Los Angeles has a great arterial grid. Almost.
As Jarrett Walker says, grids are great for transit, because they let you efficiently serve a large geographic area with high-frequency service, while avoiding the problems of branching. In that post, Walker calls Los Angeles and Vancouver “two of the most perfect transit cities I’ve ever seen, in their underlying geography.”
Aside from the obvious topographical barriers like the Santa Monica Mountains, there’s a weakness in LA’s arterial grid: on the Westside, practically nothing west of La Cienega is worthy of being called a north-south arterial. East-west movement is another story, an embarrassment of riches: Pico, Olympic, Santa Monica, Wilshire, and Venice. There’s not one north-south arterial that’s as good as any of those east-west boulevards. This is part of why the 405 is so horrendous and traffic on the Westside in general, the largest bugaboo of Westside NIMBYs, is terrible. Most importantly, it has significant implications for what high quality north-south transit on the Westside will look like.
Let’s take a closer look. The map below shows how many lanes each Westside arterial has in each direction. It also shows peak-hour only lanes (created by parking restrictions) with dashed lines. I realize many readers may not be particularly worried about auto capacity, but the number of traffic lanes is a reasonable proxy for both the technical and political challenges to creating a dedicated right-of-way (ROW) for transit.
How Did We Get Here? Or, A Boulevard for Our Kingdom
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Believe it or not, parts of the Westside were undeveloped as recently as the end of World War 2. Older urban nodes, like Palms, Santa Monica, Westwood, Venice, and Beverly Hills, were scattered among farmers’ fields and country clubs. After the war, with construction of the 405 and UCLA, the areas in between these nodes rapidly developed as single-family neighborhoods. Partly due to preexisting development, and partly due to poor planning foresight, adequate ROWs for north-south arterials were not reserved. (Note that this mistake is rarely repeated nowadays; suburban sprawl is planned with ridiculously wide ROWs saved for arterial roads.)
Despite having been developed with single-family residences (SFRs), at that time much of the Westside was zoned for multiple-family development. As discussed previously, by the 1950s, low-rise apartments known as dingbats were popping up in the more established neighborhoods, such as Palms, and in the area near UCLA.
By the early 1960s, high-rise residential towers were sprouting up along Wilshire Blvd, as detailed in the city’s 1963 Westwood Economic Study. By the city’s generous standard of high-rise (4+ stories), there were 19 buildings in this class completed or under construction. The study noted that “rents in the newer high-density apartments [were] considerably higher”. The average monthly rental for a one-bedroom in a high-rise in 1963 was $2,370/month; compare this to one-bedroom dingbat apartments in Oakland, renting for $820/month at the same time, or in Palms, renting for $610-$820/month in 1970. (All values 2014 dollars.)
However, the study went on to note that there was no reason to worry about these expensive rentals, because “increasing demand for apartments on the part of the lower-middle and low income groups. . . can be satisfied in part by the older portions of the existing housing supply, and in part through new smaller apartment structures which could be built at lower cost. Such structures are being built in quantity throughout the city and metropolitan area. . .” Yep, you know who that is.
The rapid changes on the Westside came with growing pains. For example, the Palms-Mar Vista-Del Rey Socioeconomic Study (1970) found that population increased from 19,399 in 1940 to 78,134 by 1956, after which time further growth required replacement of SFRs, some scarcely more than a decade old, with multi-family developments. In 1950, Palms-Mar Vista had 2,361 apartments and 11,859 SFRs; by 1970, 15,883 apartments and 13,100 SFRs, with the number of SFRs having peaked in 1960 and by then declining as they were replaced by apartments.
Probably the biggest change, though, was Century City bursting onto the scene in 1963, rising from a former Fox studio backlot. Along with continued growth at UCLA, Westwood, and Santa Monica, the Westside was becoming one of the most important business districts in Los Angeles. The Westside’s boom strained the area’s underpowered road and transit network, resulting in worsening traffic congestion. In particular, Century City is poorly located and laid out with respect to north-south traffic movement. (Perhaps its developers quite logically expected redevelopment of adjacent golf courses, allowing Avenue of the Stars to be extended north and south.)
The city did not sit idle in the face of this congestion. While the need for rapid transit along the Wilshire Corridor was already well-recognized by the early 1970s, the plans drawn up for north-south movement reflected that auto-centric era. City traffic engineers proposed widening many north-south roadways, including every one shown on the map above between La Cienega and Lincoln (except Sepulveda, which presumably was already an arterial). These plans were backed by City Councilman Louis Nowell, a notoriously pro-growth politician who, in addition to greater urban density, also supported questionable amenities like the Laurel Canyon and Beverly Hills Freeways, and oil drilling in Pacific Palisades.
Westside SFR owners, having bought into the suburban dream only to find themselves in the midst of a booming metropolis, understandably did not share Nowell’s vision. By November 1972, the LA Times reported that opponents of density and street widening, dubbed “environmentalists”, had succeeded in getting the city to cancel plans for Castle Heights-Beverwil and Motor in the West LA plan area. The West LA plan was approved in December 1973. Further west, the Times reported that by early 1974, Mar Vista residents were protesting street widening in their neighborhood. By December 1974, city planners had relented, only proposing to widen Bundy-Inglewood and Barrington-McLaughlin-Slauson. Unsatisfied, voters elected a slate of “environmentalist” candidates to the city council, which proceeded to eliminate all north-south improvements save Centinela in early 1975.
Nowell complained bitterly, arguing that the West LA Plan would “[turn] this city back into a bike and horse economy, like some cruddy little town” and predicting that the Palms-Mar Vista-Del Rey Plan would turn LA into a “cow town because you can’t get around”. The city traffic engineer warned that “if people think traffic in the area is bad now, they ain’t seen nothing yet”. City Councilor Marvin Braude, one of the “environmentalist” councilors, argued that they had shifted the planning process on the Westside “to such things as car pools and rapid transit”, a claim that the last 40 years of history has proven dubious under the most generous definition of the word. Other opponents of development posited more metaphysical arguments, such as “suppose they widened the streets and no cars came”.
Ultimately, widening was restricted to Robertson, Overland, and Bundy-Centinela, though vestiges of the planned wider roads can still be found from Beverwil to Barrington. This requires the city to try to coerce Century City traffic into traveling over a mile east or west before heading south to access the 10.
Opponents of development also secured significant downzonings with the West LA Plan and Palms-Mar Vista-Del Rey Plan. The latter plan, calling for preservation of SFRs, restricted zoning for apartments to areas where they were already being developed, primarily the area of Palms east of Overland with a few tendrils extending to the west. This was expected to reduce the population at build-out from 168,000 to 130,000. (Unfortunately, the articles don’t say how many units this represented; obviously, regional prices and rents will have an impact on household size, and consequently on population.)
The West LA Plan likewise downzoned areas that had been zoned for multi-family development, and expected to reduce population at build-out from 135,000 to 106,000. Around the same time, the permissible density of Century City was reduced, including a reduction in commercial space as well as slashing the number of residential units allowed from 8,000 to 4,000. The density allowed on Wilshire Blvd was also reduced.
By 1975, a new plan was in place for the Westside, one that envisioned a future of lower density and less traffic, but would only deliver on one of those promises.
Fast Forward to Today
There would be further challenges to urban density in the intervening years. For example, the Braude and Zev Yaroslavsky-backed Prop U (1986), reduced allowable FAR in most of the city’s commercial zones from 3 to 1.5. While Prop U targeted commercial development, C1 & C2 zones allow R3 & R4 uses by default, so Prop U effectively reduces residential development opportunity as well.
Century City commuters stubbornly refused to use Overland and Robertson, leading to further resident outcry over “cut through” traffic. But despite the promises of shifting planning away from the automobile, rapid transit and pedestrian/bicycle plans have also been stymied since that time. Plans for a subway on Wilshire were delayed for years by Henry Waxman’s 1985 ban on federal funds for subway construction on the Westside, and Zev Yaroslavsky’s 1998 ballot measure that precluded use of Measure A and Measure C funds for such purposes. The Expo Line will open soon, but only after overcoming several lawsuits from Cheviot Hills and Rancho Park residents. Westside streets remain auto-oriented, with some lacking sidewalks, and bike lanes being opposed by resident groups like the Westwood South of Santa Monica Homeowners’ Association.
Where Do We Go From Here? Or, Our Kingdom for a Boulevard
It should be clear that, in the modern framework of thinking about cities, there are no clean heroes or villains in this story. On one side, you had support for greater urban density, to be enabled by widening streets all over the place and hacking the Laurel Canyon, Beverly Hills, and Slauson Freeways into existence. On the other side, you had strong “environmentalist” support for eternal SFR neighborhoods without any meaningful support for rapid transit, resulting in innumerable hours of traffic misery for people forced to commute on the 10 and the 405.
For our purpose here – north-south transit on the Westside – we need to understand this history, and how it affects the transit options that are available. Congestion and the uneven street grid make it difficult to lay out effective, efficient transit lines on surface routes, but the low density neighborhoods call the practicality of fully grade-separated transit into question. From a transit perspective, the two biggest gaps in the arterial network are probably the lack of a direct north-south connection from Century City to points south, and the incomplete Barrington-McLaughlin-Slauson arterial. The former makes it difficult to plan any north-south transit service to Century City, including connection to the Expo Line, the only high-quality rapid transit service in the near term. The latter would allow for a nice surface BRT route from the Slauson Corridor to West LA along roads with no ramps to the 10 or the 405, avoiding the congestion caused by such facilities.
This post is not to say that all these street widening projects should be resurrected. US cities seem to be unusually adept at destroying themselves that way, though other cities since the time of Haussmann have shown you can have wide boulevards that are an urban amenity, and arterials that will hopefully have high-quality transit someday, like La Cienega, came into existence that way. The takeaway here is that the north-south roads, as they exist today, are the reality we have to work with, and they are going to make it difficult to get exclusive or semi-exclusive ROW. It’d be convenient if we had an Olympic Blvd, but we don’t. More on the potential north-south transit services next time.
For opponents of development on the Westside, the question is more philosophical, and I’d put it like this: you’ve been tilting at the windmills of traffic and density for 50 years now. But no neighborhood is an island. Century City can’t be unbuilt. UCLA and LAX aren’t going anywhere. Santa Monica, Venice, and Playa Vista are some of the hottest commercial markets in the region. People living in the Valley and South Bay are always going to have reasons to travel to the Westside; service industry workers are always going to need a place to live and a way to get to work. How much longer are you going to keep fighting a battle that can’t be won the way you’re fighting it?
Westwood Economic Study, City of Los Angeles (1963)
The Low-Rise Speculative Apartment, Wallace Francis Smith (1964)
Palms-Mar Vista-Del Rey Socioeconomic Study, City of Los Angeles (1970)
“Palms-Mar Vista Preliminary Plan Calls for Apartment Zone Rollback”, LA Times (January 23, 1972)
“West LA Plan Proposals Face Bitter Opposition”, LA Times (June 29, 1972)
“Resident, Developers Angered by Proposed Plans for Century City”, LA Times (August 13, 1972)
“Planners Will Tackle WLA Traffic Problems”, LA Times (November 12, 1972)
“Traffic Fears Delay WLA Plan’s Approval”, LA Times (November 19, 1972)
“West LA Plan Foretells Severe Traffic Congestion”, LA Times (March 11, 1973)
“West LA Plan Approved Over Protests Noise Was Ignored”, LA Times (November 15, 1973)
“West LA Plan OKd, Called Move Away From Autos”, LA Times (December 20, 1973)
“Mar Vista Resident Group Hits City Plan”, LA Times (February 24, 1974)
“Palms-Mar Vista Plan Approved”, LA Times (December 26, 1974)
“Environmentalists ‘Sweep’, Community Plan Wins Approval”, LA Times (April 24, 1975)