry, and even a few holdout SFRs. You might even call this the “C2 development pattern”, which emerges all over LA in C2 zones. You really can’t plan that diversity of use at such detail; you have to enable it and let it happen.

It’s no coincidence that Palms became one of the most affordable areas on the Westside, and one of the most diverse neighborhoods in LA. Palms isn’t a destination; it’s just an ordinary dense urban neighborhood that gets the job done for its residents – a vale of humility among hills of conceit. It’s the kind of place that politicians and planners should facilitate more development of, rather than trying to create headline destination districts.

Change is never easy. With growth strangled across most Westside neighborhoods, Palms is one of the few outlets for the market to provide new housing supply to meet surging demand. Inevitably, that has meant that newer projects in Palms have a more upscale flair, and rents for existing buildings have been creeping up. The g-word has been thrown around, though I wouldn’t call it that, since Palms has been undergoing continual redevelopment and change for decades.

Sometimes, you change neighborhoods. And sometimes, neighborhood change comes to you. I’m fortunate enough for it to be the former, and for change to be an opportunity. Palms has been, and will continue to be, an important part of this blog. But be prepared for some in depth posts on Glendale. Change isn’t easy, but it’s often necessary for us to evolve and grow, precisely because we’re not quite sure where it will lead. Let’s go, Glendale!

Dam the Golden Gate

With California facing a severe drought today, negative impacts from climate change long term, and exorbitantly expensive housing, it’s time to think big about solutions to address our water, energy, and housing shortages. Fortunately, there is an easy mega-project that can help us tackle all three: dam the Golden Gate.

Under this proposal, a large concrete arch dam would be constructed across the Golden Gate, just west of the bridge. Since the inflow of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers would not be sufficient to maintain the water level of the closed-off bay at sea level, water levels would start to drop due to evaporation. The difference in elevation between the ocean and the closed-off bay could then be exploited to create an enormous hydroelectric generation facility at the Golden Gate.

Since the Golden Gate Dam would inevitably doom salmon and smelt in the delta, there would be no need to allow any fresh water to enter the bay. Therefore, the entire flow of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers could be diverted south to Central Valley farms and Southern California via the State Water Project. An auxiliary dam across the Carquinez Strait would allow Suisun Bay to be converted into a freshwater reservoir to increase water storage for droughts.

This plan would increase the dependence of Southern California on water supplies from Northern California; however, by putting the Port of Oakland out of business, it would increase the dependence of Northern California on imports made through the Ports of LA and Long Beach.

Finally, by lowering the level of San Francisco Bay, the plan would create hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of acres of new land. All this land would be developed with single-family tract housing, which, ya know, is the only kind of housing we want to allow to be built in California anyway. While some might initially object to the impact on the natural environment, these works would no doubt become revered achievements, making good use of nature’s error.

LACMTA Bus Ridership Update – January 2015

Another three months has passed, so it’s time for another LACMTA bus ridership update. Apologies for the slow posting and delayed updates; March ended up being a very busy month; hopefully things will be back to normal now.

First, the raw data. Highlighted cells represent the top 10 months for that route (since January 2009).

bus-raw-201501

Here are the 12-month rolling averages.

bus-wkdy-12mo-201501

Ridership from November to January is always a little goofy due to holidays. With the exception of the Silver Line, which continues to improve, all routes saw a decrease in ridership. For Vermont & Western, this continues previous trends. With Venice, Santa Monica, Wilshire, and the Orange Line, these dips are small enough that no larger trend appears.

Here’s the Saturday and Sunday rolling 12-month averages.

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bus-Sun-12mo-201501

Saturday and Sunday ridership largely reflects the weekday trends.

Lastly, here’s the percentage of trips on each arterial being served by the rapid route.

bus-share-201501

The share of riders served by the rapid routes continues to slowly rise on most corridors. I wouldn’t read too much into the spikes in Venice and Santa Monica data, because they were caused by large drops in local route ridership on those streets. However, it is interesting that the rapid routes were more resilient to ridership changes – the ridership losses came disproportionately from local routes.

As always, it’s hard to say what’s causing ridership changes. Possibilities include the improving economy making cars more affordable, cheaper gas, and Metro’s recent fare increase.

Metrolink ridership next, I swear, and don’t think I’ve forgotten about SF Valley bus ridership!

How Prop 13 Discourages Affordable Housing

Thanks to @devin_mb for help on this post.

From the day it passed, Prop 13 has sparked intense debate over its impacts on city finances and land use decisions. For readers outside California, the chief provisions of Prop 13 are that it (a) caps property taxes at 1% of assessed value and (b) caps annual property tax increases at 2%, a value frequently less than inflation and almost always less than the annual appreciation, until the property changes ownership. There are, of course, a lot of complicating factors, but for our purposes, good enough.

Most commentary on Prop 13 focuses on the distortionary effects that accrue over time when a property does not change hands, due to the 2% increase limit. Because the land is assessed well below market value, owners pay little in taxes, and are given a disincentive to redevelop, which would trigger reassessment at a much higher value.

However, the 1% of assessed value cap might work to set an artificial floor for the price of new housing construction, and that’s the mechanism I want to examine today with a highly simplified model.

Consider a two-city world, where all households are the same, and all housing units are the same. House value appreciation is constant, as is the rate of housing turnover. Also assume there is no need-based state assistance to cities. Housing prices vary only by location. One city is by the ocean, so it has high housing prices, while the other is inland with a hotter climate, and has low housing prices. Now suppose that each new housing unit must generate $4,000 in taxes, as of initial sale, to pay for its city services.

In a normal region, cities would raise the revenue by setting the tax rate as needed. This typically means that cities with cheaper housing have higher tax rates, so as to raise the same revenue*. So, to cover public services, the beach city with $500,000 houses would set its tax rate at 0.8% and raise $4,000 per house, while the desert city with $200,000 houses would set its tax rate at 2.0% and raise $4,000 per house.

Now let’s impose Prop 13’s 1% cap. The $500,000 house city is fine, but the $200,000 house city can only raise $2,000. They’re hosed: new housing that sells for $200,000 is an inexorable drain on municipal finances. To survive, the city must do everything it can to discourage construction of houses at $200,000 and drive the cost of housing units up to $400,000. One way to do this is with minimum lot size zoning or minimum housing unit sizes.

The California Legislature supposedly gave cities a way out of this problem with Mello-Roos fees. In essence, Mello-Roos fees are like a business improvement district: properties within the district pay an additional fee to fund new infrastructure like new schools. So theoretically, if you want to offer houses at $200,000, you can tax them at 1%, slap on a Mello-Roos fee equivalent to an additional 1%, and you’re good to go.

In reality, this only works if your entire city is one giant Mello-Roos district, which it’s not, because the city almost certainly includes already developed areas. Suppose then that our desert city is half developed, and half under construction today. The old side has taxes capped at 1%, while the new side of town is a Mello-Roos district and so pays 1% plus the Mello-Roos rate. Suppose for now that the Mello-Roos fee is set at 1% for a 2% total tax on new houses.

From a property tax perspective, a $400,000 property paying 1% is the same as a $200,000 property paying 2%. But from a buyer’s perspective, the math is different; the additional tax devalues the property only by the present value of the amount of the Mello-Roos fees. For example, a $400,000 30-year mortgage at 5% will cost you $26,000/yr; add in an annual 1% tax and that’s $30,000/yr. For the same $30,000/yr, assuming a 2% tax rate (1% property tax plus Mello-Roos), you could only get a $353,000 house.

Back to our example. We’d like to find an equilibrium where tax revenue averages $4,000 per household. If we add a 1% Mello-Roos fee, then house prices will have to rise for both old and new houses: the equilibrium that satisfies everyone in this case is for the old houses outside the district to be priced at $289,500 and the new houses inside the district to be priced at $255,500. The cost to the buyer (in mortgage and taxes) is about $21,900/year in each case, so households are indifferent between the new and the old homes. The house outside the district pays $2,895/yr in taxes and the house inside pays $5,110/yr, so the city collects $8,005/yr in total, or about $4,000/yr for each household.

In this example, we’ve raised the requisite tax revenue, but houses are alarmingly expensive: up over 25% from the base of $200,000. Charging a higher Mello-Roos fee to the new houses can bring prices back down. If you make the Mello-Roos fee 2%, the equilibrium is $237,500 and $187,500, and the combined housing and tax burden has been driven down to $17,800/yr, about what it would be in a city with $200,000 houses and a 2% tax rate.

While it might seem like we’ve got a Prop 13 workaround figured out, note that this example assumes there is one house inside the district for every one outside the district. This is only plausible for a young, rapidly growing city, as an established city will have many more existing houses outside the district and Mello-Roos districts expire over time. If we assume a 2% Mello-Roos fee and 20 houses outside for every one inside, the equilibrium is $376,000 for an old, low-tax house outside and $296,000 for a new, high-tax house inside. This equates to a combined housing and tax burden of $28,200/yr – almost as high as in a city with $400,000 houses, a 1% tax rate, and no Mello-Roos.

In other words, it doesn’t matter that Mello-Roos fees make it possible to have $200,000 houses that generate enough tax revenue. A city can’t allow the houses outside the Mello-Roos district become too affordable without ruining municipal finances. Newer cities with rapid growth and a large percentage of houses covered by Mello-Roos districts can make the math work, but legacy cities can’t, and in time, all new cities become legacy cities. Thus, Mello-Roos makes it possible to fund new master planned suburban growth in the urban fringe, but offers little help to infill and affordable housing in cities.

Note that in this post we have treated Mello-Roos fees as a perfect substitute for property taxes, but in fact, they are more restricted in what they can be spent on. If anything, this simplifying assumption skews the analysis in favor of affordability, because it allows Mello-Roos fees to cover shortfalls in revenue raised on properties outside the district. In fact, I see no reason to believe that relaxing all of the simplifying assumptions in this model will yield different results.

*In reality, rich cities will raise more money so they can buy things like rabbit statues, but for now, assume they both target the same revenue.

LACMTA Rail Ridership Update – January 2015

Another three months has passed, so it’s (belatedly) time for another LACMTA rail ridership update. I’m splitting out the bus ridership into a separate post, and will also be putting together a post for bus routes in the San Fernando Valley.

First, the raw data. Highlighted cells represent the top 10 months for that line (since January 2009).

rawdata-201501

The January data is very suspicious; there’s no way the Green Line dropped that low in one month, and the Blue & Expo are questionable too. Weekday ridership for February was available and the Green Line bounced back to almost 40,000, so not sure what’s going on there. The Gold and Expo Lines continue to be near all-time high ridership for weekdays and weekends.

Here’s the rolling 12-month average of weekday ridership:

wkdy-12mo-201501

The rolling 12-month graphic always provides the right context. Most lines are pretty flat, while Expo Line continues to creep up. The Red/Purple Line seems to have had a surge in 2013/2014 but fallen back. The relentless 20-minute headways during evening hours can’t help. We should also note that recent weakness in the Blue Line may be due to ongoing work, such as the shutdown of the Long Beach loop for track and station refurbishment.

Still, we’d probably hope for ridership to be growing a little faster. Maybe we could make it easier to build a ton of housing, office, and retail near high quality transit?

Here’s the Saturday and Sunday rolling 12-month averages.

Sat-12mo-201501 Sun-12mo-201501

And lastly, here’s the update for the rolling 12-month average of boardings per mile:

wkdy-bprm-201501

The Expo Line is still closing in on the Blue Line in that graph, but it’s going to have to see a surge in ridership this spring to keep rising in the 12-month average, having broken 30,000 riders in May 2014. For now, we patiently wait for the Gold Line and Expo Line extensions to open. (My prediction: Gold Line will make boardings per mile fall, Expo Line will make boardings per mile rise.)

Stay tuned for bus and Metrolink ridership.