Monthly Archives: September 2016

Ride-Sharing and Innovation in Transportation

Though they are funded by venture capital and make apps, ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft are different from traditional tech companies. One of their biggest innovations was political: creating large enough constituencies of drivers and riders fast enough to be able to get the regulations over taxi service changed in many cities and states. Regulation, not technology, limited the number of taxis available in most places.

Improved taxi dispatching is an innovation, since computers should be able to dispatch better than a human. But much of ride-hailing companies’ apparent advantage in dispatching is from having more drivers, not allocating the pool of drivers more efficiently. Treating drivers as contractors instead of employees, combined with surge pricing, made short wait times possible. These practices allow ride-sharing companies to supply drivers for peak periods without accruing costs of paying employees during off-peak periods. (Scheduling driver shifts around peak periods is one of the biggest challenges for transit agencies.) Of course, it remains to be seen if regulators and labor organizations will let either of practices stand in the long run.

However, I wonder if ride-hailing apps could have a larger impact on carpooling than expected.

The biggest impediment to carpooling is that it requires all the participants to set a rigid schedule. You have to leave for work or school or home at the same time as everyone else in your carpool every day. The rigid schedule requirements make carpooling much less appealing than driving alone. You can’t get to work 15 minutes early if you have an east coast conference call, you can’t stay 15 minutes late if you’re in a meeting, you can’t go out for a drink or coffee after work.

Most trips are repeated trips – that is, we make the same trips to work or school or home day after day after day – but our desired departure times vary day to day, just enough to make it hard to carpool. We know there are many people making the same trip as us, but we don’t know who they are, and we can’t possibly know enough of them to allow flexibility to depart whenever we want. Could a widely use ride-sharing app change that? Perhaps. If enough people are using the service, it should be possible to match riders and drivers.

This is sort of the idea behind Uber Pool and Lyft Line, but they are still based on the premise that the driver is just a driver, carrying around people whose trips are close enough to be put together. In a true carpool, the driver is making the trip for their own utility. I carpool to work with the person I live with. They aren’t driving for the sole purpose of getting me to work; they’re driving to get themselves to work, and my trip is piggybacking on. In a true carpool, the driver is already deriving utility from the trip. So a carpooling app would not be dispatching paid drivers to carry people around, it would be matching potential riders with potential drivers.

On the other hand, I know there are lots of people downtown who are driving to Glendale. Why need an app? Why don’t I just go stand on the corner, stick my thumb out, and shout “Glendale”?

As it happens, we have an existing case study of where this type of carpooling does happen in real life. Many years ago, the Washington DC area built HOV lanes on their freeways that required 3 or more occupants. A spontaneous system of flexible carpooling arose, known as slugging. You can read all of the fascinating details here, but the idea is simple. Potential passengers line up in a few known pick up points (park-and-ride lots, major business areas, and so on), and potential drivers go to those spots and pick up two passengers going to the same destination.

In other words, potential drivers and potential passengers created an informal system of very flexible carpooling. The requirement for 3 occupants is thought to have been key, because it makes everyone feel safer. Picking up one stranger feels more dangerous than picking up two, in the same way that a full transit vehicle often feels safer than a vehicle with only one or two other riders.

In the case of slugging, no money is exchanged – this is one of the informal rules. The driver benefits by getting to use the HOV lane and the passengers benefit by being able to get to work. For a broader casual carpooling app, there would probably need to be some payment to the driver, since not all trips have carpool lanes available. Since the driver is already deriving utility from the trip, their cost would be low, and the relationship between the app-maker and drivers would not need to be employer-employee. (On the other hand, you wouldn’t want the system to become a de facto below minimum wage taxi service with desperate people acting as driers for very low wages, something that would need to be addressed.)

The shared ride services being offered by the ride-hailing companies are fairly labor intensive, requiring a driver to serve only two or three trips at a time. The companies clearly intend to move to autonomous vehicles in the future, but that will simply trade a labor intensive operation for a capital intensive one. A true flexible carpooling app might offer the possibility to increase mobility by making better use of trips that are already being made.


LACMTA Rail Ridership Update – August 2016 Edition

Six months have passed, so it’s time for another LACMTA rail ridership update. Well, actually seven months, so we’ll throw August ridership in as well. As a reminder, bus ridership for the Westside and San Fernando Valley has been broken out into separate posts.

The last few ridership updates were snoozers because they just showed continuations of previous trends – generally, decent performance on the Expo and Gold Lines, and concerning ridership declines on the Red/Purple, Blue, and Green Lines. This time, we have more to talk about with two new LRT extensions; the Gold Line to Azusa opened in March, and the Expo Line to Santa Monica in May.

First, the raw data. Highlighted cells represent the top 10 months for that line (since January 2009).


Unsurprisingly, the Gold and Expo Lines both had top 10 months for every month after their extensions open. The Gold Line was already at all-time highs and the Expo Line was close. The Gold Line’s increase in ridership after the extension opened was very modest – about 4,000 riders, or 9%. The Expo Line jumped about 13,000 riders, over 40%.

Ridership declines on the Blue, Green, and Red/Purple Lines have reversed themselves a little recently, perhaps due to the better network effects created by the opening of the Gold and Expo Line Extensions. While ridership has remained well below peaks, it has increased enough to  nudge the 12-month averages up.

Here’s the rolling 12-month average of weekday ridership. Note that the rolling 12-month averages for the Gold and Expo Lines will understate the ridership increases due to sudden jumps occurring when the extensions opened, so we’ll include the raw monthly graphs too. Raw weekday ridership:


Rolling 12-month average weekday ridership:


Saturday and Sunday trends largely reflect the weekdays. Here’s the Saturday and Sunday rolling 12-month averages. Again, raw monthly graphs are included to show Gold and Expo changes. Raw Saturday/Sunday ridership:


Rolling 12-month average Saturday/Sunday ridership:


One very interesting thing about weekend ridership is that the Gold and Expo Line extensions have arguably been even more successful on weekends than on weekdays. The Gold Line has seen Saturday and Sunday ridership jump by about 6,000 riders, or 20% on Saturday and 24% on Sunday. This is a greater ridership gain than weekdays not only in percentage, but in absolute terms, surely an unusual outcome. The Expo Line data is even more remarkable, with ridership increasing by about 13,000 riders (60%) on Saturday and 16,000 riders (100%) on Sunday.

Lastly, here’s the update for the boardings per mile, again both raw monthly graph and rolling 12-month average. Raw weekday boardings per mile:


Rolling 12-month average weekday boardings per mile:


The Gold and Expo Lines both saw a decrease in productivity, not unusual for lines where extensions just opened. As ridership grows on the extensions, these trend lines will climb back up. The Blue and Red/Purple Lines have ticked back up a little bit, perhaps reminding us that extending the transit network increases ridership on existing lines too.

Gold Line and Expo Line Thoughts

While there’s been both excitement and concern about the Gold and Expo Line extensions, it’s important to remember that it’s very early in the game for these lines. Four months after the opening of Expo Phase 1, ridership was at about 20,000, and continued to rise to over 30,000 by two years after opening. Gold Line ridership was at about 32,000 six months after the Eastside Extension opened, and had risen to over 45,000 by the time the Azusa extension opened. We’re still very much in the adjustment period.

Still, the initial weekday ridership increase for the Gold Line extension of 4,000 is less than I’d hoped for. Traffic on the 210 is very bad during peak periods, and downtown Pasadena is a large enough business district to generate trips in its own right, so demand shouldn’t have to all be people making a long trip to downtown LA. It is especially surprising that the weekday ridership gain was smaller than the weekend ridership gain. Considering the length of the extension (11 miles and 6 stations) and the nature of development in the area, I don’t think it would be unreasonable to hope for around 12,000 riders in the future – about 1,000 boardings per mile or 2,000 per station.

The Expo Line extension opened to even more fanfare, fulfilling the dream of restoring rail transit service between downtown LA and the beach. This created a lot of excursion trips in the first month or so after opening, with people riding just to see the line. The initial ridership increase of 13,000 was respectable and we should expect it to continue growing. The Saturday and Sunday ridership increases were more impressive and are indicative of the strength and variety of travel demand along the corridor. Saturday and Sunday ridership is now at about 75%-80% of weekday ridership. Considering the Expo Line has been running 12 minute headways during the day and 20 minute headways late, there should be considerable gains to be had just by getting enough vehicles to run 6 minute peak headways. In addition, restoring 10 minute headways during evenings and nights would also be helpful.

Next up will be central LA and Westside bus ridership. It won’t be as interesting as rail ridership, but perhaps we’ll see some impact from the Expo Line extension.

Zoning Changes in Los Angeles

In our previous post, we looked at the basic zoning rules that govern development in Los Angeles. In this post, we’ll look at what has to happen to get permission to do something different than what the zoning allows.

Depending on how much the proposed development deviates from what is allowed by the zoning rules, there are different levels of permission needed from the city. For example, a small change, such as a little extra height, requires a relatively small action from the city, while larger changes require larger actions from the city.

By-Right Development

If a project complies with all the zoning requirements and doesn’t require approval by city planning, the project can simply be approved by the city as long as it complies with the building code and other regulations. These projects are called “by right” projects – the owner of the land has the right to do the project without any special permission from the city.

In practice, very few projects are totally by right. Even relatively simple projects like small lot subdivisions, which are small developments of single-family houses, require city approval to subdivide the land (a “parcel map” for 4 or fewer houses, a “tract map” for more). Public hearings must be held for such actions. In addition, most of Los Angeles was zoned decades ago, and the zoning doesn’t reflect the current needs of the city.

Zoning Administrator’s Adjustments

If a project requires only small deviations from the zoning regulations, they can be handled through Zoning Administrator’s Adjustments. The Municipal Code allows this action for deviations of up to 20% from required yards and height, and up to 10% of required lot area. For example, if the zoning requires a 15’ front yard (the lawn between the property line on the street and the front of the building), an adjustment can be granted for front yard of as little as 12’. If a project is in the R3 zone, which requires 800 square feet (SF) of lot area per apartment, and adjustment could be granted to allow a reduction to 720 SF.

The planning department can’t just grant these changes at will. The code requires the city to determine that strictly following the zoning rules would be impractical or impossible, and that the project still conforms to the intent of the zoning rules. In addition, the planner can impose additional conditions on the project as part of granting the adjustment.

Zoning adjustments can be required for minor things most people don’t even notice. For example, if you want to put up a fence higher than 3.5’ (but less than 8’) in the front yard or 8’ in the side yard of a residential zone, you’ll need an adjustment. This observer once attended an appeal hearing where both parties had professional legal representation and hours of city staff time were spent discussing fences and “hedge effects” between two properties.

Zone Variances

Zone Variances are required where the property owner is requesting larger changes from the zoning regulations than permitted by an adjustment. Variances can be given to allow for more height, smaller yards, or more density than can be allowed by and adjustment.

Again, the city cannot grant variances for anything and everything. The planner must find that strict application of the zoning rules is impractical or impossible, and that special circumstances such as lot size, shape, or topography exist. Variances are not intended to grant special privilege or permit uses that are not consistent with other properties in the same zone. In other words, you’re not going to walk into city planning and get a variance to build a 20 story building in a single-family zone.

Zone Changes and General Plan Amendments

If a developer would like to get major changes for a project, they need to ask for a Zone Change or Height District Change, and most likely a General Plan Amendment as well.

A zone change is a request for the city to change the zoning of a property to allow more density or different uses. For example, a developer might ask for a change from RD2 to RD1.5 for a small lot subdivision to be able to build more units, or from R4 to RAS4 to allow a mixed-use project. Likewise, a height district change would be needed to request a significant increase in project height.

The General Plan is a document required by state law, intended to guide city long-term city development. The city of LA is required to have its zoning in conformance with the general plan. Therefore, in many cases, a zone change must be accompanied by a general plan amendment, so that the plan and zoning code match each other.

If the city finds a project to be beneficial, there’s nothing wrong with granting Zone Changes and General Plan Amendments. The city council creates the zoning and the General Plan, and the city council has the authority to change them.

Other Requirements

In addition to the general requirements of the zoning code, a particular piece of property may be subjected to additional regulations. For example, there may be a Specific Plan that applies to the area, which may further restrict development height and FAR. There may be ordinances such as Building Lines, which require larger front yards than the zoning. If a project cannot meet these requirements, relief from them will need to be requested from the city as well.

Zoning Changes and Housing in LA

Opponents of development, such as the NIMBYs behind the so-called “Neighborhood Integrity Initiative”, claim that the city granting adjustments, variances, and zone changes is evidence of the city and developers conspiring against residents.

The truth is that it shows that the current zoning and permitting process is not meeting the needs of the modern city. LA is a region in desperate need of more housing, and the current zoning is designed to prevent housing from being constructed in most places. This is not a negative comment on the hard work being done by city planners trying to follow the zoning code, it’s just the political reality of land use and development in LA and much of California over the last several decades.

If zoning in the region allowed for the construction of the housing we need, developers wouldn’t have to ask for changes nearly as often. LA’s community plans and zoning are badly out of date, and need to be updated. But even so, there’s no reason to not entertain proposals for projects that require zone changes. A developer might come up with an idea for a project that wasn’t considered before, and there’s no reason to not hear them out at a public hearing, which all zone changes get. Cities are constantly evolving and changing, and there’s nothing wrong with changing zoning to reflect that.

A Short Introduction to Zoning in Los Angeles

Zoning that does not allow enough new housing construction is one of the biggest causes of the housing crisis in Los Angeles. So, it’s important to understand what zoning is, how it works, and how it’s been applied across LA. This post provides a summary of what zoning does, what the main zones in LA are, and where these zones are applied in the city. For more detailed information on zoning and parking requirements in LA, see the city’s summary of zoning and summary of parking requirements.

At its most basic, zoning is the idea that there can be different regulations on the built environment in different places within a jurisdiction.  As the name suggests, it divides places into different zones on a map. Depending on what zone a piece of land is located in, there are different rules for what types of structures and activities are allowed on the property. The major things controlled by zoning are:

  • Use type: controls what type of uses can be built on a lot. The main uses are residential (such as houses & apartments), commercial (such as stores & restaurants), and industrial (such as factories).
  • Density: mainly applied to residential uses. Controls how many houses & apartments can be built on the lot.
  • Floor-area ratio: controls how large a building can be, based on how large the property is. The floor-area ratio (FAR) is the size of the building divided by the size of the lot. For example, a 2,500 square foot house on a 5,000 square foot lot has an FAR of 0.50 (2,500 divided by 5,000).
  • Height: controls how tall a building can be. Height is usually controlled in terms of both the number of floors a building can have and its height in feet.
  • Setbacks: controls how much space must be left between the building and the property line. There are usually front setbacks, side setbacks, and rear setbacks. For example, the zoning might specify a minimum of 15 feet from the street to the front of the building, 5 feet from the property line to the sides of the building, and 20 feet from the property line to the back of the building.
  • Parking: controls how many parking spaces the developer must provide as part of the project. For residential uses, it is based on the number of houses or apartments. For commercial and industrial uses, it is based on the size of the building in square feet.

As you can see, zoning controls many aspects of development. Regulation of the type of uses is the least controversial, which is why people who oppose more housing often rely on absurd arguments about uses to make their point. Obviously no one here is arguing to allow new chemical refineries to be built next to schools and apartments. And obviously there is a large difference between that and allowing the construction of 12 apartments where the zoning currently only allows one house.

Zoning in Los Angeles evolved over the past 100 plus years, incorporating a series of societal goals and trends that may or may not make sense in 2016. LA was a pioneer in zoning for uses, adopting the nation’s first citywide zoning code (separating residential uses from other activities) in 1908. LA later borrowed zoning for ‘bulk’ (height, density, etc) from New York City and single family only zones from Berkeley. In 1930, as the region’s streetcar system was giving way to automobiles, LA began requiring some new building to provide off street parking spaces. LA’s current zoning code was last substantially updated in 1946 (though new zones and rules changes have been added in the subsequent 70 years). The City is currently revising the code through the re:code LA process.

Los Angeles began zoning before it had a formal process for urban planning. In 1974, LA adopted its first general plan, with land use and zoning set by 35 community plans. Under state law, zoning in LA is supposed to implement the general and community plans. The current zoning code has almost 2000 uses, everything from frog keeping to phonograph record blank manufacturing to wine bars.

In the city of Los Angeles, the main types of zones are R, C, and M, which correspond to residential, commercial, and industrial uses (the M is for manufacturing). Each zone is also assigned a height district which controls how large and how tall the building can be. For example, a zoning designation of R3-1 indicates that the lot is in the R3 zone and height district 1.

Residential Zones in LA

There are two main types of residential zones in Los Angeles: single-family zones and multi-family zones.

In single-family zones, you can only build one house on the lot, no matter how big the lot is. If you have a very large lot, you may be able to subdivide it into smaller pieces and build a house on each, so long as each lot meets the minimum lot size required in that zone. This is how the suburban areas of LA were developed, by taking large pieces of property, dividing them, and putting one house on each piece – this is why new housing developments are called subdivisions.

Single-family zoning is by far the most common zone of any kind in Los Angeles. The most common single-family zone is R1, which requires a minimum lot size of 5,000 square feet (SF). Almost all of the single-family neighborhoods in LA that are not in the hills are zoned R1.

The other two common single-family zones in LA are RA (residential agriculture) and RE (residential estate). The RA zone requires 17,500 SF lots and allows limited agriculture – this is often called “horse property”. There are 5 RE zones, RE9, RE11, RE15, RE20, and RE40, with the number corresponding to the minimum lot size in thousands of square feet. For example, RE11 requires 11,000 SF minimum lots. All of the single-family zones in LA require a minimum of 2 covered parking spaces.

The map below shows generalized zoning in Los Angeles – click to embiggen. Anything in yellow is an R1 or an RE zone, and anything in light green is an RA zone.


As you can see, the map is dominated by single-family zones, especially on the Westside, in the Valley, and in Northeast LA. The fight about development and displacement is being fought entirely outside these zones. There’s practically no rent stabilized housing anywhere in the yellow and light green areas. These neighborhoods have been let off the hook for their role in causing the housing crisis, despite the fact that they occupy most of the city’s land. If we are going to fix LA’s housing shortage, these neighborhoods should do their part.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the multi-family zones in LA, shown in orange on the map. These are the zones where you can build apartments. The main multi-family zones are RD, R3, R4, and R5, in order of increasing density. For these zones, density is controlled by requiring a minimum lot area per apartment. There are six levels of RD, which stands for restricted density, RD6, RD5, RD4, RD3, RD2, and RD1.5, with the number corresponding to the minimum lot area per apartment in thousands of square feet. For example, RD2 requires 2,000 SF of lot area per apartment. R3 requires 800 SF per apartment, R4 requires 400 SF, and R5 requires 200 SF.

The RD zones are the most common multi-family zones in LA, followed by R3. That’s mostly what you’re seeing in orange on the map. R4 is found mainly in places like Koreatown, Hollywood, North Hollywood, and Palms. R5 is found almost exclusively downtown and along Condo Canyon on Wilshire. All multi-family zones require parking at a rate of 1 space per studio, 1.5 spaces per 1 bedroom unit, and 2 spaces per 2+ bedroom unit.

To help visualize what these zones look like, RD zones usually look like very small apartment buildings or small lot subdivisions. R3 zones look like dingbats. R4 zones look like podiums. R5 allows for high-rises.

The lack of developable R3 and R4 zones in LA is one of the biggest roadblocks to constructing new apartments for ordinary people. Looking back at the map with that in mind, you can see why the large area of the city devoted to single-family zoning is such a problem.

Most of the residential zones in the city are in height districts 1, 1L, 1VL, and 1XL, where L stands for low, VL for very low, and XL for extra low (see a pattern?). For all zones, this means a maximum FAR of 3. For the single family zones, RD, and R3, these areas allow heights varying from 30’ in height district 1XL to 45’ in height district 1. R4 and R5 vary from 30’ in 1XL to unlimited in 1.

Height districts 2, 3, and 4 allow more height and more FAR, but not more density in terms of the number of apartments. These districts are generally restricted to places like Downtown and Hollywood.

For different places, different factors will limit the amount of development. For example, a 5,000 SF lot in an R4-1 zone theoretically has no limit on how tall the building can be. However, it’s only possible to put 12 apartments on this lot, and with a maximum FAR of 3.0. Therefore, the maximum size of the building would be 15,000 SF, equal to twelve 1,250 SF apartments. It would be impractical to build anything taller than about 5 stories on such a lot. This lot would be constrained by FAR and density, but not height.

On the other hand, a 6,000 SF lot in the RD2-1 zone can have an FAR of 3.0, which would allow up to 18,000 SF of building space. However, only 3 apartments would be allowed on such a lot, and you don’t see many 6,000 SF apartments. If the lot were 50’ wide by 120’ deep, the building footprint available after removing setbacks would be only about 3,000 SF. To get an 18,000 SF building, you’d have to build 6 stories tall, but the maximum height allowed is 45’ – only enough for about 4 stories. This lot is constrained by density and height, but not by FAR.

Commercial Zones in LA

Commercial zones are where businesses like restaurants, shops, and offices are located. They are shown in pink on the above map. As you can see, commercial zoning is located in strips along LA’s major boulevards, and in larger areas of business districts such as Downtown, Hollywood, Century City, and Playa Vista.

There are seven commercial zones in LA (CR, C1, C1.5, C2, C4, C5, and CM), but C2 is by far the most common. In addition to allowing commercial uses, C2 allows R4 uses by default, meaning that on LA’s commercial boulevards, you can build apartments at a density of 400 SF of lot area per apartment.

This was a great way to allow denser residential development along commercial boulevards, which are also often good transit corridors. However, in the 1980s, a ballot initiative known as Prop U cut the allowable FAR in the C2 zone from 3.0 to 1.5. Since many of these properties are already developed with commercial uses and FAR between 0.5 and 1.0, it is not profitable to build apartments in the C2 zone anymore. Thus, these lots are constrained by FAR.

The city has created two new zones, RAS3 and RAS4, that can be applied on commercial boulevards and help solve the problems caused by Prop U. These zones correspond to the same density allowed by R3 and R4, and have maximum FAR 3.0, but allow for mixed-use development by permitting commercial uses on the first floor. However, the RAS3 and RAS4 zones are very rare.

Manufacturing Zones in LA

Manufacturing zones are where industry is located. They are shown in grey on the above map, and are mainly located in the industrial district near downtown and along freight rail lines. As heavy industry has become less important to LA, these zones have become occupied by light industrial uses and commercial uses. The common M zones, M1 and M2, allow for C2 uses, meaning that offices and shops can be constructed there. However, residential uses are prohibited in M zones. For example, the Warner Center is in an M zone.

Occasionally, some people have expressed concern that allowing commercial development in M zones is going to erode the city’s industrial job base. This gets the analysis backwards; the existence of M zones does not create industrial jobs. Many M zone uses, such as warehouses, have low job density compared to commercial uses. In addition, it is worth remembering that because most of the city is zoned residential, commercial and industrial uses are competing for a very small portion of the city’s land. Allowing commercial development in more areas would decrease the development pressure on M zones.

More to Come

This post has hopefully provided an understandable overview of the main zoning regulations in LA. In a future post, we’ll look at the process that developers must go through if they want to get permission to do something differently. Since the housing crisis is a regional problem, future posts will also look at the zoning in other cities in the region.