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Kristin Eberhard’s Blog

How can transit work in big, dense, polycentric Los Angeles?

Kristin Eberhard

Posted January 22, 2013

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How does LA’s structure compare to other big US cities?

Why does the census show that the LA Metropolitan region is actually more dense than the NY

metropolitan region?  It certainly doesn’t feel more dense here than Manhattan. And if it is really dense, then why don’t we have better public transit like NY or Boston or SF?

1. Most of LA Metropolitan area is Dense, but no part of LA is the Densest

People living in LA can probably intuitively grasp part of the answer: the numbers compare average density across the entire LA and NY metropolitan regions, not just the density of downtown LA compared to downtown NY. The LA metropolitan region is widely and somewhat evenly populated, compared to the NY region that has a dense central area surrounded by less dense outlying areas.

Here’s a graph created by Fedor Manin, using 2000 census data, that tells the story. (I altered it slightly so you could see LA and NY more clearly)

Density Profiles of Cities.JPG

This is what this graph tells me:

  1. LA is big.  The total area under each curve indicates the total population of each city.  You can see that none of the other “big cities” come close to LA and NY. (See to-scale subway maps below for more on how big LA is)
  2. Most people in LA live at relatively high density. The peak of the thick orange LA line (the density level at which it is most likely someone in LA will live) is more than halfway between 10^3 and 10^4, or approximately 14,000 people per square mile. That’s pretty darn dense. If you compare to Chicago (red line) which most people think of as a big city with big skyscrapers, you see that there are many more people in Los Angeles living at densities higher than most of the people in Chicago. NY (thick aqua line) also has a small peak mirroring Chicago’s at just above 10^3 people per sq. km - a lower density than LA’s peak. 
  3. Very few people in LA live at relatively low density. This is the left side tail of the bell curves. LA’s (orange) curve trims down to almost nothing, meaning almost no one in LA is living in a very sprawling suburban neighborhood, and definitely not in rural areas. Compare to Atlanta (blue) and even NY (aqua) whose tails keep going, meaning that quite a few people there live in pretty low density, rural type places.
  4. The most dense areas of LA are as dense as the densest areas of every other city except NY. Even without a dense central downtown, there as many or more Angelenos living in areas as dense as the densest parts of Chicago and Boston. However, no one in LA lives at densities as high as Manhattan. This is the right side tail of the bell curves.

Here is a look at the density of just the city, not the whole metropolitan area. LA is not the densest, but still more dense than Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, etc.

Transit Share v. Resid Density.JPG

Source: Old Urbanist

2. LA has many Downtowns, not just one Downtown

 The above discussion points out a unique characteristic of LA: unlike many older cities, LA is polycentric.  Meaning, NY or DC or Chicago all have a central downtown where most of the jobs are. LA has downtown, and Century City, and Hollywood, and Studio City, and Culver City and Silicon Beach, etc. (Note that not all of the job centers are even in the City of LA, creating yet another challenge.) The graph below shows this - LA has only 2.5% of its jobs in the Central Business District, compared to 20.1% in NY and 18.7% in Washington DC. 

Transit Share v. CBD Employment Density.JPG

Source: Old Urbanist

3. LA is Big

 Here is an at-scale comparison of Paris subway and LA. You can see that LA just has a lot more area to try to cover. 

Paris v. LA Subway Systems.JPGSource: Thanks to Neil Freeman for these beautiful at-scale maps.

Not only does LA have to cover a lot more area, it has to do it more comprehensively since everyone is going everywhere in LA, rather than most people heading from outer suburban ring into the central employment and shopping districts for work every day, as can clearly be seen in the spiderweb design of Paris.

What does this mean for public transit in LA?

LA faces a public transit challenge. How to connect a disperse, evenly dense population with multiple jobs centers and residential areas in a seamless way that is competitive with cars? My answer: we can’t just do what other cities do and hope for the best.

1. We need a grid, not a spiderweb

Most cities’ public transportation system has a spiderweb shape, like the Paris metro picture above. This is because they have a central downtown job center with surrounding concentric rings of residential areas, and the residents all need to get downtown. So you build lines going from outer circle to inner, and connectors going around and you are done.

LA needs to cover a broad territory fairly evenly so that residents can get not just to a single downtown destination, but pretty much everywhere in the region. We need a grid of fast, frequent lines. With a grid of frequent lines you should be able to hop on your NS line, go 1 mile N, and then hop on the connecting EW line and go 4 miles E and you are there.

In LA this would mean building frequent service along major corridors, for example:

EW Lines: Wilshire Blvd., 10 Freeway, Pico Blvd., Venice Blvd.

NS Lines: Pacific Coast Highway/Lincoln, 405 Freeway, La Cienega Blvd., Crenshaw Blvd., Western Ave., Vermont Ave.

We can’t wait 30 years to build rail on all these corridors (and shouldn’t really want to, since a good Bus Rapid Transit line is better than a bad at-grade rail line), so these corridors should be fast, frequent buses.

2. We need better first-mile / last-mile solutions

For the grid to work, people who live a mile from a fast corridor need to be able to get to it, and to get to their destination on the other end if it is not right on the line (hence the term first-mile / last-mile). Most people walk to transit, so streets need to be walkable, but they also need to be bikable, scooterable, and neighborhood EV-able (speed-limited to 25 mph so that it is only suitable for neighborhood streets) to really give everyone a good option.

3. We need to have an ecosystem of options

Let’s face it: bus and rail are never going to solve the whole problem. Some people will still live a little too far away, or the bus will still be too slow. But for those people, carpooling, biking or a neighborhood electric vehicle (EV) could solve their transportation problem. A combination of carpooling, biking, taking the bus, or driving an EV to a transit hub could vastly improve LA's transportation problems. LA’s solution needs to create an ecosystem where everyone has many options. A system where poor people really only have the option to bus and wealthy people always choose to drive a full size gas-fueled vehicle limits everyone, increases pollution, and drives us towards dangerous global warming.

A fast and frequent grid that is part of an ecosystem of numerous transportation options could help everyone.


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dan sturgesJan 22 2013 11:44 PM

Nice post Kristin. Your point of LA being dense is well taken. Your comment about making new transportation "a seamless way competitive to cars", that's an objective I wish our transit and city leaders actually had in mind. We certainly have an opportunity to realize a new paradigm of personal mobility, that helps people and LA on many levels, but too few leaders know it's possible.

You have great ideas to build a more meaningful LA transit and local connector network. Will people sell a second (or third) car and swing about your new LA mobility network? Who is most likely to sell a car and join this future? The single person that drives a lot, or a household thinking of selling their second car?

You mention the need for an ecosystem of options - which I agree with. But we need to align these many options to work better for people. I think of it like stepping stones across a river, it's not only important to have those "stones", but where they are positioned is key. We have all kinds of new on-demand mobility services coming online, but if they where stones in the river, none of them it seems is next to another right now - keeping someone from being able to cross the river.

It would be helpful if people could shrink their understanding of the LA they live in to go on this "car diet" of yours. So if someone lives in Pasadena and most often goes to downtown LA for work, and that's where most of their weekly movement is, then we could say they live in "Losadena" or "Pasangeles". I know goofy, but creating a boundary to the area where they actually live can be helpful for our purposes here. How someone could switch to this new enhanced transit system in Losadena might be easier to consider when they know they don't need access to all corners of the LA region at any given time. Certainly, carsharing would give them wheels when they need to travel outside of "Losadena" main area.

You are right, it's time to get LA going mix-modal. Not only will everyone be able to travel better, but proper LA mobility-linked transit systems will enable people / families to save perhaps over $5,000/ year from car ownership. The car insurance company Geico advertises on TV with a lizard talking about how it can save the consumer $350/year. We should put Godzilla on TV next to the little lizard, talking about saving over $4K/yr with mix-mobility.

urbantravelsJan 23 2013 07:33 PM

These are all such good ideas that they were put into practice more than 100 years ago. Los Angeles developed the way it did around interurban railways - *not* around cars. A little understanding of the history might have helped put the present problems in context.

It's good luck that Los Angeles still has a lot of the old right-of-ways surviving, since those are helping serve as the basis for new light rail routes. (Although the Exposition Line, currently half-built, is actually running along an old freight line, not an interurban route.

rayJan 23 2013 08:05 PM

prt is a cheap way to create a grid transit system as you mentioned. And it wouldnt require transfers.

Erik GriswoldJan 23 2013 08:39 PM

Yes, Los Angeles is big, but your using just the Paris Metro map for comparison is a canard.

Compare Los Angeles to Berlin or London's maps which include S-Bahn and the "Surface Stock Lines".

Or if you must use Paris, ooh la la, include the RER "SuperMetro" system as well

Dan SturgesJan 23 2013 09:51 PM

I think this post belongs with your's Kristin - 40 SOCA transit projects:

Dan SturgesJan 23 2013 10:30 PM

@urbantravels - it's an interesting story about LA shutting down the old transit lines to favor the car, but honestly, even through there are many externalities of the car we don't want know, the economic growth of the region since the transit stopped has been phenomenal. Sorry to say it, but it was the right decision for the time.

@ray, yeah PRT is interesting. But laying "up" a system across the entire Southern California region - that goes literally everywhere - might cost what, a trillion dollars or more?

Eric BrightwellJan 24 2013 12:37 PM

Good points... however, the map of the LA Metro is pretty out of date -- No Gold Line Extension, no Orange Line, no Silver Line and no Expo Line.

Kristin EberhardJan 25 2013 01:24 PM

dan - agree that adding discrete mobility options willy-nilly will not help - we need to pick some areas and create a systematic mobility ecosystem that effectively forms a bridge across the river, as you say.

urbantravels - agreed that these are not radical new ideas. In fact, the idea of connected smaller downtowns was part of LA planning in the 1970s with the Hamilton Centers Plan.
Unfortunately, we do not now have the interconnected system that was envisioned

Eric - yes, the map doesn't include many important rail developments, and also does not include the many buslines that really make up the bulk of our transit access. The map would look much more dense if those were included. I didn't mean for it to illustrate the whole current system, but just the idea that LA has a lot more ground to cover than many other cities.

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