In Defense of Los Angeles
Posted by Roobs on December 13, 2010
In the great battle between San Francisco and Los Angeles, LA is the butt of many jokes when it comes to urban planning. But they are more often than not ill comparisons.
On a sunny yet cool weekend in Berkeley, CA, my mother, friends and I began to pack up my long time college apartment at the corner of Blake St. and Ellsworth St. I had lived in this apartment for five years; from my sophomore year at UC Berkeley to my time working as a paralegal at a law firm in Emeryville. Sure, after a while, I got tired of my neighborhood. The constant trampling of drunken college students who were just one shot away from alcohol poisoning was beginning to become tiresome. But I loved my apartment itself and the great view of the Golden Gate bridge it offered from my floor to ceiling sliding glass window. But that was all over now.
After graduation, I found my true professional joy working in the field of urban planning. And come early summer, I accepted admission into UCLA’s masters of urban and regional planning program. This meant I was to move to Los Angeles, a city I have spent a great deal of time in and enjoyed but, nevertheless, often maligned and teased, if not lovingly.
We all know the stereotypes of Los Angeles: Its a culture-less wasteland yet the capitol of car-culture in America; representing everything that is wrong with urban sprawl. Not only can you NOT walk in Los Angeles but nobody does. Transit is incomplete and is only for poor people, anyway. The list goes on but you get the picture. Columnists like Steve Rubenstein at the San Francisco Chronicle, fully displaying the semi-serious battle between Northern and Southern California, gets his jollies from railing on America’s second largest city:
Contrary to popular notion, it’s legal to walk in Los Angeles. In fact, some people walk in L.A. by choice, it being the accepted means of getting to and from a parked car.
Is all this teasery true? Is Los Angeles the glowing city on a hill in the middle of a parking lot? My quick answer is… yes and no. But some qualifiers are definitely needed. But let’s get some things straight.
Let me begin by admitting San Francisco is my favorite city in California and no matter how much I may learn to appreciate or love Los Angeles, I can say my heart was truly left in the city by the bay. But I am not from either SF or LA. I actually grew up in the City of Visalia in the Central Valley, located about 40 minutes south of Fresno on SR-99. Back in the Central Valley, we don’t really participate in the great debate between Northern and Southern California. A lot of it has to do with the fact the Central Valley is often disregarded in the California conversation; sometimes referred as the “armpit” of our state by SF and LA natives. So we don’t take sides since no one is on ours. It is because of this I believe I have a more objective view to look at Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Los Angeles is America’s second largest city, with a 2006 population a little under 4 million covering 446 square miles. LA has a population density of a little under 8,000 per square mile. San Francisco, on the other hand, had a 2006 population a little under 750,000 spread across only 46 square miles. However, SF’s density is more than double that of LA’s at more than 16,500 per square mile.
SF and LA: A Disingenuous Comparison
I’ve spent a great deal of time in LA and Southern California in general since the day I was born visiting family. But I have only lived in Los Angeles for about three months to attend grad school at UCLA. Since moving, I’ve spent much of my time in the “West Side” and “Central LA”. One thing you cannot escape is size. LA is huge. Geographically, you could fit almost 10 SF’s in LA and LA is more than 5X the population of SF. This is a difficult city to manage and the fact the city hasn’t imploded in on itself by its population and geographic weight is truly exceptional. But is this really an excuse for its transit woes? Actually, yes it is.
The most common critique from the NorCal faction is that everyone drives in LA and nobody takes transit or walks. This is objectionably true. 92% of Angelelinos drive compared to about 6% who take transit or some alternative means (2000 US Census). The facts are there. Sorry Angelinos, you love your cars. And that’s ok. I love my car too and wouldn’t give it up for anything. (Its a convertible mustang. Who in CA wouldn’t love it?) But there is a reason for this that flies in the face of all those in SF who criticize LA.
Unlike the Bay Area, where cities are separated by a vast natural harbor, Los Angeles is one big basin where city and county lines blend without noticing. This gives the impression that the entire Los Angeles Basin is one big city when, in fact, it is not. There are actually 88 cities in LA County alone. So when people say, nobody walks in LA or everyone drives in LA, there is a good reason for it. Its too damn far!
For example, some in SF use the tourist example, saying that those who visit Downtown LA are trapped. With little transit options, they can’t walk to other locations, such as the beach. But this is a disengenuous argument. Remember, San Francisco is a small, big city. It only covers 46 square miles in land. So if you are in a hotel in Downtown SF, you don’t have to far to go to visit the rest of the city. But in LA, if you stay in a hotel in Downtown LA and then want to go to the beach, you need to travel about 16 miles.
To aid this thought experiment, would you walk from your home in Noe Valley to Downtown Oakland (about 10 miles in a straight line, 13 miles if you walked on the road)? The answer is no. Yet everyone in SF seems to expect Angelinos to walk from UCLA to Downtown LA (about 10 miles in a straight line, 13 miles on roads). Of course they aren’t going to walk it.
Well, what about transit? Those in Noe Valley are just a bus, Muni and BART ride away from Downtown Oakland. And this is very true and a testament to the Bay Area’s transit accessibility. And the fact that LA doesn’t offer similar transit option to get places is a completely true argument. But you can get from UCLA to Downtown without a car. Take the 720 rapid bus. Its a straight shot from Westwood to Downtown LA. Sure, it takes 1.5 hours but its there, right? Wrong. You wonder why people drive on Wilshire Blvd? Because 1.5 hours is a long f***ing time. Hey transit-loving SF hipsters, would you ride your Muni for 1.5 hours non-stop? Thought so…
San Franciscans who complain about LA’s lack of liveability need to shrink their perspectives. Saying LA isn’t walkable is like saying the Bay Area isn’t walkable. You cant walk from SF to Oakland or SF to San Rafael. And you wouldn’t want to. Its far. So when you compare SF to LA, you really should be saying SF is like Central LA. They are roughly the same size in both population and land. And if LA was only Central LA, transit wouldn’t be that bad either, considering the purple and red subway lines hit some good spots in it and is covered by many bus routes.
Putting it in Perspective
So let’s bring this down to size. Los Angeles is a city of neighborhoods. You could argue this is true of any city. San Francisco has neighborhoods. It has lots of them and they are lovely. But I mean LA has neighborhoods the size of cities. Think of New York and its burroughs. For example, the neighborhood of Silver Lake has a population of about 33,000. The Westwood neighborhood has a population of about 48,000. South Central LA has a population of nearly 50,000. Hell, the San Fernando Valley has a population over 1 million alone! That’s more people in this one valley than are in the Bay Area’s largest city of San Jose. These literally are cities within a city. What in San Francisco compares to that? Nothing. Period. (population estimates provided by the great “Mapping LA” project by the LA Times)
So if you create the mindset that Los Angeles is not actually one city like San Francisco but several smaller cities, do the same criticisms hold up? No.
Would you expect small cities on the SF Peninsula to walk to their jobs in San Francisco or San Jose? No you wouldn’t. Sure, they have Caltrain, but a lot of them drive. In fact, 81% of Palo Alto residents drive and only 13% took alternative means. Where is the clamoring of ridicule towards them? Why don’t transit advocates and environmentalists insist that Palo Alto, Redwood City and San Bruno have their own transit systems instead of the regional SMTA bus? For those who say just having CalTrain is ok, then it must be ok that LA just has MetroLink. The logic is the same: “Its ok that they drive, at least theirs a commuter rail service.”
Also, you have to keep in mind that, unlike San Francisco, there is no one central business district where all lines run to. In LA, you have multiple competing job centers beyond Downtown LA, including: Westwood, Century City and Beverly Hills. The jobs in this area alone make up a larger commercial center than those in Atlanta, Denver and Seattle. Thats pretty big. Again, if you leave this blog post with nothing else, I want you to leave understanding that LA is not just one big city. Think of it as multiple cities within a city.
Location Location Location
Now, that cooler heads have prevailed and a perspective is established. Let’s actually point to places in LA that fit the bill of any San Franciscan. You want a cute and walkable neighborhood in LA, you tell your real estate broker. Well, sure! We have those!
I currently live in the city of West Hollywood, once a unincorporated area of LA County. This is quite the walkable city. A population of about 35,000 occupying about 1 square mile means that this little town has a population density greater than San Francisco at nearly 19,000 per square mile. WeHo is full of walkable streets and cute nieghborhood restaurants and shops. Think of living in a ritzier Castro district with a lot more sun.
Silver Lake is another popular destination and looks more like a traditional neighborhood in Oakland or San Francisco, but again with a higher density than either. Similar is the neighborhood of Los Filez with a population of around 35,000. The City of Pasadena (commonly associated with LA) just east of Downtown LA is another area with some great liveable areas.
The overall point is this. For San Franciscans to criticize LA is disingenuous at best, outright hypocritical at worst. If you want to compare the two, you best go bigger. San Franciscans need to recognize that SF is not comparable to LA nor is LA comparable to SF. They are unique in every sense of the word and attempts to duplicate the transit success in SF in LA is almost impossible due to geographic limitations.
I have often argued that the cures for many of the transit problems in LA are not going to be found in traditional transit models of connecting business cores to residential areas. Instead, LA needs to be viewed for what it is. Cities within a city and transit models should reflect that.
Now, despite my defense, LA has its list of planning problems. A hell of a lot of people drive in this town. More than they should and more than should actually have to. This city is in need of some good transit alternatives and some improved streetscape. So this isn’t to say that LA is great when it comes to urban planning. But if you’re going to make an argument against LA, you best make it a good one. None of this apples to oranges crap.
Roobs is a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles pursuing a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning with concentrations in Transportation Planning & Policy and Urban Design & Development. Roobs is a former Waterfront Commissioner for the City of Berkeley and graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in Legal Studies and Sociology. Roobs worked as a clerk and paralegal for 5 years at the firm, Katzoff & Riggs in Emeryville, CA that specialized in real estate development.