Tag Archives: Orange County

Las Vegas is Good

Last weekend I ran a Twitter poll asking people if Las Vegas is a good city. The results were more or less what you’d expect from urbanist Twitter, with people saying Las Vegas is bad by a 3:1 margin.

twitterpoll

Well, I’m here to tell you that Las Vegas is, in fact, good.

Las Vegas, as a very young American city (population was under 50,000 after World War 2), has a physical form that doesn’t appeal to most urbanists or to many people in planning. Like many newer cities, it actually has fewer freeways than older cities of similar size. Las Vegas essentially has 4 freeways, the 15, the 95/515, the 215, and Summerlin Parkway; compare that to similar size metros like Kansas City, Cincinnati, Cleveland, or Pittsburgh.

What Las Vegas lacks in freeways, it more than makes up for in medium density auto-oriented suburban development served by very wide arterial roadways. This makes it easy to see the physical form of Las Vegas as a symptom of urban dysfunction, but this is a mistake. Like Los Angeles before it, Las Vegas is a successful city that creates opportunity for many different people, misunderstood because it does not look like older cities.

To start, I think we need to remember what a city is and what it does. A city is a place that attracts many different people of diverse backgrounds because of the economic opportunity created by having lots of people in close proximity. A larger population allows for increased economic specialization, higher incomes and standard of living, and greater freedom to pursue one’s dreams. It also allows for larger communities of immigrants and marginalized groups to form, creating the support networks needed for those groups to thrive and build the social power necessary to combat discrimination.

This has very little to do with urban form, transportation, or walkability. East of the 100th Meridian, America has lots of places that are pretty walkable with pleasant mixed-use cores. I like to call them… towns. It’s perfectly possible to have a city that is dense and walkable, but failing at being a city because of economic stagnation or decline, and it’s also possible to have small cities and towns that are walkable but not growing very much. This is largely a separate question.

As a simple example of how successful Las Vegas is in allowing economic specialization, consider that Carrot Top has headlined a show at the Luxor since 2005. I submit to you that there is no other city in America, perhaps the world, where this could happen. While Carrot Top is perhaps the silliest example, Las Vegas has created tens of thousands of jobs for artists and entertainers – as of February 2018, almost 22,000 jobs, up 40% from the post-recession low and doubled since 1990. The percentage of jobs in arts and entertainment in Las Vegas is 2.22%, comparable to Los Angeles (2.40%) and about twice that of Houston (1.12%).

LV-entertainment

So, Las Vegas has created opportunity for thousands of people in that industry, enabling them to settle down in one place, rather than have to travel from city to city to perform. In addition, the hospitality industry accounts for almost 30% of jobs in Las Vegas – almost 300,000. So Las Vegas has created a ton of working class employment as well.

Finally, Las Vegas has remained much more affordable than California, especially coastal Metros. The cheapest new homes in the distant reaches of the Inland Empire like Victorville and San Jacinto are about $250,000, over 60 miles from the city center. In LA/OC excluding the Antelope Valley you’d be lucky to find anything new for under $500,000. Meanwhile in Las Vegas you can get new construction much closer to the city center, about 10-12 miles out, for $200,000.

Given all of that, it’s no surprise that Las Vegas is a major destination for domestic migration out of southern California. Let’s look at some domestic migration data for SoCal to Las Vegas, and also to Phoenix, another major destination for domestic migration. Here’s net migration to Clark County (Las Vegas) and Maricopa County (Phoenix). All data is based on the 2011-2015 ACS.

C2C-net-all-all

Los Angeles County provides a disproportionately large amount of SoCal’s net migration to Las Vegas, perhaps due to the synergy between the entertainment industry in the two counties. On the other hand, Orange County is a disproportionate amount of SoCal’s net migration to Phoenix.

MichaelB

Let’s dig a little further into the migration data by age and by race, which I think helps make the case that Las Vegas is good.

Here’s four graphs, showing migration by age for each of the four SoCal counties (sorry, San Diego, get your own blogger) to Clark County.

C2C-net-all-age-1C2C-net-all-age-2

Los Angeles County loses population to Clark County for every age group except 18-19, probably representing college students. The biggest age cohorts that move from LA to Las Vegas are 5-17 year olds, 25-29 year olds, 45-49 year olds, and 20-24 year olds. This overwhelmingly represents young people and families that cannot afford to live in Southern California, and are finding opportunity in Las Vegas instead. For Orange County, it’s people in their 20s and their 50s moving to Las Vegas. For the Inland Empire, migration is much more balanced due to the lower cost of housing in the IE, with Riverside County actually gaining children and more or less breaking even overall. San Bernardino County loses children and young people at almost the same rate as LA County, but gains people in their 30s.

For comparison, here are the same graphs for Maricopa County.

C2C-net-all-age-3C2C-net-all-age-4

Again, LA loses many children, 20-somethings, and 30-somethings to Phoenix, while gaining a few college students. Like with Clark County, the IE sees more balanced migration but still overall loses population to Phoenix.

While trends may seem broadly similar based on age, Clark County appears to be doing a better job of creating opportunity for a more diverse group of people. Here’s migration by race from LA County to Clark County and Maricopa County.

C2C-net-all-race-LA

Net white migration and net black migration from LA County to Clark County was practically the same, just over 2,000 each, despite whites being 52.4% of LA County’s population and blacks being only 8.6%, with each group making up roughly 30% of LA County’s net migration to Clark County. Asians, who are 13.8% of LA County, account for 20%, with other or 2+ race people making up the remaining 20%.

Meanwhile, whites made up almost 75% of LA County’s net migration to Maricopa County, with blacks being 18% and Asians 12%. Maricopa County actually lost other race and 2+ race people to Los Angeles County.

I’ll leave the reader to speculate why Phoenix attracts less diverse migration than Las Vegas, but it certainly appears, abstractly anyway, that Las Vegas is doing better at creating opportunity for more people. Note: I certainly do not intend any of this to gloss over or ignore the fact that African-Americans in LA County have paid the worst price for the loss of working class jobs and rising rents in low-income communities. The intent here is to compare places that people are moving to.

Here are the same graphs for the other three SoCal counties.

C2C-net-all-race-OCC2C-net-all-race-RivC2C-net-all-race-SB

Las Vegas is, without question, very auto-oriented. Its one attempt at fixed guideway transit, the monorail, did not exactly deliver inspiring results. Its pedestrian infrastructure is savagely minimal off the Strip, while the Strip itself is a mix of throngs of pedestrians violating punishingly long light cycles and traffic engineering dystopia where all pedestrians are forced to cross on bridges. Its downtown revitalization project is single-handedly run by a tech mogul with some unusual business practices. No one is looking to Las Vegas for urban design ideas.

And yet, Las Vegas is pretty clearly succeeding as a city. California cities would do well to start measuring their success by how many people they create opportunity for, rather than how high they can drive housing prices.

Where’s the IE Housing Boom?

LA needs a housing boom. That, we know beyond a doubt.

However, housing is a regional market, and the SoCal market includes the Inland Empire, which has historically been an outlet for housing demand in LA County and Orange County. The IE does have some apartment development, but it’s best known for its single-family residence (SFR) subdivisions, where houses are considerably cheaper than in LA-OC.

SFR construction in the IE is probably a pretty low priority for most urbanists, but there’s a pretty good case it’s not a bad thing. For one, growth in the IE provides at least some measure of new housing to check price and rent increases in LA-OC. Second, The IE is projected to be one of California’s fastest growing employment centers, and those folks will need housing close to where they work. Last, given how much of the IE is already developed, many projects are effectively suburban infill. Since regional density is more important than local density in determining vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita, one of the best ways to reduce VMT per capita is for the IE to look more like LA.

If you went back to 2012 or 2013 and asked housing market watchers, they likely would have expected more growth in SFR construction in places like the IE by today. (Some little corners of Twitter can hardly wait to shove an SFR boom in people’s faces; you know who you are.) To be honest, I expected suburban growth in the IE to have returned full force, and ended all the speculation about the death of the suburbs. That expectation was not based on supposed Millennial housing preferences or demographic shifts or gas prices or anything like that, but on land use policy realities: people would move to where housing was cheap, and housing would be cheap in the IE because it’s so much easier to build new SFRs there than to redevelop land in LA-OC.

Despite steadily increasing prices, though, there’s no sign of an SFR boom. Calculated Risk has the run down on housing starts at the national level as of September. Happily, after tapering off earlier this year, multifamily starts have picked back up. Single-family starts are still lower than at any time since 1969 except the brief, sharp recession of 1981-1982, and are only increasing slowly despite over 6 years of very low construction levels.

This is true at the local level too. While multifamily starts in LA-OC are at least back to prerecession levels (though still much lower than in the 1980s, and they need to be even higher than that), SFR starts are incredibly lame: less than 1,000 permitted per month, worse than even the early 1990s recession that pummeled SoCal’s economy. You could, to some extent, argue that’s about land: the only places in LA-OC with any appreciable amount of land for SFR construction are Irvine and the Antelope Valley, and Irvine actually does have an honest-to-goodness boom. The Antelope Valley is too far from job growth centers; its boom in the 1980s was related to the local defense industry, and SFR construction there is practically non-existent today as there is no price support.

LA-OC total starts

On the other hand, there’s plenty of land in places like Ontario and Fontana, both for large master plans of the type that exploded in Eastvale in the 2000s, and for small infill subdivisions. Lack of suitable sites is not the issue. And yet, SFR construction in the IE is going nowhere.

IE total starts

The IE economy was badly damaged by the recession, but job growth has resumed and passed the prerecession peak.

IE job growth

In addition, LA-OC has had fairly strong job growth, which should create spillover effects in the IE housing market.

LA-OC job growth

But IE housing construction is very weak. Why is this?

The new SFRs that are being produced are high end houses. Bloomberg reports that nationally, starter homes are increasingly beyond young people’s grasp. Anecdotally, keeping an eye on what the suburban home builders are offering, you almost can’t find any new construction in Eastvale, Chino, Ontario, Fontana, or Jurupa Valley for under $400,000. In a region with a median household income of about $55,000, that is a luxury product. If you want to find new construction below $300,000, you’ll have to go to Menifee, Perris, or places east of the 215, which is impractical if you work in LA-OC.

This situation is perhaps even more surprising given that the IE has had no real wage growth. It’s not like people are making lots more money and looking to buy bigger.

IE wages

The lack of cheaper SFR construction has been attributed to just about everything under the sun, from materials costs to labor costs, from tight lending conditions to municipal reluctance to permit cheaper housing, from Millennial preferring cities to home builders preferring to target the top of the market. Whatever the cause, so long as SFR construction in the IE remains weak, it is even more imperative that we solve our housing construction issues in LA-OC, to keep the region from becoming ever more unaffordable.

Rethinking Metrolink, Part 1

Last summer, after struggling for a few months to try to write something productive about Metrolink, I decided to just listen to ridership data and media stories for a while. Ridership data has not been good; with the exception of the Inland Empire – Orange County Line, all lines have been steadily losing ridership. The malfunctions of ticket-vending machines have been well chronicled, as have the agencies troubles with equipment and its finances.

The first order of business is putting the house in order. That means getting finances and maintenance squared away, so that trains run on time and passengers can pay their fares. The second issue is a bit more meta: what is Metrolink, how does it relate to the geography of development in Southern California, and how can that be improved? The latter issue is the one set before us today.

SoCal Commuter Rail

Conceptually, Metrolink is no different than traditional East Coast US commuter rail systems such as those in Boston (MBTA), New York (Metro North, LIRR, NJT), and Philadelphia (SEPTA). These networks are designed to convey relatively well-off white collar workers from suburbs to a single dominant central business district in the morning and then back in the evening. As such, they are typified by very peaky service, that is, service is quite frequent towards the CBD on weekday mornings and towards the suburbs on weekday evenings, and very infrequent or non-existent at other times.

This is a poor route and service structure for Southern California. Metrolink is arranged to bring people to downtown LA in the morning and home in the afternoon, but downtown LA is just one of many business districts in greater LA. Its traditional industries, government and finance, have seen slow or no job growth. Office vacancy is higher than on the Westside, and downtown’s boom has been almost entirely residential – people who obviously don’t need to get downtown in the morning, because they’re already there! To complicate things, LA Union Station is on the very fringe of downtown, requiring a transfer to the Red/Purple Line to access the business district.

In contrast to East Coast cities, LA is polycentric. This creates both challenges and opportunities for a rail service like Metrolink. Peer systems in regions that also have major business districts outside of the central city would include:

  • Caltrain, which serves both a traditional downtown in SF and a significant reverse commute to Silicon Valley.
  • Paris RER, which serves an enormous peripheral business district (La Defense) that puts Century City to shame.
  • Seoul, which has numerous business districts both in the city proper (such as Yongsan, Gangnam, and Jongno) and outside (such as Incheon and Songdo). Seoul also has truly integrated subway and commuter rail lines like Line 1, baffling many a US observer.

What Lines Does Metrolink Have?

Metrolink’s lines have different characteristics, both amongst themselves and from many other commuter rail lines. The lines currently operated by Metrolink are as follows:

  • Ventura Line: this line travels from downtown LA past Glendale and Burbank, then through the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County. Its entire route is shared with Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner, which runs from San Luis Obispo to San Diego. There are some daily freight trains on the line, but nothing out of the ordinary.
  • Antelope Valley Line: this line travels from downtown LA, sharing track with the Ventura Line past Glendale and Burbank, north through the San Fernando Valley and Santa Clarita. It crosses the San Gabriel Mountains through Soledad Pass to the Antelope Valley communities of Palmdale and Lancaster. Again, there are some daily freight trains on the line, but nothing out of the ordinary.
  • San Bernardino Line: this line travels east from downtown LA through the San Gabriel Valley and southwest San Bernardino County to San Bernardino. Freight traffic is minimal on this line, consisting almost entirely of local service.
  • Riverside Line: this line travels east from downtown LA through the City of Industry, Ontario, and northwest Riverside County to Riverside. This is UP’s Los Angeles Subdivision, which together with UP’s Alhambra Subdivision serves over 50 freight trains per day, including both long distance and local traffic.
  • 91 Line: this line travels southeast from downtown LA to Fullerton, then east and northeast to Riverside and San Bernardino. Freight volumes are between 40 and 50 trains per day from LA to Fullerton, increasing to nearly 70 trains per day between Riverside and the infamous, and now defunct, Colton Crossing.
  • Orange County Line: this line shares track with the 91 Line from downtown LA to Fullerton, and then runs southeast through Orange County all the way to Oceanside. There is some freight traffic south of the split with the 91 Line, but nothing out of the ordinary.
  • Inland Empire – Orange County Line: this line runs from Riverside to Oceanside, almost entirely on the same track as the 91 Line and Orange County Line.

The freight volumes on the Riverside Line and 91 Line are an unusual condition for a commuter rail operation. Most East Coast lines don’t compete with freight volumes anywhere near this high. The comparable lines would be Chicago Metra’s UP West, BNSF, and Heritage Corridor Services. Impressively, the UP West and BNSF Lines provide at least hourly service (with a few exceptions) from early morning to late night, even to shockingly low density places like Elburn and La Fox. These lines have many areas of triple track, with more planned, but freight congestion is apparently still an issue. The Heritage Corridor runs only three round trips per day.

What Areas Does Metrolink Serve?

Metrolink serves many different parts of the region, with different travel demand and therefore differing transit needs. As I see it, the Metrolink service region can be broken down as follows:

  • Ventura County: located too far for commuting to downtown LA to generate high ridership. Simi Valley has less than 400 boardings, and Moorpark less than 250. Stations further west do not even achieve 100. These stations can probably be adequately served by improved Pacific Surfliner service and perhaps some express bus.
  • Santa Clarita and the Antelope Valley: the three Santa Clarita stations combined pull about 1,000 riders, but Santa Clarita doesn’t have a central business area that could serve as an anchor. The stations are not in particularly dense areas and function as park-and-ride style transit. The Antelope Valley stations are much further away, with each having less than 400 boardings. With the expansion of HOV lanes on the 14 and the 5, many of these riders could be served by peaky transit express bus, which both Santa Clarita Transit and Antelope Valley Transit already operate in direct competition with Metrolink. (Plus, Lancaster Mayor R Rex Parris is not exactly Metrolink’s best friend.)
  • San Fernando Valley: given that the Valley is mostly relatively dense suburbs, the Metrolink stations there achieve appallingly low ridership. Why would you get on Metrolink at Van Nuys, where there are only 22 round trips per day, and pay $7.25 one way when the same trip on Metro services would cost $1.75 with much more frequent services? High-cost infrequent commuter rail is not the right type of service for the Valley; service here should run on rapid transit schedules with rapid transit fares.
  • Burbank Airport – Irvine corridor: this is the highest intensity corridor served by Metrolink, including Burbank, Glendale, downtown LA, and the major Orange County cities (Anaheim, Santa Ana, and Irvine). The curveball is that the heart of the corridor – downtown LA to Fullerton – happens to be BNSF’s main line from the ports to the rest of America. It serves high freight volumes and is abutted by large industrial zones. Thus, while the portion north of LA might be appropriate for rapid transit frequencies, the southern portion isn’t, because abutting land use doesn’t support it and freight traffic won’t allow it. However, the entire corridor is suitable for regional rail service. As Paul Druce of Reason Rail has noted elsewhere, the reverse commute potential on this corridor is just as strong as the normal direction.
  • San Gabriel Valley and San Bernardino County: the western San Gabriel Valley is similar to the San Fernando Valley, and might warrant rapid transit frequency. Further east, the San Bernardino Line continues through established suburbs to San Bernardino, a major node in the Inland Empire. With decent anchors at both ends and a minor node at Claremont in the middle, the San Bernardino Line should warrant relatively frequent service.
  • City of Industry & Riverside Line: the Industry station gets about 1,000 boardings per day, though this is a 30% decline from 2010. This is sort of a super express to downtown LA since there’s only one stop in between. None of the other stations on the line achieve inspiring ridership. However, the lack of HOV lanes on the 60 west of the 605 suggests that it would be hard to replicate this service with bus.
  • Corona – San Bernardino Corridor: this corridor parallels the 91 and the 215, two congested Riverside County freeways. Corona is a minor node, and Riverside is a major business district for the Inland Empire. The density along the corridor isn’t bad, but it’s much shallower than the San Bernardino Line, thanks to anti-development cities like Norco, Jurupa Valley, and Riverside. This corridor is suitable for regional rail, though not with the same level of service as Burbank – Irvine.
  • South Orange County: south of Irvine, Orange County development is similar to Santa Clarita and much of Ventura County in that there aren’t any major business nodes. The stations get relatively low ridership, with less than 400 in Laguna Niguel, and less than 200 in San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano. Oceanside gets a surprising amount of ridership, perhaps due to connections to Sprinter and Coaster services. However, this region could probably be served by improved Pacific Surfliner service.

Missing Links

If you want to run rapid transit style services in the San Fernando Valley and western San Gabriel Valley, you don’t want to dead-end them in downtown LA, because it would result in unbalanced demand. So what would you connect them to? There are lots of good options to be discussed; here’s one:

  • Chatsworth – Santa Ana: the existing out-of-service rail corridor between downtown LA and Santa Ana is high on the Measure R2 wish list; connecting it to the Chatsworth to downtown LA service would balance the line. This line would relieve the Orange Line in the Valley, and provide transit to dense cities like Maywood, Bell, Cudahy, and the Gateway Cities. This would be the highest priority.
  • Sylmar – Long Beach: this would overlap with the Chatsworth – Santa Ana service from Burbank to Paramount. The northern section would provide frequent service to San Fernando, while the southern section would help relieve the Blue Line. This would be the second priority.
  • Purple Line to El Monte: this would balance the Purple Line and provide a one seat ride from the San Gabriel Valley to the Westside. It would be the most technically challenging expansion. While the first two lines could be built with standard DMUs (or future EMUs) compatible with other equipment on the liens, Purple Line vehicles have different dimensions that would complicate design. Such an option would have to be accomplished by rerouting Metrolink regional rail to the Alhambra Subdivision from downtown LA to El Monte, or with a technological trick like platform extenders.
  • Conceptual Red Line extensions: these don’t involve the Metrolink lines, but are shown for discussion. An extension north would connect to the Sylmar – Long Beach Line. An extension southeast would provide rapid transit to East LA, Montebello, Pico Rivera, and Whittier. If north-south rapid bus services were implemented on major roads like Atlantic or Lakewood, they would offer transfers to this line, eliminating need for transfers to the LA – Fullerton section of the regional rail line.

Combine this with a couple north-south transit routes on the Westside and in the Valley, like say Reseda/Lincoln Blvds and Van Nuys/Sepulveda Blvds, and you’ve got a pretty solid rapid transit network for Los Angeles.

Regional Rail Services

San Fernando to Irvine is the obvious main corridor for regional rail. That leaves a set of three lines – San Bernardino, Riverside, and 91 – that don’t lend themselves easily to through-routing. C-shaped routes tend to perform poorly because the potential to serve trips passing through the central area is very low. Again, there are many options; here’s one:

  • Through-route the San Bernardino Line and 91 Line into the second regional rail line. Yes, this creates a very tight C, almost a closed loop. This could be mitigated by various means, explored in part 2.
  • Do what you will with the Riverside Line – replace with express bus or keep running it as a super express, whatever you see fit. There’s no reason it has to provide the same frequency or fare structure as the other lines.

The Reveal

At long last, here’s a map of all this:

//widgets.scribblemaps.com/sm/?d=true&z=true&l=true&mc=true&lat=34.05375653600599&lng=-118.0717533218384&vz=10&type=road&width=700&height=550&id=MetrolinkRT-B

I drew this in Scribble Maps, my first time using that tool. I’m curious what people think. It’s relatively easy to draw, add text labels, and edit things, but the text labels don’t scale when you zoom out, so it’s hard to see everything all at once.

Here’s a more conventional map of this improvement, drawn in my old friend AutoCAD. The regional rail lines are shown in tan, Pacific Surfliner in Amtrak blue. Where the routes overlap, blue is shown on top of tan. All other lines are subway, light rail, or BRT, as you like it.

regrail3

I’ve also thrown in proposals from some other posts (Westside transit, more Green Line stations) to give an idea of what this all looks likes together.

Scheduling

The rapid transit service would obviously run with low headways, so there’s not much to say there. The regional rail component is where it gets interesting. In Part 2, we’ll take a look at different options for the regional rail lines.

Compete With Arterials, Not Just Freeways

In the US, we often mentally organize cities by their freeways, and consequently we often conceptualize potential transit as mimicking the freeway network. Hence we think of north-south transit between the Westside and the Valley as “the 405 Line”.

But as Cap’n Transit would remind us, transit is competing with parallel facilities like freeways. If the freeway is a total basket case, like the 405, you’ll probably do fine. But in a place like Orange County, even the heavily traveled freeways are going to offer faster average speeds. Where transit and freeways compete, freeways often come out on top, partly because medium distance trips are the sweet spot for freeways – trips that are long enough to make freeway access time worth it because of the higher speeds freeways offer.

However, transit is also in competition with arterial roadways, mostly for trips for which freeways can’t compete. These are shorter distance trips, where it’s not worth the time to get to and from the freeway, as well as medium distance trips where there’s no freeway available. In fact, even in LA County, the best performing LRT lines are the ones that are not directly in competition with a freeway: the Blue Line is somewhere between the 110 and the 710, and Expo Line Phase 1 is about a mile from the 10 (and benefits from the truly abominable traffic). Meanwhile, the lines that directly compete with a freeway (the Green Line and the 105, the Gold Line and the 110) achieve fewer boardings per mile.

It follows that we could find some clever and unexpectedly successful LRT or BRT routes by looking for long, straight arterial corridors that are serving short distance trips and medium distance trips where there’s no freeway available. In fact, we already saw a couple such potential routes when we looked at Sepulveda Pass/LAX transit: Reseda, Balboa, and Lincoln are long arterial corridors where there’s no practical competing freeway.

Where else do we have potential corridors like this? Here’s a few that come to mind:

  • Beach from Huntington Beach through Westminster and Stanton to Buena Park (or maybe La Habra)
  • Harbor from Newport Beach and Costa Mesa through Garden Grove and Anaheim to Fullerton (or maybe La Habra)
  • Florence from Westchester through Inglewood, South LA, Huntington Park, and Bell Gardens to Downey
  • Lakewood from Pico Rivera through Downey, Bellflower, and Lakewood to Long Beach
  • Hawthorne in Torrance
  • PCH from LAX to Long Beach
  • Imperial from Norwalk through La Mirada and Brea to Yorba Linda
  • Whittier from East LA through Montebello, Pico Rivera, and Whittier to La Habra
  • Azusa from Industry through Covina to Azusa
  • Rosemead from South El Monte through Rosemead and Temple City to East Pasadena

arterials

At the moment, I’m finding the first two the most intriguing. The others are good candidates for sure, but I like the idea of a sneaker route in Orange County, connecting the beaches to Metrolink. Beach is a good five miles from any competing north-south freeway. Harbor probably has better destinations but is closer to the 55 and the 57.

The problem to watch out for with routes like this is making sure there’s enough development to justify the route. Odds are the biggest destinations have freeways between them, but you can still find routes that make sense. I may revisit one or several of these corridors in more detail in the future.

LA Land Use Patterns Help Reduce VMT

Sometimes you find things in the darnedest places. While reading Randal O’Toole’s testimony on Washington’s Growth Management Act (spoiler: he’s opposed), I see he references work by David Brownstone down at UC Irvine:

As University of California (Irvine) economist David Brownstone concluded after thoroughly studying this issue, the link between land uses and driving is ‘too small to be useful’ in attempting to save energy or reduce emissions.

Hmm, as someone they tell me was a Great Communicator used to say: trust, but verify. So let’s see what Brownstone has to say in his most recent paper:

The estimation results indicate that residential density has a statistically significant but economically modest influence on vehicle usage, which is similar to that in previous studies. However, the joint effect of the contextual density measure (density in the context of its surrounding area) and residential density on vehicle usage is quantitatively larger than the sole effect of residential density. Moving a household from a suburban to an urban area reduces household annual mileage by 18%.

I’ll leave you to speculate as to why O’Toole would cite authoritative sounding sources that, on closer review, clearly do not say what he would like you to think.

Nevertheless, the result of the Brownstone paper is very important: density on the census block level has a relatively small impact on vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Regional effects dominate. In other words, density is much more important on the regional scale than the local scale. If you want to decrease VMT, you need to increase regional density, not just build TOD projects at transit stations.

This study lends support to things we’ve explored from an intuitive perspective before (and data is almost always better than intuition). It explains how places like LA and Orange County can show up in lists of lowest household gasoline use* – even if you have to drive, you never have to drive very far. And it also shows a possible way forward for a region that shows up on lists of highest household gasoline use – the IE. Rather than focus on building TOD projects near transit stations, officials in the IE should upzone everywhere. They should allow things like Palms-style apartments and redevelopment of Cudahy-style lots the way they’ve been redeveloped in their namesake city. Because while the IE will probably never be able to emulate New York City’s travel patterns, it could certainly emulate LA’s.

*Note: 7 of the 10 worst gas guzzling cities are in the South (excluding Texas), which also makes sense in the context of my post on suburb types.

When Does More Expensive Construction Make Sense?

One of the most common criticisms of things like Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary is that they increase housing costs. This is undeniably true, at least on a per SF basis, because denser construction costs more. While prowling around Save Marinwood and Quiet and Safe San Rafael, I found a presentation by John Burns that gives relative costs of construction: about $60/SF for SFR, about $90/SF for garden apartments, and about $200/SF for podium construction. While you might be able to save on transportation costs by living closer to your job, in general the tradeoff you make is accepting a smaller dwelling in exchange for living in a more desirable area.

Still, even with no urban growth boundary to speak of, at some point, agglomeration effects cause prices to rise to the point where more expensive types of construction make sense. See, for example, Los Angeles. When does that happen?

As part of trying to keep track of larger trends, I’ve started following the suburban development homes being offered by the major builders. Partly, this is because others (like Curbed) are already keeping good tabs on development in LA and Orange County. But also, urban redevelopment projects tend to be more unique, depending on the specific developer goals, location, land costs, difficulty of permitting, and so on. In the suburbs, we can look at projects in different communities by the same developer, which makes it easier to compare costs across communities, or we can look at projects in the same community by different developers, which makes it easier to compare developers.

D.R. Horton is a major builder in the region, as of early November it had 25 developments in progress in LA, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Imperial Counties. Of these, 14 were in Riverside County, highlighting the uneven nature of the recovery. D.R. Horton’s most affordable properties, in Adelanto and Imperial, are selling for about $100/SF, around 165% of construction costs.

Therefore, assuming that zoning allows for it, and market conditions and regulation don’t favor buying over renting, that means garden apartments become economic when prices hit about $150/SF, and podiums when prices hit about $330/SF.

The threshold for garden apartments is pretty low; based on D.R. Horton’s SFR pricing, they already make sense in places like Fontana and Murrieta. Podium construction has a higher threshold; Santa Clarita is getting close, and LA and Orange County pencil out. Note that this is a gross simplification. Small (1-2 person) households often don’t want dwellings as large as SFRs. In a place like Adelanto, a lot of single people could be accommodated in things like garage apartments, let rooms, and so on, if permitted. At small sizes, prices don’t scale linearly because of fixed costs like bathrooms and kitchens, which are more expensive per SF than bedrooms or living rooms.

However crude it is, this analysis is consistent with the expectation that there is a logical progression of densities as you approach more desirable areas: SFRs to garden apartments to podiums.

I should point out that by this logic, high-rise construction doesn’t make sense until prices go above about $700/SF – a level that almost nowhere in Los Angeles has reached. Not to beat a dead horse, but I feel compelled to again emphasize that the debate is not about the aesthetics of mid-rise versus high-rise construction. It is affordability versus unaffordability. If your vision is high-rises instead of mid-rises, your vision is an unaffordable Los Angeles. There’s no two ways about it.

The Limits of O’Toole-onomics

Update: Randal O’Toole was kind enough to respond via email. I’ve updated the post to reflect those corrections, and added his full comment and my reply at the bottom of the post.

This thought has been kicking around in my head for a while, but this Next City – The Works post by Stephen J. Smith on commute times in cities finally motivated to me to hash it out.

It’s long been noted that, super commuters aside, human beings tend to have a fairly constant travel time budget. This means that increases in the average speeds of transportation facilities often result in people traveling further distances in the same amount of time, rather than the same distances in less time. It also means that, given an average speed for a mode of transportation, there’s a practical limit to the size of city you can serve primarily with that mode.

For example, in a rural town that predates cars, you can access everything in the town by walking. No matter where you are, nothing would be more than a mile or two away. People might bike or drive to save time out of convenience or to avoid unpleasant weather, but functionally, the town can work without cars. For example, if you’re in Lone Pine, you can get to anything else in Lone Pine just by walking.

Biking expands your reach, and in a small city – say the size of Merced or Santa Maria, maybe even Santa Barbara or Ventura – could provide you access to everything the city has to offer. Now, maybe bicycle facilities in some of those places are sadly lacking, but that doesn’t mean the concept is technically unsound. We could make it work if we wanted to.

If your city gets much bigger than that, though, you need some type of higher speed transportation. There are many possible combinations that work. For example, New York and Boston provide rapid transit to move you quickly across parts of the city, depending on you to walk the last bits of your trip. Places with huge bike usage, like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, provide transit and plenty of bike parking. Phoenix and Houston give you freeways and craploads of car parking. Ignoring environmental, aesthetic, and efficiency concerns, the only requirement is that you increase the amount of distance people can cover in the same amount of time.

In very large metro areas, it’s hard for even freeways and rapid transit to overcome the distances, and as a result, new nodes of development start to spring up – places like Irvine and Tysons Corner – to keep commuting times down to what people will tolerate. And in fact, despite the perception of Orange County as a suburb of LA, 85% of people who live there work there as well. Cross county flows are about the same in each direction – 180,000 live in Orange County and work in LA County, with a similar number doing the opposite.

Okay, we have the technology to build lots of freeways, transit, whatever – so why don’t metro areas just sprawl out into infinity to keep land costs down? Well, working in opposition to things that tend to decentralize cities, like quality transportation and communications, we have agglomeration economies. Basically, people and businesses want to be located as close as possible to the people and businesses that they interact with. If you want to start a movie studio, it makes sense to do it in Los Angeles, where there are lots of people you need like actors, grips, gaffers, show runners, and so on. If you know how to write smartphone apps, it makes sense for you to move a place like San Francisco where there are lots of jobs for people with that skill.

And that brings us to today’s question: what is Randal O’Toole’s answer for a place like Los Angeles, that has grown out to the practical limits of presently available transportation technologies?

First, let me define what I see as the essential points of the Randal O’Toole plan:

  • Public transit can’t compete with the car in modern cities. It’s cheaper to build more roads and use things like congestion pricing. Bus transit is cheaper than rail transit.
  • Centralized land use planning is inherently less efficient than the free market.
  • Things like urban growth boundaries drive up the cost of housing by limiting the amount of developable land and forcing multi-family construction that is more expensive per square foot than single-family residential (SFR).

For the sake of argument, let’s accept these points. In this framework, places like the Bay Area and Portland are unquestionably making bad decisions that will cost a lot of money, hurt their economies, and make the regions less affordable.

And hey, he’s got a point. Throwing open West Marin and all of Clackamas County to master planned suburban development like Clark County would enable you to build a lot of housing relatively close to the centers of San Francisco and Portland. You might not like the idea of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area turning into Daly City, but technically, it would work. In his critique of Plan Bay Area (PBA), O’Toole calculates that currently, 21% of the land area is developed, and by increasing it to 44%, growth could be accommodated by SFR development. Again, that might seem like an unacceptable change to a lot of people in the Bay Area – including, ironically, a lot of the NIMBYs who cited O’Toole’s analysis when fighting PBA – but it would work.

But what about LA?

Other than Ventura County, LA doesn’t have any urban growth boundaries. The developable areas that are protected – the Santa Monica Mountains, the Chino Hills, the San Joaquin Hills – are small in the scheme of the region, and would end up being luxury housing anyway. The boundaries we’re pushing up against, like the San Gabriel Mountains, have topography that is simply too insane for development on a meaningful scale, along with having challenges like insufficient water supply.

Meanwhile, on the fringes of the LA region, the suburban development machine is coming back to life in places like Temecula, Beaumont, and Rialto, and the folks up in the Antelope Valley and the Victor Valley are waiting for their turn. They don’t have any urban growth boundaries, and they’re eager to see your subdivision or industrial park get up off the mat and start growing again. Their problem isn’t controls on land use, it’s slow growth in manufacturing, construction, trade, and logistics.

You know what could help those industries? More construction in the Los Angeles Basin. The parts of the LA economy that are doing well are centered in places like the Westside, and due to agglomeration effects, they want to expand on the Westside, not in Palmdale. But the places where suburban development is happening – Porter Ranch, Santa Clarita – are really far from the Westside. Housing isn’t expensive on the Westside because land use controls are preventing construction of SFRs; the problem is that the undeveloped land where you can build SFRs for under $200k is 90 miles away in Beaumont. What we need is construction of more apartment buildings on the Westside, construction that would almost certainly happen if it wasn’t prohibited by zoning laws and discouraged by onerous permitting requirements.*

To his credit, O’Toole is generally against zoning restrictions as a form of central planning. But his substitute, deed covenants, is even worse. Zoning, at least, can be changed by democratically elected officials, for better or worse. A homeowners association with deed covenants seems to me like a horizontal condo – a neighborhood that has no hope of being redeveloped, no matter how high property values go, because it’s just about impossible to get 100% of that many people to agree on anything. If you believe in letting the market guide development of cities, things like deed covenants are right out. Update: Mr. O’Toole corrects me on the issue of deed covenants. In many areas, deed covenants automatically renew unless 51% of owners vote to get rid of them, which is obviously an easier threshold to reach than 100%. If that’s the case, developers could conceivably buy 51% of the lots and vote to eliminate the restrictions. That still seems like a hard way to do things, and it will prevent the market from responding to demand.

So, what would Randal O’Toole suggest that we do?

*Note that if you follow this logic through, I’m saying that allowing more urban development in LA will encourage more suburban residential, commercial, and industrial development on the edges of the region. I think this is true: construction in the LA Basin will cause growth of construction-related industries, which are the kinds of the uses that need a bunch of cheap land. Contrary to the way many people on both sides of land use debates see it, regional growth is not zero-sum.

Update: here’s his full comment.

You raise a lot of issues. First, LA may not have formal urban-growth boundaries. But LAFCos effectively prevent extension of urban development. Under California law, developers cannot create the special districts needed to support development of unincorporated land without approval from the LAFCos. Under CEQA, such approval would almost certainly require an EIR, whose cost of $15 million or more must be paid by the developer. As a result, development is pretty much restricted to existing incorporated areas. Cities can’t annex without LAFCo approval either. This explains why the L.A. urban area has become the densest urbanized area in the U.S.

Congestion can be fixed through congestion pricing. If the toll revenues generated from congestion pricing are more than needed to operate the roads, then that is a signal that more roads should be built. If not, no need to build more roads.

You misunderstand how covenants work, at least in Texas, Kansas, and many other areas. These covenants typically renew periodically unless 51 percent of lot owners in the neighborhood decide not to renew them. It doesn’t take 100 percent. Developers have been known to persuade homeowners in some Houston neighborhoods to change their covenants to allow different kinds of development.

My thoughts: first, I appreciate the correction on deed covenants.

On the issue of LAFCos (Local Agency Formation Commissions): In California, counties have LAFCos, which can approve or deny applications to incorporate new cities or annex territory to existing cities. For example, not long ago, the LA County LAFCo turned down an application to incorporate East Los Angeles, on the grounds that the city would not be able to raise sufficient revenue to fund its operations. LAFCos also approve or deny applications to add territory to service districts like water and sanitation.

While you theoretically could use a LAFCo to stymie suburban growth by denying all incorporations, annexations, service districts, and so on, that doesn’t seem to happen in practice. LALAFCo recently approved annexations to Santa Clarita and Glendora. Riverside LAFCo has approved four incorporations in the last five years (Wildomar, Eastvale, Menifee, & Jurupa Valley). LAFCOs will naturally reflect the development climate of the county; I’d guess that no one at San Bernardino LAFCo or Riverside LAFCo is that worried about confining development to existing urbanized areas. On top of that, the cities in the Antelope Valley and Victor Valley have already annexed huge swaths of undeveloped desert.

Antelope Valley:

AntelopeValley

Victor Valley:

VictorValley

Also, let’s not forget that sometimes cities incorporate to prevent more development, like say Malibu or Rolling Hills.

You could write a book about California municipal finances, and I’m no fan of CEQA requiring people to analyze things that can’t be predicted anyway, but that’s a topic for another time!