Tag Archives: Westside

LACMTA Westside Bus Ridership Update – April 2015

Another three months has passed, so it’s time for another LACMTA bus ridership update.

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

bus-raw-201504

Here are the 12-month rolling averages.

bus-wkdy-12mo-201504

Here’s the Saturday and Sunday rolling 12-month averages.

bus-Sat-12mo-201504 bus-Sun-12mo-201504

Saturday and Sunday ridership largely reflects the weekday trends.

Unfortunately, most lines have continued to see slight decreases in ridership. The exception is the Silver Line, where ridership continues to grow. There’s also been a leveling off of ridership on Vermont and Western, so maybe things will start to turn around.

Lastly, here’s the percentage of trips on each arterial being served by the rapid route.

bus-share-201504

The share of riders served by the rapid routes continues to slowly rise on most corridors. Again, I wouldn’t read too much into the spikes in Venice and Santa Monica data, because they were caused by large drops in local route ridership on those streets. However, it is interesting that the rapid routes were more resilient to ridership changes – the ridership losses came disproportionately from local routes.

As always, it’s hard to say what’s causing ridership changes. Possibilities include the improving economy making cars more affordable, cheaper gas, and Metro’s recent fare increase.

Next up, Valley bus ridership, and then Metrolink.

Westside Traffic, Peak Period Edition

A commenter on this post on Westside traffic asked if peak hour data might show different patterns, so I created similar graphics for the same roadways using the same data (Caltrans publishes peak hour, peak month, and yearly average traffic).

I’ll let the graphics speak for themselves. The peak hour patterns are quite similar to the total volume patterns, including the structural changes on the 405 and Venice coinciding with completion of the freeway widening project between the 90 and the 10. It’s actually a little surprising to see so much of a change in peak hour volumes – I would have guessed that changes in total volumes would be reflected in a shorter peak, leaving the peak hour itself relatively unchanged, rather than a more uniform change. These facilities are all near capacity, so if more cars enter the systems, peak volumes can only go up so much, and the increase would be expressed as a longer peak period and greater total delay.

I’ve put the daily volumes & peak volumes side by side so you can easily compare. Note that the y-scales are necessarily quite different. As always, click to embiggen.

Venice-both the405-both the10-both SM-both Lincoln-both

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:

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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.

Is Westside Traffic Really Getting Worse?

Recently, the LA Times has published some articles positing that as freeway traffic gets worse, people have started using smart phone apps like Waze to try to avoid it, causing worsening congestion on neighborhood streets. The problem is that you can’t trust people’s perceptions of traffic. Traffic, like behavior of teenagers, is almost always perceived to be getting worse, data be damned.

Since Caltrans publishes freeway traffic counts going back to 2002, we can take a look at the evolution of Westside freeway traffic leading up to the last economic peak, the crash, and the current period of growth. Here’s a plot of traffic on the 10 between Lincoln and Vermont, from 2002 to 2013.

How to read: traffic volume is the vertical component. Time represented on the diagonal from top left to bottom right. The location on the freeway is represented west to east on the diagonal from bottom left to top right. So, if you follow a diagonal line from bottom left to top right, you’re seeing traffic volume on the freeway build as you head towards downtown. If you follow a diagonal line from top left to bottom right, you’re seeing how traffic has changed over time at a particular point on the freeway.

For example, following the diagonal for 2013, we can see that traffic is below 250,000 vehicles per day from Overland west, and above 250,000 vehicles per day from National east (where the line leaves the green area and enters the yellow band). Following the diagonal for Vermont, we can see that traffic volumes were above 325,000 at Vermont from 2002 to 2006, then between 300,000 and 325,000 from 2007 to 2011, and then back above 325,000 from 2012 to 2013.

If these graphics don’t make sense, there are some simpler line graphs at the bottom of the post showing the same freeways for years 2002, 2007, and 2013.

the10-contour

What can we see? Traffic declined across the whole freeway from Santa Monica to downtown LA as a result of the recession. West of La Brea, traffic volumes have not recovered or have declined even further, though east of there, traffic has started to recover. No boom in traffic on the Westside on the 10.

Here’s the 405 between the 90 and Mulholland (Sepulveda Pass). Information is the same, but the rotation is a little different to better show different patterns. I left the interchange with the 10 off the plot because it made a large, confusing dip between Olympic and Santa Monica.

the405-contour

From Wilshire to Sepulveda Pass, traffic volumes on the 405 haven’t increased noticeably either. There has, however, been a large increase in traffic between the 90 and Santa Monica since 2007. This correlates to both the economic recovery and the project that widened the freeway between the 90 and the 10 (induced/latent demand is real!).

Since some Westside arterials are still Caltrans-numbered routes (Lincoln, Santa Monica, and Venice) we can also look at trends on those facilities. Here’s Lincoln from the 90 to the 10.

Lincoln-contour

From the 90 to Washington, traffic volumes fell in the recession and have not yet recovered to previous peaks. The stunning thing here is the drop of 10,000+ vehicles per day between Venice and the 10 freeway. It seems possible that the completion of the widening project on the 405 shifted some traffic from Lincoln to the freeway.

Further evidence for that conjecture comes from Venice between Lincoln and La Cienega.

Venice-contour

Roughly coinciding with completion of the freeway project, Venice saw a considerable increase in traffic in the vicinity of the freeway and points east.

Lastly, here’s Santa Monica.

SM-contour

Nothing really jumps out here. Traffic declined during the recession, and consistent with national experience, has not recovered to previous peaks.

There’s no clear pattern of increasing traffic on these roads, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the story about worsening traffic on side streets is wrong. Technology like Google Maps and Waze makes information about the road network more accessible, and it’s certainly possible freeway and arterial traffic growth has been muted by people using the side streets. The city’s traffic data is also available through the Navigate LA website; maybe some enterprising person with programming skills can figure out a way to pull it out! Either way, it’s apparent there have been some shifts in traffic patterns, which we’d expect to make congestion worse in some places.

Note: 2009 data was missing, so I made it the average of 2008 and 2010.

the10-line the405-line Lincoln-line Venice-line SM-line

Sepulveda/LAX Transit Part 4: Arrested Arterials, Arrested Development

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.”

Well, almost.

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.

Westside-v1

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?

Sources

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)

Dingbat Renaissance

Note: for ease of understanding, all costs, prices, rents, and so on are presented in 2014 dollars, adjusted from 1964 dollars per the BLS inflation calculator.

Discussions on affordable housing in Los Angeles, and California in general, often include debate on how to maintain existing affordable housing stock. These buildings, constructed mainly in the 1950s and 1960s, are referred to as dingbats. They are invariably low-rise wood-frame and stucco construction, though there’s some variability in scale, from the classic single-lot six-unit dingbat to larger buildings constructed on several assembled single-family lots.

While there’s a lot of interest in preserving the affordable housing units in these buildings, there’s a curious lack of interest in how dingbats came to exist. Despite the fact that many were speculative, they were purpose-built affordable housing, and they were built in mass for decades. It stands to reason that a city facing a huge shortage of affordable housing should want to understand how the dingbats were built, and if we might build large amounts of affordable housing by the same process today.

Fortunately, the dingbats are not a mystery. In The Low-Rise Speculative Apartment, published in 1964, Wallace Francis Smith offers a detailed analysis of the dingbat construction boom then taking place in Oakland. Presciently, Smith concluded that dingbats were serving a useful function in society, and that their construction ought to be encouraged. As we will see, the opposite happened, but to start, let’s consider the factors that, per Smith, enabled construction of dingbats:

  • Savings looking for investment, and thus lending institutions with excess lending capacity.
  • Investors looking to buy small residential properties upon completion.
  • Depreciation tax incentives that made the properties attractive investments for high-income individuals, even if the nominal net cash flow from operations was very small.
  • Low cost of land per dwelling unit (du), median $10,700.
  • Low cost of construction per du, median $47,185.
  • Short duration of construction, median 7-9 months but as little as 3 months.
  • Zoning that allowed single-family residences (SFRs) to be replaced by dingbat apartment construction.

Parking requirements, as enacted by Oakland in 1961, were determined to increase construction costs, but not to the extent that they stopped construction altogether. Rather, marginal projects (which logically include the most affordable dwelling units) became impossible to build profitably.

These conditions produced a large quantity of affordable units. One bedroom units, averaging 635 SF, rented for an average of $820/month. Two bedroom units, averaging 835 SF, rented for an average $1,055/month. You can scarcely rent something in the oldest buildings in the cheapest neighborhoods in LA today, let alone new construction.

Dingbat Factors Today

Ok, all of that is great for people in 1964. What about 2014? Could the same combination of factors allow for a boom in affordable housing construction in Los Angeles today?

The first three factors relate to availability of financing and willing investors. This is not the area of expertise for this blog, but lending capacity does not seem to be an issue. Neither does the ability to find investors; consider the current level of foreign interest in owning real estate in US cities. Tax structures relating to depreciation are not something that can be addressed at the city level, and would require federal action.

The next three factors concern the costs of planning, permitting, and building the project. Cost of land per dwelling unit was very low for the dingbats. Assuming R4 zoning, which allows 12 du on a 5,000 SF lot, you’d have to be able to buy such a lot for $125,000 to get similar land costs per unit. You simply cannot find buildable lots that cheaply in LA today.

Construction costs were also very low, with the figures above equating to about $75/SF for building a dingbat. This is not out of line for construction of SFRs today; you can buy new SFR construction for as little as $85/SF in places like Adelanto. Perhaps it’s possible to see classic dingbats as big SFRs. On the other hand, dingbat construction is universally considered to be low quality, good enough only to meet the building codes of the time, lacking in amenities like, say, soundproofing between apartments. In addition, changes in seismic building codes in response to the 1970 Sylmar earthquake and the 1994 Northridge earthquake have undoubtedly increased construction costs for structures with open stories on the ground floor, like the classic dingbat carport. Today’s multifamily construction costs are much higher, often over $200/SF.

Duration of construction indirectly impacts construction costs, because carrying costs are increased when the duration of construction is longer. Much construction, including many of the original dingbats, is financed by a construction loan, which is paid off and replaced by a permanent loan when the building is complete (or when the speculative builder sells the completed building to an investor). Construction loans usually have higher interest rates than permanent loans. The faster construction can be completed, the faster the building can be put into revenue use and the construction loan retired. The city can reduce duration of construction by facilitating permitting and working to schedule building inspections so that they minimize downtime on the jobsite.

Lastly, there’s the need for zoning that allows dingbat construction. In LA, this generally means R3 or R4, which allow 6 du and 12 du on a typical 5,000 SF (50’ by 100’) lot, with R3 corresponding to the classic image of a dingbat. R5 zoning allows 25 du on such a lot, but this can’t practically be accomplished with wood-frame construction given setback, height, and floor-to-area (FAR) zoning requirements. Since 1970, zoning changes have significantly reduced the amount of R3 and R4 zoned land, especially in areas like the Westside. While small apartment buildings are still built in neighborhoods like Palms, in most places, they are precluded by zoning.

Parking requirements are part of zoning; in LA, zoning stipulates 1 spot per studio, 1.5 spots per 1 bedroom apartment, and 2 spots per 2+ bedroom apartment. As we shall see shortly, they have a major impact on the cost and feasibility of small apartment building construction, particularly on small lots.

Let a Thousand Dingbats Bloom

Given these parameters, let’s try to make dingbat construction work today, and see what cost inputs we might be able to change.

Dingbat, 1964

Now, what do good engineers do before performing tests? They calibrate their equipment! So first, here’s a shot at analysis of dingbat construction in 1964.

dingbat costs

The columns on the left present a breakdown of total costs and costs per unit. “Soft costs” refers to things like design and permitting; other cost categories are hopefully self-explanatory. At center, you can see we are assuming a classic 6-unit dingbat, the typical 635 SF 1-BR apartment size, and construction costs of $75/SF. “Efficiency” refers to the ratio of usable apartment space to total building size, which includes unproductive areas like stairwells. At right are assumptions for several cost categories: soft costs are assumed to be 10% of construction, marketing 1% of construction, carrying costs 8% of land plus demolition plus construction, and profit 6% of land plus demolition plus construction.

To convert this to a monthly rent, we first calculate a monthly mortgage payment by taking the cost per unit and amortizing it out over 30 years, at an assumed loan rate of 6%. Since rents must also cover building operating costs and unit vacancies between tenants, we divide the mortgage payment by 70% and then 95%, thereby accounting for 5% vacancy and operating costs equal to 30% of gross rents. Operating costs of 30% are a little on the lean side for LA apartment buildings, but not unreasonable.

And, voila! We get a monthly rent in the vicinity of the rents reported by Smith in 1964. Note two things here. First, a rough guess of monthly rent is about 0.90% of total costs. This is a little higher than some other estimates I found (0.75% to 0.80%), but let’s err on the side of caution. (If you assume an equity investment of 20%, you could cover the mortgage and operating costs with monthly rent of 0.73%.) Second, we can assess the contribution of each cost category to monthly rent. As you’d expect, construction costs dominate, followed by land costs.

Palms West, 2014

Back to the present. What would a small development look like on the Westside? Fire up ZIMAS and look to the north and west of Palms, and you’ll see large areas in yellow, which indicates R1 single-family zoning.

ZIMAS

Looking at some of the less expensive areas, you can find an SFR in for something like $800,000. Let’s assume it’s upzoned to R3, which would allow six units. I know a lot of readers don’t like bundled parking, but for the sake of argument, assume it’s hard to sell condos in these neighborhoods without parking. Since they’re primarily single-family, there’s not a lot in walking distance and it might be a hike to decent transit. Yes, condos. Not your parents’ dingbats, but when you’re paying that much for land, it’s probably the way to go. Here’s one possible configuration, meeting city parking and setback requirements.

WV1

Four stories, parking on the ground level, and two units per floor above that. I assumed elevators would be required for all buildings. This gives you as simple a design as possible for the podium, which would probably have to be concrete. Costs are presented below.

Westside 1 costs

Soft costs were increased to 15%, to account for increased permitting and design costs, and marketing to 8%. Construction costs were assumed to be $225/SF, a rough estimate based on a variety of sources for podium type construction. Could you sell these generously sized 1-BR condos for about $525,000 on the Westside today? I think so.

Here’s another option for Westside development, with a three-story building that has four small units and two large units. I bumped construction costs up to $250/SF to account for the higher proportion of concrete.

WV2

Westside 2 costs

For this option, I split all costs except construction equally among the units. This gives some units just under $400,000. Distributing costs differently would decrease the price for the small units, but increase it for the large ones.

Vermont Knolls, 2014

Fine, you say, but wasn’t the point of this post to look at affordable housing? Let’s take this model to Vermont Knolls, a part of South LA bounded by the 110, Normandie, Manchester, and Florence. Some areas are zoned R3, but most are zoned for less density (RD, R2, or R1). Here, the cost of a single-family lot is something like $300,000.

To drive down the cost of land per unit, let’s assume it’s upzoned to R4, which again allows 12 du on a normal lot. Here, we can really see the impact of parking requirements. Even if all 12 units are nominally studios, the zoning requires 12 parking spaces, which would be nearly impossible to configure on a 5,000 SF lot with only 50’ of street frontage. Let’s assume the city eliminates parking requirements; we’ll still throw in a few parking spaces out front – they’re nearly free and would generate some additional revenue.

SLA1

Three stories, four apartments each floor. Construction costs were assumed to be $140/SF, on the low end of what I’ve seen for low-rise construction in LA. Soft costs were dropped back to 10%, on the assumptions that design costs would be reduced by working from a cookie cutter plan and that the city would facilitate permitting and inspection. Marketing was dropped to 1%; affordable apartments rent themselves.

South LA 1 costs

Hitting rents under $1,300/month is a big deal. Why? Well, if we raise the minimum wage to $13/hr, a full-time minimum wage worker would make about $26,000/year. A two-worker household would earn about $52,000/year. Using the 30% of income standard, a brand new $1,300/month apartment is affordable for such a household. If construction costs could be driven down more, all the better; for example, at $100/SF, the rent would be about $1,000/month.

Here’s another option, going with four stories and a mix of studio/1BR (ground floor), 2BR (floors 2-3), and small 3BR apartments (floor 4). Costs were apportioned the same way as the Westside plan.

SLA2 South LA 2 costs

I’m not sure if these larger size apartments would be competitive with existing rental stock. Again, driving construction costs down would make a big difference; at $100/SF, the 1BRs would be about $1,000/month, the 2BRs around $1,200/month, and the 3BRs $1,550/month.

ADU Sidebar

What’s even more affordable than dingbats? Accessory dwelling units. These can be very basic one-story wood-frame projects. If the property owner does the development, there’s no land or demolition cost, and we can safely assume true SFR construction costs, say $80/SF. For a 700 SF ADU, we get the following costs.

ADU costs

Importance of Single Lot Projects

Readers have probably noticed that all the development concepts in this post are based on single lot projects. Lot assembly greatly facilitates things; for example, by putting two lots together, you eliminate the lost space of the side setbacks between them, which lets you offer larger apartments. This will also drive down costs per square foot, because larger apartments usually include more cheaply built living space, rather than more expensive kitchen and bathroom space.

However, I think the ability to profitably develop a single lot is crucial, because it eliminates the potential for adjacent owners to hold out for huge payouts. Indeed, as Smith notes, most of the original dingbats were built without even considering lot assembly, which was deemed to add too much time to the process. If a single lot can be developed profitably, it’s mutually beneficial if adjoining owners decide to consolidate and develop a larger building. This also eliminates the need for city planning agencies to go down into the weeds and use eminent domain to assemble lots large enough to be feasible. The city could facilitate single lot projects by reducing or eliminating parking requirements and reducing setbacks.

Be Proactive, Not Reactive

An approach to affordable housing that strives to enable market-rate construction of projects like these all over the city is a more proactive policy. Trying to save existing affordable units, while necessary in the short run due to California’s terrible housing situation, can only slow down, but never reverse, the worsening affordability problem. Note that projects like the Westside condo examples presented are critical to this approach to housing, because they alleviate market demand for upscale neighborhoods. If development is strangled on the Westside, gentrification elsewhere is almost inevitable.

This approach isn’t available to every city. LA is large city, and have a variety of neighborhoods, including some where land costs are not prohibitively high. This may not be true for a place like San Francisco, where it seems improbable that $1,500/month 2BRs could be built in the city under current conditions. Because counties and municipalities are smaller in the Bay Area, there will likely need to be more cooperation between jurisdictions.

In LA, though, we should be able to permit and encourage construction of a variety of housing. We ought to do so while we have the chance.

This post owes a debt of gratitude to this post on costs in SF by Mark Hogan, and helpful interaction from @markasaurus, @eparillon, and @mottsmith on Twitter.

*Smith gives $44,315 as the permit construction cost. In Appendix A, this is estimated to represent 82% of total development costs, which included lending and marketing costs. Actual construction costs were estimated as 87.31% of total development costs. Therefore, I assumed actual construction cost per unit was 0.8731 * ($44,315 / 0.82) = $47,185.

Downtown LA is Responsible for 20% of Housing Built Since 1999, and That’s Terrible News

Shane Phillips has a post over at Better Institutions looking at the proportion of housing built in LA since 1999 that’s located downtown. He calculates it to be about 20%, based on state data and a Downtown Center Business Improvement District Report. The report is generous in its definition of downtown, including Skid Row and the Fashion, Arts, & Industrial Districts, and stretching well into Westlake and Chinatown. Nevertheless, by any standard the amount of development in downtown is impressive. About 20,000 units have been built in the last 15 years, with another 20,000 in the pipeline for the next 5-10 years.

A pro-growth stance from the city has resulted in mid-rise buildings and towers popping up all over the place on top of former parking lots, putting the land to much more productive use. Meanwhile, the adaptive reuse ordinance (ARO) has allowed once-vacant historic office buildings to find new live as apartments, condos, and hotels. Michael Manville writes in UCTC Access that the ARO alone was responsible for 6,500 units of housing in the historic core between 1999 and 2008.

All of this is good. Turning parking lots into higher value land uses is good; putting abandoned buildings back to use is good. The neighborhoods around downtown are in danger of being victims of its success when it comes to gentrification, but more on that later.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that percentages have numerators and denominators. And in this case, the downtown boom is making the numerator bigger, but a severe lack of housing production citywide has made the denominator much smaller. In fact, based on the same state data, all of LA County added about 215,000 housing units between 1999 and 2014. In other words, in a county of 10 million people, a neighborhood of just 50,000 has been responsible for over 9% of new residential construction.

In short, the problem is that other neighborhoods across LA have not seen nearly as much growth. As Shane correctly points out, one neighborhood can do only so much. Read the USC Casden Multifamily Forecast and you’ll see neighborhood after neighborhood with almost no new inventory added from 2009 to 2013. East LA, Alhambra, Montebello, & Pico Rivera, zero. El Segundo, Hermosa Beach, & Redondo Beach, zero. Granada Hills, Northridge, & Reseda, zero. Paramount, Downey, Bellflower, & Norwalk, zero. The list goes on and on.

Housing prices are largely determined regionally, which makes it impossible for one neighborhood to upzone its way out of price increases. If you’re near desirable neighborhood XYZ that has very little new construction, it doesn’t matter what you do, eventually you’ll be “XYZ-adjacent” and it’s game over. On the Westside, you have to wonder how long places like Palms and Pico-Robertson can last with demand radiating east and south from Santa Monica and Venice, despite Palms being relatively friendly to new construction.

Even in cities with a strong traditional form like NYC, with a huge CBD dominating regional employment, concentrating all housing development near the core is a mistake. New York YIMBY recently chronicled the woes of NYC’s small builders, who have been driven out of business by downzoning in the outer boroughs. That has resulted in a decrease in the amount of market-rate housing being built for middle income earners, making the city’s affordability problems worse.

In a city like LA, with highly decentralized employment, concentrating housing development in the core makes no sense at all. The hottest office markets in LA are on the Westside, where the tech industry is concentrated in Santa Monica and Venice. Growth in that market has spread south to Playa Vista and the Howard Hughes Center. Century City office developers hope to capitalize on it as well, while others in commercial real estate expect growth to continue moving south to El Segundo. Whatever the reasons, the office market in Downtown LA remains weak, with plenty of vacancy and virtually no new construction.

The lack of a corresponding residential boom on the Westside exacerbates existing imbalances. The pull of Westside employment long ago made the “reverse” commute direction on the 10 freeway the peak direction (traffic is worse going away from downtown in the morning, and towards it in the afternoon). It would not be surprising at all if the peak travel direction on the Expo Line and Westside Subway ends up following a similar pattern.

Beyond the local issues of the Westside, there are job centers scattered all over LA County. Employment growth is not going to be concentrated in downtown, so why should housing growth? Distributed housing growth spreads out the impacts as well as the benefits, and helps prevent gentrification and development from flooding into a localized area.

Why Is Downtown Booming?

To be sure, Downtown LA has become a desirable place to live. It’s walkable, has good access to freeways and transit, and offers an increasingly diverse mix of restaurants, bars, and retail. It’s centrally located, making it (relatively) easy to live there and commute to the Westside, Hollywood, and parts of the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys. The architecture, especially the historic office and hotel buildings, is unparalleled in the region. That explains the demand side.

The supply side is explained by the factors mentioned before – the adaptive reuse ordinance and a strong (sometimes, maybe a little too strong) pro-growth stance from the city. As Manville writes, the conversions of historic buildings would have been impossible without the ARO, so it’s worth recapping the significant relaxation of land use regulations that the ARO provides:

  • No restriction on density based on lot size (though minimum apartment sizes apply)
  • Existing non-conforming FAR, setbacks, and heights do not require a variance
  • No new parking spaces required (existing parking must be maintained, but is not required to be bundled with dwelling units)
  • Automatic “by-right” entitlement for rental units in commercial or R5 zoning in buildings constructed before 1974
  • No environmental clearance for projects constructed “by-right”

This allows adaptive reuse projects to avoid almost all the NIMBY bugaboos, and deprives opponents of the leverage provided by the need to obtain discretionary approvals. It also allows projects to avoid the need to build expensive parking; as Manville writes, many developers have chosen to provide none or to offer it off-site.

The city has also facilitated growth downtown by other means, for example, selling the air rights above the convention center.

Why Are Other Neighborhoods Not Growing?

For most of the city, though, development doesn’t come so easy. Increasing demand has not been met by a boom in supply. Most neighborhoods don’t have a large supply of parking lots or vacant buildings to be redeveloped, and the city has been very reluctant to try to buck NIMBYism in the R1 zoned single-family residential (SFR) neighborhoods.

As a case study, consider the draft rezoning plans being developed for the five Expo Line Phase 2 stations that are within the City of LA (Culver City, Palms, Expo/Westwood, Expo/Sepulveda, and Expo/Bundy).

At Expo/Bundy and Expo/Sepulveda, there are significant amounts of land currently zoned M2 (light industrial). The plans propose maintaining some of that zoning, while converting other areas to new industrial zones including “New Industry”, “Hybrid Industrial (Max 30% Residential)”, and “Hybrid Industrial (Min 30% Job-Generating)”. The “industrial” classification is a little deceiving, since it allows office, R&D, media, and technology developments. Nevertheless, the New Industry zone precludes residential development entirely and only permits retail and restaurants as ancillary uses, and this is the most prevalent new zone. At Sepulveda, only two blocks are zoned Hybrid Industrial (Max 30% Residential), while at Bundy, four blocks are given that designation and three are given Hybrid Industrial (Min 30% Job-Generating). At Expo/Sepulveda, R1 zoning less than 0.25 miles from the station will remain. To the city’s credit, at Expo/Bundy planners did at least propose upzoning the R1 properties between the Expo Line and Pico, as potential options on the base plan.

At Expo/Westwood, almost the entire 0.25-mile radius around the station is currently zoned R1, even on the arterials (Overland and Westwood). The plans goal is to “preserve character of existing SFR neighborhoods”  and that’s what we’ll get, because all the R1 zoning is proposed to remain. The plan calls for upzoning a few R2 properties to R3, a largely symbolic gesture because that only increases density from 2 du/lot to 6 du/lot (assuming 5,000 SF lots). The lone bright spot for development is an upzoning of Pico between Sepulveda and Westwood to RAS4 (12 units per 5,000 SF lot with ground floor retail), but this amounts to only small portions of nine blocks fronting Pico.

The Palms plan might appear to be better, because it rezones Venice Blvd and Motor Av for a new “Mixed-Use (Min 20% Job-Generating)” zone with FAR of 2.0-3.6. However, Venice and Motor are currently zoned C2, which under the current zoning scheme already allows purely residential projects at R4 density. The Mixed-Use (Min 20% Job-Generating) zone therefore reduces some flexibility by requiring a commercial component. The small-scale residential and commercial developments that line Motor today couldn’t be built under that zone.

At Culver City, it’s more of the same industrial zoning, with three large blocks directly across Venice zoned New Industry and one further west, currently the site of a commercial plaza, for Hybrid Industrial (Max 30% Residential).

The plan also calls for current parking requirements to apply, except in “limited circumstances”.

The limited zoning changes produce the results you’d expect. The Spring 2014 outreach presentation projects that the plan will allow the construction of 4,422 new housing units by 2035, satisfying market demand of 3,800 to 6,400 units. So while downtown booms, under this plan, the Expo Line corridor won’t, because you can’t build a ton of housing if your zoning doesn’t allow for it. On the demand side, I submit that it is simply beyond belief that there will only be demand for 6,400 housing units within walking distance of those five transit stops in the next 20 years.

Conclusion

The downtown boom is great for LA, and it shows that when we want to, we can be pro-growth and get a lot of development built. But when growth is restricted across so much of the rest of the city, there will still be pressure on regional housing prices, and gentrification will continue. Downtown’s growth is remarkable, but we still need to figure out how to increase housing production elsewhere, so that the city can make space for all Angelenos, current and future.

Sepulveda Pass and LAX Transit

Since both of these topics have been in the news a lot lately, it’s about time for a look at north-south transit on the Westside.

Sepulveda Pass in Context

Before we start laying out transit lines, we need to understand the urban context of the area in question. This is especially important for rail transit and other high capital cost projects, because bad decisions will haunt us for a really long time. So…

First, in terms of network design, Sepulveda Pass is a world-class bottleneck, right up there with San Francisco Bay and the Hudson & East Rivers. Your reaction to that, might be, “well, duh”, but we need to realize the implications for network design. Jarrett Walker goes into more detail in Chapter 4 of Human Transit but the chief points here are that (a) more deviation from straight routes is acceptable at bottlenecks and (b) bottlenecks are natural locations for transfers between parallel transit lines.

Second, in terms of engineering and cost, Sepulveda Pass is a very challenging and expensive area. We’re looking at a 7-mile tunnel from Westwood to Sherman Oaks, hundreds of feet deep in the middle. Vertical access between the tunnel ends is difficult at best for ventilation, and impossible for a station or emergency exit. This suggests that within the current planning time frame, we’re only going to get one shot at transit through Sepulveda Pass, so we’d better do it right and get a ton of capacity out of it. In 106 years, New York has managed to build only seven crossings of the Hudson, to connect all of Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, & Queens with all of New Jersey.

Therefore, any tunnel through Sepulveda Pass should serve multiple transit lines on both sides, and provide as much capacity as possible. The stations at each end will be natural transfer points between the lines. It doesn’t make sense to go to the expense of building a tunnel that long if all it’s going to serve in the Valley is one LRT line on Van Nuys. The tunnel should serve at least two lines on both sides, and probably more. We don’t have to actually build all of the lines right away; the important thing is that the piece from Westwood to Sherman Oaks is built properly at the outset. This is probably a great location for one of Alon Levy’s large diameter TBM tunnels, with four tracks running from Westwood to Sherman Oaks, since there won’t be any stops in between.

This also means that the tunnel should serve rail traffic exclusively and have no auto lanes. In addition to having a lower capacity, auto lanes have much heavier requirements for ventilation. There’s also the question of what facilities auto lanes would connect to at each end, since it’s not like there’s a ton of spare capacity kicking around on the 405, the 10, and the 101. (Note: you could argue for a bus tunnel, using dual-mode buses, with exclusive lanes on arterials for the rest of the lines. I’m not going to get into a bus vs. rail analysis here, since the quality of the ROW is more important than the technology.)

Transit Lines Through Sepulveda

Now that we’ve established what the facility through Sepulveda Pass should look like, we can lay out some transit lines to go through it. In my mind, the logical candidates for north-south transit in the Valley are Reseda, Sepulveda (Valley section), Van Nuys, and maybe Balboa. (Anything east of Van Nuys, at least IMHO, is a future north-south line to connect to La Cienega.) There’s also the potential for east-west lines on Venutra, west to Warner Center and east to Burbank. On the Westside, the north-south candidates are Lincoln, Bundy/Centinela, Sawtelle, Sepulveda (Westside section), Westwood/Overland, and maybe, as a stretch, Avenue of the Stars/Jefferson.

Personally, I’d leave Ventura alone as a separate east-west project. Sawtelle is too close to Sepulveda (Westside), so it doesn’t make the cut. The appeal of the Avenue of the Stars/Jefferson route is that it would serve Century City directly from the Valley, but the resulting line has such poor overall geometry that it wouldn’t be very useful for anyone not going to Century City, so I think it’s out as well.

The other intriguing option, which has been suggested by Henry Fung elsewhere, is having the Westside Subway Extension turn north in Westwood and go to the Valley. Assuming the other lines would be LRT, extending the Purple Line would create some technical challenges (including differing vehicle width). I’ll leave that for a future post focusing on that alternative. This option would take care of Century City.

Here’s a rough plot of these options with reasonable stop spacing:

SepulvedaLAX-alllines

Don’t worry too much about the stop spacing for now; we’ll take a closer look at that in future posts. Remember, the important thing at the outset is to serve the right area and choose logical overall route alignments. You also might guess from this graphic that I’ve got some changes in mind for Metrolink in the Valley. Yet another topic for yet another future post.

In terms of sequencing, the consensus is that Van Nuys is the top priority in the Valley. On the Westside, Sepulveda (Westside) and Westwood/Overland are only ½ to ¾ of a mile apart, so whichever of the two is built first, the other should be built last. I’d do Sepulveda (Westside) first, if only because it’s more centrally located and spreads the wealth. It’d be useful to some future users of the Bundy/Centinela and Westwood/Overland lines, whereas those two lines wouldn’t help each other’s riders much. The argument for Westwood/Overland first is that it’s closer to Palms and Culver City, which are denser than Mar Vista, and it’s a good enough argument that you could probably talk me into it.

I’d sequence the lines as follows:

  • Van Nuys and Sepulveda (Westside)
  • Reseda and Lincoln
  • Sepulveda (Valley) and Bundy/Centinela
  • Balboa and Westwood/Overland (no Westwood/Overland if Purple Line is extended)

The benefits start immediately with the first line completed, and are amplified as additional lines are finished. To the south, future phases could extend the lines out Florence, Manchester, Century, Hawthorne, Sepulveda/PCH… more than enough possibilities to leave for a future post.

LAX Transit

Note that all these lines naturally converge near Sepulveda & Century, right at LAX’s front door, and would serve far more people than any LAX rail transit proposal on the board now. So in addition to serving LAX, basically at the future Terminal 0, this project would directly serve a couple million other people who might or might not be going to LAX. In other words, this plan would follow one of Jarrett Walker’s main principles: be on the way!

You might have noticed in the first graphic that I didn’t show any connection from the new lines to the Green Line & Crenshaw Line. Clearly, you’d want to provide that link somehow.

Here’s one option for an initial build with two lines. In this scenario, the Crenshaw Line would take over the Green Line’s route south of Aviation/Imperial, and the Green Line would be extended a mile west to meet up with the new Reseda-Lincoln Line. This gives the combined Reseda-Lincoln-Green Line and the Van Nuys-Sepulveda (Westside) Line front door access to LAX, with decent geometry and without making any through passengers go out of their way.

SepulvedaLAX-2line

I’ve violated my own rules on stop spacing in El Segundo, going to half a mile to provide a Green Line stop at Maple and a Sepulveda Line stop at Mariposa. With this level of transit service, easy access to LAX, the 105, and the 405, there’s no reason El Segundo’s business district couldn’t become LA’s third downtown.

Here’s an option for full build with four lines.

SepulvedaLAX-4line

In this case, I’ve routed Balboa and Bundy/Centinela together, and the line could be extended out Florence towards South LA, HP, Bell, Cudahy, Bell Gardens, and Downey – all dense cities that should get good transit use. I’ve also shown the Purple Line being extended to the Valley and up Sepulveda.

Again, don’t worry too much about the specific stations and routings – we’ll go into more detail on each option in the future.

To Bore or Not to Bore

The decision to tunnel is one of the biggest ones that must be made. Tunneling results in faster speeds and more reliable operations, but the higher cost can push project completion further into the future. Obviously, we’re tunneling through Sepulveda Pass, but on either side, it would be possible to do full tunnels, surface running with selected grade separations (like Expo Line and Crenshaw Line), or full surface running.

Any surface running segments are dependent on the ROW of the arterial roads. Contrary to popular conceptions of LA, the north-south arterials on the Westside are somewhat underpowered. Lincoln and Sepulveda (Westside) are two lanes each way with a center turn lane. Bundy/Centinela and Westwood/Overland are cobbled together, with pieces where the second travel lane is only provided during peak periods by sacrificing on-street parking (always a sign of desperation).

The situation is much the same on Reseda and Balboa, which have the same basic configuration as Sepulveda (Westside), but with more generous proportions. On Balboa, there are three lanes each way with no parking. Sepulveda (Valley) and Van Nuys are wider, at least three lanes each way with a center turn lane plus parking. In many places they’re even wider (presumably where there used to be transit ROW in the middle).

I was going to go into detail and compare grade separation options for each branch, but that would make this post much too long. Now that we’ve got the basic framework set up, we can come back and give each branch the attention it deserves in future posts.