Transit, TOD, and Polycentrism

Via David Edmondson of The Greater Marin, we have this 2007 article from the LA Times about some TOD projects in LA generating less than the expected number of transit trips. On Twitter, we threw out a couple reasons why this might be happening, but I think it’s worth going into a little more detail.

First, there is some question as to the success of TODs anywhere at generating transit ridership at rates significantly greater than the background rate of transit use. A TOD in Boston might have more transit riders than a TOD in LA, but only because Boston in general has more transit riders than LA. Some of the sources of TOD skepticism are not exactly unbiased. On the other hand, here’s UC-Berkeley’s ACCESS magazine reporting that proximity to transit has little effect on ridership generated by TODs.

Note that this is not an indictment of rail transit in LA. In terms of boardings per mile, LA outperforms SF, and holds its own against any eastern city other than NYC. LA’s HRT, though small in geographic span, outperforms WMATA and CTA on a per-mile basis. Outside the MBTA Green Line and small systems in Buffalo and Houston, LA’s LRT is the champ, and its stats ain’t going down when Expo Phase 2 and Regional Connector open.


That aside, here are some factors that might contribute to low TOD ridership in LA. Some are general factors that can apply to any city; others are somewhat unique to LA.

Parking Minimums

While LA’s parking minimums are not that much different than many cities, the difference is that LA was a relatively small place at the dawn of the Auto Age. That means there’s relatively little old urban development like in East Coast cities and SF. So while it may be equally likely that your TOD apartment comes with a parking space, in LA it’s far more likely that there’s cheap and convenient parking at your destination. If you know there’s parking and you’ve invested up front in getting a car, it’s less likely you’ll take transit.

Local Bus Blues

The article cites one person who was hoping to live car-free in LA, but after trying it, was giving up and planning to get a car. The problem was not the quality of LA rail services – in fact, on the whole, LRT in Los Angeles is better planned and designed than most cities, with straighter routes and less traffic interference – but the quality of bus services.

LA is a big place. The rail network, though expanding, only stretches so far. If you want to really explore this great metropolis, sooner or later you’re going to have to get on a bus. And our transit patron in the article learned what anyone with experience riding buses could tell you: very few people ride them unless they absolutely have to. The reason is obvious, the buses are stuck in the same traffic as cars. In your car, at least you don’t have to make unnecessary stops or put up with belligerent mentally ill riders or listen to the guy behind you belt out Tyga lyrics at full volume.

This issue exists in many other cities – with a few exceptions, Boston’s buses are infrequent and unreliable, and I avoided them as much as possible when I lived there. But in Boston or New York or DC or SF, you can get around this problem by simply not riding the bus. You can experience much of what the city has to offer using only the subway, especially if you are the kind of person that can afford to have transportation choice and live in an area with good rail transit. I lived in the North End, and pretty much anything I wanted to go to was on a rapid transit line. In LA, some of the most popular destinations, like Santa Monica and Venice Beach, are only accessible by bus.

On the plus side, LA has a great grid of wide arterial roads. Read your Jarrett Walker on the power of grids and you can see the potential. It would be relatively easy to improve the speed and frequency of bus service in LA, if we put our capital and operating dollars into it. There’s starting to be action on this: rush hour bus lanes were installed on Wilshire for the 20/720, bus lanes are coming to Vermont, and now that Mike Bonin is riding the 733, maybe we can hope for bus lanes on Venice. In addition to making TODs more viable, this is also a more efficient use of street space, not to mention a huge improvement in the quality of life for transit dependent people (and your typical bus rider in LA makes $14.4k a year).


Historically, we tend to think of transit as a hub and spoke system. Pull up your MBTA or WMATA subway map, and that’s pretty much what you have. Even if you look at buses in Boston, there’s a clear land use pattern centering on nodes at goofy road intersections that locals call “squares”. Get out a commuter rail map, and the hub-spoke pattern is even more apparent. You can see this a little bit in LA on the Westside, with obvious nodes in downtown, Century City, and Westwood. It’s no coincidence that Wilshire is the obvious corridor for a full subway.

But flip your gaze south and look at the endless grid stretching over 20 miles down to Southbay and Long Beach, and then on into Orange County. On the other side of the hills in the Valley, it’s the same thing. LA is difficult to understand because its urban form is different. LA is very dense without looking or feeling dense, enormous in geographic reach but most people make short trips, horrible traffic but very low gasoline usage per household. If you need proof LA is different, consider that the worst traffic on the 10 on the Westside is going away from downtown in the morning, and towards downtown in the evening.

LA is a different city, and it requires a different way of looking at things. In LA, people are coming from everywhere and going everywhere. You can’t think of LA in terms of nodes; you have to think in terms of the grid. Note that this is naturally how people in LA describe their city. Someone in Boston will tell you that something is in Harvard Square – Harvard Square being a subway stop and a neighborhood. In LA, you’re much more likely to hear that something is at Vermont/Melrose, Venice/Robertson, Hawthorne/Rosecrans. Indeed, even transit systems show this! In Boston and DC, you get subway stops named after the neighborhood. In LA, you get Expo/Vermont, Expo/Western, and so on.

LA’s development pattern means that the ways we look at TODs and transit ridership in general are unhelpful, or maybe even misleading. Example: below are two aerial images of Blue Line stations, with Slauson on top and Del Amo on the bottom.

Slauson DelAmo

Conventional wisdom in urban planning says these stops are in bad places. Slauson has virtually no commercial development; near the station and to the east, it’s mostly industrial, to the west, you have to go at least a quarter-mile before hitting any residential. The station itself is right up against a yard used for storing utility poles. Del Amo is even worse, almost comically bad. There’s nothing but low employment-density industrial for over a half-mile in any direction. The closest houses are almost three-quarters of a mile away, under the 710 and over the LA River.

And yet, these stations, and the Blue Line in general, do pretty well for ridership. In LA, where people are coming from everywhere and going everywhere, you don’t have to be a destination, just a good place to transfer along the way. The Blue Line offers fast transit service to a 20-mile corridor, so lots of people want to transfer to it.

TOD is Overrated in General

That last example about the Blue Line can be generalized to say that urban planners overrate the importance of land use surrounding transit. This is something I’ve written about previously.

Cities are big, complex entities, and people make choices for many different reasons. It’s a nice thought to say “let’s put housing next to the station, and then people can ride it downtown” but that’s a big simplification of how a city works. Maybe you decide to live to near the station so you can take transit to work. But maybe you do it so that you can go downtown on Friday night and get tanked without having to drive home. Maybe you do it because you plan on having kids and it’s a good school district. Or maybe you just like the apartment and you don’t really care about the transit at all.

Example: my sister lives in East Hollywood about 0.4 miles from a Red Line stop. But her work takes her all over the city at irregular hours, and she doesn’t feel safe walking home from the station late at night. She was looking for an apartment in the area, and the one she found just happens to be close to a station, but to her, it’s not much different than being 2 miles away. Her proximity to transit doesn’t generate any transit trips other than me taking the Red Line from downtown if I go to grab dinner with her after work. (It also results in me ranting about closely spaced bus stops on Vermont when I take the bus to try to avoid Red Line construction, but that’s a different problem.)

On the other hand, I live in Palms, about 1.1 miles from Culver City station on the Expo Line. But I walk to the station and take Expo to work every day, because (a) I work in rail engineering so I might as well ride the damn thing, (b) I don’t want to pay for parking downtown, (c) spending time on the 10 during rush hour results in a non-zero probability of losing my cool, and (d) there’s a Starbucks on the way where I can try to beat down my night owl grogginess. For some people, that might be too far to walk. When I was looking for apartments, I looked at things up to 1.5 miles away, and I would have been fine with walking. I picked my place because I get amenities that others didn’t have, even if they were closer to the station.

Urban planners and transportation planners need to keep the complexity of the city in mind. There’s not really any need to worry about what gets built on a specific parcel of land, or how many transit riders it generates. Really, doing so presumes a level of knowledge that no one has. We should focus on building high-quality transportation infrastructure, and then providing individuals with the flexibility to capitalize on it as best they see fit. It doesn’t make sense to spend public dollars subsidizing any kind of private development. This is a point on which I really disagree with the Portland model of planning. If you build good bones for your city, the millions of people that make up your city will figure out how to use them better than you ever could.

Incomplete Rail Transit Network

When the article was written in 2007, the LA rail network consisted of the Blue Line, the Green Line, the Gold Line to Pasadena, the Red Line, and the short Purple Line. Since then, we’ve already opened Expo Phase 1 and Gold Line East Side.

So when I read articles like this, part of me thinks: check back with us in ten years, when Expo Line goes to Santa Monica, Regional Connector connects the Blue/Gold/Expo Lines, Crenshaw/LAX is done, and Westside Subway is built. Then check back with us ten years after that, when we’ve built a line from Sylmar to El Segundo, extended the Green Line and Gold Line, and who knows what else. LA is forever a work in progress, and forever reinventing itself. Let’s focus on making it great in the big picture; the details will work themselves out.

14 thoughts on “Transit, TOD, and Polycentrism

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  2. Nate

    I like this post, along with many of the others you’ve done lately. I don’t agree with everything, but I like the passion and thought. A few things about this post:

    1) I live near the Florence station on the blue line, and I walk past the Slauson station a fair amount. There is a lot of housing to the southwest of Slauson, as well as more housing just across to the north, and all of it is within a quarter mile. Plus, since it’s in the Florence-Firestone area, the housing holds large families as well as lots of add-on units, so the area is medium-high density.

    2) I understand your point about not over-planning, but I don’t see why planners can’t take a role in providing incentives for land use that is clearly a more positive use than certain other uses. The Florence-Firestone is a great example- the free market is not doing a good job developing the land around the stations. I don’t see why planners can’t intervene here to make something happen.

    As for your point about people being compex in their choice of apartments- that’s true, but in this case that’s just because most people (the market) haven’t fully realized the potential of transit yet. If your sister found an apartment near the beach but didn’t plan on going to the beach, I doubt she would choose to live there since she would be paying extra for something she doesn’t need. If in ten years the price of housing near red line stations is at a premium, then she will have to take it into consideration.

    1. letsgola Post author

      Thanks for reading, and for your thoughts. I am hoping to have some interesting discussions here. I’m sure I’ll get some things wrong (it would be pretty rich for me to complain about people thinking they know everything and then assume that I know… everything) so replies are always welcome.

      Florence-Firestone: it’s an interesting area, being one of the unincorporated “county islands”. At a glance it looks like it’s mostly zoned R-3 and some R-4. R-3 allows up to 35′ high buildings but requires 1452 sq ft per unit and 1.5 parking spaces per 1 bedroom unit. Given those requirements, most of the lots in that area probably couldn’t support more than 4-8 units. The main streets are zoned commercial of course. I don’t know that area all that well, though; that’s just a general impression.

      The beach thing is a good analogy. As the transit system gets better, being close to a station will result in a price premium. (I used to live closer to the beach, but I rarely went, and avoiding that price premium was definitely a consideration!)

      1. Nate

        I’m actually new to the Florence-Firestone area as well as LA. I’m from the Bay Area, but my wife grew up here and so we’re settling near her family for the time being. I’m getting a planning Masters starting this fall at UCLA, but I’m very keen to learn other points of view- developers, builders, engineers. So this site is great at puncturing some commonly held views!

        This housing stock in the FF area is very old. Most lots hold two houses, though there are all sorts of multi-housing units of varying kinds here and there. One of the things I’m looking to study the next few years is what kind of development would work here around the rail stations, and since the market hasn’t moved in the 25 years of the blue line, I’m currently inclined to look at what the government can do to induce some growth around the well-used transit stations.

        By the way, I’ve heard from some other bloggers that if you post your stuff on related Reddit threads, that’s a good way to get some discussion going.

      2. letsgola Post author

        Welcome to LA, and good luck with school!

        Regarding old housing stock, it seems to me that it’s a symptom of a pretty common feature of how development happens now – all at once, then not at all. Neighborhoods grow up but then, for a host of reasons, they get frozen in time.

        If you go forward with looking at the land use around the stations, be sure to check out what the current zoning allows. There are probably some lots that could legally have more but it doesn’t make sense, either because the increase would be too small (e.g. going from 6 units to 8 units) or because fitting in the currently required parking would be tough.

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  6. andr3vv

    Some interesting thoughts:

    I’m not totally convinced of the “LA as strong (i.e. dense) polycentrism” story as the data don’t always bear it out:


    The thought that I have is that LA is a market of a lot of unmet travel desires (whether work-home, work-school, errand running) and that traffic isn’t the best evidence of what we consider a traditional “center”. That being said, I think LA is also a significantly different place.

    One other tidbit I figure I’ll throw in since I just found it was:

    Finally, did you see the multi-chapter work put out by the APA about Los Angeles?

    1. letsgola Post author

      Thanks for thoughts and links; I will have to review this weekend when I have more time! Also, which APA work are you referring to?

      For now, I would note that while Downtown & the Westside certainly form LA’s most intense land use corridor, identifying the entire region as the “strong core” seems like a stretch – or at least, as the author says, a redefinition of what we think of as “core”. The area outlined in the report is larger than Manhattan and The Bronx combined and includes decidedly non-core, almost suburban, places like Hancock Park, Cheviot Hills, and Rancho Park.

      1. andr3vv

        The book is aptly titled “Planning Los Angeles”. It was produced when the APA conference was hosted by Los Angeles.

        What stands out to me is that LA is not physically constrained in the same way as Manhattan. What Manhattan and the boroughs of New York would call TriBeCa and SoHo we call Hancock Park, Cheviot Hills, and Rancho Park. Functionally similar places, but less constrained by the land development pressures of NYC.

        I think there is a strong insight in what this guy is saying using the schema he proposes. There was a previously done study which looking at economic data alone confirms these areas as the primary economic drivers of the region.

        Basic thoughts that I have about LA’s human geography:

        LA core in comparison to other metropolises:
        * has land
        * functions similarly (culture, entertainment, employment)
        * is lower income
        * less gentrified
        * less white
        * more limited English proficiency


        * Irvine’s jobs (its like if Long Island had a major jobs center)
        * Ontario’s logistics cluster (very similar to Newark’s function in the NYC region but Ontario is physically separated from the ports)

        Its an odd comparison, but LA to me feels often meaningfully like London (a few hundred years late) without the rich benefactors of being an imperial capital or a financiers home town.

  7. Pingback: Downtown in a Polycentric Region | Let's Go LA

  8. Wanderer

    Letsgola, I appreciate your optimism about transit’s ability to serve a polycentric city. You can see this in some of the old, large cities in Europe, where multiple villages grew together and 20th Century planning has created peripheral office districts. A couple of thoughts:

    The research is pretty clear that people who live near high quality transit, like a rail station with frequent service, are more likely to take transit than other people. Not all of them will, of course, but they do tend to take transit more often and own less cars. That’s why it’s important to get a lot of housing near transit hubs, to give more people that opportunity. More power to your commute, but not too many people are willing to walk over a mile to get to transit.

    Your discussion unduly downgrades the role of buses. There are places where rail is richly justified–like Wilshire Boulevard. But there are simply not going to be rail lines connecting all key centers–LA’s taxpayers have been generous with transit, but they won’t be that generous. Some corridors are relatively low density, like the Westside to the San Fernando Valley. With the “many-many” travel pattern through that area, buses from various origins in the Valley, converging on a spine through the mountains, then spreading out again on the Westside would be an effective pattern. A rail line could only serve a single set of points, its bus connections would require 3 seat rides for many. High quality bus lines are essential.

    Buses are much more of the grid pattern servers than rail. There are some non-Downtown rail lines, like the Green Line. And there will be more, like the Crenshaw line, though I’d bet much of its ridership will come from further east on the Expo Line. But if you look at the rail map, it basically radiates out from downtown, and the Gold Line and Expo Line extensions just reinforce that. By contrast, it’s the bus map that’s really a grid, with routes running for miles along major streets.

    1. letsgola Post author

      Thanks for your thoughts! I definitely don’t want to downplay the importance of buses. In a place like LA, they’re always going to have a major role, and we need to do more in the way of bus improvements (i.e. dedicated lanes).


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