Monthly Archives: February 2015

Two Types of Affordability

If you’ve lived in an older apartment in LA for a while, you’ve probably had an experience like this: something happens in your life that makes you want to move, but you don’t, because you know you wouldn’t be able to find a comparable apartment for similar rent.

That “something” could be lots of things, like a new job that’s further away, a significant other moving in, a child being born, or an elderly family member moving in. Or maybe you have really noisy upstairs neighbors or a terrible landlord that does minimal maintenance and repairs. Whatever the motivation, you ultimately don’t move for one reason: LA has rent stabilization for older (pre-1978) buildings, so if you’ve been in the same apartment for a few years, you’ll have to pay more or accept a worse apartment. In a city that’s short on housing supply, rent stabilization does create affordability, at least for people who already have apartments.

Now, imagine a city that has what Austin boosters call abundant housing – a city that produces enough housing to be affordable and welcoming to everyone. In a city like that, with broad affordability, you’re much more likely to be able to find a new apartment that suits your needs.

The difference is clear: rent stabilization without housing supply creates affordability that constrains you. Abundant housing creates affordability that liberates you. It makes it easier for you to move, easier for your friends to move here from somewhere with less opportunity, easier to convince workers for your business to move here. LA’s deficit of affordable housing will take years to erase, which necessitates short run policies, but in the long run, abundant housing creates more opportunity for more people.

Is rent stabilization still necessary in a city with abundant housing? Maybe, because it has local effects that are, well, stabilizing. Abundant housing will keep housing prices in check at the regional level, but market changes might still create local impacts. For example, if a new transit line opens and makes it easy to commute to job centers, the relative desirability of neighborhoods at the stops will increase. This could cause a local jump in rents (offset, we suppose, by stagnation of rents in neighborhoods that have become relatively less desirable). Rent stabilization would alleviate local impacts – the micro stories of things like seniors getting evicted from long-time homes and communities. If landlords have the ability to buy out rent stabilized tenants, this lets tenants share in the passive increase in land values – which, after all, landlords have also often done little to earn.

Of course, rent stabilization might not be the best policy tool for addressing local impacts. Rent stabilization is easy to administer, but it is very blunt, because it applies to everyone regardless of need, creating subsidies for people that don’t deserve them. An upper class professional living in a rent stabilized building in LA will receive the same subsidy as a minimum wage worker, a system that makes no sense from a social policy perspective. An alternate system might offer a pre-funded rent allowance tax credit to low income households, scaling down to zero as income increases.

In any case, abundant housing is the right long-term policy to create a city that is affordable and welcoming to everyone. Broad affordability creates the most opportunity for the most people, and lets social policy be targeted at those most in need.

Courtyard Buildings

Rumor has it that there’s interest in LA’s courtyard apartment buildings, and in why you don’t see many of them built anymore. As you might guess, my suspicion is that zoning and parking requirements, along with availability of land with the needed zoning, are the primary causes. So, let’s take a closer look at this common Los Angeles building typology.

Low-rise courtyard apartment buildings are as much a part of the Angeleno vernacular as the dingbat, found all across LA’s multi-family neighborhoods. Typically, they consist of a roughly donut-shaped building, with a rectangular courtyard having its long side perpendicular to the street forming the donut hole. Entrance to the courtyard is through an open or gated breezeway through the first floor. The apartments ring the courtyard, usually only a couple stories high, but occasionally more. Parking is tucked underneath the sides and rear along the outside of the building.

Palms (where else) is a great neighborhood for looking at examples of courtyard apartments. I once wrote a post where I pretty much called Clarington Avenue dingbat heaven; head just one block west to Jasmine Avenue and you’re in courtyard central.


As is so often the case, this now-beloved building type was an unintended consequence of planning and zoning regulations, and courtyard apartments were maligned in the era of their construction. In 1974, during contentious public hearings for the Palms-Mar Vista-Del Rey Neighborhood Plan, LA City Planning Commissioner David Roper stated that the city’s open space ordinance “had failed because developers put the space in the middle of the apartment buildings, the so-called hole in the donut, out of view of the public.” (Likewise, in the early 1970s, City Councilor Louis Nowell was being maligned for approving the construction of corner gas stations – which, by the early 1980s, were being replaced by mini-malls at such a furious pace that the fusspots were worried about them. Notice a pattern?)

As you can see in the aerial, a courtyard apartment building is really just two dingbats that teamed up to increase the overall value of the project. Single-lot dingbat projects penciled out, and many were built, but given setback and parking requirements, the parking and apartments were about all you could fit on the lot. You’ll rarely, if ever, find a single-lot dingbat with a courtyard or pool. By putting two lots together, you eliminate 10’ of side setback requirements for an R3 or R4 zone, and make it easier to configure the parking. The skinnier courtyards aren’t much more than 10’ wide, though current zoning requires them to be 15’ to count towards open space requirements.

Revisiting some proposed prototype projects from the dingbat post, here’s what we had for R3 density (top) and R4 density (bottom) projects. The R3 project meets current parking and setback requirements; you could meet open space requirements if you reconfigured the parking. The R4 project meets setback requirements but not parking requirements. It would meet R3 open space requirements, but not R4.



As an aside, I’m not sure why the zoning code should specify open space requirements beyond what it already has for setbacks. The code claims it’s for children’s play space and outdoor recreation, though no one seems to know if it’s used as such. Like parking requirements (1 spot for a studio, 1.5 spots for a 1BR, and 2 spots for anything bigger), open space requirements increase steeply with apartment size (100 SF for a studio, 125 SF for a 1BR, and 175 SF for anything bigger), thereby greatly punishing development of larger apartments and helping to ensure there won’t be any children in the development.

However, it’s certainly easier to meet parking and open space requirements when you put two lots together. Here’s a look at two similar prototypes, using the same development concept but with two 50’ by 100’ lots instead of one.


In the concepts above, the top option, providing 12 1BR apartments, meets parking and open space requirements. And indeed, this is pretty much what you see in later stage developments all over Palms. The parking is usually depressed below street level as much as reasonable to improve aesthetics, putting what I’ve called “Floor 2” closer to being the ground floor, with parking in the basement.

The bottom option, providing 8 studio/1BR, 12 2BR, and 4 3BR apartments, does not meet current parking or open space requirements. By avoiding a basement parking level, the need for a concrete podium is avoided, significantly driving down costs. Putting parking right out front isn’t very aesthetically pleasing, but it would provide some spots that could be rented separately from the apartments, keeping rents lower. In many neighborhoods in LA, there are lots of people who don’t own cars, and making them pay for a parking spot or podium construction would put this new construction out of their reach. If an alley is available, parking could be flipped to the back, and the yard to the front, for a considerable improvement. Open space requirements could theoretically be met by adding a roof deck, though this would increase costs.

Clearly, combining two lots creates the opportunity to provide more amenities. The courtyard creates a semi-private space and the sides of the apartments facing the courtyard feel more protected from the rest of the city. Nevertheless, as stated in the dingbat post, I think it’s important to make sure that single-lot projects pencil out. If two or more lots are needed, one owner can have undue leverage to block housing development. If single-lot developments work, owners are given a positive incentive to work together to create higher value projects.

As for getting more of these projects built, there’s really no secret: we need less land zoned R1 and RD, and more land zoned R3 and R4. If we want more affordable projects, like the second option, we’ll need to ease up on parking and maybe open space requirements. It’s really that simple.

A Short High-Rise Editorial

First, many thanks are owed to this week’s guest author, Tom Steidl, for producing such a great, detailed post about the impact of building codes on high-rise development in Los Angeles. A few follow up thoughts:

Long-time readers will know that this blog has strongly advocated for low-rise and mid-rise density as the key to affordability in LA, since these types of construction can take advantage of lower costs of construction and will pencil out all over the city. However, there clearly is demand for high-rise living in some neighborhoods in LA, and we ought to allow and encourage it in those areas. The more efficient we can make these developments, the more units will pencil out, and the more demand can be accommodated by these projects. That’s a good thing all around: it gives more people the opportunity to live in a high-rise, and it reduces rent pressures on existing low-rise and mid-rise apartments.

The post also serves as a great example of the complexity of land use regulations and of the decisions that private sector actors make. Too often, the popular narrative about development holds that developers build the projects they build because they are excessively greedy, or excessively stupid. This is poor analysis and it leads to poor policy. Solutions that seek to mandate certain actions by developers, without understanding why developers do what they do today, run a large risk of having unexpected effects and exacerbating existing problems. As the post says, developers build chunkier towers in LA due to specific regulatory causes that encourage them to do so. Additional regulation that says “thou shalt build Vancouver-style towers,” without understanding what motivates developers to build the types of projects they do today, might result in no towers being built, rather than Vancouver-style towers.

To give an analogy, mandating that developers build certain types of projects, without addressing the zoning and building code regulatory regime, is like putting up a 25 mph speed limit sign on a road designed for 50 mph, without changing the design of the road. If you design a road for 50 mph and sign it for 25 mph, the drivers who go 50 mph are not foolish, you are. If you want a road where drivers go 25 mph, you need to understand what motivates their decisions and design accordingly.

Likewise, land use planning needs to look beyond the concept of simply mandating what development should be built. We need to look at all the elements of the process, and design the process so that all elements are contributing to making the desired results be the ones that make the most sense to develop.

High-Rise Codes & Housing Affordability in Los Angeles

by Tom Steidl – AIA, LEED AP

Pull up a photo of the Vancouver skyline and you are greeted with an image of slender towers rising toward the sky with snow capped mountains beyond and mirrored in glassy water below. People don’t seem to mind this style of density as many, myself included, believe it’s urbanism done right. Vancouver is rightfully lauded as an urban planning success. The city is able to balance density with livability; Vancouver is the 4th densest city in North America while offering walkability, plenty of public open space and a variety of transit options. The housing typology that is largely responsible for this type of urbanism is the “pin” or “point” tower that has defined the Vancouver style.


These towers are quite slender in proportion, feature articulated facades and have compact floor plates, often under 7,000 square feet (SF). Smaller floor plates increase the feeling of separation between towers, which increases the sense of privacy and allows for territorial views. Tower separation is actually mandated in Vancouver (80′ minimum) and this is achieved in large part thanks to the small floor plate sizes.

In comparison, towers in Los Angeles tend to be rather, well, chunky (to use the proper architectural term). They are more squat and massive in appearance. And there is a good reason for this: they actually are more massive. Towers in Los Angeles tend to have significantly larger floor plates than those in Vancouver and US cities that have embraced high-rise design. The primary reason for this isn’t differences in land use or zoning codes. It’s mainly building code and fire department regulations that require additional floor area be added to the core of the tower. In addition to making our towers more bulky, this added floor area increases construction cost and reduces affordability.

Beyond increased cost, one could argue that the desirability of some units is being compromised. As neighborhoods like Downtown and Hollywood continue to fill in, towers with larger floor plates don’t always have as much spacing as might be desired. Units located above an alley might be separated from another structure by as little as 20 feet.


The Watermark Tower in Downtown Los Angeles, with unit windows +/- 35′ from a commercial office tower.

Recent changes in the LA high-rise code do away with the helipad requirement, and will allow for more interesting caps to our high-rises in the form of spires, tapering floor plates, and so on. But this change isn’t going to give us pin towers, nor is it going to usher in an era of more affordable high-rise living. To do that, we will need to re-examine what design elements are necessary in the central core of the tower. However, these requirements do provide additional degrees of safety. Can we better balance safety with desirability and affordability?

 Floorplate Efficiency is Paramount

The key to high-rise design is efficiency. A typical floor layout is repeated multiple times, so any wasted space is magnified 20, 30, 40 times or more. Developers are typically a practical lot, and know that if too many inefficiencies are baked into the prevailing floor layout, the project won’t pencil and it won’t get built. Roughly, the key metric in residential tower design is an efficiency factor of +/-85% on a typical residential floor. That is, the net rentable or saleable area of a given floor (the total area of the dwelling units) should be close to or in excess of 85% of the gross indoor area. The other 15% consists of corridors, exit stairs, elevator lobbies, trash rooms, electrical closets and so on – also known as the core of the building. The core also contains area that is taken up by structural elements, such as shear walls that are often located around elevators, and stair shafts, which are often located in the middle (hence “core”) of the floor plate. For each square foot of area you build in the core of the building, the rest of the floor plate has to become bigger by 6-10 SF.

This is why a central core that is as efficient as possible is critical to the design of any high-rise. Every modern day tower is going to need a certain number of elevators, a corridor from the elevators to the various unit entry doors and at least 2 exit stairs. Access to trash chutes and electrical/data closets located off the corridor are also pretty much universal. In a Vancouver pin tower, that’s typically it. The goal is to keep the central core as small as possible while maintaining adequate life-safety standards. Minimizing the floor area of the core keeps the rest of the floor plate from ballooning out further than needed and this is what creates the iconic pin tower. Thanks to this approach, Vancouver pin towers are able to achieve floor plate efficiencies in excess of 85% and, in many cases, close to 90%. There was a conscious effort to pair building code standards to desired planning and land use outcomes. This required a critical look at what provisions of high-rise building codes are truly necessary to maintain life safety. Vancouver has adopted their own building code (the City of Vancouver Building By-Law) that is modeled after the provincial and national building code, but with some key changes to better accommodate efficient high-rise construction.

But the City of Los Angeles requires more. Los Angeles requires that elevator lobbies on each floor be separated from corridors, that the two stairs be separated and that access to each stair must also include a separate vestibule from the corridor before you reach the stair itself. Trash and recycling chutes must be accessed from a room that is separated from the corridor by a fire-rated wall.  This is thanks to the desire to control the spread of fire and smoke from one floor to another by creating different air pressurization zones, and to provide disabled residents with an area of refuge. Much like the helipad requirement, these provisions are there to provide an added level of fire safety, but they do require additional floor area, and thus additional cost, to accommodate. And once floor area in the core is added for these elements, the cost of construction plus associated soft costs are usually passed on to residents.

Below is an illustration of the difference in the codes and how they manifest themselves in the layout of a floor plate. On the left is the floor plan of the Wall Centre Central Park tower in Vancouver. On the right is the typical floor of 1133 S. Hope Street in Los Angeles. Both are in the pre-construction phase and feature approximately 30 stories and 10 units per floor. They are shown to scale (I added color to the plan on the right to delineate the extents of the floor plate):


You will notice that in the Vancouver tower on the left, the elevators empty immediately into the corridor and the scissor stair (two stairways that stack above one another in the same enclosure, but are separated with fire-rated construction) without entry vestibules. In comparison, much more floor area is given to circulation in the Los Angeles tower. The elevator lobby is its own fire-separated room and the stairs are separated into two enclosures with entry vestibules. There is a separate room before accessing the trash and recycling chutes, which are located directly off the corridor in the Vancouver tower. There are some similarities between the two towers: both are located in seismic zones and provide lateral force resistance through similarly thick concrete shear walls, and both towers have similarly sized elevators. The building and fire code provisions of LA lead to a core that is almost twice as large in area, including cross-sectional areas of shafts and hoistways, than the Vancouver tower – 2,065 SF vs 1,080 SF.


[Please note that in my measurements for this post, I am using the same standard across all projects for measuring net residential area: outside of exterior wall, corridor side of corridor wall, center of demising walls. Some of the projects list “paint-to-paint” area measurements in their marketing collateral which skews average unit sizes smaller.]

This to-scale diagram overlays the cross-sectional area of the two cores:


Two other things to point out: first, the efficiency of each tower. If the LA tower was to match the efficiency of the Vancouver tower, the gross floor area would have to grow to nearly 16,600 SF. Second, and more importantly from a housing affordability standpoint, the cost of constructing the extra floor area is passed along to tenants. Assuming a construction cost of $300/SF of built floor area (i.e. not including shaft areas), that’s an extra $28,000 per unit on the floor, to accommodate an additional 951 SF of circulation area serving the same number of units.

Another interesting aspect is that the Vancouver project features much smaller average unit sizes: 636 vs 819 SF. This was likely more of a market-driven choice that wasn’t solely dictated by building code factors, but there are code-based influences to having smaller floor plates. Assuming a sales price of $600/SF, which isn’t far off of market conditions in both cities, that’s a difference of over $100,000 for an average-sized unit, before you take into account the additional cost for the added circulation areas. There are aspects to the building code (such as disabled access clearances in bathrooms and kitchens) and planning code (open space and parking requirements) that make smaller units cheaper to build. While this might be worthy of a separate post, requiring more area of the floor be dedicated to non-revenue uses does have an influence on unit size.

Same Developer, Different Standards

Another good comparison would be to look at two residential towers by the same developer. Onni is one of the largest developers in Canada with a portfolio of over 5,000 completed units and another 4,000 in the pipeline. They recently moved into the LA market and are in the process of constructing three separate towers: 888 S Olive (32 stories, under construction), 820 S Olive (50 stories, going through permitting) and a twin tower project at 12th & Flower (40 & 32 stories, also going through entitlements). Onni recently completed a 47-story tower, The Mark, on a corner lot in the popular Yaletown neighborhood of Vancouver that provides a good comparison to the 12th & Flower project in LA. I was able to scale the plans of the development permit application for The Mark tower and cross check it against marketing information and overall site dimensions (this is always a challenge, but I believe I was able to adequately scale the drawings so that the overall floor plate dimensions are accurate within 1 or 2 feet and areas represented are within +/- 1%). The quality of the development application plans were difficult to read, so I redrafted a typical floor layout to generate area data.


Again, Los Angeles has the added elevator lobby, separated stairs with vestibules and a trash room. With this added area, it becomes necessary to run the corridor around the perimeter of the structural core which adds even more floor area to circulation.


The added circulation area requires a larger floor plate to get to an efficiency ratio just above 80%, which then causes even longer corridors to reach further into the enlarged floor. With the floor plate becoming larger, you start chasing inefficiencies by forcing more circulation area. This isn’t a result of an inexperienced developer trying out high-rise residential construction. This is a developer with a proven record of creating thousands of units in efficient towers elsewhere.

Somehow, Vancouver has determined that their high-rise towers are safe enough without these additional building core elements. They made it a point to only require what they felt was truly necessary for life safety, and removed elements from the building code that might add significant cost. It’s worth acknowledging that Vancouver is in a different country with a different set of laws and building codes. As mentioned above, Vancouver uses a modified version of the British Columbia Building Code which is based on the National Building Code of Canada. Most of the United States has adopted the International Building Code (IBC) as a model code to follow, with individual states and cities making edits to the IBC where they see fit. California has adopted a modified version of the IBC as the California Building Code (CBC) with Los Angeles adding its own amendments to the CBC. So Vancouver and Los Angeles are starting from different places and that does drive some of the differences. But other US cities that have embraced high-rise residential design have building codes that look much more like Vancouver. For a good example, you just need to drive about 2 hours south.

Seattle vs Los Angeles

Like Los Angeles, Seattle uses the International Building Code as a model code with specific amendments. However, the city government of Seattle has made a conscious effort to amend the code in a way that encourages dense infill development in areas they have dubbed “Urban Centers,” which are mostly located in downtown and first ring neighborhoods. They are also actively working to encourage development of dwelling units to keep housing affordability in line during a time of strong job creation and an influx of new residents. Over the years, the city has adopted specific amendments to the high-rise provisions of the IBC to eliminate separate elevator lobbies and stair vestibules, provided that hoistways and stairways are pressurized, and the requirement for separate trash rooms. However, unlike Vancouver, they do not allow scissor stairs, which would save additional space inside the core (most US cities don’t allow scissor stairs, with New York being an exception). Even without the allowance of scissor stairs, there are significant differences in the size of the core when comparing a residential tower in Seattle and one in Los Angeles. Below is a typical floor plate of a tower that is about to begin construction at 9th & Lenora in the South Lake Union neighborhood. In my opinion, SLU is the Seattle equivalent of South Park.


When comparing projects between these three cities, noticeable tends begin to emerge. I selected a handful of projects in Vancouver, Seattle and Los Angeles, either proposed or recently completed, that shared similar infill sites close to downtown cores. All cities do a decent job of posting PDF drawings that are easily scalable. I believe that the towers I chose are representative of what is currently being built in each city.


Going beyond the obvious, that cores are larger in LA, note that even as the gross floor areas expand, three of the LA projects don’t reach the 85% efficiency mark. For the two that do, the Mack Urban tower uses a significantly larger floor plate to reach 85%, and the 888 Olive tower uses an offset core and loads most of its units to one side of the floor. I’m honestly a little surprised to see towers with relatively low efficiency ratios going forward. I think this is due in large part to atypically high rent and sales price growth in Los Angeles. The cost of building added circulation area is getting passed on to tenants and, in this area of reduced housing supply, there are some capable and willing to pay more. But there is likely a limit to the number of people who can afford rents of $4.00/SF and up. Once this limit has been reached, it wouldn’t surprise me if other projects didn’t move forward unless they improved on efficiency ratios. This would further starve LA of much needed housing supply.

Another metric to look at would be circulation area on a per unit basis:


It’s worth noting that the average unit size of the Seattle projects is the largest, with the 9th & Lenora project skewing things a bit). Based on my experience, this is historically atypical, as Los Angeles tends to have larger average unit sizes than Seattle and Vancouver. A large factor is that the LA projects are all located in the Downtown Parking District, which only requires one parking stall for most units and can be further reduced by providing bike parking. Additionally, projects in Downtown LA do not have unit density limitations, they are only FAR constrained. This allows developers to provide more, smaller units than in other parts of the city, where 1.5 or 2+ cars per unit are required for anything above a studio and unit density limitations come into play.

Looking at this data in terms of floor plates and core areas as a percentage of that in LA, the circulation area per unit, and the average circulation area per average unit area, we have the following:


Note how much larger the circulation area needed relative to the average unit area (the lower right corner) is for Los Angeles. The LA projects have an additional 19.8% of the average unit area dedicated to circulation, while it’s only 13.7% in Vancouver and 17.7% in Seattle.

This relationship would only get worse if LA started limiting overall floor plate sizes or requiring tower separation, something Vancouver and parts of Seattle require. It’s not outrageous to suggest that an additional $20-40k is already being added to a typical high-rise unit in Los Angeles thanks to building code provisions alone, before considering other factors such as parking requirements or drawn out environmental reviews and appeals.

Zoning Changes Coming to LA

So are residential high-rises in Vancouver or Seattle less safe than those in Los Angeles?  Should LA modify its requirements?  It’s a complicated subject to tackle and I couldn’t do it justice in a short post. I do believe that it is important to understand the cost implications of these requirements, and why other cities often require less. Vancouver and Seattle are in active seismic zones with the potential to deliver large earthquakes, like the 6.8 magnitude Nisqually quake in 2001. On the other hand, Los Angeles is subject to greater ground acceleration per the IBC. Fire sprinkler, alarm, and detection system requirements have come a long way in recent decades and this has reduced number of high-rise fires and associated deaths (both down nearly 50% since 1985), which might allow for building code amendments.

The City of Los Angeles is in the process of reimagining the zoning code and neighborhood plans, known as re:code LA. They are scheduled to unveil a new Downtown zoning code in 2015. This code will likely include a number of requirements for high-rise design, which may carry over to high-rise design in other parts of the city. Many cities, like Seattle, that have recently revised zoning code standards have included provisions for tower spacing and floor plate limitations. Ideally, any proposed high-rise zoning changes in LA would be done in tandem with a review of high-rise building and fire code requirements that affect building floor plate sizes. Limiting overall floor plate sizes while keeping provisions that lead to larger cores would only make efficiency ratios dip further, which could lead to fewer units being delivered to an undersupplied market.

A review of the code shouldn’t be limited to fire & life-safety provisions. Any truly comprehensive review of the code would look at all requirements that drive costs and effect affordability, such as parking minimums. Beyond potential zoning code changes, the city should look at the building code to identify what provisions truly make an impact in fighting fires and saving lives versus what might needlessly be adding costs without much or any real benefit. In the meantime, don’t expect to see pin towers dotting the LA skyline. Maybe we can learn to love our chunky Angeleno towers.

Westside Traffic, Peak Period Edition

A commenter on this post on Westside traffic asked if peak hour data might show different patterns, so I created similar graphics for the same roadways using the same data (Caltrans publishes peak hour, peak month, and yearly average traffic).

I’ll let the graphics speak for themselves. The peak hour patterns are quite similar to the total volume patterns, including the structural changes on the 405 and Venice coinciding with completion of the freeway widening project between the 90 and the 10. It’s actually a little surprising to see so much of a change in peak hour volumes – I would have guessed that changes in total volumes would be reflected in a shorter peak, leaving the peak hour itself relatively unchanged, rather than a more uniform change. These facilities are all near capacity, so if more cars enter the systems, peak volumes can only go up so much, and the increase would be expressed as a longer peak period and greater total delay.

I’ve put the daily volumes & peak volumes side by side so you can easily compare. Note that the y-scales are necessarily quite different. As always, click to embiggen.

Venice-both the405-both the10-both SM-both Lincoln-both

Seeing the Supply for the Houses, or the Houses for the Supply

In cities facing housing crunch problems like rising rents and gentrification, there are generally two schools of thought about how the problem should be addressed. One school holds housing supply paramount, noting that land use restrictions like zoning suppress development of market rate housing, which invariably drives up places and causes displacement. This school focuses on liberalizing land use controls as the solution to housing issues. The other school holds community integrity paramount, focusing on regulatory measures that prevent existing residents from being evicted.

The difference in tactics between these two groups often leaves them at odds with each other. However, these schools of thought are two sides of the same coin, with similar goals but approaching the problem from opposite ends. Call the land use liberalization advocates the “macro” view, focusing on overall regional housing supply, and the anti-displacement advocates the “micro” view, focusing on the stories of individuals affected by rapid neighborhood change.

If you’re mainly worried about regional housing supply (and regional is the level that ultimately matters), you need to recognize that individual stories matter. There is value in neighborhoods that cannot be monetized, something the urban renewers of yore learned the hard way. Places like California have been building up a deficit of housing for decades, something that will take years for a functioning housing market to rectify.

If you’re mainly worried about displacement, you need to recognize that regional housing supply matters. Economic models are not abstractions that economists seek to impose on people, they describe how human beings interact with each other under a given set of regulations and traditions. The land use regulations we have today, which constrain housing supply, require that somebody lose, be it existing residents or would-be immigrants. In the absence of increased housing supply, all you can do is pick different losers.

See the forest for the trees, or see the trees for the forest.

The key is to realize that we all share a common goal – a city that is affordable and accessible to all those who want it. When land use liberalization advocates and anti-displacement advocates argue with each other, we let the truly responsible parties – wealthy neighborhoods that stifle any and all development – off the hook.

Rethinking Metrolink, Part 1

Last summer, after struggling for a few months to try to write something productive about Metrolink, I decided to just listen to ridership data and media stories for a while. Ridership data has not been good; with the exception of the Inland Empire – Orange County Line, all lines have been steadily losing ridership. The malfunctions of ticket-vending machines have been well chronicled, as have the agencies troubles with equipment and its finances.

The first order of business is putting the house in order. That means getting finances and maintenance squared away, so that trains run on time and passengers can pay their fares. The second issue is a bit more meta: what is Metrolink, how does it relate to the geography of development in Southern California, and how can that be improved? The latter issue is the one set before us today.

SoCal Commuter Rail

Conceptually, Metrolink is no different than traditional East Coast US commuter rail systems such as those in Boston (MBTA), New York (Metro North, LIRR, NJT), and Philadelphia (SEPTA). These networks are designed to convey relatively well-off white collar workers from suburbs to a single dominant central business district in the morning and then back in the evening. As such, they are typified by very peaky service, that is, service is quite frequent towards the CBD on weekday mornings and towards the suburbs on weekday evenings, and very infrequent or non-existent at other times.

This is a poor route and service structure for Southern California. Metrolink is arranged to bring people to downtown LA in the morning and home in the afternoon, but downtown LA is just one of many business districts in greater LA. Its traditional industries, government and finance, have seen slow or no job growth. Office vacancy is higher than on the Westside, and downtown’s boom has been almost entirely residential – people who obviously don’t need to get downtown in the morning, because they’re already there! To complicate things, LA Union Station is on the very fringe of downtown, requiring a transfer to the Red/Purple Line to access the business district.

In contrast to East Coast cities, LA is polycentric. This creates both challenges and opportunities for a rail service like Metrolink. Peer systems in regions that also have major business districts outside of the central city would include:

  • Caltrain, which serves both a traditional downtown in SF and a significant reverse commute to Silicon Valley.
  • Paris RER, which serves an enormous peripheral business district (La Defense) that puts Century City to shame.
  • Seoul, which has numerous business districts both in the city proper (such as Yongsan, Gangnam, and Jongno) and outside (such as Incheon and Songdo). Seoul also has truly integrated subway and commuter rail lines like Line 1, baffling many a US observer.

What Lines Does Metrolink Have?

Metrolink’s lines have different characteristics, both amongst themselves and from many other commuter rail lines. The lines currently operated by Metrolink are as follows:

  • Ventura Line: this line travels from downtown LA past Glendale and Burbank, then through the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County. Its entire route is shared with Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner, which runs from San Luis Obispo to San Diego. There are some daily freight trains on the line, but nothing out of the ordinary.
  • Antelope Valley Line: this line travels from downtown LA, sharing track with the Ventura Line past Glendale and Burbank, north through the San Fernando Valley and Santa Clarita. It crosses the San Gabriel Mountains through Soledad Pass to the Antelope Valley communities of Palmdale and Lancaster. Again, there are some daily freight trains on the line, but nothing out of the ordinary.
  • San Bernardino Line: this line travels east from downtown LA through the San Gabriel Valley and southwest San Bernardino County to San Bernardino. Freight traffic is minimal on this line, consisting almost entirely of local service.
  • Riverside Line: this line travels east from downtown LA through the City of Industry, Ontario, and northwest Riverside County to Riverside. This is UP’s Los Angeles Subdivision, which together with UP’s Alhambra Subdivision serves over 50 freight trains per day, including both long distance and local traffic.
  • 91 Line: this line travels southeast from downtown LA to Fullerton, then east and northeast to Riverside and San Bernardino. Freight volumes are between 40 and 50 trains per day from LA to Fullerton, increasing to nearly 70 trains per day between Riverside and the infamous, and now defunct, Colton Crossing.
  • Orange County Line: this line shares track with the 91 Line from downtown LA to Fullerton, and then runs southeast through Orange County all the way to Oceanside. There is some freight traffic south of the split with the 91 Line, but nothing out of the ordinary.
  • Inland Empire – Orange County Line: this line runs from Riverside to Oceanside, almost entirely on the same track as the 91 Line and Orange County Line.

The freight volumes on the Riverside Line and 91 Line are an unusual condition for a commuter rail operation. Most East Coast lines don’t compete with freight volumes anywhere near this high. The comparable lines would be Chicago Metra’s UP West, BNSF, and Heritage Corridor Services. Impressively, the UP West and BNSF Lines provide at least hourly service (with a few exceptions) from early morning to late night, even to shockingly low density places like Elburn and La Fox. These lines have many areas of triple track, with more planned, but freight congestion is apparently still an issue. The Heritage Corridor runs only three round trips per day.

What Areas Does Metrolink Serve?

Metrolink serves many different parts of the region, with different travel demand and therefore differing transit needs. As I see it, the Metrolink service region can be broken down as follows:

  • Ventura County: located too far for commuting to downtown LA to generate high ridership. Simi Valley has less than 400 boardings, and Moorpark less than 250. Stations further west do not even achieve 100. These stations can probably be adequately served by improved Pacific Surfliner service and perhaps some express bus.
  • Santa Clarita and the Antelope Valley: the three Santa Clarita stations combined pull about 1,000 riders, but Santa Clarita doesn’t have a central business area that could serve as an anchor. The stations are not in particularly dense areas and function as park-and-ride style transit. The Antelope Valley stations are much further away, with each having less than 400 boardings. With the expansion of HOV lanes on the 14 and the 5, many of these riders could be served by peaky transit express bus, which both Santa Clarita Transit and Antelope Valley Transit already operate in direct competition with Metrolink. (Plus, Lancaster Mayor R Rex Parris is not exactly Metrolink’s best friend.)
  • San Fernando Valley: given that the Valley is mostly relatively dense suburbs, the Metrolink stations there achieve appallingly low ridership. Why would you get on Metrolink at Van Nuys, where there are only 22 round trips per day, and pay $7.25 one way when the same trip on Metro services would cost $1.75 with much more frequent services? High-cost infrequent commuter rail is not the right type of service for the Valley; service here should run on rapid transit schedules with rapid transit fares.
  • Burbank Airport – Irvine corridor: this is the highest intensity corridor served by Metrolink, including Burbank, Glendale, downtown LA, and the major Orange County cities (Anaheim, Santa Ana, and Irvine). The curveball is that the heart of the corridor – downtown LA to Fullerton – happens to be BNSF’s main line from the ports to the rest of America. It serves high freight volumes and is abutted by large industrial zones. Thus, while the portion north of LA might be appropriate for rapid transit frequencies, the southern portion isn’t, because abutting land use doesn’t support it and freight traffic won’t allow it. However, the entire corridor is suitable for regional rail service. As Paul Druce of Reason Rail has noted elsewhere, the reverse commute potential on this corridor is just as strong as the normal direction.
  • San Gabriel Valley and San Bernardino County: the western San Gabriel Valley is similar to the San Fernando Valley, and might warrant rapid transit frequency. Further east, the San Bernardino Line continues through established suburbs to San Bernardino, a major node in the Inland Empire. With decent anchors at both ends and a minor node at Claremont in the middle, the San Bernardino Line should warrant relatively frequent service.
  • City of Industry & Riverside Line: the Industry station gets about 1,000 boardings per day, though this is a 30% decline from 2010. This is sort of a super express to downtown LA since there’s only one stop in between. None of the other stations on the line achieve inspiring ridership. However, the lack of HOV lanes on the 60 west of the 605 suggests that it would be hard to replicate this service with bus.
  • Corona – San Bernardino Corridor: this corridor parallels the 91 and the 215, two congested Riverside County freeways. Corona is a minor node, and Riverside is a major business district for the Inland Empire. The density along the corridor isn’t bad, but it’s much shallower than the San Bernardino Line, thanks to anti-development cities like Norco, Jurupa Valley, and Riverside. This corridor is suitable for regional rail, though not with the same level of service as Burbank – Irvine.
  • South Orange County: south of Irvine, Orange County development is similar to Santa Clarita and much of Ventura County in that there aren’t any major business nodes. The stations get relatively low ridership, with less than 400 in Laguna Niguel, and less than 200 in San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano. Oceanside gets a surprising amount of ridership, perhaps due to connections to Sprinter and Coaster services. However, this region could probably be served by improved Pacific Surfliner service.

Missing Links

If you want to run rapid transit style services in the San Fernando Valley and western San Gabriel Valley, you don’t want to dead-end them in downtown LA, because it would result in unbalanced demand. So what would you connect them to? There are lots of good options to be discussed; here’s one:

  • Chatsworth – Santa Ana: the existing out-of-service rail corridor between downtown LA and Santa Ana is high on the Measure R2 wish list; connecting it to the Chatsworth to downtown LA service would balance the line. This line would relieve the Orange Line in the Valley, and provide transit to dense cities like Maywood, Bell, Cudahy, and the Gateway Cities. This would be the highest priority.
  • Sylmar – Long Beach: this would overlap with the Chatsworth – Santa Ana service from Burbank to Paramount. The northern section would provide frequent service to San Fernando, while the southern section would help relieve the Blue Line. This would be the second priority.
  • Purple Line to El Monte: this would balance the Purple Line and provide a one seat ride from the San Gabriel Valley to the Westside. It would be the most technically challenging expansion. While the first two lines could be built with standard DMUs (or future EMUs) compatible with other equipment on the liens, Purple Line vehicles have different dimensions that would complicate design. Such an option would have to be accomplished by rerouting Metrolink regional rail to the Alhambra Subdivision from downtown LA to El Monte, or with a technological trick like platform extenders.
  • Conceptual Red Line extensions: these don’t involve the Metrolink lines, but are shown for discussion. An extension north would connect to the Sylmar – Long Beach Line. An extension southeast would provide rapid transit to East LA, Montebello, Pico Rivera, and Whittier. If north-south rapid bus services were implemented on major roads like Atlantic or Lakewood, they would offer transfers to this line, eliminating need for transfers to the LA – Fullerton section of the regional rail line.

Combine this with a couple north-south transit routes on the Westside and in the Valley, like say Reseda/Lincoln Blvds and Van Nuys/Sepulveda Blvds, and you’ve got a pretty solid rapid transit network for Los Angeles.

Regional Rail Services

San Fernando to Irvine is the obvious main corridor for regional rail. That leaves a set of three lines – San Bernardino, Riverside, and 91 – that don’t lend themselves easily to through-routing. C-shaped routes tend to perform poorly because the potential to serve trips passing through the central area is very low. Again, there are many options; here’s one:

  • Through-route the San Bernardino Line and 91 Line into the second regional rail line. Yes, this creates a very tight C, almost a closed loop. This could be mitigated by various means, explored in part 2.
  • Do what you will with the Riverside Line – replace with express bus or keep running it as a super express, whatever you see fit. There’s no reason it has to provide the same frequency or fare structure as the other lines.

The Reveal

At long last, here’s a map of all this:


I drew this in Scribble Maps, my first time using that tool. I’m curious what people think. It’s relatively easy to draw, add text labels, and edit things, but the text labels don’t scale when you zoom out, so it’s hard to see everything all at once.

Here’s a more conventional map of this improvement, drawn in my old friend AutoCAD. The regional rail lines are shown in tan, Pacific Surfliner in Amtrak blue. Where the routes overlap, blue is shown on top of tan. All other lines are subway, light rail, or BRT, as you like it.


I’ve also thrown in proposals from some other posts (Westside transit, more Green Line stations) to give an idea of what this all looks likes together.


The rapid transit service would obviously run with low headways, so there’s not much to say there. The regional rail component is where it gets interesting. In Part 2, we’ll take a look at different options for the regional rail lines.