Monthly Archives: January 2014

Sepulveda Pass and LAX Transit

Since both of these topics have been in the news a lot lately, it’s about time for a look at north-south transit on the Westside.

Sepulveda Pass in Context

Before we start laying out transit lines, we need to understand the urban context of the area in question. This is especially important for rail transit and other high capital cost projects, because bad decisions will haunt us for a really long time. So…

First, in terms of network design, Sepulveda Pass is a world-class bottleneck, right up there with San Francisco Bay and the Hudson & East Rivers. Your reaction to that, might be, “well, duh”, but we need to realize the implications for network design. Jarrett Walker goes into more detail in Chapter 4 of Human Transit but the chief points here are that (a) more deviation from straight routes is acceptable at bottlenecks and (b) bottlenecks are natural locations for transfers between parallel transit lines.

Second, in terms of engineering and cost, Sepulveda Pass is a very challenging and expensive area. We’re looking at a 7-mile tunnel from Westwood to Sherman Oaks, hundreds of feet deep in the middle. Vertical access between the tunnel ends is difficult at best for ventilation, and impossible for a station or emergency exit. This suggests that within the current planning time frame, we’re only going to get one shot at transit through Sepulveda Pass, so we’d better do it right and get a ton of capacity out of it. In 106 years, New York has managed to build only seven crossings of the Hudson, to connect all of Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, & Queens with all of New Jersey.

Therefore, any tunnel through Sepulveda Pass should serve multiple transit lines on both sides, and provide as much capacity as possible. The stations at each end will be natural transfer points between the lines. It doesn’t make sense to go to the expense of building a tunnel that long if all it’s going to serve in the Valley is one LRT line on Van Nuys. The tunnel should serve at least two lines on both sides, and probably more. We don’t have to actually build all of the lines right away; the important thing is that the piece from Westwood to Sherman Oaks is built properly at the outset. This is probably a great location for one of Alon Levy’s large diameter TBM tunnels, with four tracks running from Westwood to Sherman Oaks, since there won’t be any stops in between.

This also means that the tunnel should serve rail traffic exclusively and have no auto lanes. In addition to having a lower capacity, auto lanes have much heavier requirements for ventilation. There’s also the question of what facilities auto lanes would connect to at each end, since it’s not like there’s a ton of spare capacity kicking around on the 405, the 10, and the 101. (Note: you could argue for a bus tunnel, using dual-mode buses, with exclusive lanes on arterials for the rest of the lines. I’m not going to get into a bus vs. rail analysis here, since the quality of the ROW is more important than the technology.)

Transit Lines Through Sepulveda

Now that we’ve established what the facility through Sepulveda Pass should look like, we can lay out some transit lines to go through it. In my mind, the logical candidates for north-south transit in the Valley are Reseda, Sepulveda (Valley section), Van Nuys, and maybe Balboa. (Anything east of Van Nuys, at least IMHO, is a future north-south line to connect to La Cienega.) There’s also the potential for east-west lines on Venutra, west to Warner Center and east to Burbank. On the Westside, the north-south candidates are Lincoln, Bundy/Centinela, Sawtelle, Sepulveda (Westside section), Westwood/Overland, and maybe, as a stretch, Avenue of the Stars/Jefferson.

Personally, I’d leave Ventura alone as a separate east-west project. Sawtelle is too close to Sepulveda (Westside), so it doesn’t make the cut. The appeal of the Avenue of the Stars/Jefferson route is that it would serve Century City directly from the Valley, but the resulting line has such poor overall geometry that it wouldn’t be very useful for anyone not going to Century City, so I think it’s out as well.

The other intriguing option, which has been suggested by Henry Fung elsewhere, is having the Westside Subway Extension turn north in Westwood and go to the Valley. Assuming the other lines would be LRT, extending the Purple Line would create some technical challenges (including differing vehicle width). I’ll leave that for a future post focusing on that alternative. This option would take care of Century City.

Here’s a rough plot of these options with reasonable stop spacing:


Don’t worry too much about the stop spacing for now; we’ll take a closer look at that in future posts. Remember, the important thing at the outset is to serve the right area and choose logical overall route alignments. You also might guess from this graphic that I’ve got some changes in mind for Metrolink in the Valley. Yet another topic for yet another future post.

In terms of sequencing, the consensus is that Van Nuys is the top priority in the Valley. On the Westside, Sepulveda (Westside) and Westwood/Overland are only ½ to ¾ of a mile apart, so whichever of the two is built first, the other should be built last. I’d do Sepulveda (Westside) first, if only because it’s more centrally located and spreads the wealth. It’d be useful to some future users of the Bundy/Centinela and Westwood/Overland lines, whereas those two lines wouldn’t help each other’s riders much. The argument for Westwood/Overland first is that it’s closer to Palms and Culver City, which are denser than Mar Vista, and it’s a good enough argument that you could probably talk me into it.

I’d sequence the lines as follows:

  • Van Nuys and Sepulveda (Westside)
  • Reseda and Lincoln
  • Sepulveda (Valley) and Bundy/Centinela
  • Balboa and Westwood/Overland (no Westwood/Overland if Purple Line is extended)

The benefits start immediately with the first line completed, and are amplified as additional lines are finished. To the south, future phases could extend the lines out Florence, Manchester, Century, Hawthorne, Sepulveda/PCH… more than enough possibilities to leave for a future post.

LAX Transit

Note that all these lines naturally converge near Sepulveda & Century, right at LAX’s front door, and would serve far more people than any LAX rail transit proposal on the board now. So in addition to serving LAX, basically at the future Terminal 0, this project would directly serve a couple million other people who might or might not be going to LAX. In other words, this plan would follow one of Jarrett Walker’s main principles: be on the way!

You might have noticed in the first graphic that I didn’t show any connection from the new lines to the Green Line & Crenshaw Line. Clearly, you’d want to provide that link somehow.

Here’s one option for an initial build with two lines. In this scenario, the Crenshaw Line would take over the Green Line’s route south of Aviation/Imperial, and the Green Line would be extended a mile west to meet up with the new Reseda-Lincoln Line. This gives the combined Reseda-Lincoln-Green Line and the Van Nuys-Sepulveda (Westside) Line front door access to LAX, with decent geometry and without making any through passengers go out of their way.


I’ve violated my own rules on stop spacing in El Segundo, going to half a mile to provide a Green Line stop at Maple and a Sepulveda Line stop at Mariposa. With this level of transit service, easy access to LAX, the 105, and the 405, there’s no reason El Segundo’s business district couldn’t become LA’s third downtown.

Here’s an option for full build with four lines.


In this case, I’ve routed Balboa and Bundy/Centinela together, and the line could be extended out Florence towards South LA, HP, Bell, Cudahy, Bell Gardens, and Downey – all dense cities that should get good transit use. I’ve also shown the Purple Line being extended to the Valley and up Sepulveda.

Again, don’t worry too much about the specific stations and routings – we’ll go into more detail on each option in the future.

To Bore or Not to Bore

The decision to tunnel is one of the biggest ones that must be made. Tunneling results in faster speeds and more reliable operations, but the higher cost can push project completion further into the future. Obviously, we’re tunneling through Sepulveda Pass, but on either side, it would be possible to do full tunnels, surface running with selected grade separations (like Expo Line and Crenshaw Line), or full surface running.

Any surface running segments are dependent on the ROW of the arterial roads. Contrary to popular conceptions of LA, the north-south arterials on the Westside are somewhat underpowered. Lincoln and Sepulveda (Westside) are two lanes each way with a center turn lane. Bundy/Centinela and Westwood/Overland are cobbled together, with pieces where the second travel lane is only provided during peak periods by sacrificing on-street parking (always a sign of desperation).

The situation is much the same on Reseda and Balboa, which have the same basic configuration as Sepulveda (Westside), but with more generous proportions. On Balboa, there are three lanes each way with no parking. Sepulveda (Valley) and Van Nuys are wider, at least three lanes each way with a center turn lane plus parking. In many places they’re even wider (presumably where there used to be transit ROW in the middle).

I was going to go into detail and compare grade separation options for each branch, but that would make this post much too long. Now that we’ve got the basic framework set up, we can come back and give each branch the attention it deserves in future posts.

LA Land Use Patterns Help Reduce VMT

Sometimes you find things in the darnedest places. While reading Randal O’Toole’s testimony on Washington’s Growth Management Act (spoiler: he’s opposed), I see he references work by David Brownstone down at UC Irvine:

As University of California (Irvine) economist David Brownstone concluded after thoroughly studying this issue, the link between land uses and driving is ‘too small to be useful’ in attempting to save energy or reduce emissions.

Hmm, as someone they tell me was a Great Communicator used to say: trust, but verify. So let’s see what Brownstone has to say in his most recent paper:

The estimation results indicate that residential density has a statistically significant but economically modest influence on vehicle usage, which is similar to that in previous studies. However, the joint effect of the contextual density measure (density in the context of its surrounding area) and residential density on vehicle usage is quantitatively larger than the sole effect of residential density. Moving a household from a suburban to an urban area reduces household annual mileage by 18%.

I’ll leave you to speculate as to why O’Toole would cite authoritative sounding sources that, on closer review, clearly do not say what he would like you to think.

Nevertheless, the result of the Brownstone paper is very important: density on the census block level has a relatively small impact on vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Regional effects dominate. In other words, density is much more important on the regional scale than the local scale. If you want to decrease VMT, you need to increase regional density, not just build TOD projects at transit stations.

This study lends support to things we’ve explored from an intuitive perspective before (and data is almost always better than intuition). It explains how places like LA and Orange County can show up in lists of lowest household gasoline use* – even if you have to drive, you never have to drive very far. And it also shows a possible way forward for a region that shows up on lists of highest household gasoline use – the IE. Rather than focus on building TOD projects near transit stations, officials in the IE should upzone everywhere. They should allow things like Palms-style apartments and redevelopment of Cudahy-style lots the way they’ve been redeveloped in their namesake city. Because while the IE will probably never be able to emulate New York City’s travel patterns, it could certainly emulate LA’s.

*Note: 7 of the 10 worst gas guzzling cities are in the South (excluding Texas), which also makes sense in the context of my post on suburb types.

Can Public Services Be Profitable?

Via Dennis Griffith, we have this detailed write-up discussing what type of good transit is (in economic terms). To summarize, goods can be private, common, club, or public. The differences lie in if the good is excludable and rivalrous. A good is excludable if its consumption by those who haven’t paid for it can be prevented. For example, flying is excludable because it’s easy to prevent unauthorized use of an airplane. Air is non-excludable because you can’t stop people from breathing. A good is rivalrous if one person’s use prevents another person from using it. For example, if I catch a fish, you can’t catch the same fish. But if I ride an uncongested bus, you can ride too, and our consumption of transit is not mutually detrimental. Here’s a summary of the four types of goods and examples of each.


In this framework, transportation facilities like rail lines and freeways are properly a club good if the facility is below capacity, and a private good if at capacity. Indeed, airlines and airports are operated as private goods, and in many parts of the world, railroads and freeways are as well. So it’s clear transportation can be profitable.

However, if you choose to provide transit as a public good – that is, you make it a social good – it doesn’t make sense to ask if it’s profitable. You can measure system performance by things like boardings per mile, mode share, and reliability. You can measure financial performance by things like cost per vehicle revenue mile or cost per passenger mile. But profitability doesn’t make sense – in fact, in the context of a public good, it’s meaningless.

Consider a police department. It collects little in the way of user fees, and the user fees it does collect (seizure of assets of drug lords) have a terrible incentive structure. Is the police department unprofitable? Should its services that do not result in lucrative property seizure be cut back? On the other hand, consider the Franchise Tax Board. It collects more revenue that it takes to operate. Is it profitable in any meaningful sense?

In other words, anything below the total revenues and total expenditures of the government is just a matter of accounting. A transit agency is just a part of the government to which we’ve assigned provision of certain services and collection of certain revenues. You pay some taxes for the service to exist, then you pay additional taxes (fares) to use it – no different than, say, national parks, for which we pay taxes in general and then pay additional entrance fees when we visit.

The difference is that the other things I’ve mentioned – police, revenue collection, parks – are more naturally public services than transportation, so you don’t think about them the same way. It’s clear from past US experience and current international practices that some transportation can be operated as private goods. I don’t have a problem with that model, but if we want to pursue it, some transit agency functions that would not be profitable will have to be reassigned to other agencies. For example, society has decided that disabled people ought to be able to get around, and transit agencies have been assigned that task. But there’s no reason it couldn’t be assigned to other agencies that provide health services. Those are the types of questions that have to be answered if we want to move toward privatizing some services.

I’m off into the realm of speculation here, but I think that if you expect privatization to solve many of our transportation problems, you’re going to be disappointed. The places in the world that have high quality private transportation – Japan, Spain, France – are also pretty competent at building and operating public infrastructure. Meanwhile, other than the freight railroads, the limited data we have on private rail and highways in the US is mixed. Commuter rail services operated by concession, like Metrolink or the MBCR, are not appreciably better than directly-operated services like LIRR or Metro North. Privately operated toll roads are sometimes unable to meet revenue expectations (the 73, the 241, and the 125 in CA, and the SR-130 in Texas); when they are successful (the 91) political pressure results in public takeover.

In other words, as is often the case, for both public and private entities, there’s no solution quite so good as basic competence.

Home Builders – Allies for Density?

Every city has a bunch of developers that redevelop land into denser apartments, condos, or offices. For example, NMS and Archstone are a couple major apartment building developers in LA.

There’s also the kind of developers that build master planned residential subdivisions out in Riverside County. I wouldn’t expect there to be much affection between urbansists (for lack of a better word) and those developers.

That’s a shame, because the mutual dislike is a sort of fallacy of opposition: urbanists really don’t like suburban development patterns, so they assume that the proponents of those developments do really like suburbia. That’s not the case: homebuilders don’t like suburbia, they like making money. It’s just that they put quite a bit of effort into figuring out what their customers want, and a lot of their customers want (or wanted) suburbia. Meanwhile, homebuilders often wrongly assume that urbanists don’t care about the profitability of a project, but the reality is that there’s lots of money to be made in city development.

However, with cities growing in popularity, many home builders are moving to try to serve that market as well. I stalk the big builders on their websites to keep track of prices and get a feel for what, how much, and where they’re building. Some builders are still only in the suburban market – for example, Woodside has 9 projects going, and they’re all in Riverside County. DR Horton has 26 projects going, and even their townhouses are solidly suburban projects. But others have a foot in both ponds.

For instance, Brookfield is the head developer for some big master planned subdivisions, like Audie Murphy Ranch in Menifee and Spencer’s Crossing in Murrieta. But they’re also heading up the development of Playa Vista, and they’ve even got a New Urbanish project going at Colony Park in downtown Anaheim. (Now if only downtown Anaheim had a Metrolink station, it’d really be in business. An issue for another time.)

KB is working on a couple master planned communities in San Bernardino County (The Preserve in Chino and Parkside in Ontario), as well as six subdivisions in Lancaster, but they’re also working in Playa Vista. Richmond American has eleven subdivisions active in Riverside County, but in my last check, they added three redevelopment projects in the Valley. Van Daele and Williams recently announced a couple projects in Hipster Heaven (Silver Lake & Echo Park).

You get the idea. Home builders are seeing opportunity in redevelopment projects. So, are they natural allies for making it easier to redevelop property with higher density? Or do they like the current zoning & permitting scheme, which is just complicated enough to keep out competition from small developers but just easy enough for them to navigate successfully? My guess is it’s a mixed bag – they don’t want NIMBYism to shut out development completely, but to some extent they benefit from regulations that keep prices up and competition down.

LAX Transit Intro

This has been in the news a lot lately, and my main post isn’t anywhere near ready, so here’s a brief overview for now.

LAX has a problem. World class cities bring high quality transportation right into their airport. Twenty years ago, we missed out on the opportunity to do that. We have a chance to get things right now, and we should take advantage of it.


I’m talking, of course, about how most cities have freeways leading right into the airport, and the mistake we made in 1990 by not bringing the 105 directly into LAX. Wait, did you think I was talking about the Green Line?

LAWA has expressed skepticism in the utility of an LRT line to the airport, leading Jarrett Walker to question their treatment of their customers. But really, aren’t LAWA’s customers the airlines who pay terminal fees? And the airlines don’t see it helping attract their customers.

Airport transit, as I’ve said before, is one of those things politicians love, but doesn’t always make sense if you look under the hood. In the case of LAX, bringing LRT directly to the terminals will be very costly and result in terrible route geometry. With a price tag of as much as $3 billion, we could do much better by providing more FlyAway routes and service. Meanwhile, current LA transit users have a median income of $14k (bus) to $28k (rail). How much flying are those folks doing? LA pols should follow Stephen Smith’s advice to Bill de Blasio – build transit for those people, not globe-trotters.

While airport transit can be important because airports are also major employment centers, LAX area employees have been pretty much ignored in the discussion. It’s all about impressing tourists, business travelers, and pop urbanists like Taras Grescoe who automatically assume the project is worth building without worrying about details like cost or operations. And given the choice, I’ll take improvements for ordinary Angelenos every time.

There is a much better alternative for rail service to LAX: a Sepulveda/Century stop on a future line that roughly parallels the 405. I’ll have more on that soon.

Low-Hanging Jobs

How can we get LA’s economy moving again? LA 2020 just released a report summarizing the many challenges facing the city. The problems are of varying complexity, including some very intractable issues. I’m not sure anyone knows how to approach the troubles of LA’s schools; in my humble opinion, all of public education in California will continue to face problems as long as Prop 13 exists.

The silver lining of having a lot of challenges is that some of them are bound to be pretty easy to solve. For example, job growth in LA has lagged over the last 5 years. Part of this is due to difficult issues like the continued loss of manufacturing jobs to cheap labor overseas and states that whore out their treasuries to the likes of Boeing. Slashing wages and giving enormous tax breaks to corporations are probably not good strategies in the long run.

On the other hand, part of LA’s slow job growth is due to slow recovery of employment in construction. This is something we could address pretty easily, since the market is clearly demanding more residential construction in the city. We don’t have to figure anything out, other than how to get out of our own way. Allowing more residential construction would also help other parts of LA’s economy. For example, here’s the vacant office building at Venice & Clarington in Palms.

46,000 SF of available office space. Outside of a few hot markets, LA still has office vacancy rates of about 15%. If we allowed more residential construction, that would create work for architects, engineers, and contractors. If you’ve got a few apartment buildings under construction in Palms and Culver City, maybe you grab 1,000 SF of that space for a field office.

Now across the street, there’s my favorite “tour of the world” strip mall.

More residents in Palms means more customers for dinner, and filling that office space means more customers for lunch. The increase in business would hopefully allow these restaurants to expand. This would help the people who own strip malls, who currently face vacancy rates of about 10%.

This isn’t to minimize the bigger challenges facing LA or the need to address them. But many times, tackling easier problems first sets you on your way, and makes the big problems less daunting. Allowing more residential construction is easy, and it would boost employment and city finances, giving the community more resources to beat the big issues.

Century City Sidebar

Working on a longer post about Sepulveda Pass, and started thinking about Century City.

From a transit perspective, Century City is perhaps the most vexing node in LA. It’s a huge destination, big enough to be called LA’s second downtown, but you have to go over a mile east or west to find anything resembling a decent north-south arterial. And even at that, you only hit Westwood/Overland and Robertson, the former of which isn’t even two lanes each way except during peak periods, when parking is restricted. To encounter real north-south capacity, you have to go over two miles in either direction, to Sepulveda and the 405 to the west and La Cienega to the east.

That’s a real rarity in LA, where there’s almost always a solid grid of arterials. In fact, I’m trying to think of another CBD in the country that’s that inaccessible and disconnected from the urban fabric, on two sides no less, and coming up blank.

In my fever dreams, the LA Country Club, Hillcrest Country Club, and Cheviot Hills undergo massive redevelopment, with Avenue of the Stars extended north to Sunset and south to Beverwil & Castle Heights, which also become real arterials. But until I have complete control over zoning. . .

The lack of north-south arterials anywhere near Century City is a huge transportation problem. For cars, it means you have to take Pico, Olympic, or Santa Monica east or west, forcing those roads to do double duty, serving east-west and north-south traffic. Since intense development in LA tends to follow arterials, it’s also a problem for transit. You can’t design a north-south transit route serving Century City that makes sense, doesn’t have huge route deviations, and doesn’t route buses along congested one-lane roads. Going underground doesn’t make sense because there’s nothing north or south of Century City worth that level of investment.

Anyway, more on Century City another time, and keep an eye out for that Sepulveda Pass post.