Monthly Archives: July 2015

‘Round Glendale: Dingbat Quartet

Now that blog headquarters is in Glendale, it’s time to reboot the ‘Round Palms department to take a closer look at housing and development patterns in the Jewel City. There will be some more detailed posts coming up, but for now, an appetizer: this four-pack of dingbats located on Chester St just south of the 134 freeway.


These four buildings are all built from the same plan, with two being mirror images of the other two. This lends some variability to the view from the street but also creates a pleasing symmetry. The southernmost building fronts on Doran St as well as Chester St.


The matching staircases, one rotated at 90 degrees to the other, is a nice touch. Here’s the skinny end of the next building north, fronting on Chester St only.


The next building north is a carbon copy of the southernmost building. Note that while these buildings started the same, over time they’ve acquired some individuality. While the first building has original construction and the second hasn’t even managed to lose its window bars, this one has managed to acquire some new windows.


As any dingbat resident can tell you, that’s a major improvement: the original construction featured drafty, rattling, leaky single-pane windows that do almost nothing to stop the transmission of sound. The denizens of this building are enjoying better climate control and more respite from the sounds of the street and the nearby freeway.

By using mirror images of the plan, the designers created a little open space between the second and third buildings, pleasant enough to support a few large trees and children’s swing.


It’s perhaps a little surprising that the architect didn’t flip all four buildings, creating two courtyards, but apparently they wanted to have the open side of the southernmost and northernmost buildings fronting the street.

The northernmost building, fronting on Pioneer Dr, appears to have received the most love through the years, receiving not only new windows, but fresher paint and, if you look closely, some reinforcement for the railings on its exterior walkways


In addition to providing some courtyard space, a nice feature of these buildings is that, unlike most dingbats, the parking is not featured front and center, but rather tucked around the back off of a small alley.


This appears to have been accomplished by assembling several lots and adding an alley where none existed before. If you go back and look at the first image, you’ll note that these buildings are oriented perpendicular to all the other lots on Doran and Pioneer. These lots are about 50’ wide and 115’ deep, and the dingbat quartet was constructed on six lots put together. Putting the parking in back, off-street, is a nice design feature that improves the final result. As we’ll see in future posts, this seems to be more common in Glendale apartment buildings from the 1960s boom than in places like Palms.

Single-Family Homes and Affordability

The big news in land use wonkdom is one of the recommendations of Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Advisory Committee: that the city consider doing away with single-family zoning in many areas, perhaps entirely. To understand why this is such a big deal, let’s take a closer look at the single-family residence (SFR), both in terms of its economic function and its space in city planning.

The Economics of the SFR

From the perspective of affordability, the SFR is terrific – terrific twice, in fact.

First, SFRs are the cheapest kind of housing to build on a unit area basis. At the margins of the city, where land is cheap and constraints are few, large numbers of SFRs can be built based on a few variations of a few basic design templates, keeping costs even lower. The SFR will pencil out when and where almost no other type of development will. There are cases where it’s profitable to go directly from vacant land to dense apartments at the edge of the city, but that’s often indicative of highly distorted housing markets – in other words, to go directly from vacant land to dense housing at the fringe, something must be artificially raising housing prices or subsidizing development. The ability to provide new housing cheaply through SFR construction helps keep regional housing prices low.

Second, in built-up parts of a city, SFRs are the easiest type of land use to redevelop, excluding vacant land at infill sites. This is for the same reason that SFRs pencil out first at the urban fringe – they are the lowest value use of land. As we explored in the limits to redevelopment, more intense existing land uses require longer to redevelop and have higher opportunity costs, thus requiring higher prices to justify redevelopment. For example, a one-story commercial retail building or a 6-unit apartment will generate more income than an SFR, so they will only redevelop at higher prices. In addition, redevelopment of SFRs is less disruptive to communities and carries less risk of displacement. Thus, SFRs are not only the easiest type of residence to develop, they’re also the easiest type of residence to redevelop.

The Single-Family House and Planning

From the perspective of planning, the cardinal rule of urban development in many cities has been, for decades, that SFRs and SFR neighborhoods must be “preserved” and “protected”. No matter how much SFR owners protest otherwise, they are one of the best-organized and most powerful political forces in land use. Open a general plan or community plan in any growing American city and you will likely find language about “protecting” SFR neighborhoods. In this framework, single-family housing is a bystander in urban land use, a passive actor that is almost invariably degraded by other types of development.

Given the economics of SFRs and development, this is clearly not the case. Policies to prohibit the redevelopment of SFRs, especially in wealthy areas, raise the regional housing price level until it is feasible to redevelop higher-intensity land uses or demand can be forced to flow to other neighborhoods. This results in higher housing prices and the potential for displacement.

The recommendation of the Seattle HALA Advisory Committee may not result in any changes to the city’s SFR zones. However, it is extremely important just that these issues are on the table in a major US city. Cities, regions, and states might decide to retain SFR zoning near the core of metro areas. But they should only do so after an honest accounting of the costs and impacts – and who those costs fall on.

Will Microtransit Startups Find a Role in Urban Transportation?

There was some interesting discussion on Twitter the other day about “microtransit” startups, which are worth commenting on at further length.

What is Microtransit?

First, what is microtransit, especially in the context of venture capital backed tech startups? Vox calls it “Uber for buses”, a description more apt than one might realize at first. Like a micro apartment that would have just been called an efficiency, bachelor, or single-room occupancy in years past, the basic service being provided by Uber – the taxi ride – is not new. Likewise, microtransit services have long existed under names like vanpools, jitneys, dollar vans, and so on. Unlike the smartphone, for example, these startups do not offer services that were not available, or at least technologically possible, in the past. Shared ride vans have been plying the streets of NYC’s outer boroughs and Bergen County, NJ for decades.

What is the Innovation?

Since these services are being branded as tech startups, it’s worth asking what innovation they are offering. In the case of Uber, the innovation is software that lowers the transaction costs of buying and selling taxi services. By transaction costs, we mean the difficulty of matching buyers and sellers, i.e. finding someone willing to drive you to a place you want to go, at the time you want to go, for a price you’re willing to pay. Uber’s software and app are essential to this; imagine how hard it would be to run Uber if everyone who wanted a price quote for a ride had to call a central dispatch, and then the dispatch had to call all potential drivers to see who was willing to make the ride.

However, there’s another innovation in Uber’s model, one which is just as significant, if not more: they created, almost overnight, a political constituency powerful enough to challenge entrenched players in a heavily regulated industry. The key here is that taxi services were undersupplied, as a result of regulation and the influence of dominant taxi companies. This allowed owners of cabs and medallions to engage in rent-seeking, meaning that they profited without contributing anything to the system. Medallions in NYC were famously worth over $1 million, even though they conferred nothing other than permission from the government to offer taxi services.

A few individuals trying to buck this system would quickly find themselves squashed by regulators (except where, as in parts of NYC, taxi services were so egregiously undersupplied that regulators looked the other way most of the time). By creating an enormous constituency of both taxi drivers and taxi riders, Uber made it politically possible to crack the regulatory stranglehold on taxi services. This is no small achievement; consider the fate of the Chinatown buses, which, despite having grown into proven businesses with considerable ridership, have increasingly found themselves the target of regulatory actions that conveniently benefit larger, more established bus companies.

Does This Translate to Buses?

So, how does this relate to microtransit and startups that are challenging buses? For sure, their software will greatly facilitate matching potential drivers with potential riders. However, while bus service is also heavily regulated, it is regulated in a much different way than taxi services.

The overarching scheme of taxi regulation is to force the undersupply of taxi services, thereby creating excess profits that can be skimmed by owners of cabs and medallions. The overarching scheme of bus regulation is to force the oversupply of services, such that providers of bus services almost always lose money. (Note: we’re only saying bus service is oversupplied from the perspective of profitability given other external factors; from the perspective of societal benefit, service is undersupplied.) Again, this is not always the case; dollar vans are profitable in NYC on routes not served by NYCMTA bus. But most likely, bus startups are not going to find some high-demand route that’s not already being served by some type of fixed route service.

Unlike Uber, which was tapping into unmet demand, a startup will probably only be able to compete with existing bus services if it is faster, pays lower wages, and operates on the highest demand routes. A service will only be able to do so by eliminating low-demand stops and routes, something that transit agencies often try to do but it is a huge political challenge because of equity issues. In other words, the political “innovation” here would be something much less desirable: the ability to take away service from the least profitable routes and stops, and the ability to circumvent higher wages earned by transit agency drivers. This will probably prove to be politically unpalatable; without unmet demand to create a pool of new drivers and riders, services directly competing with municipal buses will face increasing regulatory pressure to conform to the same requirements as publicly provided services.

On the other hand, suppose you had the option of taking an Uber for a certain cost or a shared-ride van for, say, 60%-75% of that cost. This is a situation where the shared-ride microtransit services should be able to compete. By pooling rides among passengers willing to tolerate a longer trip, they could offer lower fares and possibly higher wages. This suggests that microtransit will be more likely to compete with taxi services than with bus services, and my guess is that Uber understands this and that’s why they’re trying to get into the game with Uber Pool. It makes a lot more sense to compete for taxi service profits that exist than for practically non-existent municipal bus profits.

A Role for Tech in Transit

I do think there’s a separate transportation market where the technology being developed by these startups might be beneficial: demand response paratransit.

Demand response service refers to transit service provided to disabled persons who are not able to use standard fixed route bus and rail services. Paratransit functions similarly to shared-ride services for this submarket, and it tends to be both inconvenient and inefficient. Persons using the service must often call to request a ride hours, if not a full day, in advance of the trip, which requires careful planning and limits the freedom of mobility. Meanwhile, transit agencies report typical per-trip costs of $30-$45, with NYCMTA reporting a single paratransit trip costs the system almost $72, meaning these trips require large subsidies.

Software algorithms similar to those developed by Uber and the shared-ride startups might be able to greatly improve transit services. By more efficiently pooling rides, we could both reduce the cost of paratransit and reduce the onerous advance-planning requirements for riders, increasing their personal mobility and freedom. The services still wouldn’t be profitable per se, but the savings from more efficient service might allow transit agencies to offer a fair profit to someone developing the software.

It’s not as flashy as a startup bus, and I’m not sure if there’s enough demand to allow significant efficiency gains, but it if feasible it would improve services that could really use it.

Metrolink Ridership Update – March 2015

Time for an update on Metrolink ridership, including FY15Q3 (January – March 2015) data. Here’s the breakdown of data by stations.


As we discussed last time, while ridership has still been declining, it looks like the trend has started to level out. Hopefully, new Metrolink CEO Art Leahy will be able to get those numbers moving in the right direction. The $2 station to station fare pilot program is certainly a step in the right direction. The Antelope Valley Line is the pilot, so downtown Burbank, which is a reasonably large trip attractor, is included. However, the program started July 1, so we won’t see any results in ridership for at least another 4-5 months, when FY16Q1 data become available.

With that, I’ll let the graphics speak for themselves. Here’s the update of the rolling 12-month averages, broken down by line.

Ventura-20150706 AV-20150706 BG-20150706 SB-20150706 Riverside-20150706 91-20150706 OC-20150706 91OC-20150706 AC-20150706

Here’s a look at the top 10 and bottom 10 stations for ridership gained (or lost) over the period from June 2010 to March 2015 (all based on rolling 12-month averages). The top 10 and bottom 10 are all unchanged. The best trending stations continue to be in Orange County and Riverside County, while the worst trending stations continue to be on the San Bernardino and Antelope Valley lines.

abstop-20150706 absbottom-20150706

LACMTA Bus Ridership Update – San Fernando Valley May 2015

Here’s our second update on ridership on some of the main bus routes in the San Fernando Valley. As a reminder, for north-south corridors, we have San Fernando, Van Nuys, Sepulveda, and Reseda; for east-west, Ventura, Sherman, Roscoe, and Nordhoff.

For more detail on the sausage-making involved in converting routes that cover multiple corridors to a number for a single arterial road, see the first post.

Here’s the raw data. As always, highlighted cells represent top 10 ridership months since January 2009. All routes put up their best months in the 2009-2010 period; this may be due to the recession reducing car ownership.


Here are the 12-month rolling averages for weekdays.


Saturday and Sunday 12-month rolling averages largely reflect weekday trends, as shown below. The only interesting countertrend is an uptick in Reseda over weekends.



The only structural change that would be affecting ridership in the Valley is the adjustment of the rapid routes serving Reseda, Ventura, Van Nuys, and Sepulveda in late 2014. Prior to the change, the Van Nuys rapid route extended through Sepulveda Pass to Westwood, and the Sepulveda and Reseda rapid routes ended in Sherman Oaks. This was changed to the Sepulveda rapid route extending through the pass, with the Reseda and shortened Van Nuys rapid routes linked up into a single U-shaped route on Reseda, Ventura, and Van Nuys.

From the point of abstract geometry, it might appear to make more sense for the Sepulveda route to extend through the pass, but Van Nuys is by far the best bus corridor in the Valley. It is impossible to say if the recent sharp decline on Van Nuys is due to the network reconfiguration, but the change does not appear to have helped. Note that it is possible that the decline on Van Nuys has been over-exaggerated by the method of apportioning route ridership to corridors, but no other corridor has seen an anomalous gain in ridership, so some corridor is losing riders even if it’s not Van Nuys.

Stay tuned for Metrolink.