Tag Archives: Boston

When Do Pedestrian Grade Separations Make Sense?

Metro just approved a budget increase for the proposed pedestrian bridge across Lankershim and Universal Hollywood Drive at the Universal City Red Line station, bringing the total to $27.3 million (including $1.4 million diverted from Rail Preventative Maintenance – nice touch). Now to be fair, a lot of the cost of the pedestrian bridge is going to be in the three elevators. This is machinery that has to (a) cycle reliably hundreds of times every day, (b) hold up under exposure to the weather and the, um, indiscretions of the public, and (c) incorporate transparent materials so that it doesn’t attract crime.

But that’s not really the point. The bridge, or an equivalent tunnel, is a questionable expenditure because many people aren’t going to want to use it anyway. I’ll outsource that argument to Damien Newton over at Streetsblog, and move on to the general question of when pedestrian grade separations make sense.

It’s All About Destinations

Fundamentally, a pedestrian grade separation makes sense if it connects to strong destinations on both sides at the same elevation as the grade separation.

When I lived in Boston, I explained this using a simple comparison of three pedestrian grade separations in the city. The first is the bridge between the Prudential Center and Copley Place, crossing Huntington Av:

Everybody in Boston knows this bridge. On the left is the Prudential Center mall, office towers, and residences. On the right is the Copley Place mall and hotels. The main levels of these malls are at the same elevation as the pedestrian bridge, so if you’re crossing, the bridge is actually more convenient than going down to street level and back up. Note, though, that this doesn’t alleviate the need for crosswalks at street level, because it’s still unreasonable to expect people on the street to go up, over, and down to cross, so there are still crosswalks on Huntington.

The second is the underpass from Back Bay Station on the Orange Line to Copley Place, going under Dartmouth St. Most people know this underpass and have used it. It’s at the same elevation as the Back Bay Station subway platform, so it’s useful to connect to that. On the Copley Place side, there’s nothing that low; everything is at least one floor up. If you’re just crossing Dartmouth St, or going from Copley Place to the commuter rail, you’re not going to use this underpass.

The last location is the underpass at Mass Av Station on the Orange Line. Many people, even those who live or work in the area, don’t even know this underpass exists. On the south side, it connects to the subway mezzanine. On the north side, it connects to nothing; you have to go up to the street. The result is that no one uses this grade separation. As a result, at both Dartmouth St and Mass Av, the city ended up going back 20 years later and putting in crosswalks at the street level anyway.

Mass Av:

Dartmouth St:

Crosswalks Make Sense, Even at High Traffic Locations

If you want a comparison to Lankershim, Universal Hollywood Drive, and Campo de Cahuenga, you could take the case of the Leverett Circle pedestrian bridge in Boston. This bridge connected the sidewalks on opposite sides of O’Brien Highway and Storrow Drive, and the mezzanine of the elevated Science Park Green Line Station. These are high volume roadways (Storrow is almost a freeway), and there are ramps to the 93 freeway at this intersection – not unlike the heavy traffic on Lankershim and Campo de Cahuenga, and the ramps to the 101.

During construction for the Big Dig, parts of the bridge had to be demolished and replaced with temporary structures, and some pedestrian movements were provided with crosswalks. The plan was that when construction was complete, the pedestrian bridge would be rebuilt and the crosswalks eliminated. However, walking advocates in the city gained strength, and the Big Dig went ruinously and comically over budget. The reconstruction of the bridge was therefore cut from the project – it was a pedestrian facility that walking advocates didn’t want, and the project couldn’t afford to build.

Today, all legs of the intersection have crosswalks, and it’s a much more pleasant environment without the overhead bridges. This area gets a ton of pedestrian traffic, since it’s part of the recreation paths along the Charles River.

Back to Universal

With these lessons in mind, it’s pretty easy to see that Damien Newton is spot-on about the Universal City pedestrian bridge. No one is going to want to go up, over, and down. A tunnel would be a little better, because at least it would attract people going to or from the subway station, but it wouldn’t obviate the need for crosswalks on all legs of the intersection. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic about the rationality of the players involved, but hopefully the city can sit down with NBC Universal, explain these things, and figure out a better way to spend money on improvements here.

Downtown LA Skyways

We can also see the same factors in play in downtown LA, with the pedestrian bridges built along with all the “new downtown” skyscrapers like the Bonaventure. Since many of the buildings have active uses on the same levels as the bridges, they do see a reasonable amount of use, but they obviously don’t eliminate the need for crosswalks at street level. They’re also pretty cool for filming Batman scenes, so they have that going for them.

Downtown LA Pedestrian Tunnels?

One place I do think we have some potential for pedestrian grade separations is for pedestrian tunnels in downtown LA. For example, the owners of Macy’s Plaza recently announced their intent to connect the underground mall in their building directly to the 7th/Flower subway station. This is a new concept for LA, but it’s common in places like Seoul, where developers seem to really understand the value in having a direct connection from a busy subway station to their retail areas.

At 7th/Flower, I can think of two additional potential connections that might make sense.

The first is a no brainer. There’s a big hole in the ground right now at 7th and Figueroa, literally right across the street from the Figueroa entrance to 7th/Flower station. I’m not sure exactly what Korean Air has in mind for their subterranean levels, but if you’re building a 70-story building, the cost to build a hallway underneath Figueroa to connect to the subway station isn’t that bad. If they’re considering street level or underground retail, this would add value to their project.

The second is a little tougher, and might require cooperation among public agencies and several different private owners. Thomas Properties, which owns the block bounded by 5th, Flower, 6th, and Figueroa, is currently sitting on some vacant space in their underground mall. This retail center might benefit from a direct connection to 7th/Flower too. (Earlier concepts for the Regional Connector had a station right at the mall at 5th and Flower, but that’s just way too close to 7th/Flower and 2nd/Hope.)

Getting to that property would be considerably more difficult. The existing Blue Line tunnel, to be extended by the Regional Connector, ends just south of 6th. Building a separate walkway would probably be cheaper than rebuilding and widening the Blue Line tunnel here. Going under the sidewalk would mean interfering with a lot of utilities and foundation tiebacks.


Maybe – and it’s a big maybe – you could do something by redeveloping the two-story building on the NW corner of 7th and Flower, and providing an integral headhouse that would connect to the existing Flower St mezzanine level. From there north to 5th, you’d go through the basements of the existing buildings, which could be redeveloped. A concept like this would depend enormously on the types of foundations, relative elevations of basement levels, location of underground parking ramps and building machinery, and so on, not to mention the willingness of different private property owners to cooperate with each other. But it’s an intriguing concept to have in the back of your head, anyway.

Back to Universal Part II

Idle speculation about downtown aside, I just don’t see the point of a bridge at Lankershim. Prohibiting people from crossing the street at-grade, as was suggested at the Metro board meeting, is even worse. In general, people are going to walk where they need to walk – they’re not going to make huge detours like going over ped bridges or taking three crosswalks because you avoided putting one in so that you could gap out a signal phase a few seconds earlier. Design that doesn’t address the city the way people actually use it is bound to result in unpleasant streets and dangerous conditions.

What Do You Mean By Suburb?

Sometimes I think that a lot of misunderstandings in the discussion on cities relate to inconsistent terminology. It seems to me that we have four different concepts of what a suburb is, so if we’re going to talk about suburbs, we need to be talking about the same kind of suburb. In my personal descending order of preference, they are:

  • Los Angeles: typified by surprisingly dense uniform development filled in on a grid of arterial roadways, usually at half-mile or mile spacing. Development spreads uninterrupted until it runs into an insurmountable barrier, e.g. the Pacific Ocean, 10,000-foot tall mountains, or kangaroo rats. This pattern is a legacy partly of the rancho grants, partly of the US public land system. This is what people think of when they think of sprawl, but it’s actually the least sprawly.
  • Northeast: typified by somewhat dense historic town centers, surrounded by low density exurban development. Subdivisions have larger lots, and there are often large relatively undeveloped areas. This is a legacy of development following the pattern of small farms. Virtually all of the characteristics that urbanists like predate the auto age.
  • South: as I noted in my post on Boston and Atlanta, this is basically the same pattern as Northeast Corridor suburban growth but without the underlying pattern of historic cities and town centers. The South is what the Northeast would look like if no one had been living there to start with in 1945.
  • Midwest: like the Northeast, but even more spread out. Subdivisions are built around small, historic agricultural crossroads, and there can be miles of farmland between exurban towns. Midwest sprawl is typified by an urban footprint that keeps growing quickly, despite relatively stagnant populations, as people decamp the old cities.

In the following sections, I’m going to describe each type in more detail, including why I like or dislike the pattern.

Los Angeles

For LA, let’s revisit the patch of development in Lancaster that I used as a counterexample to Boston and Atlanta.


As I said, this is what most people think of when they think of sprawl. Aerial shots of suburban tracts like this are stock images in any urbanist post about how suburbia is a monotonous, soul-crushing, doomed landscape.

But on many of the things that urbanists claim to care about, Lancaster does pretty well. It has a solid grid of arterials on half-mile spacing, and many of the arterials already have bike lanes. You could throw down bus lanes with POP fare collection and stops every half mile that would basically be Jarrett Walker’s dream grid (well, without anchoring). Add some mid-block crossings for pedestrians and boom, you’re good.

Now, depending on the whims of developers and local planners, there can be a lot of cul-de-sacs and indirect streets. You might have a circuitous path to get to one of those arterials – at least if you’re in a car. I’m always a little amused at the hand-wringing over street grids. Y’all were never kids with bikes? I grew up in a place with lots of cul-de-sacs and disconnected streets. We knew where we could cut through. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to make new developments better by bringing back the jog, but this is a much easier problem to solve than those faced by other types of suburban development.

Then there’s that sneaky LA density. Let’s take the block in the image above bounded by J, J-8, 15th East, and 20th East. By my count, there are 483 SFRs and somewhere in the vicinity of 190 apartments (making some conservative assumptions), along with, very roughly, 125k SF of retail. If we assume 3 people per house (in line with Lancaster demographics) and conservatively say 1.3 people per apartment, we’ve got about 1,700 people living in a quarter of a square mile (sq mi), for a density of 6,800/sq mi.

In other words, this patch of the Antelope Valley – mostly SFRs, with a big-ass parking lot in front of the retail, the kind of place that people like James Howard Kunstler would call crudscape – already has a density higher than the weighted density of the Washington DC area, and it’s not far behind places like Philadelphia and Boston. Even if we base the calculation on the least dense sixteenth-square-mile, which has 154 SFRs, the density is 5,500/sq mi. Weighted density of Portland, for reference, is 4,373/sq mi. Oh, and it’s not even built out yet.

That last point is another secret strength of the LA suburban pattern: no one is under any delusions about what we’re doing here. Everyone expects and hopes that those vacant lots will get developed. The home builders want it. Retail and business owners want it. R Rex Parris wants it. And the folks in the apartments on the other side of J-8 aren’t going to mourn the loss of those dusty lots. If you were to liberalize the zoning, eventually you’d end up with dingbats like Palms or skinny-but-deep redeveloped Cudahy lots like you see in their namesake city and places like El Monte. This year, Lancaster changed its zoning to allow accessory dwelling units. In LA, the expectation is that more people are going to show up, and that’s a good thing – the opposite of the premise under which suburbs in New England operate.


Now, in total contrast to LA suburbs, where people basically expect and want growth, the assumption in New England is that you have a town perfected by the descendants of Myles Standish and John Winthrop when they settled it in 16-whenever, and all this growth is irredeemably ruining the historic character of the town. Let’s have a look at The Pinehills, a recent major subdivision in Plymouth, MA.


The Pinehills is what passes for smart growth in a lot of the Northeast; the Boston Globe says the state uses it as model, in an article that proves my point by citing a resident as a 10th-generation descendant of William Bradford. The permits allow for a little less than 3,000 houses on 3,174 acres – or in other words, a final density of about 1,800/sq mi, well down into exurban territory and on par with places like Bismarck and Pocatello. New England is the land of two-acre zoning. The expectation is that the intervening area will never be developed. Every suburban resident in Massachusetts subconsciously fancies himself an English baron, entitled to undeveloped wood lots for fox hunting or whatever.

This is a development 45 miles out from Boston. The low density means that it is always going to be impractical to serve the area with transit. The insistence on rural character means that the arterials are unpleasant and unsafe for biking and walking. As I said in my Boston/Atlanta post, every dense neighborhood that exists in New England existed 60 years ago. Tom Menino and Joey C can conjure a few new urban districts out of semi-vacant industrial land, but that’s about it.

It’s important to note that this a fundamentally different mindset, and it affects all aspects of policy. For example, recent MBTA commuter rail extensions like Newburyport serve towns with comically low populations and population densities (Rowley, population 5,856, density 290/sq mi) that have no realistic prospects for appreciable growth. Deval Patrick gets accolades from Streetsblog for proposing “smart growth” density of 4 SFRs or 8 apartments per acre near transit stations, which will produce population densities on par with. . . Lancaster. Of course, that’s only if they actually develop an entire square mile around the station. Which they won’t, because it’s New England.

Despite all of this, the Northeast still benefits from legacy town and city centers. I’m not sure what you can do with the low-density exurbs, but the presence of these nodes at least means that people see what density looks like.


With the South and Midwest, we’re into territory I don’t have personal familiarity with, so I welcome any thoughts or corrections. In general, it’s harder to find “typical” suburban development outside of California, because there’s more variability. For the South, I’m going to revisit the Atlanta area: Redan, which is just outside the 285 beltway on the east side of the city. I tried to find an area of development that had some apartments, since they seem to be more common in the South than in the Northeast or Midwest. I’m looking at the area between the 278, Wellborn, Marbut, and Panola.


This part of Redan has a density of about 4,900 sq/mi, which would make it very dense by Atlanta standards, where weighted density is only 2,173 sq/mi. Part of the problem is that it’s just very hard to pick a representative plot here. The area sprawls so far that the edges are mostly undeveloped, which makes them unsuitable for measuring the pattern in the region. Here’s another shot, west of the 285, in Powder Springs. Looking at the area between Powder Springs, New MacLand, Macedonia, and Hopkins.


This area has a density of about 2,600 sq/mile, which is in line with what we expect for the region.

Looking around the South in general, using old images available in Google Earth, it does seem to me that more recent development has been build a little more densely – perhaps as developers have realized they’re running out of land? It also seems that the planning and development culture of the South is such that the region wants to keep growing in population, which is not really the case for the Northeast and Midwest. However, I’m not sure if the political and social structure of the South is ready for upzoning and density on the level of Houston or Los Angeles. The low density of the South makes it difficult to provide effective transit and more costly per capita to maintain infrastructure.

The other thing that will challenge the ability to provide effective suburban transit in the South is, like the Northeast, the mishmash incoherent network of arterials. Unlike Los Angeles and the Midwest, the South and the Northeast inherited a winding network of colonial roads that make it very hard to design transit routes that don’t have a lot of turns. Whereas Western runs over 25 miles due south from Los Feliz to San Pedro, in the South and Northeast, you’re lucky to find an arterial road that doesn’t change direction at random and dead end after a few miles. In addition, the insistence on maintaining “rural character” means that there’s often public resistance to widening arterials (even to provide transit) and building things like bike lanes and sidewalks.


From a 10,000-foot view, the Midwest seems to have more freeways than the rest of the country, along with bigger suburban lots. That, combined with low population growth, seems to me to make this the purest form of sprawl, and the least sustainable. For our example of Midwest suburbs, I offer up Michele Bachmann’s district: Stillwater, MN. Take the area between 75th St, Neal, McKusick, and Manning.


This area checks in at a density of about 1,200/sq mi, with 300 SFRs and 150 apartments. The weighted density of the Minneapolis MSA is 3,383 sq/mi, so this area is low and it may yet get denser. However, it’s hard to see it reaching Lancaster densities anytime soon. On the plus side, the Midwest does have a good arterial grid.

Notice that many of the subdivisions in the Midwest have large lots – what Californian planning would call “estate residential”, and relegate to a few affluent communities like Acton and mountainsides that are too steep for denser development. You won’t find any development like that in the LA Basin, the Valley, or the vast majority of Orange County. Where it still exists in the IE – for example, Fontana – the lots are being further subdivided into typical LA suburbia.

In the Midwest, though, like the Northeast, there’s no expectation that these areas will ever get any denser. With low population density, a mindset that opposes further development, and far-flung subdivisions, it’s hard to see how these areas could be served well by transit, or become very walkable. When I listen to Charles Marohn, I sometimes have to remind myself that he’s talking about places like Baxter, which, other than being called a “suburb”, has remarkably little in common with a place like Corona.


I promise you, all of the images in this post are at the same scale. It is interesting to look at them next to each other and compare. The differences that I’ve outlined in this post explain why I think the LA development pattern is the best and why I’m essentially bullish on the future sustainability of LA.

For reference, here’s a quick tabular summary of the differences between these four types of suburbs. Suitability for walking and biking pretty much correlates with density, because if the place isn’t dense enough, you won’t be able to walk or bike to anything worthwhile, even if the infrastructure for it exists.


Transit, TOD, and Polycentrism

Via David Edmondson of The Greater Marin, we have this 2007 article from the LA Times about some TOD projects in LA generating less than the expected number of transit trips. On Twitter, we threw out a couple reasons why this might be happening, but I think it’s worth going into a little more detail.

First, there is some question as to the success of TODs anywhere at generating transit ridership at rates significantly greater than the background rate of transit use. A TOD in Boston might have more transit riders than a TOD in LA, but only because Boston in general has more transit riders than LA. Some of the sources of TOD skepticism are not exactly unbiased. On the other hand, here’s UC-Berkeley’s ACCESS magazine reporting that proximity to transit has little effect on ridership generated by TODs.

Note that this is not an indictment of rail transit in LA. In terms of boardings per mile, LA outperforms SF, and holds its own against any eastern city other than NYC. LA’s HRT, though small in geographic span, outperforms WMATA and CTA on a per-mile basis. Outside the MBTA Green Line and small systems in Buffalo and Houston, LA’s LRT is the champ, and its stats ain’t going down when Expo Phase 2 and Regional Connector open.


That aside, here are some factors that might contribute to low TOD ridership in LA. Some are general factors that can apply to any city; others are somewhat unique to LA.

Parking Minimums

While LA’s parking minimums are not that much different than many cities, the difference is that LA was a relatively small place at the dawn of the Auto Age. That means there’s relatively little old urban development like in East Coast cities and SF. So while it may be equally likely that your TOD apartment comes with a parking space, in LA it’s far more likely that there’s cheap and convenient parking at your destination. If you know there’s parking and you’ve invested up front in getting a car, it’s less likely you’ll take transit.

Local Bus Blues

The article cites one person who was hoping to live car-free in LA, but after trying it, was giving up and planning to get a car. The problem was not the quality of LA rail services – in fact, on the whole, LRT in Los Angeles is better planned and designed than most cities, with straighter routes and less traffic interference – but the quality of bus services.

LA is a big place. The rail network, though expanding, only stretches so far. If you want to really explore this great metropolis, sooner or later you’re going to have to get on a bus. And our transit patron in the article learned what anyone with experience riding buses could tell you: very few people ride them unless they absolutely have to. The reason is obvious, the buses are stuck in the same traffic as cars. In your car, at least you don’t have to make unnecessary stops or put up with belligerent mentally ill riders or listen to the guy behind you belt out Tyga lyrics at full volume.

This issue exists in many other cities – with a few exceptions, Boston’s buses are infrequent and unreliable, and I avoided them as much as possible when I lived there. But in Boston or New York or DC or SF, you can get around this problem by simply not riding the bus. You can experience much of what the city has to offer using only the subway, especially if you are the kind of person that can afford to have transportation choice and live in an area with good rail transit. I lived in the North End, and pretty much anything I wanted to go to was on a rapid transit line. In LA, some of the most popular destinations, like Santa Monica and Venice Beach, are only accessible by bus.

On the plus side, LA has a great grid of wide arterial roads. Read your Jarrett Walker on the power of grids and you can see the potential. It would be relatively easy to improve the speed and frequency of bus service in LA, if we put our capital and operating dollars into it. There’s starting to be action on this: rush hour bus lanes were installed on Wilshire for the 20/720, bus lanes are coming to Vermont, and now that Mike Bonin is riding the 733, maybe we can hope for bus lanes on Venice. In addition to making TODs more viable, this is also a more efficient use of street space, not to mention a huge improvement in the quality of life for transit dependent people (and your typical bus rider in LA makes $14.4k a year).


Historically, we tend to think of transit as a hub and spoke system. Pull up your MBTA or WMATA subway map, and that’s pretty much what you have. Even if you look at buses in Boston, there’s a clear land use pattern centering on nodes at goofy road intersections that locals call “squares”. Get out a commuter rail map, and the hub-spoke pattern is even more apparent. You can see this a little bit in LA on the Westside, with obvious nodes in downtown, Century City, and Westwood. It’s no coincidence that Wilshire is the obvious corridor for a full subway.

But flip your gaze south and look at the endless grid stretching over 20 miles down to Southbay and Long Beach, and then on into Orange County. On the other side of the hills in the Valley, it’s the same thing. LA is difficult to understand because its urban form is different. LA is very dense without looking or feeling dense, enormous in geographic reach but most people make short trips, horrible traffic but very low gasoline usage per household. If you need proof LA is different, consider that the worst traffic on the 10 on the Westside is going away from downtown in the morning, and towards downtown in the evening.

LA is a different city, and it requires a different way of looking at things. In LA, people are coming from everywhere and going everywhere. You can’t think of LA in terms of nodes; you have to think in terms of the grid. Note that this is naturally how people in LA describe their city. Someone in Boston will tell you that something is in Harvard Square – Harvard Square being a subway stop and a neighborhood. In LA, you’re much more likely to hear that something is at Vermont/Melrose, Venice/Robertson, Hawthorne/Rosecrans. Indeed, even transit systems show this! In Boston and DC, you get subway stops named after the neighborhood. In LA, you get Expo/Vermont, Expo/Western, and so on.

LA’s development pattern means that the ways we look at TODs and transit ridership in general are unhelpful, or maybe even misleading. Example: below are two aerial images of Blue Line stations, with Slauson on top and Del Amo on the bottom.

Slauson DelAmo

Conventional wisdom in urban planning says these stops are in bad places. Slauson has virtually no commercial development; near the station and to the east, it’s mostly industrial, to the west, you have to go at least a quarter-mile before hitting any residential. The station itself is right up against a yard used for storing utility poles. Del Amo is even worse, almost comically bad. There’s nothing but low employment-density industrial for over a half-mile in any direction. The closest houses are almost three-quarters of a mile away, under the 710 and over the LA River.

And yet, these stations, and the Blue Line in general, do pretty well for ridership. In LA, where people are coming from everywhere and going everywhere, you don’t have to be a destination, just a good place to transfer along the way. The Blue Line offers fast transit service to a 20-mile corridor, so lots of people want to transfer to it.

TOD is Overrated in General

That last example about the Blue Line can be generalized to say that urban planners overrate the importance of land use surrounding transit. This is something I’ve written about previously.

Cities are big, complex entities, and people make choices for many different reasons. It’s a nice thought to say “let’s put housing next to the station, and then people can ride it downtown” but that’s a big simplification of how a city works. Maybe you decide to live to near the station so you can take transit to work. But maybe you do it so that you can go downtown on Friday night and get tanked without having to drive home. Maybe you do it because you plan on having kids and it’s a good school district. Or maybe you just like the apartment and you don’t really care about the transit at all.

Example: my sister lives in East Hollywood about 0.4 miles from a Red Line stop. But her work takes her all over the city at irregular hours, and she doesn’t feel safe walking home from the station late at night. She was looking for an apartment in the area, and the one she found just happens to be close to a station, but to her, it’s not much different than being 2 miles away. Her proximity to transit doesn’t generate any transit trips other than me taking the Red Line from downtown if I go to grab dinner with her after work. (It also results in me ranting about closely spaced bus stops on Vermont when I take the bus to try to avoid Red Line construction, but that’s a different problem.)

On the other hand, I live in Palms, about 1.1 miles from Culver City station on the Expo Line. But I walk to the station and take Expo to work every day, because (a) I work in rail engineering so I might as well ride the damn thing, (b) I don’t want to pay for parking downtown, (c) spending time on the 10 during rush hour results in a non-zero probability of losing my cool, and (d) there’s a Starbucks on the way where I can try to beat down my night owl grogginess. For some people, that might be too far to walk. When I was looking for apartments, I looked at things up to 1.5 miles away, and I would have been fine with walking. I picked my place because I get amenities that others didn’t have, even if they were closer to the station.

Urban planners and transportation planners need to keep the complexity of the city in mind. There’s not really any need to worry about what gets built on a specific parcel of land, or how many transit riders it generates. Really, doing so presumes a level of knowledge that no one has. We should focus on building high-quality transportation infrastructure, and then providing individuals with the flexibility to capitalize on it as best they see fit. It doesn’t make sense to spend public dollars subsidizing any kind of private development. This is a point on which I really disagree with the Portland model of planning. If you build good bones for your city, the millions of people that make up your city will figure out how to use them better than you ever could.

Incomplete Rail Transit Network

When the article was written in 2007, the LA rail network consisted of the Blue Line, the Green Line, the Gold Line to Pasadena, the Red Line, and the short Purple Line. Since then, we’ve already opened Expo Phase 1 and Gold Line East Side.

So when I read articles like this, part of me thinks: check back with us in ten years, when Expo Line goes to Santa Monica, Regional Connector connects the Blue/Gold/Expo Lines, Crenshaw/LAX is done, and Westside Subway is built. Then check back with us ten years after that, when we’ve built a line from Sylmar to El Segundo, extended the Green Line and Gold Line, and who knows what else. LA is forever a work in progress, and forever reinventing itself. Let’s focus on making it great in the big picture; the details will work themselves out.

Forget About Boston vs Atlanta

Note: this was originally part of Sprawl and Economic Mobility but the main point of that post ended up being the continuing impact of discrimination, and this isn’t really related.

In his series of posts on sprawl and economic mobility, Krugman used a comparison of Boston and Atlanta when talking about the relationship of sprawl and economic mobility, which he said “many people have pointed out . . . as the most obvious comparison among major US metro areas”.

In a word, no. Leaving aside New York as unique among American cities, ATL vs BOS is perhaps the most obvious comparison – if you are a typical East Coast resident who thinks that the country ends at Allegheny Front.

In reality, Boston and Atlanta are similar and in the last 60 years, they have developed in similar ways. The only difference is that Boston grew to be a much larger city earlier than Atlanta did. Check out a comparison of the populations of the metro areas and the cores at the dawn of the Auto Era in 1950 and in 20101:


Or how about this: take a look at the two aerial images below, which are at the same scale. Which one is Boston’s beltway and which one is Atlanta’s? (Answer at the bottom of the post)

boston hotlanta

Both cities have had virtually no growth in their historic core communities. The difference is that Boston had a sizable core when the sprawl era began. Atlanta started sprawling out around very little other than a new skyscraper CBD. But every dense neighborhood that exists in Boston today existed in more or less the same form in 1950. Same goes for the denser suburban town centers. The current growth mode in Boston and Atlanta is the same: low density sprawl.

Even with the resurgence of Boston’s core cities since 1990, it’s still 200,000 below peak. Somerville – and you keep hearing about what an awesome place Somerville is, right? – has actually lost population since the Red Line Extension opened. The story of urban revival is about the core gaining population, but it is just as much about what kind of people are moving there. Somerville has more young professionals than it used to, but it also has less blue collar workers and immigrants than it used to.

Really, the same can be said for almost any East Coast city. The dense neighborhoods of Washington, Baltimore, Philly, and so on – they all predate the auto age. So does any smaller node of density like, say, New Haven or Albany. If you want a real comparison with a place like Boston or Atlanta, you need a place with a different growth mode. You need Los Angeles, or at least a city doing a decent impersonation, like San Jose or Houston.

New England is the land of two-acre residential zoning suburbs. The governor of Massachusetts wants to promote dense development around transit stations – dense being 4-8 units/acre, or in other words, about the default density allowed anywhere by the generic residential zone in far-flung LA suburbs like Lancaster and Adelanto. Let’s have a look at some recent LA growth, shall we?


I don’t expect Lancaster to be winning any awards from the CNU anytime soon (though they did get one from EPA). James Howard Kunstler probably woke up in a cold sweat when I grabbed that screenshot. But as far as I can tell, the primary problem with LA seems to be that people don’t like how it looks. That’s fine, but if we’re talking about the viability of a development pattern, we need to put our architectural preferences aside. If you want to compare Boston or Atlanta to anything, this is what you should compare it to, and fact is, it stacks up pretty well.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I used to live in Boston, and it’s a great city – they should build more of it. I’d be very happy to see the Boston region resume its pre-WW2 growth pattern so that more people could take advantage of that. Knowing the ferocity of NIMBYism, even in the near suburbs, and the strong level of local control afforded to New England towns2, I’m not going to hold my breath. If the choice is between low-density East Coast sprawl like Atlanta and high-density LA style development, LA wins every time.

Boston is on the top, Atlanta on the bottom.

1For the region, for Boston I used the MSA less the New Hampshire counties, plus Worcester and Bristol Counties; for Atlanta I used the MSA. For the core, for Boston I used Suffolk County plus Quincy, Newton, Brookline, Waltham, Watertown, Arlington, Belmont, Cambridge, Somerville, Medford, Malden, and Everett; for Atlanta I used just the city itself.

2One of the ways that not having counties hurts the Boston region.