A Critique of Current TOD Planning in Los Angeles
Posted by Roobs on May 30, 2012
Los Angeles today exists as a truly polycentric city with multiple, often competing job and activity centers. Downtown Los Angeles, Wilshire Center, Miracle Mile, Century City and Westwood are often pulling workers from across the region and competing with one another, let alone the other cities within Los Angeles County. Unfortunately, the once expansive rail network that helped fuel Los Angeles horizontal expansion is gone, leaving the existing transit system struggling to deal with the dense, urban sprawl that defines Los Angeles. In an attempt to improve the quality of transit (and life) in Los Angeles, LA Metro has been aggressively expanding its rail network – rail routes once operated as the early Red Car system – and pursuing transit-oriented developments around its new train stations. But due to Los Angeles unique urban form, TODs spread throughout the public transportation system risk counteracting the benefits of each other and only preserving the urban form that contributes to its transit woes. The reason is in the unique urban form of Los Angeles and the necessary requirements to create a successful TOD.
Los Angeles’ Urban Form
Urban design for high transit usage on a scale the size of Los Angeles is less about the transit itself and more about the variation in the urban form. Cities like Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, which enjoy some of the nation’s highest transit ridership, are not like the newer cities of the country like Los Angeles. Martin Wachs of UCLA wrote a great paper on the development history of Los Angeles, entitled: “Autos, Transit, and the Sprawl of Los Angeles: 1920’s“. In the paper, Wachs shows how Los Angeles’ urban form was set up long before the automobile reigned king in transportation options. It was the expansive rail network that connected the original settlement (Downtown Los Angeles) to the outer regions. Further, the desire for wide open spaces was prevalent in new arrivals who were looking to Los Angeles as place to escape the urban centers of the East Coast. The result was a horizontal expansion of lower density urbanism. At that time, many of the new developments would be considered TODs because they were built near train stations. But at this early time in Los Angeles’ urban history, the car was not dominant and a vast majority of residents primarily took the train to get around. But that changed when cars started to take over as primary mode of transportation. And as more people drove, the rail system began to decline until it was ultimately removed by the early 1960s.
Older cities like New York exist as dense urban cores that developed at a time before auto travel was dominant, followed by a lower density suburban periphery dominated by autos. But within that urban core, they enjoy frequent and high quality transit.
Los Angeles developed quickly and outwardly in a relatively dense fashion around old rail lines that prevented it from developing the same urban core density seen in other major cities. But despite its stereotype for being a sprawling city, the regional density of Los Angeles is much higher than the regional density of those early cities. The density from the core of Los Angeles to the periphery remains relatively consistent. Imagine instead of Manhattan surrounded by Westchester, you have Los Angeles surrounded by Los Angeles. As a result, Los Angeles has the traffic problems of a densely populated city but it has the lackluster transit of a more sprawling suburban form. What this shows is that cities that still enjoy relatively high transit use have a concentration of density in comparison to its surroundings.
Creating a Successful TOD
Creating effective TODs require urban design support from the surrounding neighborhood, which is normally not the case in less-dense neighborhoods. True TODs require the development to provide less parking for the residential units, thus encouraging the use of nearby transit. However, the urban form of suburbs – or at least areas outside the urban core – often makes this an impractical and un-marketable requirement. Even though the development is dense and near transit, transit may only be used for commute trips to and from work (if the destination station is also near the workplace). But residents would still require a vehicle to travel to other daily local destinations, such as the grocery store, school, movie theatre, coffee shop, etc. As a result, developers often include more parking in alleged TOD developments, which usually counteracts the benefits of the TOD. Thus, we get what is known as transit-adjacent developments (TADs). True TODs require not one singular development but an existing (or at least planned) mixed-use neighborhood that creates a 24-hour urban fabric that helps eliminate the need for a car for daily activities.
Maintaining the Problem
Given what we know about Los Angeles’ urban form and creating successful TODs, it becomes more clear that by creating TODs around new stations, such as new stations on the now opened Exposition Line and later-to-open Gold Line, Los Angeles is actually creating new cores to add to its already polycentric existence, rather than concentrating in existing cores. Each TOD, in order to be successful, requires adding more people, more jobs and more activities to a neighborhood. When TODs are arbitrarily built around a new station, which is in the middle of a line and not near any existing core, will only continue to distribute the large number of people, jobs and activities evenly throughout transit system and, thus, the region. As a result, Los Angeles will continue to raise its density without increasing its variation. Thus, the city will experience all of the problems of a large and dense city with none of the benefits.
There is still hope to increase transit use and better transit-oriented development. Where development has already begun to occur between these cores and stations – areas of lower density and lower degree of mixed land uses, more appropriate conditions for TOD can still be encouraged so long as development is focused at these new locations and discouraged at other locations.
In closing, I am not suggesting that the whole of Los Angeles transit planning and development is falling short. Some parts of Los Angeles are seeing transit investment where it should be and true TOD can support it, such as the Westside Subway Extension. But Los Angeles should concentrate development in only a few locations in the region where people, jobs and activities are located within a reasonable transit ride, either by bus or rail, like the existing cores of Downtown Los Angeles, Miracle Mile, Century City and Westwood. Each one of these cores offers opportunity for a higher degree of local transit use than the locations between them. High-speed transit infrastructure can then be added to move individuals from one core to another as well as to each core’s lower-density (by comparison) periphery.
Roobs is a masters student at UCLA in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning with concentrations in Transportation Planning & Policy and Urban Design & Development. He has a BA in Legal Studies and Sociology from UC Berkeley. Roobs is a former Waterfront Commissioner for the City of Berkeley and former paralegal for a law firm specializing in real estate development.