Monthly Archives: April 2014

Measure R2 Needs to Look Inward as well as Outward

Move LA has released a map of potential rail expansion projects that could be funded by “Measure R2” – a half-cent sales tax ballot initiative that would be similar to Measure R. We’re fortunate in LA in the sense that we have a lot of good candidate projects for transit expansion. However, US transit planning is often heavy on expansion, and misses out on opportunities to improve the existing transit system. Now obviously, if you’re riding the existing system, adding new lines gives you more destinations. But it doesn’t help your overcrowded Blue Line vehicle or your Flower St crawl – in fact, it might make those things worse!

So, while some longer posts are in the works (don’t I always claim that?), here are some improvements to the existing transit system that should get consideration for being included in Measure R2.

Red Line

Lankershim/Vineland infill station: it’s over 2 miles from Universal City to North Hollywood. That’s ok if the area in between stops is like Hancock Park, but there’s already a lot of density here and there’s the potential for more. This would be more costly than the Red Line stops near 1st St and 6th St being contemplated, but it would serve actual density rather than possible development. (It would also not interfere with yard operations.)

Orange Line

As I said last year, the Orange Line – running 4 minute headways – is not at capacity. Improvements to traffic signals would allow for increased service. An infill station at White Oak, in the middle of the 2 mile gap between Balboa and Reseda, should be considered too. It would be expensive and disruptive to existing riders to convert to LRT, so we should strongly consider getting all we can out of the BRT system first.

Green Line

The station spacing on the Green Line almost suggests it was planned as a pseudo-commuter rail to bring people to the commercial center in El Segundo. Infill stations should be considered at:

  • 105/Western: it’s crazy that a station at Western, with connections to busy north-south bus routes 207 and 757, wasn’t built in the first place. Slam dunk.
  • 105/Atlantic: 1.3 miles east of Long Beach Blvd station, serving Lynwood and connecting to north-south bus routes 260 and 762. Again, slam dunk.
  • 105/Paramount: 1.7 miles east of the proposed 105/Atlantic station and 1.1 miles west of Lakewood station, serving Paramount and Downey, and connecting to north-south bus route 265. This would also connect to the proposed Measure R2 Gateway Cities Line. Yet again, slam dunk.
  • 105/Bellflower: 0.9 miles east of Lakewood and 1.2 miles west of Norwalk, serving Downey and Bellflower, and connecting to north-south bus route 127.

I’m going to commit a minor act of heresy and say that with the possible exception of 105/Bellflower, these are all much better options than an extension of the Green Line east to the Metrolink Norwalk Station, which, after all, only has 19 trains a day and doesn’t even have any service for five hours during the middle of the day and no trains after 7pm. As long as the Orange County Line is sharing tracks with the finest line this land has seen, you’re not getting much connectivity out of that connection.

Blue Line

Where to even start? Unfortunately, design decisions on the Regional Connector, Gold Line, and Expo Line have made it impractical to try to go from 3-car to 4-car trains in the near future. Any increases in capacity are going to have to come from reducing headways. Some potential options:

  • Add another platform and track at Willow: the Long Beach loop is slow and impeded by street traffic, and demand is a little lower, so many trains turn back at Willow. The trunk of the Blue Line, from Willow to Vernon, is all exclusive ROW and can support headways shorter than 6 minutes. Adding another track at Willow would increase the turnback capacity (assuming, of course, that a good operations study shows the track is necessary).
  • Build (or legitimize) a second station entrance/egress at stations like Compton and Florence, to improve passenger circulation and reduce platform crowding.
  • Widen very narrow platforms like Florence.
  • Study options to improve speeds and reliability on Washington Blvd and Flower St. This could include anything from changing traffic signal timings to grade separations.

Silver Line

Stops on the Silver Line are spaced for commuter service, not rapid transit. Now that the Silver Line is getting some better frequencies, it’s time to look at adding some stops:

  • 110/Vernon: serving Vermont Square in South LA and (the original) South Park in Southeast LA, and connecting to east/west bus routes 105 and 705. This station would be on the way cool HOV lane viaduct, which would make it costly.
  • 110/Florence: serving Vermont Knolls in South LA and Florence, and connecting to east/west bus routes 111 and 311.
  • 110/Century: serving Vermont Vista and Broadway-Manchester, and connecting to east/west bus route 117.
  • 110/El Segundo: serving Harbor Gateway North.
  • 110/Alondra: serving Harbor Gateway North.

Another potential improvement would be to extend the Silver Line from Artesia Transit Center south to San Pedro. This could be either via Vermont, which has a very wide ROW that could accommodate bus lanes, or via the 110. Stops would be considered at 190th, Torrance, Carson, Sepulveda, PCH, and in San Pedro. The 110 already has bus stop pull-offs at Carson, Sepulveda, and PCH. If the route is via Vermont, stops could be spaced every half-mile rather than every mile.

Our transit system certainly has plenty of room for expansion. But we shouldn’t ignore improvements that could be made to the existing system – especially given the demographics of the neighborhoods that would benefit from these improvements.

Sorry, Progressives – Supply Matters

The discussion on housing affordability in California has taken a turn for the bizarre lately. In response to calls for allowing increased construction of new market rate housing, some progressives have argued that supply and demand doesn’t apply to urban housing. This has often been implied in the past, but recently, it has been stated explicitly and there have been ludicrous claims, such as that developers don’t want to build anything other than luxury units and that all new supply will just be purchased by the “global elite” anyway.

I’m not sure why some folks feel the need to insist that supply is irrelevant. Maybe progressives instinctively don’t trust private developers or economists. Whatever the reason, it’s just wrong. First, it’s obvious that developers will build cheaper units if they can make money doing so. This is true from the Inland Empire, where you can find new suburban housing for less than $100/SF, to Houston’s free for all, to Tokyo. Second, the global elite is only so many people and they can only buy so many housing units. As Market Urbanism will tell you, they’re a relatively small factor even in Manhattan, unless “global elite” has been redefined to mean anybody with more money than you.

It’s important to recognize that the “supply and demand doesn’t apply” argument is wrong, because if we don’t identify the right problems, we can’t develop solutions that work. And in fact, the housing markets in places like LA and SF are operating pretty much how you’d expect them to work if you accept the basic principles of supply and demand as constrained by the regulatory environment.

For example, why are developers only building markets for the high end of the market? Well, the zoning and permitting requirements make it difficult, time-consuming, and costly to build. Therefore, only a little new supply is going to get built every year – for example, in LA/OC, we’re not even permitting half the number of units we were back in the 80s.

LAhousing

Naturally, developers are going to build the most profitable units first, and those are the luxury units. This doesn’t show supply and demand is irrelevant; it shows the exact opposite!

As an analogy, imagine if we only allowed 7,500 cars to be built every year. Auto manufacturers would only be making Maybachs and Maseratis, and they’d all be getting bought by the likes of people who own Mittal Steel and the Burj Khalifa. Now imagine if we built 750,000 cars a year. They’d still be unaffordable to most people but your techbros and finance quants would be able to buy them. Now imagine if we built 75 million cars a year. The global elite wouldn’t buy them all because it would be a terrible investment. New cars would be affordable to a wide range of people, and we’d have a healthy market in used cars – kind of like we do in the real world.

You get the point. It is pretty obvious that supply is relevant. Once we get past that, we can have a more productive discussion.

Admitting that supply matters doesn’t mean you have to favor unrestrained urban development. You could argue for massive government construction of new housing. You could argue for some orderly amount of development, for example a system where the government would be required to issue a certain amount of permits every year and people would bid for those permits in an open market. You could argue for making it easier to build suburban apartments and for funding the transportation infrastructure necessary to let people move around the region.

Admitting that supply matters also doesn’t mean you have to favor eliminating existing rent-controlled or rent-stabilized units, and it doesn’t mean that no government intervention is necessary. In places like Los Angeles, we have dug the whole so deep that low-income and elderly people currently paying very low rents wouldn’t have a prayer in an uncontrolled market. In any case, government is always going to be needed to make sure that the very unfortunate are able to have adequate shelter, and to make sure that renters are not abused or taken advantage of.

Finally, this doesn’t mean that we don’t understand and appreciate the efforts of affordable housing advocates and planners operating within the current zoning and regulatory environment, trying to make sure that low income folks have at least some access to the opportunity of the city. As I have said previously, my goal is for Los Angeles to be affordable and accessible, and provide opportunity, for all.

What I would like is for us to acknowledge the realities of the situation, and start working on more proactive solutions rather than just reacting to loss of affordable housing units. What frustrates me about progressive policy is we have no coherent vision of what we want, and consequently no way to get there. The current progressive program, at best, offers to protect those who already live in the city from displacement. But if you happen to live in rural Appalachia or Guatemala, you get to look forward to another generation of economic desperation, because you’ll never be able to move to somewhere with more opportunity. This is not internally consistent with what our values are supposed to be, and people rightly sense and resent that hypocrisy.

I don’t know what the solutions will be – it is an enormous challenge and it is going to take a lot of hard work. It will require many different groups of people to come together, and everyone is going to have to give up something to get something. But we have to start with a realistic understanding of where we are to even have a chance.

Upzone El Segundo

About a month or so back, Market Urbanism posted some information on office rents and vacancies. I noted that El Segundo was renting for about the same price as downtown LA, and joked that we should upzone El Segundo.

Except, I wasn’t really joking. There’s about 2 square miles of El Segundo just begging to be upzoned. The area bounded by Imperial, Sepulveda, Rosecrans, and Aviation is ripe for upzoning. In my post on Sepulveda/LAX transit, I offered the following suggestion for the El Segundo area:

ElSegundo-original

An even better option would cross the Sepulveda Line and Crenshaw Line south of El Segundo Blvd, so that all three lines in the area would have a direct transfer to each other. Note that the graphic has been redrawn to be a little more geographically accurate:

ElSegundo-option1

That’s really got too many stations, but many of them already exist, and the stations that are located ideally for transfers (on the arterial grid) don’t necessarily provide good interior access to the area. Nevertheless, 10 stations in 2 square miles is just ridiculous. Maple can be eliminated, and Sepulveda/Mariposa and Sepulveda/El Segundo can be combined into one station at Sepulveda/Grand. El Segundo is the natural arterial for high quality bus service, but if you look at the city west of Sepulveda, there’s no problem routing a future high quality bus line on Grand west of Nash.

ElSegundo-option2

That reduces it to 8 stations. We could reduce it to 7 stations by rerouting the Sepulveda Line to run with the Crenshaw Line from Mariposa to Douglas. This would have some minor impact to speeds on the Sepulveda Line and worsen access to the city west of Sepulveda Blvd.

ElSegundo-option3

Personally I like option 2 the best, but the specifics can be ironed out later.

Three LRT lines, direct access to the 405 and the 105, a short ride to LAX, close to the beach… what else could you possibly want? And just look at all the space that could be built up.

ElSegundo-aerial

But best of all, that part of El Segundo has what is perhaps the most crucial feature of any upzoning plan: the people who will allegedly suffer have no say in local politics, because they happen to be in a different jurisdiction.

As an analogy, consider Marina del Rey, which is a small unincorporated enclave of LA County surrounded by the City of LA. If Marina del Rey were part of the City of LA, people in Venice would be complaining to the normally excellent Mike Bonin, and he’d be trying to stop the development. But all of the development there is approved by the county, and four of the five county supervisors, representing 8 million people, don’t have to worry about the local NIMBYs.

Back to El Segundo. The perceived impacts of upzoning the area bounded by Imperial, Sepulveda, Rosecrans, and Aviation would all be to the north, east, and south – in places outside El Segundo, populated by people who can’t vote for El Segundo city council members. So there you go, El Segundo City Council. Rezone the whole thing for mixed use, smaller setbacks, and higher FAR, and let’s go.

4 Million Visions for Los Angeles, and Then Some

Ok, the other day I posted about what I think defines LA. The next question is, where are we going? And strangely enough, when people ask me what my vision for LA is, why I care, why I’m doing this, I find myself tripping over my own words, unable to articulate what’s the point of the enterprise.

So, my vision for Los Angeles is a place where you get to try out your vision. Where the other 4 million people in LA, and all 18 million in SoCal, get to try their visions too. And importantly, where people from all over the world can come to try to achieve their visions.

That could be anything. Maybe you want to build the next Century City, or maybe you want to build a couple apartments behind your house to have income for funding your kids’ education or your retirement. Maybe you want to start the next Pinkberry or Forever 21, or maybe you want to run a small neighborhood café or home business. Maybe you want to escape violence and poverty elsewhere in the world to build a better life, or maybe you just want to make enough money to spend most of your time on the beach or building quads of steel biking Angeles Crest Highway. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. I don’t know what anyone wants. I just want a city where everyone has a chance to achieve it.

To me, that’s the point of cities. And it only works if we have accessibility, affordability, and opportunity.

Accessibility means we have the quality transportation necessary to allow people to move around the metro area quickly and efficiently. That’s why I’m passionate about good transportation investments.

Affordability means that we have enough residential, commercial, retail, and industrial buildings throughout the city to allow anyone to live and work in LA without spending all their money on rent or transportation. That’s why I’m passionate about making it easier to build.

Opportunity means that the city has a growing, dynamic economy that creates the ability to get educated, find good work, and start a business. That’s why I’m passionate about education and eliminating the barriers to starting a business, like high rents, high permitting costs, and unnecessary bureaucracy.

There is, of course, another dimension to all of this, and that’s equality. Accessibility, affordability, and opportunity are often systematically denied to people because of racism, sexism, or other discrimination. I’ve never really written about that because I’m not sure I have anything to say – for now, all I can do is be curious, listen, and learn.

And that’s about it. No dream should be too big or too small to have a chance in LA.

What Defines LA?

Los Angeles defies normal urban analysis. A city with no center. Amorphous urbanism. Density that doesn’t feel dense. An entire urban area existing at a density that Jane Jacobs believed would fail, functioning as one of America’s most dynamic cities. A place built for cars, but where people drive less than most US cities. The reluctant metropolis, but a metropolis nonetheless.

Faced with the apparent contradictions of Los Angeles, many observers simply throw up their hands and declare that the city must be a failure, or a success, depending on the observer’s preexisting frame of analysis. A famous example would be James Howard Kunstler devoting an entire chapter of The Geography of Nowhere to ranting about Los Angeles, and failing entirely to understand the city’s structure.

This is a shame. Like all cities, LA succeeds in many ways and fails in many ways. Like any city, there is much to be learned from LA, and many ways to make the city a better place. But if we hope to do so, we have to understand, appreciate, and analyze LA on its own terms. If you approach LA with the analytical framework of Manhattan, for example, you are going to learn little and have little to contribute. So what is Los Angeles? How does it work, and how can it work better?

In one of his better pieces, Joel Kotkin waxes philosophical about LA as a city of villages:

But to those of us who inhabit this expansive and varied place, the lack of conventional urbanity is exactly what makes Los Angeles so interesting. My adopted hometown is the exemplar of the modern multipolar metropolis: less a conscious city than a series of alternatives created by its climate, its diversity, and a congested but still-functional system of freeways that historian Kevin Starr calls “absolute masterpieces of engineering.”

. . .

Los Angeles may lack the kind of dynamic urban core that we associate with traditional great cities. But to most of its residents, the city is an urban feast on a gourmet scale. We wouldn’t trade it for the world.

This isn’t enough, though. Every city is a city of neighborhoods; go to Boston and they’ll tell you the same thing about their city, but Boston is a very different place than LA.

I think to achieve a better working definition of Los Angeles, we need to go further in our understanding of what makes the city unique. To me, LA’s distinctive character springs from the combination of relatively high density and strong polycentrism, something found no other US city. There are other cities with higher density, like San Francisco and New York, but they have a strong central city. There are other cities with polycentric nature, like Houston and Atlanta, but they’re nowhere near as dense as LA.

That unique structure is why many observers misinterpret LA as a city where every place is no place. I prefer to think of LA as a city where any place can be anything.

That’s what allows Kotkin’s ethnic neighborhoods to flourish, and it’s a wonderful thing, because it allows the whole region to fulfill the role of the city. That’s why you can find great Korean food in low-key strip malls in places like Gardena and Torrance. It’s why everyone knows that if you want really good Chinese food, you go to the decidedly suburban San Gabriel Valley. As the core cities of East Coast metro areas get more expensive, you can see this happening to some extent there too, e.g. the emergence of Quincy as the new Chinatown in Boston. The difference is that in LA, the penalty you pay for not being downtown is basically non-existent, while in Boston or New York, it’s considerable.

Oddly enough, the Kotkin/O’Toole framework comes up short at understanding Los Angeles for the same reason that the urbanist framework comes up short – they misunderestimate the importance of agglomeration and matching as essential urban functions, and fail to understand how LA accomplishes those functions.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the limit of O’Toole-onomics in a place like LA is that preventing construction of multi-family housing prevents people from capitalizing on agglomeration effects. It is easy to build SFRs (and offices) in the Inland Empire and Antelope Valley, but the booming economic sectors are currently concentrated on the Westside, which makes it hard for workers to take advantage of that opportunity without paying very high housing or transportation costs. So when one of Kotkin’s villages acts to restrict development through repressive zoning, it has negative effects on the city at large.

On the other hand, the traditional urbanist framework of central business district (CBD) oriented transit serving a satellite network of small high-density nodes (TOD or urban villages) doesn’t work either. Our transpo network needs to serve the city as it exists and build on that, not try to remake LA in the shape of Chicago or Manhattan – a hopeless endeavor when 18 million people have already organized their lives around the city’s current form. The development that’s happening downtown is almost all residential, and many of those people will commute elsewhere – increasing LA’s polycentric nature rather than reducing it.

A large city must have effective transportation if it is to allow people to capitalize on opportunities for economic specialization. For example, maybe you can’t afford to live close to where you work. Or maybe, like me, you work in one place (downtown), have a bunch of stuff to do in another place (Westwood), and live in a third place that fits your lifestyle and price point better (Palms). All three of those places are pretty walkable in and of themselves, but quality transportation between them is critical.

Thanks to LA’s density, its polycentric nature isn’t as much of an impediment to transit as one might otherwise think. LA can continue to grow in its current form as its transit network expands, but LA is going to need a different kind of transit network than most cities, and will have different challenges and opportunities. For example, the lack of a dominant core makes it very difficult to operate a traditional commuter rail network, but it also means travel demand is more directionally balanced. You can already see this in travel patterns on the Blue Line and Expo Line, where the “reverse” direction is just as strong, if not stronger, than the peak.

Mix all of this together and you can see where I’m coming from on this blog. I’m down with allowing more development all over LA, because LA could use more neighborhoods like Palms, and I’m down with SFRs in Fontana, because the IE needs to become more like LA, and that’s the first step. When folks like Kotkin say that tall buildings don’t define LA, I pretty much agree – if developers want to build tall buildings it’s cool with me, but building them isn’t the defining challenge facing LA. And when folks argue for high quality transit projects and better bike/ped infrastructure, I pretty much agree with that too, since they’re important for helping people access opportunity and helping the city keep reinventing itself.

LA is a wonderful place, and it’s big enough to contain diverse and varied neighborhoods to suit just about anyone’s tastes, from Joel Kotkin to Latino immigrants to Chinese investors to whoever. That’s pretty awesome, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.