Can’t Get Where You Want to Go Without Knowing Where You Are

A recent opinion piece about LA in the Architects Newspaper has been making the rounds of planning and transit blogs. I initially responded with an outburst on Twitter but it’s full of misconceptions about LA, so I feel compelled to document them a little more permanently. This matters because even if you have good goals, you need an accurate assessment of existing conditions in order to achieve them. It’s not enough to describe the future. You have to describe the present, and then a plausible way to get from the present to the desired future.

This article is just flat-out wrong about the way LA works, and that makes the recommended actions very weak. Here’s a short run down:

  • LA is sprawl. Nope. Not by any reasonable definition of sprawl. LA is the densest metro in the US by unweighted density, and in a virtual tie with SF for 2nd by weighted density (after NY, of course).
  • Boston and Philadelphia have the right pattern. Possibly, but only if you restrict your view to the parts of Boston and Philadelphia built before cars. The parts of those regions built during the Auto Age have been low-density, to the point that Boston and Philadelphia are far less dense than LA in both unweighted and weighted density. What does dense Auto Age development look like? LA! I wrote about this when I compared Boston, Atlanta, and LA, and noted that even the fringes of LA like Lancaster compare favorably to current development on the East Coast.
  • LA doesn’t have enough developed land to support its infrastructure. The ability to support infrastructure comes from residential and commercial density – which again, LA has.
  • People in LA drive because everything is so far apart. People in LA drive a lot, but we make lots of short trips. Gasoline consumption per household in LA is the lowest in the US after NYC, making LA one of America’s least car-dependent cities.
  • Angelenos are stricken by love for cars. Like most people, Angelenos are capable of making fairly rational decisions. What we have in LA is a system where the car is by far the most logical choice for most trips. This is due to deficiencies of the transit system.
  • The right answer is density within walking distance of a transit station. “Transit station” presumably meaning “rail station”, right? If you include bus stops, practically everywhere in the city would qualify. Read Jarrett Walker on the power of a high-quality, high-frequency bus grid, something LA could build pretty easily. This would complement the many excellent rail improvements we are making. I have written previously that proximity to transit stops is overrated because “close enough to transit” means different things to different people.
  • We can increase density and create more open space. Towers in a park, right? This is a misunderstanding of how parks work.

These are not trivial points. This is the message of The Death and Life of Great American Cities: you can’t do good planning without knowing how your city already works.

Readers of this blog know that I am not opposed to tall buildings or density. I am in favor of both, and we should enable the market to create them. But we need to realize that LA’s density is already working pretty well and that, starting from that point, we need more LA. There’s no need to worry about LA’s urban form because there’s nothing wrong with it in the first place.

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