Author Archives: letsgola

Prop 10 Aftermath

In the wake of the failure of Prop 10 in yesterday’s election, by a 2-1 margin, it’s again useful to take a step back and remember what the larger state of play for housing in California looks like.

The Left’s SB 827?

In many ways, I think the politics of Prop 10 played out in a very similar way to SB 827.

Like YIMBY disappointment that there was little enthusiasm for SB 827 among left groups, many organizations supporting Prop 10 were frustrated that YIMBY groups did not endorse Prop 10 or offer stronger support. Many YIMBY groups have explicit principles calling for greater tenant protections. But in a mirror image of SB 827, YIMBY groups had Prop 10 dropped on them by a player, Michael Weinstein, who they don’t fully trust on a good day and fully distrust on a bad one. To my knowledge, there was no outreach and no opportunity for anyone outside Weinstein’s tight-knit circle to provide input into the proposal.

As YIMBYs learned with SB 827, it’s hard to ask people to enthusiastically back a proposal if they feel they got no input, that the proposal has considerable flaws, and that the proposal would only obliquely address their concerns at best and work against their concerns at worst. The divide between YIMBYs and left housing activists can be seen as approaching the problem from opposite ends: YIMBY groups start with the premise that anyone should be able to afford to live in the city, and it flows from there that people who already live there should be able to continue to live there; left housing activists start with the latter conclusion as their first principle. It’s a difficult lift to ask YIMBYs to support a policy that address the latter if there’s no assurance it won’t harm their primary goal.

However, like the DSA and other left groups, YIMBYs are a relatively minor player in state politics. YIMBY groups have a few reliable allies in the Legislature and on city councils; left groups also have relatively few. The driving force behind the failure of Prop 10 was opposition from the same players that have thwarted both market-rate and affordable housing construction in middle class and upscale neighborhoods for decades.

What is Michael Weinstein Trying to Do?

A fair question for all sides to ask: what is it, exactly, that mercurial AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) President Michael Weinstein is try to do?

Accepting good faith, Weinstein is trying to do something to help relieve California’s housing crisis. That’s a pretty straight-forward understanding of Prop 10, and it was one of the purported justifications for Measure S, among other things. AHF has also used its resources to take direct action in the housing market to try to stabilize lower income housing; for example, it has purchased four old single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels in Skid Row and plans to renovate them into housing for homeless people and low-income tenants.

Substituting bad faith, which I freely admit I am more than willing to do, I think everyone who cares about housing in California should ask themselves how separable Weinstein’s activism on affordable housing is from his hardcore NIMBYism.

Measure S came about because he was pissed about a new building in Hollywood that would impact the view from his high-rise office. That’s a pretty wild thing for a healthcare non-profit to spend its money on. The groups allied with him on things such as Measure S, like Coalition to Preserve LA, are dedicated to failed and outdated visions of Los Angeles as an auto-oriented big village dominated by single-family homes and commercial parking lots. They make relentlessly bad faith arguments about city planning efforts such Transit Neighborhood Plans, trying to scaremonger over the prospect of change and new neighbors rather than to contribute any positive input. Weinstein also leads antagonistic anti-development lawsuits, such as suing the city over the proposed demolition of the Parker Center, the former headquarters of LAPD.

Due to the strange nature of AHF, being a non-profit entity that generates a significant amount of money over which he has enormous discretion, Weinstein and his checkbook are not going anywhere. The question for housing activists should be if they are still willing to cash those checks without getting more control over direction.

As a single example, there were four rent control ballot initiatives attempted in southern California this year: Glendale, Pasadena, Long Beach, and Inglewood. They all failed to make the November ballot because they didn’t gather enough signatures. All of these initiatives depended on volunteer signature gatherers. For a fraction of what was spent on Prop 10, perhaps paid signature gatherers would have ensured that these initiatives were at least offered to the public for a vote, and perhaps it would have spurned the city council in one of those cities to take action.

A Perfect Way for State Officials to Duck

Meanwhile, Prop 10 provided the perfect way for many state elected officials to duck taking any action on reforming the Costa-Hawkins Act, which is what restricts the ability of cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles to update their rent control ordinances to cover more apartments.

Prop 10 was officially endorsed by the state Democratic Party, and I think I received one mailer on it that included all the state party endorsements. Democratic nominee-elect for governor Gavin Newsom opposed Prop 10, and if any prominent statewide Democrats campaigned for it, I sure missed it. Having a ballot initiative on an issue offers politicians a convenient way to state support for a policy without having to take any hard votes that might anger some powerful economic interests like landlords.

Housing Bubble: Opposition from Entitled Incumbents is Still the Problem

Before there was polling indicating the measure was in trouble, it seemed to me that housing Twitter was in a little bit of a thought bubble. The presumption seemed to be that renters would strongly vote for Prop 10 and landlords would oppose it, but that other people generally wouldn’t care, so it would pass.

I’m old enough that my media diet includes enough AM radio and network TV to know if and how policy is being messaged to the most reliable voters in the state – old homeowners. And Prop 10 was getting killed with that demographic.

Almost nothing will more reliably turn out voters in state and local elections in California than scaring homeowners that their property values are at risk. The wholesale repeal of Costa-Hawkins that was included in Prop 10 was a political fatal flaw, because it let the opposition raise the specter of rent control on single-family homes, probably dooming the measure from the start. It enabled the opposition to divert attention away from landlords making unearned gains and evicting people, and to frame the initiative as an attack on that universally accepted American good – homeownership.

Proponents will rightfully complain that the No on 10 campaign was sometimes deceptive, arguing that the measure would both reduce property values and make housing costs even higher. Part of politics, though, is crafting proposals that can withstand unfair attacks from opponents. Regular readers know that this blog certainly doesn’t believe single-family homes deserve special status in land use policy, but a rent stabilization reform that exempted people who own one single-family home would stand a much better chance of getting enacted.


The immediate impact of Prop 10 failing (or passing, had it passed) is probably smaller than both sides would have had you believe. If the initiative had passed, it wouldn’t have granted rent stabilization to anyone, but rather set the stage for many city-level and county-level battles over enacting rent stabilization ordinances.

The thing is, the stage is already set for many city-level and county-level battles over enacting rent stabilization ordinances. Cities that currently have rent stabilization cover about 7 million people, more than half of whom live in the city of Los Angeles. The other 33 million Californians live in cities and counties that could enact rent stabilization tomorrow if they wanted to, on any apartment constructed before 1995. Prop 10 failing doesn’t change that, and Prop 10 passing wouldn’t have changed that either. The work of passing rent stabilization regulations in many cities and counties remains to be done, and it’s something housing advocates of all stripes can start working on immediately.

The 15 cities in California that have rent control, including some of the state’s largest municipalities (Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose), are stuck without state reform of Costa-Hawkins. They can’t change their regulations; crucially, many of them are stuck with a cut-off date (1978 in LA, 1979 in SF) that they can’t change, meaning that the rent-stabilized stock dwindles every year and is composed of increasingly old structures. The failure of Prop 10 puts the issue of rent stabilization squarely back in the Legislature’s lap, and it’s up to housing advocates, including both YIMBYs and left advocates, to push the state to take action.

The primary obstacles to new housing and affordable housing in California are the same as they were before Prop 10 failed. Trying to come up with policy reforms that can garner enough support from a wide variety of interests to succeed and withstand opposition attacks may not be easy, but it is the path forward. The sooner we can come up with proposals that everyone who cares about the housing crisis in some way can enthusiastically support, the better off we’ll be.


Metrolink RER Philosophy

In our previous post, we looked at the potential for a downtown rail tunnel for Metrolink Regional Express Rail (RER) service, which would help turn Metrolink into a complimentary service to the Metro rail network. It would reduce the need to transfer, eliminate congestion on Metro, and greatly improve connectivity for Metrolink riders. With that in mind, we should look at what type of service would best suit each of the Metrolink lines, which vary greatly in the type of land use patterns they traverse.

First, it’s good to identify the goal of what exactly we’re trying to do here. Let’s define that in terms of land use and housing affordability, setting aside the obvious environmental benefit of rail electrification. There are several possibilities with Metrolink RER:

  • Provide rapid transit (Metro rail) quality service to places that do not currently have it. This suggests focusing on already dense areas and low income areas, which will benefit more and generate higher ridership.
  • Reduce travel times between employment centers and more distant suburbs, in order to increase job opportunities available to people who already live in those suburbs.
  • Reduce travel times between employment centers and more distant suburbs, in order to reduce gentrification pressures on inner suburbs.

Some of these goals may be at cross purposes; for example, faster and more frequent service to low income areas may make those places more susceptible to gentrification. There are also several types of rail service that could be provided, each of which suits different purposes.

Type of Service Stop Spacing Peak Frequency Off-Peak Frequency Best Serves
Traditional US Commuter Rail 3-5 miles or more 15-60 minutes in peak direction 60 minutes or more, if any Above median income suburbs, low density suburbs
Zone Express 5-10 miles or more 15-30 minutes 30-60 minutes Distant suburbs, satellite cities
Regional Rail 3-5 miles or more 15 minutes 30 minutes Dense outer suburbs
Rapid Transit Approximately 1 mile 5 minutes or less 10 minutes or less Dense inner suburbs, low income suburbs

With that in mind, let’s take a look at each of the Metrolink lines and come up with a general service philosophy for each. In future posts, we’ll look at detailed infrastructure improvements and schedules for each line.

Ventura Line and Antelope Valley Line

The Ventura Line and Antelope Valley Line share a corridor from LA Union Station to Burbank Junction, about 11.4 miles from downtown, and just north of downtown Burbank. From there, the Ventura Line continues to west East Ventura, about 71 miles from downtown LA; the Antelope Valley Line continues north to Lancaster, 77 miles from downtown LA. From these distances, it should be apparent that the level of service appropriate for the outer reaches of these lines is not sufficient for the inner portions, but the level of service appropriate for inner portions of the lines would be excessive for the outer reaches.

To reinforce that initial thought, let’s look at the density and demographics of each portion of the line. Here’s the census tract level density for the Valley and Ventura County.


The Valley is much denser than even the near suburbs of Ventura County like Simi Valley and Moorpark, and more consistently dense. Panorama City, just over a mile from the Van Nuys Station, is one of the densest neighborhoods in LA.

Here’s the Santa Clarita Valley and Antelope Valley.


With the exception of a few tracts in Santa Clarita, there’s little real density in these areas. In addition, the prospect of significant density being constructed in these areas is pretty low.

Here’s the census tract level median income for the Valley.


Here’s Ventura County and the Santa Clarita Valley.


And here’s the Antelope Valley.


Note that unfortunately I couldn’t manipulate the scales on these graphs, so the Ventura County scale is not the same as LA County. The lowest income tracts in Ventura County are a good bit higher income than the lowest in LA County.

Together the density and demographics suggest the following service patterns:

  • The San Fernando Valley is higher density and lower income, and should be served by rapid-transit level service, with infill stations to reduce the stop spacing to about 1 mile.
  • Ventura County is lower density and higher income, and should be served by traditional commuter rail service.
  • The Antelope Valley is lower density and lower income, and should be served by zone express type service, with trains running express from San Fernando to LA Union Station with only a few stops in between (Burbank and Glendale).
  • The Santa Clarita Valley is lower density and higher income, and would be a natural fit for traditional commuter rail service, but will receive zone express type service because of the Antelope Valley.

San Bernardino Line

The San Bernardino Line is an odd duck for Metrolink in that it is the only line that doesn’t share a lot of its corridor with a large volume of freight. It stretches 56 miles from LA Union Station to San Bernardino, traveling through relatively dense areas in the western San Gabriel Valley. The density tapers off east of the 605 but there are still many tracts over 10,000 people per square mile in San Bernardino County, including the distant reaches of the line in Fontana, Rialto, and San Bernardino.


In terms of income, the western San Gabriel Valley is generally moderate income, though there are many low income communities as well. The eastern San Gabriel Valley is higher income, as is the western portion of San Bernardino County. However, incomes are much lower in the eastern portion of the county, with San Bernardino being one of California’s poorest cities.



Again, note that unfortunately I couldn’t manipulate the scales on these graphs, so the San Bernardino County scale is not the same as LA County. Together the density and demographics suggest the following service patterns:

  • The western San Gabriel Valley (west of the 605) is higher density and moderate income, and should be served by rapid-transit level service, with infill stations to reduce the stop spacing to about 1 mile.
  • The eastern San Gabriel Valley (east of the 605) and western Inland Empire (west of the 15) are moderate density and higher income, and should be served by Regional Express Rail type service.
  • The eastern Inland Empire (east of the 15) is moderate density and lower income, and should still be served by Regional Express Rail type service.

Put together this would be something like Seoul Metro Line 1. Since this line exists in almost total isolation from other Metrolink lines and freight service, there are some tantalizing future possibilities – with conversion for through running with the Purple Line being perhaps the most appealing.

Orange County Line

The Orange County Line is one of the most unique and interesting rail lines in the country. It is the core transit line connecting Orange County and Riverside County, with over 5 million people, to downtown LA. It is also a part of the LA to San Diego (LOSSAN) Corridor, an important intercity route and the second busiest Amtrak route after the Northeast Corridor. The southern limit of the line in San Clemente (ignoring Oceanside for our purposes here) is only 65 miles from downtown LA, closer than the ends of the Ventura and Antelope Valley Lines, with major secondary cities in Anaheim (31 miles), Santa Ana (36 miles), and Irvine (46 miles).

However, the 25-mile portion between LA and Fullerton is also part of BNSF’s transcontinental mainline freight railroad, probably making it the highest freight volume commuter line in the country, if not beyond. In addition, while Southeast LA County is densely populated, the portion of the corridor between downtown LA and Orange County largely travels through industrial areas with very low density in the immediate vicinity. Due to the high demand for industrial space in SoCal, the industrial areas along the line are not underutilized, and the prospect for greatly increased density is probably small. Compare density in LA to Orange County.



The densest part of the corridor is Orange County from Irvine north. Note that significant development has been occurring in Irvine and mapped densities there are probably a good bit too low. The densest parts of Orange County, in Santa Ana, approach the density of the densest parts of the San Fernando Valley. South of Irvine there is still some density but the development pattern is more like Santa Clarita.

In terms of demographics, while Southeast LA County is generally working class, the corridor passes through portions that are more middle class or are actually too sparsely populated to generate reliable data.


In Orange County, the corridor generally passes through middle income areas to the north and high income areas to the south. The exceptions are significant working class populations in Anaheim and Santa Ana.

Adding it all up, the patterns suggest a strong Regional Express Rail type service between LA and Irvine, with stop spacing of 3-5 miles and 15 minute peak frequency. Some infill stops are warranted, but not every mile like in the Valley. Infill stops should focus on connections to other strong transit corridors, service to job centers like Irvine, and denser stop spacing in high density areas like Santa Ana.

South of Irvine, density drops, incomes rise, and jobs are more dispersed. This area will already be getting higher intercity frequency if the Surfliner expands as hoped, and probably doesn’t need much more than traditional US commuter rail.

91 Line and IE-OC Line

The 91 Line splits off from the Orange County Line at Fullerton, and continues east to Riverside at 61 miles from downtown LA. From there it continues north to San Bernardino, 71 miles from LA via the 91 Line compared to 56 miles via the San Bernardino Line. The 91 Line takes almost all the freight volume from the Orange County Line, meaning that any major expansion of service would likely require significant new track.

There is some density along the line in Corona and Riverside, after a long low density stretch through Santa Ana Canyon. North of Riverside, density drops off until reaching Colton and San Bernardino. Density is greater than Ventura and the Antelope Valley, but less than Orange County or the older suburbs of San Bernardino County.


The line does travel through some lower income portions of Riverside County, with high income areas flanking it on both sides. Incomes are probably lower than the San Bernardino County portion of the San Bernardino line except for the city of San Bernardino itself.


The Inland Empire – Orange County Line (IE-OC Line) shares the whole Riverside County portion of the 91 Line before branching off to the south in Orange County, linking up with the Orange County Line just north of Orange Station and continuing to Irvine. Starting from San Bernardino, Riverside is 10 miles, Santa Ana is 49 miles, and Irvine is 59 miles. With Santa Ana and Irvine as major job centers in their own right, the IE-OC Line serves major suburb to suburb commutes, forming a large wye with the Orange County and 91 Lines.

The setup creates an unusual reverse branching scenario, where service on the legs of the wye can never be as frequent as it is on the trunks. Notably, Anaheim station is located on one of the legs. The Orange County Line is probably stronger than the other two legs of the wye, with the 91 Line/IE-OC Line to Riverside being the weakest of the three trunks.

All taken together, both the 91 Line and the IE-OC Line probably warrant a zone express level of service. That would create Regional Express Rail level of service on the Riverside trunk, which might be too frequent. This could be addressed by having 91 Line trains terminate at Riverside instead of San Bernardino, since the San Bernardino Line will be a much faster ride to downtown LA than the 91 Line for that city. However, it might be beneficial to maintain frequent service between San Bernardino and Riverside themselves.

Riverside Line

What to say about the Riverside Line? I’ve clearly left it for last as the odd man out. The entire corridor from LA to Ontario is UP’s main line transcontinental railroad, meaning any plan for frequent service would require costly upgrades. The corridor is also heavily industrial. West of the 605, it passes through industrial Commerce, with the Commerce/Montebello station getting very low ridership. East of the 605 all the way to Pomona, it passes through the city of Industry, which is flanked by relatively high income neighborhoods. It passes through the huge industrial area of East Ontario and western Jurupa Valley, then through very low density portions of Jurupa Valley on its way to Riverside.

Frustratingly, between Industry and East Ontario, there are two decent nodes (downtown Pomona and downtown Ontario), and Ontario airport. However, given the low potential for the rest of the line, it likely doesn’t make sense to do anything other than traditional commuter rail.


Given the existing density and demographics along the system, an electrification program could be phased in over time. Priority should be given to the San Bernardino Line, the San Fernando Valley portions of the Ventura and Antelope Valley Lines, and the Orange County Line to Irvine. After that, the Riverside and IE-OC Lines would follow, and perhaps the Antelope Valley Line. Electrification to the relatively wealthy and low density suburbs in Ventura County and southern Orange County should be the lowest priority unless there are significant changes proposed to land use.

In the future, the whole LOSSAN corridor south to San Diego should be electrified. Service should be frequent enough to justify the cost. I’m less sure about Ventura County and Santa Barbara County, which have much lower populations. As an aside, for air quality reasons, electrification should ultimately include BNSF and UP to points beyond the SoCal Mountains that trap air in the basins. That would probably look something like Lancaster, Victorville, and Palm Springs as limits for electrification.

Given the line’s poor ridership potential west of Pomona, the best thing to do might be to just try to work with UP to get a few more slots, and run a fast express train stopping at Ontario Airport, Ontario, Pomona, Industry, and downtown LA.

Is Union Station Obsolete?

This question has been bothering me for a while. The momentum behind current plans is so large that it’s probably just a philosophical question, but I still think it’s worth examining in detail both for LA to think about what we’re trying to do and as a case study for other cities that might be considering transit investments.

An Historic Mistake

A fair amount of money has already been invested in improving transit at Union Station, including the Red Line, the Gold Line, the bus plaza, the Silver Line, and Metrolink. An even larger amount of money is planned to be spent soon, including run-through tracks for Metrolink and Amtrak, high speed rail, the Union Station Master Plan, and other potential investments like the north end of the West Santa Ana Corridor.

There’s just one problem: Union Station is in the wrong place. By the time Union Station opened in 1939, downtown LA’s center of gravity had already shifted south to the Spring St Financial District. Various redevelopment schemes have tried to pull it north – notably, the development of the Civic Center (roughly bounded by the 101, Los Angeles St, 2nd St, and Figueroa St) in the 1950s and urban renewal on Bunker Hill (roughly bounded by 1st St, Hill St, 5th St, and the 110) from the 1960s through the 1980s. However, these schemes have also moved downtown’s center west, away from Union Station.

It’s also worth remembering the reason Union Station was already in the wrong place when it opened: part of the scheme was a racist plan to demolish a low-income Chinese immigrant neighborhood. The station replaced terminals operated by the ATSF Railroad at 2nd & Santa Fe and by the SP Railroad at 5th & Central. These were also inconvenient locations relative to LA’s central business district (CBD), but no less so than the current location, and the SP’s location was arguably more convenient to the Spring St Financial District.

Today, downtown’s centers of activity continue to move and south and southeast. The construction of LA Live and expansion of the convention center has made Figueroa and Olympic a busy intersection, with many hotels in the area. Residential development is taking place in many parts of downtown, but the most intense development is south of 7th St to about Pico Blvd. The Arts District and Fashion District have emerged as growing office districts despite relatively poor transit access; for example, the City Market development will be well east of the Blue Line and Red Line.

Part of this problem will need to be addressed with better rapid transit to those districts, but with renewed focus on improving Metrolink, it’s worth reviewing the best practices for commuter rail and how Metrolink might better serve downtown’s transit needs.

What Should Commuter Rail Do?

Commuter rail serves longer trips to the CBD than rapid transit, reaching deeper into suburban areas. The best systems compliment the city’s rapid transit network, and do not rely on the rapid transit network to serve last mile trips on the downtown end of the trip. This means that the terminal should be in walking distance of large employment centers downtown. Both in the US and abroad, significant investments have been made to improve commuter rail in this regard:

  • Paris developed the Regional Express Rail (RER) network, with tunnels through the central city to connect lines that formerly stub-ended at terminals towards the city’s edges.
  • Seoul Subway Line 1 operates as a hybrid RER/rapid transit type system, running through the heart of the city with closely spaced stops but reaching far into the suburbs with larger stop spacing.
  • San Francisco is preparing to spend a considerable sum of money to extend Caltrain service from its fringe location at 4th & King to the centrally located Transbay Terminal.
  • Berlin connected its regional rail through the city in a system known as the S-bahn.
  • Philadelphia connected its regional rail network with the Center City Commuter Connection, allowing riders to exit in the city’s CBD at Suburban Station and Jefferson Station, rather than the peripherally located 30th St Station.
  • Boston’s South Station is located adjacent to the CBD, with many riders able to walk to their final destination, and many lines serve Back Bay, a subsidiary business district. North Station is located further from the CBD, which is seen as a weakness, and the state has intermittently pursued plans to connect North Station and South Station with a tunnel. This would allow north side riders to exit at South Station or Back Bay, alleviating the need for a transfer to the subway.
  • Despite Penn Station and Grand Central Station both being relatively walkable to Midtown Manhattan, many transit advocates consider it to be a serious planning failure that ARC and now Gateway do not plan to connect the two stations.

Viewed this way, LA may be about to embark on a plan to invest a lot of money in upgrading Metrolink and Union Station, without resolving a fundamental weakness: Metrolink relies on the Red/Purple Lines and Regional Connector to make last mile connections downtown. This increases crowding on the rapid transit network, and is an inefficient use of vehicle capacity, with peak loading driven by a large number of passengers who ride the system for only one or two stations.

Los Angeles RER

A plan to increase Metrolink frequency should look at options to resolve this weakness. Fortunately, it does not need to be done at the same time, and could be done in the future if desired, though as time passes the sunk costs of investments in Union Station are going to increase.

The central feature of such a plan would be a tunnel from the Ventura/Antelope Valley Lines north of Union Station through the CBD and connecting to the Orange County/91 Lines somewhere near Redondo Junction. There are many potential route options but the general destinations to be served should include the Civic Center, Bunker Hill, the Financial District, LA Live, and the Fashion District. Five stations would likely be too many, but these destinations can probably be served by three stations.

From Mission Junction, the tunnel would run generally southwest towards the Civic Center, and then follow one of downtown’s north-south arterials. All of them between Figueroa St and Spring St should be analyzed to determine the best option, excluding Flower St and Hill St, where the cost of going parallel and beneath the Regional Connector or Red Line would likely be too high. Figueroa St or Hope St would serve the Financial District and LA Live best, but provide poor connections to the Civic Center and places east of Hill St. The opposite would be true of Broadway and Spring St. Grand Ave or Olive St may prove to be the best; well-placed stations could provide good connectivity to all destinations and the rapid transit network. A Civic Center/Bunker Hill Station between 1st and 2nd could connect to both the Red Line and Regional Connector. A Financial District/LA Live Station between 8th and 9th could provide underground connections to 7th/Metro.

The tunnel would then turn and run southeast to Redondo Jct. The options here are less numerous and may have less appealing trade-offs. Everything between 9th St and Washington Blvd should be studied. 9th St offers the most direct route to Redondo Jct and provides a good location for a Fashion District Station around 9th & San Pedro. However, the further north the turn east is made, the less convenient the route would be for serving LA Live. 11th or 12th St might be a good compromise, as it would allow the turn to be further south while still allowing for a good Fashion District location. The location of the turn might be tricky with all the development going on in the area now. Washington Blvd would make it possible to connect to the Blue Line, and would offer the possibility of grade separating the Blue Line at the same time, but is too far south to adequately serve the Fashion District.

Below are some general concepts that show possible locations for the tunnels and stations.


In a future post, I’d like to look at the branches of Metrolink in more detail and discuss what makes sense for each. For now, at least consider the possibility that Union Station may not be the right place for LA to concentrate transit investments.

Update (9/26/18)

Per some good comments on the post and Twitter, here’s a revised map, that has the tunnel serve Union Station (a much better plan) and shows the proposed Union Station run through tracks (pink dashed line). Also, here’s a link to a larger version of the original graphic and the revised graphic.


Zoning and Immigration Restrictions

The impact of California’s high housing costs on refugees has rightly gotten some play in the media lately. CALmatters ran an article detailing the challenges faced by people trying to earn a living in a new country with high rents looming over their heads.

The inability of California to welcome more refugees due to high housing costs highlights that the crisis arises not just from inadequate tenant protections, but from a lack of supply. Tenant protections and rent stabilization will help people who already live here, but don’t do anything for people who are trying to escape desperate situations elsewhere.

Many Californians like to think of our state as welcoming to refugees, but we can’t fulfill that ideal unless we build more housing and make the state more affordable. And the local policies that prevent California from being affordable spring from the same poisoned mindset as the Trump Administration’s immigration policies, devised by Steven Miller, a SoCal son we’d all like to disown.

Research by Jessica Trounstine, associate professor of political science at UC Merced, finds that whiter neighborhoods are more supportive of restricting development, and that cities that were whiter in 1970 are more likely to have restrictive land use in 2006. As racial resentment drives whites fearful of demographic change to support Trump’s cruel practices and proposed cuts to immigration at the national level, so it drives the push to restrict development at the local level.

The research concludes that policies restricting development are effective at maintaining segregation. They are, in effect, border walls put up at the edge of neighborhoods. So if we want California to be welcoming to refugees, we need to change the exclusionary land use policies that were enacted to keep people out.

Who Can Telecommute?

Telecommuting has been held out as a solution for America’s transportation and land-use woes for my entire adult life and then some. Ever since the rise of the internet and the first tech bubble of the late 90s, it’s been proposed that eventually, the technology would be so good that you do your job from anywhere. That way it wouldn’t matter if Los Angeles were expensive, because you could just live in Spokane and do your job from there.

The experimental evidence we have from the last 20 years does not support this theory. An organization that promotes telecommuting found that between 2005 and 2017, the number of people working from home at least half time in the United States rose from 1.8 million to 3.9 million, or 2.9% of the  US workforce. While that number is not nothing, it effectively represents only a 1.5% reduction in the demand for transportation for work trips. Over that same period, total employment in the US rose by 12.5 million, or 8.5%. So despite the growth of telecommuting, overall employment grew much more quickly and consequently the demand for transportation continued to increase.

The continued success of large US metros relative to mid-size and small metros also suggests telecommuting is having little impact. A recent spate of “millennials are doing X” articles have tried to push the idea that growth is now shifting to mid-size cities, but it’s amazing how many articles there are citing Pittsburgh, when Allegheny County has lost population every year since 2013. In fact, given how high housing prices have had to rise in large metros to force growth elsewhere, I wonder if you could make a case that the internet has actually increased the agglomeration effects of living in a large city.

Finally, while there are clear benefits of telecommuting (lower housing and transportation costs for the employee, lower office and overhead costs for the employer), there are productivity costs as well. I’ve found in my personal experience that it’s much easier to supervise employees and coordinate a large project team when everyone is in the same office. Being in different offices in the same city is worse, and being in different time zones is even worse.

While I’m not a great manager by any stretch of the imagination, I would like to think I am at least marginally competent and that my experience in this regard is not unique. The single biggest benefit of being in the same office as other people is that it makes it impossible for them to avoid you. Emails can go unanswered, calls can go unreturned, but if I show up at your desk asking you about something, you have to respond. This is a pretty common thread in human relations – it’s much easier to keep up and keep in touch with people that you see than people you don’t.

Finally, there’s the simple fact that living in a bigger city give you more amenities. You might be able to do your job from an RV in rural Nevada, but you won’t be able to access the amenities of Las Vegas or LA.

Even throwing all of that aside, it’s worth asking who could theoretically telecommute. Chances are, if you’re reading this blog or City Observatory or Curbed or City Lab, you have a job that you could telecommute to do, or at least have a lot of friends who do. But that is not a very representative sample of American employment. The five biggest major industry sectors according to the BLS are professional and business services (20.1 million jobs), state/local government (19.4m), health care (19.1m), retail trade (15.8m), and leisure and hospitality (15.6m). My guess is that if you’re reading this, you work in professional and business services, easily the category that best lends itself to telecommuting, and is still subject to all the problems above. Some of these sectors, like health care and retail trade, have almost no potential for telecommuting, as do other major sectors like manufacturing, construction, and transportation/logistics.

Let’s do a quick analysis on the major industry sectors with low, medium, and high guesses for the percentage of people that could telecommute. All numbers are BLS 2016 data.


At the low end, something like 10% of people will be able to consistently telecommute. That suggests we’ll see more growth in telecommuting, but it still won’t have much impact on transportation demand or housing prices. Even at the high end, if 25% of people were able to telecommute tomorrow, that would put the number of employees not telecommuting at about the same as total employment in 1993, and of course, the economy is still growing.

None of this is to say that telecommuting is per se bad, or that you shouldn’t do it if it works for your personal situation or your business. But if you’re counting on telecommuting to fix traffic and housing prices in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco, it’s not going to work. We should be planning cities for how people want to live, not hoping for technological solutions to bail us out of the problems created by a few selfish actors.

South Bay Boulevards

Though I live in Glendale now and have written extensively about Palms, one of my favorite parts of LA County is the South Bay. Development and land use patterns in this collection of under the radar cities like Gardena, Torrance, and Lawndale are genius – though perhaps we should say accidental genius.

For readers outside of LA, the South Bay is roughly the area south of the 105 and west of the 110 – though Carson extends east of the 110 and is South Bay in my mind, and the portions of the “beach cities” (El Segundo, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Redondo Beach) west of PCH may or may not be “South Bay” depending on how you conceptualize things.

This area was one of the first prime areas of post-war suburbanization in LA, and has the features you’d expect of such a place: great climate (what people usually think of as SoCal’s climate), and centrally located with great access to both employment and amenities like the beach. In fact, the South Bay is the Boomer-era mythos of SoCal, created and popularized and immortalized by the Beach Boys out of Hawthorne.

So what do I love about the South Bay? Its anonymous and eponymous boulevards, and the surprising amount of low-rise density like dingbats and two-story podiums, that create wonderful diversity and make it possible for many, many different people to live life and pursue their dreams. One theme of this blog has been a celebration of Palms, but much of the South Bay is Palms on a grander scale. And as Palms is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in LA (and especially on the Westside), the South Bay is one of the most diverse parts of LA.

South Bay Boulevards

Start at the beach and cruise east on any of the South Bay’s boulevards and just take it all in. The diversity of these cities is reflected in the diversity of business establishments you’ll see as you go. And you can go for miles and miles. I recently got the opportunity to do this on Rosecrans Ave and on Manhattan Beach Blvd, and earlier this year I did it a few times on Artesia Blvd and Western Ave. In the past when I lived in Palms and my partner lived in Torrance, I spent a lot of time on Hawthorne Blvd and Torrance Blvd. But you can picky any of them and have the same wonderful experience. I love how far you can go and go and just keep going, looking at each small business and each apartment building, each one representing a person getting to try to make their own way in Los Angeles.

Naturally, the South Bay is poorly understood, its density overlooked by aesthetic and urbanist observers who focus on its auto-orientation and single-family neighborhoods. To them, I would say, I implore you – look at how many people the South Bay is working for, and ask yourself, what can we do to make more places like the South Bay? And what can we do to make the South Bay work better for more people, and make sure lower income people don’t get priced out?

So why did I call the South Bay accidental genius?

Well, if you go back to the history of housing and development in Los Angeles between 1945 and 1965, it’s pretty clear that they were not trying to create medium-density integrated suburbs. Pretty much the opposite, in fact. They created land use patterns that enabled the South Bay’s diversity by accident, despite their efforts to the contrary, and you could probably interpret some of LA/OC’s suburban fringe development between 1965 and 1990 as an attempt to “fix” what didn’t work about those efforts.

Looking at the South Bay’s land use patterns, what the planning was, what the intent was, and what actually happened can provide good lessons on what we should do with current land use planning. It would not be good to say we want to “go back” to the planning regime that created these land use patterns, because that regime was discriminatory against people of color. But in the post-war era, many schemes were tried to make and keep neighborhoods white, and some of them “worked” much better than others. Very low density schemes produced neighborhoods that today, 70 years later, are much whiter than the high density schemes.

No one should be under the delusion that exclusionary zoning is what caused racism; the causation, of course, runs in the opposite direction.

However, you also should not be under the delusion that undoing the exclusionary zoning policies that most successfully perpetuated racism and segregation would not help, or that it would not be worthwhile on the merits. We have enough history to know which policies keep neighborhoods segregated, and we ought to make those policies nothing but history. The South Bay may not have evolved in a way originally envisioned by post-war suburban planning, but it offers many ideas on land use policies that could be incorporated into a vision for a denser, more progressive, more inclusive Los Angeles.

In Praise of Remodeling

Just a short note that I was reminded of recently when I came across a project in LA that proposes to convert a manager’s office into a one-bedroom apartment in an existing building: subdividing old housing is very good, but it has been curtailed by zoning.

Reconfiguring buildings that already exist is one of the cheapest ways to create new housing units. Unsurprisingly, it is one of the primary ways that affordable housing was created in the past. Single-family housing was converted into boarding houses. Once-fashionable homes on Bunker Hill in downtown LA became cheap apartments, providing many affordable housing units until they were demolished for urban renewal. Row houses that were single family became one apartment per floor, or several apartments per floor, or even single-room occupancy units.

Now, this wasn’t the only way affordable housing was built in the past. Many buildings were purposely built as market-rate affordable housing, from LA’s dingbats to New York’s tenements. But remodeling an existing building is likely going to be cheaper, for structural reasons you can’t really change. This includes:

  • The building already exists, so its capital construction cost has probably already been recovered, and the amount of construction needed is smaller.
  • Because you don’t have to demolish an entire building and start from the ground up, the units can be delivered more quickly, and the carrying cost is lower.
  • Because fewer resources and skills are needed to do this type of construction, more people can do it. This lets more people participate in development and makes it easier to finance.

All of this means that new units in existing buildings can be delivered at lower cost than new units in new buildings. That lets housing supply be more responsive to prices, making new units viable at lower rents.

Of course, all of this is intuitively obvious to a lot of people in crowded but disinvested neighborhoods. People don’t have to work out the theory to see that there are other people who need housing, and that they can provide it by remodeling space in a building they already have. That’s why there are so many unpermitted units all over Los Angeles, from garage apartments to unpermitted additions to illegal subdivisions of commercial structures.

And of course, rather than seeing this human ingenuity as a way to solve the housing shortage, we send out code enforcement to demolish these units when we have nowhere to tell the people who live there to go. It’s like making pushcart vending illegal and then telling people to go stand in an unemployment office line instead.

The City of LA’s Unpermitted Dwelling Unit (UDU) ordinance was a huge step forward in this regard, because it acknowledges that “these units add much-needed affordable housing to the City of Los Angeles.” The UDU ordinance allows a unit to be legalized, provided that they pass plan check and correct any building code deficiencies, and that one unit on the property is dedicated as an affordable unit for 55 years.

However, for political reasons, the UDU ordinance only allows this for units occupied prior to December 10, 2015. If you could build a new illegal unit and then legalize it through the UDU ordinance, this would create an incentive for people to start building more illegal units. But of course logically, if the units are providing “much-needed affordable housing” – housing that is so badly needed we are willing to legalize the ones that exist – the problem is not that people would build illegal units, it’s that the units people build would be illegal!

UDU ordinance aside, subdividing old housing into multiple apartments generally doesn’t fit into the modern conception of planning. Neighborhoods are planned to be built once and then never change, regardless of what social and economic conditions change around them. If you happen to own a single-family home in a multi-family zone, a very rare situation in LA these days, you could do this. But most places in coastal California are already built out to their maximum permitted density (or in many places, more than their permitted density due to downzoning).

It’s a shame, because upzoning would probably lead to not only an increase in new building construction, but to remodeling of existing buildings. By not allowing it, California is leaving some of the most affordable potential housing units on the table.

Missing Middle Musing

I recently had the opportunity to travel to both Philadelphia, a city I don’t know very well, and Boston, a city I lived in for 12 years before moving to LA in 2012. In Philadelphia, I was fortunate enough to have @riccoja show me around Northern Liberties and Fishtown; in Boston, I spent a lot of time walking around the city looking at how things had changed (or not changed) since I left. (I also visited DC, but really just the tourist thing and didn’t get to see much new development.)

I came away from my trip with two main thoughts on housing in Los Angeles:

  • We have systematically made it harder and harder to build missing middle (link) housing in LA. This is unfortunate, because I don’t think we can solve the housing crisis without building a lot more of it.
  • The homelessness crisis is the most visible and critical facet of the housing crisis. Even being away for just 10 days, it was shocking how bad things are in LA when I came back.

Row Houses and Ridiculously Narrow Streets

For historical reasons I don’t have the time to research or go into here, Philadelphia seems to have a strong development cultural emphasis on single-family housing, regardless of how small the lots or buildings are. Philadelphia is also cool with really narrow streets. This leads to a pattern of narrow streets with narrow two to four story row houses fronting right on the property line.

Unlike other American cities, it’s still possible to do development like this in Philadelphia, and there’s a ton of infill row house development in Northern Liberties and Fishtown. The only other place that allows townhouses like this is Houston, I think, and it’s certainly not on streets this narrow!

My biggest impression from Philadelphia is that LA needs to unleash this type of development. The virtues of small scale development like this are many:

  • It doesn’t require lot assembly, so there’s no delay for that and never any need for redevelopment agency shenanigans.
  • It’s cheaper per unit to build, because there is less common area and amenity space than a large building.
  • It’s cheaper per development to build, which means a larger number of people can build them. This both increases housing supply and increases community input into how development occurs. It also makes it more likely that small local developers, who know the community well, can participate.
  • It’s less complicated to build than a large building, which means a larger number of contractors and construction workers can be employed in its construction. This increases employment opportunity and lowers costs.
  • It’s faster to build than a large building, which means it can respond to housing needs faster than large developments. This also lowers costs because carrying costs are directly proportional to the time between when the developer buys the lot and when the building opens.
  • It creates small retail spaces, which increase the diversity of local business and creates opportunity for a wider range of small entrepreneurs.

All of this means a faster, larger, and cheaper response to the need for new housing. This is both good on the merits and good politics, because slow and expensive responses to the need for housing lead to more widespread disillusionment and agitation for radical action.

New Districts and Static Neighborhoods

In contrast, development in Boston seems to be focused in a handful of new districts: the Seaport, North Point, Harvard’s campus in North Allston, Station Landing, the area near North Station vacated by demolishing the Central Artery, Assembly Square, and Kendall Square. There was a little infill development (a couple buildings in the North End, a house in Brighton Center whose architecture my friends complained about) but it seemed to be the exception.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with replacing parking lots and abandoned rail yards with new neighborhoods. In fact, it’s pretty great. But it almost necessarily involves a lot more central planning from the city, big institutional developers, and big institutional finance. That means projects that move much more slowly, have a higher cost per unit, and are less likely to happen before the next market downturn. North Point is great… but it was one of the first projects I worked on when I lived in Boston after graduating, and it’s just getting built over a decade later. The same could be said for Assembly Square, Station Landing, Harvard’s campus, and the Seaport. These projects will happen when demand is high enough but they take a long, long time.

My friends in Boston are white collar professionals and public employees. They’re not housing insecure by any means. But they didn’t hold new development in Boston in high regard, and it’s somewhat understandable. It’s not really for them; it’s for people just a little higher up the income ladder. Comparing to Philadelphia, I can’t help but think that Boston would be better off if it were also building a crap load of small scale development like townhouses and small apartment buildings in places not quite as central as the new districts but still T-accessible.

Golden State Squalor

Returning to LA, I was more convinced than before that we need to allow more missing middle development here. If it were up to me, I would rezone every RD, R2, and R1 zone in the city to something like an “RD1.2” or “RD1” townhouse zone, with townhouses allowed by right with a minimum lot area of 1,200 SF or 1,000 SF. (I’d also eliminate parking requirements and reduce the impact fees.)

But more immediate, and more appalling, was returning to LA and walking around downtown, bearing renewed witness to the tide of human misery that floods downtown every night, retreating east of the double yellow line on Los Angeles St and south of 3rd St during the day, a thousand sidewalk washers in its wake.

I didn’t notice the absence of homeless on the east coast, but I noticed the presence when I got back, and it’s a complete embarrassment to LA and California that a state so rich should have so many people living on the streets. The numbers are overwhelming, the state of public health on the streets is atrocious, and yet still, proposals to relieve the situation face NIMBY opposition.

It’s hard to put into words how bad things are in California compared to other US cities, so let me not mince words in my final thoughts. We need to be out there trying to do something every day to fix this problem. And if you oppose new housing, especially permanent supportive housing or temporary shelters for the homeless, you are a bad person, and I hope you feel bad about yourself, because you should. I’m not a religious person but if this crisis doesn’t move you, by god, what would?

Impact Fees Are Bad, Taxes Are Good

One of the more nefarious impediments to housing construction in California, in my opinion, is the proliferation of impact fees on new development. Impact fees first became widespread in the 1980s, a consequence of Prop 13 bankrupting local governments’ ability to pay for public improvements like parks and schools. The state allowed cities and counties to start charging community district fees, also known as Mello-Roos fees, whereby each unit in a new subdivision pays a fixed amount to cover the construction of new public facilities. These fees only apply to new construction in a particular district.

Other development impact fees, charged on all new construction in a city regardless of location, have also been expanding. For example, the City of LA charges a park (or Quimby) fee on all new construction to pay for new parks in the city, and recently enacted an affordable housing linkage fee, where all new construction pays into the city’s affordable housing fund. Impact fees are popular among conservatives and progressives alike, the former because it keeps taxes lower on a majority of voters, and the latter because it symbolically punishes people that progressives don’t like, such as developers and the people who can afford new housing.

Unfortunately, impact fees are bad. They are a regressive and inefficient way of funding improvements, and they unintentionally hurt many people as a result. People who support progressive outcomes should oppose impact fees and support general broad-based taxes instead. Let’s take a closer look at why.

Impact fees often form a large portion of the cost of new housing. For example, a recent study of impact fees found that some cities, such as Irvine and Fremont, have impact fees of over $60,000 per multi-family unit. That translates to about $450/month in higher rent  — just to pay for impact fees.

Progressives tend to not care about this, because they view these taxes as falling on big bad developers and on the people rich enough to afford new housing. However, by raising the price of the cheapest new construction, it enables landlords to raise rents to higher levels without any competition from new construction. Since the vast majority of housing is existing units, and there are relatively new units, impact fees are in effect taxes on renters for the primary benefit of landlords.

Here’s a visualization. Supposed that every year, you have one new housing unit built for every 50 existing units (an optimistic assumption in California). For simplicity’s sake, assume all housing units are equal, and the city has 10,000 housing units. If new construction rents for $2,000/month, prices for existing units will not rise higher than $2,000/month because they will be undercut by new construction. This year, we would expect 200 new housing units to be built.


Now, let’s impose a $20,000/unit affordable housing impact fee on new construction. The cheapest new construction will rent for now is about $2,150/month. That allows landlords to raise the price for existing units to the same level. The net effect is that we raise $4,000,000/year for affordable housing construction (enough for about 8 units at California prices) and we increase landlord profits by $18,000,000/year ($150/month x 10,000 units * 12 months/year). So our “impact fee” is really a 7.5% tax on renters, and we give over 80% of the revenues generated to landlords. Is this really what we wanted to do?


A better approach would be to enact a much smaller tax on everyone that would generate the same amount of revenue. In this example, a 1.67% tax on rent on all units would generate the same amount of money for affordable housing, and none of the money would go to landlords.


Of course, having made it clear that the cost is actually being paid for by renters, the next logical question is why we should be taxing housing in this way at all. Now, this model is clearly an oversimplification; dynamic effects are hard to predict, but it stands to reason that at least some of the cost will effectively be paid for by people selling land, since higher costs of new construction will make people less likely to build new housing, lowering the demand for land. And taxing all units does not lead to the perverse outcome of rewarding landlords for doing nothing.

But it is still logical to conclude that if you increase taxes on new housing, the cost of housing will rise. It is not revolutionary economics to say that if you want more of something, you shouldn’t tax it. Increasing the cost of new housing during a severe housing shortage is just poor policy.

Really, tying taxes or fees for public improvements to new construction in this way is not progressive at all. There’s no reason funding for affordable housing has to come from anything to do with development. The progressive way to do it would be to tax things that are bad and use the revenues to fund things that are good. A carbon tax whose revenues are used to develop affordable housing would be great. So would a congestion tax used to develop affordable housing. A broad property tax that applies to everyone would also be fine. But impact fees should be avoided if possible, unless the goal is increasing landlord profits.

Never Tweet

It’s not an exaggeration to say Twitter changed my life. I’ve met people that I probably never would have otherwise. My knowledge and world view has been greatly expanded by connecting with people in transportation, urban planning, architecture, and many other fields. I’ve been able to listen and understand where people are coming from on issues I have no experience with and from communities I have no direct connection to. I probably wouldn’t be involved in housing advocacy if not for Twitter.

That said, it has felt very exhausting lately, and I’ve had a few conversations with some of my earliest Twitter connections who feel the same way. Twitter made it possible to quickly connect with experts and people doing new research, and even to seek out and follow people you disagree with to try to hear their perspective and broaden your horizon. But it also made it possible to quickly find people you disagree with and spend a lot of time disagreeing, and not learning anything.

It’s probably been happening for a while, but the SB 827 debate is what threw this fact into the open for me. On both sides, we spent a lot of time arguing the same points back and forth, RT’ing and faving what we thought were our side’s sick burns, and pushing things into nasty attacks. At its best Twitter offers the prospect of instant dialogue with people you’d never know otherwise; at its worst, it’s the comments section on an unmoderated news site but without the benefit of news preceding it.

Part of this is because the fight over housing became political. That’s not a complaint – the fight had to get political! But politics is done by finding like-minded people and convincing them to do stuff in real life, not flaming people you disagree with on the internet. I know the SB 827 debate was just making me mad, and that I wasn’t learning anything. And I bet you know that too.

This is not a “why I’m leaving Twitter” post. But it is me realizing that I’m not getting what I want out of it, and I need to do something about that. The goal is to spend less time on it but make that time more valuable. So, the first thing I’m going to try is to make myself do less Twitter and do more reading and blogs. I know it’s 2018 and no one reads blogs anymore but an important part of the exercise is to make myself think through things more clearly.

I’m going to try to read things that are a little outside the urbanist mainstream, to help expand my thinking and also hopefully increase the value of the time you spend engaging with me. To that end, here’s what I’m planning on reading this year, in no particular order:

  • Black Los Angeles (Darnell Hunt & Ana-Christina Ramón)
  • Learning from Hangzhou (Mathieu Borysevicz)
  • The Architecture of Red Vienna (Eve Blau)
  • The City in History (Lewis Mumford)
  • Glitter, Stucco, & Dumpster Diving (John Chase)
  • City of Darkness Revisited (Greg Girard & Ian Lambot)
  • Urban Planning and the African American Community (June Manning Thomas & Marsha Ritzdorf)
  • Learning from Las Vegas (Denise Scott Brown & Robert Venturi)
  • Infinite Suburbia (Kotkin et all)
  • Code and Clay… Data and Dirt (Shannon Mattern)
  • China Road (Rob Gifford)

Suggestions are welcome too! I also might break out the hiking, water, geology, and meteorology stuff into its own thing. We’ll see!