Monthly Archives: January 2016

Winter in LA’s Backyard

A little diversion from transportation and housing for the weekend…

Chances are, when you think of the outdoors in LA, you don’t think of snow. Awesome beaches, surfing, amusement parks, palm trees and Palm Springs, ocean-front recreation paths, Hollywood lights… snow? You might be aware of the large mountains on the horizon on clear days, but they often feel further away than they really are.

Rainfall (and mountain snowfall) in LA varies greatly from year to year, to the extent that in some years it feels like winter doesn’t even happen. Considering the last four years, you could be forgiven for forgetting about it. This year hasn’t been particularly rainy, but unlike the last four years, it has been cool and rainy enough to make Mt Baldy shine like the postcard view.


Mt Baldy, like a mirage from the 405

When there is snow, LA is unique among US cities in its proximity to winter and summer. Glendale is 40 miles from 8,000’ peaks with ski lifts and 20 miles from the beach in Santa Monica. Here’s a short introduction to the less iconic side of that duo.

The Angeles Crest Highway (the 2) provides access to the San Gabriel Mountains, though the eastern portion of it is closed in the winter due to the hazards from snow and rock fall. As it traverses the range, it provides amazing views.

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Running a ski area without snowmaking is an increasing quixotic enterprise anywhere, let alone in a place with highly unreliable snowfall like LA County. This year, Mt Waterman was able to open for the first time since 2011. Mt Waterman had been closed for a few years and was nearly devastated by the Station Fire in 2009, but thanks to some dedicated owners, it’s back.

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There used to be another small ski area just east of Mt Waterman on the 2, called Kratka Ridge. It closed 15 years ago, after being badly damaged by a fire and an avalanche. Southern California is a land of extremes.

The San Bernardino Mountains are a little bit easier to get around, being much more populated than the San Gabriels, which only have towns around the edges. The top of Snow Valley offers great views of the San Bernardino Mountains, the Inland Empire, and the other side of the San Gabriels.

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In my opinion, price per pound you can’t beat the views from Mt Baden-Powell, the third highest peak of the San Gabriels. On a clear day, you can easily see downtown and Santa Catalina Island (just check out my banner picture). But if you’re going now, you’d better bring your winter gear!

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County Size, Part 2

In a previous post, we looked at county sizes across the US based on their land area. Let’s do a quick follow up and look at county size based on population.

There are 3,142 counties (and county-equivalents) in the US. Because there are many counties with small populations and relatively few counties with very large populations, it makes sense to group them on a logarithmic scale. We’ll look at the number of counties in each of the following population ranges:

  • Below 1,000 (<1k)
  • 1,000-10,000 (1k-10k)
  • 10,000-100,000 (10k-100k)
  • 50,000-100,000 (50k-100k)
  • 100,000-500,000 (100k-500k)
  • 500,000-1,000,000 (500k-1m)
  • 1,000,000-10,000,000 (1m-10m)
  • 10,000,000 and up (>10m)

The number of counties in each range is shown below.


Over two-thirds of counties have population less than 50k, with almost half of all counties in the US falling into the 10k-50k range. There are 42 counties with 1m-10m people, and of course, one unique county with over 10m 😉

Some other interesting data points on county sizes:

  • The average county size is just over 100k (101,482 to be exact).
  • The median county size is 25,715 (half of all counties have a smaller population).
  • The population weighted average county size is about 1,150,000.
  • The median American lives in a county with population 473,279 (Staten Island). Half of all Americans live in larger counties and half live in smaller counties.

Here’s the breakdown by how many people live in each range, along with the population change for each range from 2010 to 2014:


The striking thing here is the difference in population growth. Counties under 50k people shrank, and counties in the 50k-100k grew slowly, at 1.29%. Population growth was much stronger in counties above 100k people. Even LA County, with its high housing costs and large population base, grew at almost 3%, just below the national growth rate of 3.07%. The fastest growth was in the 1m-10m range, followed by the 500k-1m range.

I wanted to investigate in a little more detail, so for each population range, I sorted counties by growth rates. The table below shows the results


For the three groups below 50k (under 1k, 1k-10k, and 10k-50k), about two thirds of counties lost population between 2010 and 2014. For the 50k-100k range, just over one third of counties lost population. For the 100k-500k range, just under 20% of counties lost population. Of the 136 counties with population above 500k, only 6 lost population. These were Wayne MI (Detroit), Cuyahoga OH (Cleveland), New Haven CT, Monmouth NJ (NYC burbs), Montgomery OH (Dayton), and Camden NJ.

This stark difference between small counties and large counties reflects recent trends in the US of large metropolitan areas gaining population while rural areas and small cities struggle or decline.

The US is a big place, and it would foolhardy to try to come up with overarching reasons. Different regions struggle for different reasons: rural counties in the High Plains have been shrinking for decades due to the inherent difficulty of dryland farming, small industrial cities have not been able to renew themselves the same way larger cities did, and coal mining counties in places like West Virginia have been hammered by low coal prices.

At a macro level, no one really knows how to create local economic prosperity in these places. Many people expected better communications technology (the internet) to make small cities and rural areas more connected, making it easier for people to work remotely and spread prosperity. That hasn’t happened. Why is anyone’s guess. For now, the important thing for those of us in large counties is to support policies that allow the creation of more housing, to allow people from small cities and rural areas to be able to move to places where they have more opportunities.

Leading Walk, Lagging Arrow

One of the easiest things you can do to help out pedestrians is the leading walk indication. At a normal traffic light, the pedestrian light turns to “walk” at the same time the signal head for cars turns green. This tends to lead to drivers trying to jump the light and turn right before the light turns green, cutting right in front of pedestrians as they start to cross the street – an experience you’ve surely had if you spend any time in downtown LA.

With a leading walk, the pedestrian light turns to “walk” a second or two before the signal for cars turns green. The idea here is that pedestrians get a chance to start crossing the street before the cars move, so drivers don’t get a chance to cut them off. This is really what’s supposed to happen anyway; we’re just tweaking the light to nudge people in the right direction. Obviously, this works even better if you have no right turn on red – something that’s appropriate during the day in a place like downtown LA where you have heavy pedestrian volumes. This arrangement is common in many places that have made a point to prioritize pedestrian movements, such as Cambridge, MA.

However, a problem can arise with this arrangement. If pedestrian volumes are very high, the crosswalk never clears, and it becomes very difficult for traffic to make turns. This decreases the capacity of the intersection and causes congestion, which is bad news for buses and emergency vehicles too.

The solution to this problem, if it arises, is hinted at by several lights around downtown LA that have a right turn arrow that comes up after the “flashing don’t walk” ends. This ensures some turning traffic gets to proceed during every light cycle, though it requires the pedestrian phase to be shorter than the maximum possible. A trade-off here might be to add some bulb outs at the intersection to increase the width of the sidewalks and crosswalks. While capacity of pedestrian facilities isn’t usually an issue, in this situation it might be, and this change would help improve pedestrian flow.

Make 2016 the Year We Change Housing in LA

By now, you’ve probably heard of the latest anti-development NIMBY initiative in LA. Like many bad policies, it comes wrapped in an ambiguous but benevolent-sounding name, the “Neighborhood Integrity Initiative.” It is not clear to this observer what this initiative has to do with the admirable accomplishments and laudable missions of some of the organizations backing it.

What is clear is that this initiative will make LA’s housing crisis worse. It will make it more difficult to build housing near transit, destroy the city’s ability to secure new affordable housing units in exchange for additional density, and cost the region good-paying construction jobs at a time that blue-collar workers are struggling to keep up. By driving up rents, it will reduce the amount of money that ordinary people have to spend on necessities like food and health care.

NIMBYs complain that the city is violating zoning regulations by approving additional density for housing developments. This is daft. The city creates the zoning regulations, the zoning regulations allow for exceptions, and the city council can enact changes when it chooses. The city does not violate its own zoning regulations by granting exceptions in the same way that the Legislature does not violate CEQA, a law it passed, by amending CEQA.

NIMBY planning has been worsening LA’s housing crisis for over 40 years. But being wrong (again) doesn’t mean they won’t get their way. Policy doesn’t get enacted because it’s right (though that doesn’t hurt), it gets enacted because people organize to get it. And unfortunately, NIMBYs are well organized.

That means it’s time for us to organize. We’re not going to solve the housing crisis unless we put political pressure on cities in the region to allow more housing. And the first order of business is not going any further backwards, which means defeating this initiative.

Let’s make 2016 the year we organize and demand change. Let’s bring people across LA together to meet the housing crisis head on. Let’s work for an open and inclusive LA, where anyone is welcome and can find housing at a reasonable price.

Stay tuned for more…

El Niño Fever: Volume 1

With everyone so excited about a good rainstorm finally hitting LA, I thought it might be interesting to put this year in perspective with the drought years, the last good rain year (2010-2011, a la niña episode), and previous strong el niños (1997-1998 and 1982-1983). A note to readers outside California: you may have heard that California was getting some good storms in November and December. This was true for northern California, but the storm trajectory was not favorable for places south of the Transverse Ranges. Southern California including LA actually got very little rain and there wasn’t much snow in our mountains, as we’ll see below. For all data here, we’re using the water year defined as October through September (e.g. water year 1997-1998 is October 1997 through September 1998).

Today’s storm should be very beneficial to LA County. We got a decent amount of rain but escaped most of the impacts from heavier downpours. As of 6pm, downtown LA had received 1.61” of rain, falling between 7am and 3pm. There were a few heavy bursts but also some steady moderate rain. Hopefully this allowed more water to soak into the ground than happens with downpours.

Here’s a comparison of rainfall for the aforementioned years.


And here’s cumulative precipitation for these years.


The point isn’t to try to make any predictions about what will happen for the rest of this year. Precipitation in southern California is wildly variable: the driest water year was 2006-2007, with 3.73”, and the wettest water year was 2004-2005 with 38.25”. For the period 1877-2015, every calendar month has been recorded with no rainfall at least five times.

Instead, let’s just look at where things stand today. For the drought years of 2011-2012 through 2014-2015, we received a total of 31.91”, for a total rainfall deficit of 27.81”. The strong el niños of 1982-1983 and 1997-1998 would have cut that deficit deeply, but still not eliminated it.

Thanks to a dry fall, this water year is off to a slow start – slower than the drought years, in fact. The difference, of course, is that this year weather patterns have finally shifted to a favorable pattern for southern California. We have already surpassed the January rainfall totals of the drought years; this has already been the wettest January since 2010.

Today’s storm was an appreciated, long-awaited start to the rainy season. Here’s hoping that the storm train keeps on rolling!