The Origins of Los Angeles’s Car Culture and Weak Center

On Twitter, Armand Domalewski asks why Los Angeles is so much more auto-oriented than his city, San Francisco. Matt Yglesias responds that it’s because Los Angeles does not have a strong city center and San Francisco does. I am fairly certain that Matt is channeling a post I wrote about the subject 4.5 years ago (and insight by transit advocates that I don’t remember the source of, to the effect that the modal split for Downtown Los Angeles workers is a healthy 50%), looking at employment in these two cities’ central business districts as well as other comparison cases. In addition, Matt gives extra examples of how Los Angeles is unique in having prestige industries located outside city center: the movie studios are famously in Hollywood and not Downtown, and to that I’ll add that when I looked at high-end hotel locations in 2012, Los Angeles’s were all over the region and most concentrated on the Westside, which isn’t true of other big American coastal cities, even atypically job-sprawling Philadelphia. Because of my connection to this question, I’d like to inject some nuance.

The upshot is that Los Angeles’s car culture is clearly connected to its weak center. I wouldn’t even call it polycentric. Rather, employment there sprawls to small places, rarely even rising to the level of a recognizable edge city like Century City. It is weakly-centered, and this favors cars over public transit – public transit lives off of high-capacity, high-frequency connections, favoring places with high population density (which Los Angeles has) and high job density (which it does not), while cars prefer the opposite because excessive density with cars leads to traffic jams. However, historically, best I can tell, the weak center and the cars co-evolved – I don’t think Los Angeles was atypically weakly-centered on the eve of mass motorization, and in fact every city for which I can find such information, even model transit cities, has gotten steadily job-sprawlier in the last few generations.

How is Los Angeles weakly centered?

There are a number of ways of measuring city center dominance. My metric is the share of metro area employment that is in the central 100 km^2; some gerrymandering and water-hopping is permitted, but the 100 km^2 blob should still be a recognizable central blob rather than many disconnected islands. This is not because this is the best metric, but because my information about France and Canada is less granular than for the United States, and 100 km^2 lets me compare American cities with Vancouver and with the combination of Paris and La Défense; my data on Tokyo is of comparable granularity to Paris and this lets me pick out Central Tokyo plus some adjacent wards like Shinjuku.

As a warning, the fixed size of the central blob means that the proportion should be degressive in city size, which I notice when I compare auto-centric American metro areas of different sizes. It should also be higher all things considered in the United States, where I draw blobs on OnTheMap to capture as many jobs as possible without the blob looking like it has tendrils, than in the foreign comparisons.

I gave many examples in a Twitter thread from 2019, though not Los Angeles. Doing the same exercise for Los Angeles with 2019 data gives 1.6 million jobs in a 500 km^2 blob stretching as far as Culver City, UCLA, Downtown Burbank, and Downtown Pasadena; a 100 km^2 blob gerrymandered to just include Hollywood, West Hollywood, and Century City, none of which can reasonably be called city center, is already down to 820,000, where the roughly same-area city of San Francisco is 770,000, and more like 900,000 when taking its central 50 km^2 plus those of Oakland and Berkeley. A circle of area 100 km^2 centered on Vermont/Wilshire to include all of Downtown plus Hollywood is down to 620,000. This compares with a total of 6.5 million jobs in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, and 8.3 million including Ventura County and the Inland Empire.

The upshot is that Downtown Los Angeles is pretty big, but not relative to the size of the metro area it’s in. On an honest definition of the central business district, it is smaller in absolute job count than Downtown San Francisco, Boston (which has around 830,000), Washington (around 700,000), or Chicago (1 million), let alone New York (around 3 million) or Paris (2 million in the city and the communes comprising La Défense).

Nor are the secondary centers in Los Angeles substantial enough to make it polycentric. Downtown Burbank has around 20,000 jobs, Downtown Glendale around 50,000, Downtown Pasadena including Caltech 67,000, Century City (included in the less honest central 100 km^2) 54,000, UCLA 74,000, El Segundo 55,000, LAX 48,000, Culver City around 20,000, Downtown Long Beach around 35,000. New York, in contrast, has Downtown Newark around 60,000, the Jersey City and Hoboken waterfront around 80,000, Long Island City around 100,000, Downtown Brooklyn around 100,000 as well, Flushing 45,000. Morningside Heights has 42,000 jobs in 1 km^2, a job density that I don’t think any of Los Angeles’s secondary centers hits, and the neighborhood is not at all a pure job center. No: Los Angeles just has a weak center.

I bring up Paris as a comparison because there’s a myth on both sides of the Atlantic, peddled by European critical urbanists who think tall buildings are immoral and by American tourists whose experience of Europe is entirely within walking distance of their city center hotels, that European city centers are less dominant than American ones. But Paris has, within the same area, comfortably more jobs than the centers of Los Angeles and Chicago combined; its central-100-km^2 job share is somewhat higher than New York’s (though probably only by enough to countermand the degressivity of this measure).

Was Los Angeles always like this?

I don’t think so. My knowledge of Los Angeles history is imperfect; the closest connection I have with it is that my partner is developing a narrative video game set in 1920s Hollywood, intended to be a realistic depiction of that era. But Los Angeles as I understand it was not especially polycentric, historically.

Historically polycentric regions exist, and tend to have weaker public transit than similar-size monocentric ones. The Ruhr has several centers, each with decent urban rail within the core city and high car usage elsewhere; Upper Silesia is far more auto-oriented than similar-size metropolitan Warsaw; Randstad has rather low urban rail ridership as people bike (in the main cities) or drive (in the suburbs). All three are truly historically polycentric, having developed as different city cores merged into one metro area as mechanized transportation raised people’s commute range, and in the case of the first two, much of this history involves different coal mining sites, each its own city.

Los Angeles doesn’t really have this history. The city had a slight majority of the county’s population in 1920 (577,000/936,000) and 1930 (1,238,000/2,208,000), only falling below half in the 1940s – and in the 1920s the city was already notable for its high use of cars. The other four counties in the metro area were more or less irrelevant then – in 1920 they totaled 244,000 people, rising to 389,000 by 1930, actually less than the city. Glendale grew from 14,000 to 63,000, Long Beach from 56,000 to 142,000, Santa Ana from 15,000 to 30,000; other suburbs that are now among the largest in the country either were insignificant (Anaheim had 11,000 people in 1930) or didn’t exist (Irvine had 10,000 people in 1970).

Los Angeles did annex San Fernando Valley early, but there wasn’t much urban development there in the 1920s; Burbank, entirely contained within that region, had 17,000 people in 1930, and San Fernando had 8,000. There was a lot of suburbanization in this period, but it did not predate car culture.

This is not at all how a polycentric region’s demographic history looks – in the Rhine-Ruhr, in 1900, Dortmund and both cities that would later merge to form Wuppertal had 150,000 people, Essen had just over 100,000 and would annex to over 200,000 within five years, Duisburg and Bochum both had just less than 100,000 and would soon cross that mark, Cologne had 370,000 people.

The region had an oil-based economy at the time – in the early 20th century the center of the American oil industry was still California and not Texas – but evidently, development centered on Los Angeles and to a small extent Long Beach (in 1930 having about the same ratio of population to Los Angeles’s that the combination of Jersey City and Newark did to New York’s). The same can be said of the various beach resorts that were booming in that era – the largest, Santa Monica, had 37,000 people in 1930, 3% of the population of Los Angeles, at which point Yonkers had 2% of New York’s population.

Boomtown infrastructure

While Los Angeles did not have a polycentric history in the 1920s, it did have a noted car culture. I believe that this is the result of boomtown dynamics, visible in many places that grow suddenly, like Detroit in the same era (in the 2010s, metro Detroit had a transit modal split of about 1%, the lowest among the largest American metro areas, even less than Dallas and Houston). Infrastructure takes time and coordination to build. In a growing region, infrastructure is always a little bit behind population growth, and in a boomtown, it is far behind – who knows if the boom will last? Texas is having this issue with flood control right now, and that’s with far less growth than that of Southern California in the first half of the 20th century.

The upshot is that in a very wealthy boomtown like 1920s Los Angeles (California ranking as the fourth richest state in 1929 and third richest in 1950), people have a lot of disposable income and not much public infrastructure. This leads to consumer spending – hence, cars. It takes long-term planning to convert such a city into a transit city, and this was not done in Los Angeles; plans to build a subway-surface tunnel for the Red Cars did not materialize, and the streetcars were not really competitive with cars on speed. Compounding the problems, the Red Cars were never profitable, in an era when public transit was expected to pay for itself; they were a loss leader for real estate development by owner Henry Huntington, and by the 1920s the land had already been sold at a profit.

Then came the war, and the same issue of private wealth without infrastructure loomed even more. California boomed during the war, thanks to war industries; there was new suburban development in areas with no streetcar service, with people carpooling to work or taking the bus as part of the national scheme to save fuel for the war effort. Transit maintenance was deferred throughout the country (as well as in Canada); after the war, Los Angeles had a massive population of people with very high disposable income, whose alternative to the car was either streetcars that were falling apart or buses that were even slower and had even worse ride quality.

Everywhere in the United States at the time, bustitution led to falling ridership per Ed Tennyson’s since-link-rotted TRB paper on the subject, even net of speed – Tennyson estimates based on postwar streetcar removal and later light rail construction that rail by itself gets 34-43% more ridership than bus service net of speed, and in both the bustitution and light rail eras the trains were also faster than the buses. But the older million-plus cities in the United States at the time had their subways to fall back on. Los Angeles had grown up too quickly and didn’t have one; neither did Detroit, which has a broadly Rust Belt economic and social history but a much more car-oriented transportation history.

The sort of long-term planning that produced transit revival did happen in the Western United States and Canada, elsewhere. In the 1970s, Western American and Canadian cities invented what is now standard light rail in both countries, often out of a deliberate desire not to be Los Angeles, at the time infamous for its smog; those cities have had more success with transit revival and transit-oriented development, especially Vancouver with its SkyTrain metro and aggressive high-rise residential and commercial transit-oriented development. But in the 1920s-40s, there was no such political counter to automobile dominance. Los Angeles did start building urban rail in the 1980s, but not at the necessary scale, and with ridiculously low levels of transit-oriented development: in the 2010s, after the economy recovered from the Great Recession, the 10 million strong county approved a hair more than 20,000 housing units annually, slightly less than the 2.5 million strong Metro Vancouver region.

Co-evolution of transportation and development

Los Angeles was not very decentralized in the first half of the 20th century. It had lower residential density, but none of today’s edge cities and smaller sub-centers really existed then, with only a handful of exceptions like Long Beach. By today’s standards, every American city was very centralized, with people generally working either in their home neighborhood or in city center. The city did have high car ownership for the era, and this encouraged freeway construction after the war, but the weak central business district came later.

Rather, what has happened since the war is a co-evolution of car-oriented transportation and weakly-centered job geography. Cars got stuck in traffic jams trying to get to city center, so business and local elites banded together to build an edge city closer to where management lived, first Miracle Mile and then Century City; Detroit similarly had New Center, where General Motors headquartered starting 1923. New York underwent the same process as businesses looked for excuses to move closer to the CEO’s home in the favored quarter (IBM in Armonk, General Electric in Fairfield), but the existence of the subway meant that there was still demand for ever more city center skyscrapers, even as city residents of means fled to the suburbs.

This story of co-evolution is not purely American. I keep going back to Paul Barter’s thesis, which portrays the urban layout in his example cities in East and Southeast Asia as starting from a similar point in the middle of the 20th century. Density was high throughout, and central sectors in Southeast Asia were ethnically segregated, with a Chinatown, an Indian area, a low-density Western colonial sector, and so on. The divergence happened in the second half of the 20th century, Singapore choosing to be a transit city and Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok choosing to be car-oriented cities. I don’t have job data for these cities, but my impression as a visitor (and former Singapore resident) is that Singapore has a clear central office district and Bangkok has a hodgepodge of skyscrapers with no real structure to where they go within the central areas.

So yes, Los Angeles’s weak center is making it difficult to expand public transportation there now and get high ridership out of it; boosting the region’s transit-oriented development rate to that of Vancouver would help, but Los Angeles is far more decentralized and auto-oriented than Vancouver was in the 1990s. But the historic sequence is not first polycentrism and then automobility, unlike in Upper Silesia or the Ruhr. Rather, a weak center (never true polycentricity) and automobility co-evolved, reinforcing each other to this day – it’s hard to get ridership out of urban rail expansions since city center is so weak, so people drive, so jobs locate where there’s less traffic and avoid Downtown Los Angeles.


  1. Jack Harman

    Was there much petroleum refining in LA in the early 20th century? If so, could be that cheap oil played a part as well

    • archie4oz

      Yes, California was a big oil production state from 1900 thru to the 1930s. It’s still an oil production and refining state today, but it’s nowhere near what Alaska, Texas, or Oklahoma produces.

    • chris t

      As a former resident, I enjoy telling people that El Segundo is literally named for the second Standard Oil refinery. Opened 1911, still operational.

    • terryp

      so much production it likely caused large and damaging earthquakes. see the work of Susan Hough

  2. Sid

    An additional explanation may be that certain industries that are more prevalent in certain cities may gain or lose productivity and profits for concentrating in centers. Every global financial center (NYC, London, Singapore, Hong Kong, etc.) seems to have an extensive subway system and not be auto-oriented. Finance firms in NYC may find being in the city center useful for completing transactions while movie directors in LA need to drive to differing locations to film varied landscapes. Industries that require lots of land and real estate will try to avoid paying higher city center prices.

    • Eric2

      I think film was always a small employer in numerical terms. Perhaps more relevant, the oil industry was forced to be geographically distributed due to oil well locations. Also the port (Long Beach) was far from the city center. Later, Los Angeles became a huge manufacturing city – even pre-car manufacturing tends to sprawl (see Chicago), all the more so in the car age.

  3. archie4oz

    As somebody who lives in Tokyo and grew up LA, this post has some “interesting” takes. It does feel weird to hear “Central Tokyo” and “Adjacent Shinjuku Ward” in the same sentence. Nobody here really thinks of there being a “Central Tokyo” other than maybe the Imperial Palace, which creates a big fat hole in the 23 wards.

    Also, a bit too much emphasis on the decline of PE/Red Cars which were interurban (the network still operated extensively post war), probably not enough on the LA Railway (aka P-cars or Yellow cars) which was provided much more urban coverage and operated into the 50’s.

    Simple city zoning and the associated parking minimums I’d say is one of the more influential factors. The 1 covered parking space per household goes all the way back to the 1920s. It grew to 2+ and led to the birth of dingbats and parking pedestal high rises that you see today. I think only last year that they finally got rid of parking minimums (although they had been talking about it in LA for years).

    • Andrew in Ezo

      Central Tokyo would be Chiyoda ward, though it is true people in general don’t think of it in the traditional sense of a dominant center of a metropolis. In the past when say a real estate development in a surrounding prefecture would advertise commute travel time to Tokyo, Shinjuku was typically given as the end point.

      • John D.

        Chiyoda has a fairly strong claim to the ‘central’ moniker with the palace, national government, Marunouchi CBD, and Tokyo Station.

        ‘Central Tokyo’ in a more historical sense could also mean Chuo ward – it’s quite literally in the name.

        • archie4oz

          See Chuo makes more sense to me since I equate Nihombashi, Kyobashi, (lower) Kanda as “downtown.” I’d throw in Marunouchi but that’s Chiyoda ward. While the government feels like it’s on the “other side town” (e.g. Kasumigaseki to Hanzomon), but even then it sprawls past Yotsuya into Shinjuku Ward (e.g. Ministry of Defense). Likewise, the north chunk of Minato Ward also feels like “Central Tokyo” (Shimbashi in particular), and yet I live in Minato but I’m south of Shinagawa (yes it stretches all the way down there).

          I guess that’s why “Central Tokyo” just doesn’t register with me. It feels as much of a decentralized collection of neighborhoods as LA does (albeit with higher density). Although it doesn’t have as distinctive of a feature as the Santa Monica mountains cutting off the Valley from the basin.

          • Luke

            It seems like it must all be relative. E.g., Manhattan is, in a lot of people’s mind’s “Central NYC”, yet of course within the island itself Midtown and Lower Manhattan are very obviously distinct areas. So, if you’re talking about the entire region, referring to the whole island as one piece makes sense, especially considering that almost all of the city’s subway lines run between these two places. I’m inclined to think of Seoul this way, too. If you live/work in the city, then Jongno/Gangnam/Yeouido are very different places, and the under-construction GTX serves to highlight the fact that these are fairly independent centers needing better connection. Nonetheless, if you live outside the city in e.g. Goyang/Seongnam/Gimpo, they’re all “Seoul” even though travel between them by subway currently takes a while.

            I remember asking this question here before. Alon has referred to Tokyo before as a strongly monocentric city, yet there are distinct areas within that monocenter. So, how close do the sub-centers need to be for a city to be monocentric? Subjectivity aside, it feels wrong to call a place like Seoul monocentric even though a resident of Sudogwon may see it that way on the whole, whereas it seems to apply to Tokyo even though people there may not experience is as such.

          • John D.

            “Alon has referred to Tokyo before as a strongly monocentric city, yet there are distinct areas within that monocenter. So, how close do the sub-centers need to be for a city to be monocentric?”

            I suppose it’s a matter of scale. Alon’s working definition, from their third paragraph, is “the share of metro area employment that is in [a contiguous] 100 km2 […] blob”. All of Kanto quite obviously orbits around a blob of that size comprising most of Shinjuku, Toshima, Bunkyo, Taito, Chuo, Chiyoda, Minato, and Shibuya. If you replace ‘metro area’ with ‘city proper’, then the sub-centres become more distinguishable.

          • Borners

            The Yamanote loop is quite clearly one centre viewed from 10,000 feet, that’s why the entire railway network of Kanto and arguably Japan feeds into it.

            And its quite telling what a drop the main non-Yamanote employment centre; Yokohama. Pointedly the only railway network centred on Yokohama Sotetsu has acquired Yamanote connections via the East Kanagawa rail project. And the Yokohama subway Green Line is basically an orbital for suburban Kanagawans to get to Yamanote rail connections.

            The distinctions between the major central sub-centres of a monocentric core isn’t rare at all. London has an expanding core based on the traditional Westminster-West End-City which has newer sub-centres in Docklands, Southwark and the Euston-St Pancras-Kings Cross area. And there are real differences within those areas (Marylebone, Bloomsbury, Soho etc).

            The closest thing Japan has to a polycentric city in the European sense of the word is Keihanshin which has a slightly lower share of mass transit use, though density and Japanese road design mean people cycle and walk more than drive. Even then Osaka is very clearly dominant among the centres and within Osaka Umeda has clearly grown relative to Namba/Nihonbashi. I’d also argue part of Osaka’s economic problems is that they didn’t make the centre even stronger by building a Tokyo style through-running radial subway. Although to give the Ishin bunch credit they are working to make that happen.

            That’s even worse for Nagoya which has a more difficult legacy network than Keihanshin (Nagoya station is rather far from the CBD at Sakai) and an even dummer subway plan. Hence its modal split is closer to Sapporo than Osaka/Tokyo.

            US-level centre-less cities are non-existent in Japan, although cities with relatively weak CBD’s do exist. The one I know best is Utsunomiya which is pointedly trying to fix that with an LRT*. But it shows quite a different pattern, where there is a traditional city centre that’s in real trouble, a newer better off area around the main train station and then job sprawl with big out-of-town-shopping centres (Bell Mall, Aeon), exurban university campus (3/4 of Utsunomiya’s unis are beyond CBD walking distance) and industrial area (Honda’s Haga campus).

            *the original sin of Utsunomiya is not using their JR and Tobu lines properly and treating them as ways to get Tokyo not get across the urban area.

    • chris t

      Thanks, I always want to make the same point about “central Tokyo” sounding really bizarre, but I’ve never actually bothered to look up employment statistics. Maybe Chiyoda-ku has more employment than I think?
      Personally, I just consider most of the area covered by Tokyo Metro (sans interlining) “central”. Which I guess is probably on the order of 100km^2, come to think of it, so it works decently with this post.

    • Alon Levy

      I think of it as Chiyoda, Chuo, and Minato Wards, based on how Tokyo Metro describes itself and also on job densities (these three ward have higher job densities than the rest).

  4. Lee Ratner

    From what I remember reading was that while Los Angeles did have a vigorous center/traditional downtown before World War II, it was very spread out residentially before World War II as well. So even if most people went to the center to work, they wanted to drive there rather than take the Pacific Electric, which got stuck in traffic. There were plans to build a subway or elevated lines but voters rejected any tax money going to it. This was true for The original plans before World War II and the Chamber of Commerce plan from right after World War II. Car culture was already big in Los Angeles by the 1920s with even women leading a protest for parking.

      • Henry Miller

        Not always. Streetcars can’t detour to a side street if there is traffic. Streetcars can’t even go around a car blocking their lane. In the 1920s it was probably more acceptable to drive your car on the grass to go around, or put more than one car in a lane.

        Your private car also didn’t have to stop at stations along the way, so it was faster on the non-congested strips.

        Separated right of ways are very important for anything more than very short distance travel. Both cars (freeways) and transit (metro systems) both need it.

  5. Lee Ratner

    Most of the big transit cities seemed to have grown big before the car. Cities that grew rapidly in population and built up area after the car never became transit cities. Even China’s new metro cities fit this pattern. Nearly all of them, especially Beijing and Shanghai, were big million plus cities before the car and China’s government had the foresight to start building metro systems before too many people owned cars. Everywhere else in the world, if a place became a big city after the car and with mass coronership then transit was not going to be built or at least not built that much.

    • John D.

      I suppose the best test of that hypothesis will be to see how the likes of Delhi, Mumbai, Jakarta, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City turn out – cities that grew big through mass motorisation, and only recently started building out urban rail.

      • Eric2

        In general those cities were too poor to have substantial car use, even though they developed in the car age. (Though, the Vietnam cities at least have high motorcycle use.)

        I think none of them are going to become car-oriented cities, they are too big and dense, there simply isn’t room for cars for everyone unless they built a truly absurd number of freeways. And of course they realize that they can serve the same number of people with a much smaller number of metro lines.

        • John D.

          Which is why I specified ‘motorisation’ in general rather than cars specifically. All of the cities I mentioned are notorious for huge traffic jams, but in the form of scooters, motorcycles, and auto-rickshaws.

      • Lee Ratner

        Delhi and Mumbai were big cities before the end of the British Raj even if not as big as they are now. They are more like Beijing and Shanghai but building their transit slowly because India isn’t a dictatorship like China. Jakarta seems to be a very non-transit place and they are just starting to build rapid transit. Hanoi and HCMC as well.

        • John D.

          That’s a bit of an understatement – Delhi went from 950,000 inhabitants in 1947 (the Province at the end of the Raj) to 13.9 million in 2001 (the Capital Territory right before the Delhi Metro debuted), which means over 90% of its present size was gained in the absence of rapid transit rail.

    • Diego

      Does Istanbul qualify as such a post-car boomtown which nonetheless has good transit? Its population has increased threefold since 1985 (though it was admittedly already big back then).

      • Eric2

        Istanbul’s current transit is pretty mediocre given its size and GDP, and was much worse 20 years ago. It’s not that transit was historically good, it’s that car use was inconvenient due to the density.

    • xh

      Not actually. Motorization kills the viability of transit via two main pathways: low-density sprawl and dencentralization of functionality within existing urban areas, with the former being much more “efficient” than the latter. Without low-density sprawl, especially in the form of extensive single family zoning, there’s actually a decent period of time following mass motorzationin during which you can still build successful transit.

      For example, Taipei grew with mass motorization. Its population plateaued in the 90s, when its motorcycle ownership was already over 50%. Due to the scarcity of land, urban sprawl wasn’t a thing. Then it began to build mass transit. Now Taipei has a good transit network with a modal share of ~50% (per

      • Tiercelet

        I wonder if at least part of this success–in addition to constrained geography–is that scooter-oriented motorization doesn’t force setting aside as much space for parking as car use does, so you can still do enough dense building for transit to get traction?

        • Lee Ratner

          Scotters need no more parking space than a bike usually. So I think that my be a very big part of it. You can build a dense relatively traditional city with scooters in a way you can’t with cars because of the decreased needs to devote massive amounts of space to parking. Also, the single family home never became the dominate form of living in Taiwan or South Korea like it did in the United States and there was never strict separation of residential and other land uses like the United States and other Anglophone countries had.

          • Henry Fung

            Except that, when Koreans or Taiwanese immigrant to the United States, they always go for the suburbs with land. My mom has always pushed the idea that having land is the most important thing to have and is the most valuable, and obviously that is a lot easier in Los Angeles than suburban Taipei. I would argue that the SFH vs. condo premium is higher in the San Gabriel Valley, which has a high percentage of Asian owners, than it is in comparable suburbs like the San Fernando Valley or the Gateway Cities, although I have no way of proving that.

          • Lee Ratner

            I agree that East Asian immigrants and basically every other immigrant group goes for single family homes in the suburbs if they can afford it. They love the space that they can get in America.

  6. Hugh B

    It’s not a full explanation (see: Washington, Paris), but LA did have a 150 foot height limit until the 1960s, which definitely restricted job density and impaired the creation of high-density elite housing unlike a place like Chicago, DC, or NYC (those familiar: does this really exist anywhere else in the US?)

    • Henry Miller

      Paris is the densest city in the world and they limit your to 5 floors, or about a third of that.

      • Alon Levy

        They absolutely don’t limit buildings to five floors. Haussmannian buildings are five to nine floors; then there are housing projects (HLMs) in the teens.

      • Ernest Tufft

        NYC is more dense than Paris for sure. There seems to be optimal height for multi-purpose buildings and Paris is pretty close to this. NYC and many Asian cities are too densely populated and residents dream of living elsewhere. Girona, Spain limits builds now to 8 stories, ideally with the ground floor and mezzanine dedicated to consumer oriented businesses. So, that leaves 6-7 floors of mixed affluency apartments. There are no “projects”. Typically upper floors are for view oriented affluent apartments, although before advent of elevators lower level apartments were the better ones. In any case, too much density definitely hurts quality of life at street level by too much pedestrian congestion, too many motor cycles, cramped car access, air pollution, difficult utility maintenance, etc. With 8 stories, Girona still has sufficient population density for high speed rail and commuter trains serving city center, same as Paris. Zero emissions walking is all one needs to do get shopping and other services done. Cycling in street isn’t dangerous.

        • Alon Levy

          What do you mean, many residents dream of living elsewhere? New York isn’t any different on this from Paris, which is depopulating with the mayor’s enthusiastic approval as the working class flees to cheaper suburban rents. And then metro Tokyo and Seoul are growing while the rest of their respective countries are depopulating, since both regions build sufficient housing (both recently overtook Paris in per capita residential space, making Paris the overcrowding capital of the democratic first world).

    • Robert Irelan

      > high-density elite housing unlike a place like Chicago, DC, or NYC (those familiar: does this really exist anywhere else in the US?)

      I suppose it depends on what you mean by “high-density elite housing”. SF, LA, Miami, and even Houston have expensive condo towers. They are not as common as Chicago, DC, or NYC, but they exist.

  7. Ernest Tufft

    Very thoughtful history of LA transport. It should noted LA was city built around the automobile and semi-truck from virtual beginning. San Francisco was congested sophisticated city made so by ferry boat traffic 50 years before LA could claim to be a city. Both were boomtown cities, but born in different epochs. San Francisco had ferry boats and invented the cable car. LA invented the modern freeway. Of course in fair weather with plenty of open road space and no sidewalks being seen in a muscle car was more appealing fashion than dapper jacket and top hat. California movie industry push marketed this image to global scale, while oil & gas, automobile, and tire industries bought up and scrapped the world’s largest geographical electric trolley line system.

    • Lee Ratner

      Los Angeles along with Nassau County and Westchester County in New York were also ground zero for modern suburbia.

  8. Ben Ross

    Two critical factors for the LA area are land use regulation and the smog.
    Los Angeles pioneered the legal separation of jobs from housing. Their 1908 (!) zoning law enforced a strict exclusion of all commercial activity from residential zones. At one point the law required existing businesses to close, although that got reversed fairly quickly.
    Also in the early part of the century, the industrial areas were incorporated into separate cities like Vernon, Torrance, El Segundo and City of Industry to save on taxes. The idea was to minimize the population in these areas so as to keep city expenses down. This was done by zoning, and also the cities refused to enact air pollution regulation after the smog started in the 1940s, which repelled residential development as well as directly saving the factories money. Vernon & City of Industry were particularly effective at this, with populations of 222 and 247 in the 2020 census.
    The arrival of photochemical smog during WW2 further affected land use. It switched the location of the favored quarter from the east side (easterners went to Pasadena to recuperate from tuberculosis!) to the upwind west side. In the 1940s the smog was particularly bad in downtown LA which had heavy industries to the east and south (factories were initially a bigger contributor to smog than cars, auto exhaust only exceeded factory emissions around 1950). This surely accelerated the movement of office jobs to the west side.

    • Ben Ross

      Then in the 1940s California developed the “Lakewood Plan” by which an area could incorporate as a city, and thus take over zoning powers from the county, but avoid the expense of setting up its own municipal services such as firefighting and sewage by contracting with the county to provide them. This incentivized competitive incorporations to fend off annexations, motivated either by the desire to exclude non-residential uses, or the desire to grab tax-revenue-producing business areas. (Not only real estate taxes, California gives a portion of state sales tax revenue to the city where the store is located.)
      This obviously applied to northern as well as southern California, but San Francisco itself as a city-county on a peninsula was not subject to competitive annexation. I’m not sure that San Diego & San Jose have any less job sprawl than LA.

  9. Diego

    This discussion reminds of my rant about how investments in car infrastructure and transit infrastructure are both self-reinforcing. Also on a personal level, the decision on whether to own a car can lead to a series of self-reinforcing decisions as you try to make the most of your transport options. Resistance to change can be strong when a large number of voters find themselves locked into car-dependent by their mortgages and/or car loans.

    But of course car-oriented path-dependence isn’t the main issue in LA, people are after all willing to vote for the transit referendums.

  10. Henry Fung

    It is interesting that county government, the largest employer in the county, started decentralizing decades ago. A very small fraction of county workers work in the civic center area. In the 1950’s, many moved into the Wilshire Center (now Koreatown) area around Wilshire and Vermont with some in the Eastlake complex surrounding General Hospital (not just health care related fields, but public works and juvenile courts as well). Then in the 1980’s as part of a move to move county offices closer to the constituents, the supervisors starting moving all the headquarters for big county departments out of that central area. So public works is in Alhambra, animal care in Long Beach, probation and library in Downey, DPSS (welfare) is in an office park in the city of Industry, and the registrar of voters and county clerk is in Norwalk, which makes little sense as it is closer to Orange County than it is the center of LA County. Even the larger agencies which still have downtown offices, like sheriff, assessor, and children and family services, have huge regional offices elsewhere which contain most of the staff, including functions which are countywide.

    • Alon Levy

      It was last a boomtown in the 1850s and 60s; by the time cars were invented, the infrastructure had caught up. It’s also more land-constrained, leading to higher population density and to choke points of the kind that favor transit (i.e. Bay Bridge); LA’s land constraints only started to bind in the late 20th century, by which point tight zoning meant that development was pushed to Antelope Valley with little in-basin densification.

    • Ernest Tufft

      San Francisco IS a car dominated city compared to European cities. The reason is because Ferryboats, BART, CalTrain, Ace, Capitol Corridor train services just don’t fill the volume of commuter traffic the way Catalan regional trains do for Barcelona. Most suburban living residents within the region want to drive into the city, not take public transit, although on certain days when sport stadiums fill up, more trains do get run and trains are standing room only. So, residents in SF are overwhelmed by car culture much more than Barcelona, for example. Also, SF, outside of downtown, is still low in multi-use buildings compared to European cities. The photogenic “painted lady” redwood houses every rich person dreams to restore don’t have ground floor shopping. Whole neighborhoods outside downtown area are wall to wall housing, but each home typically has a private garage on ground level, and curb space in front enough to park a car. So, even residents of SF contribute to car culture because residents can’t walk to get groceries or do other basic errands like is possible in European cities.

      • Lee Ratner's%20latest%20zoning,land%20zoned%20for%20residential%20purposes.

        Large swathes of San Francisco are also zoned exclusively for single family housing or at least were until the state legislature reformed and liberalized the zoning laws. This included a big part of the flat and grid street patterned Sunset District, a place pretty ideal for apartments. I’d also note that many San Franicsco residents avoid Muni even if they don’t own a car and take a rideshare to get to places where they can’t walk.

      • Marty

        This is in fact true as a former SF resident. SF looks good compared to the low bar for the west coast, but it’s actually not a particularly compelling car free city. Living without any car use in SF (including rented cars and ride share) would confine you to a very small portion of the overall metro area. BART is limited and muni is agonizingly slow. Out of the 7×7 I’d say maybe 1/4th is truly city like.

        • Ernest Tufft

          I have many friends without car living in San Francisco. It’s definitely liveable without car. But. The quality of life is diminished by car owners with garages in the city, and commuters and visitors coming from outside the city. Narrow sidewalks, parking garages, fast moving traffic is norm in San Francisco that reduces the fun of being on foot or cycling in city.

    • Tiercelet

      Replacement of streetcar/rail networks with buses, historically often driven by the political influence of automobile manufacturers intentionally trying to hamstring rail service.

      • Lee Ratner

        I am going to disagree with the driven by the political influence of automobile manufacturers. It is a tempting fantasy but there is no evidence behind it. Many countries that didn’t have widespread car ownership until decades after the United States started to tear up the streetcar networks and replacing them with buses about the same time the United States did. The United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, etc. I think all evidence suggests that even without widespread car ownership or even much car ownership, evidence suggests that the original streetcar networks really weren’t that great and buses did actually provide a substantial improvement.

        • Ernest Tufft

          Lee Ratner–I’m not sure about how busses were found more efficient providers of service, but we see that communities in Catalonia, for example, that lost rail lines have been degraded by car culture and made economically poorer. City of Olot and La Bisbal d’ Emporda compared to Girona and Figueres show stark contrast of wealth profiles. Where tracks are removed and replaced with busses, long term outlook has not good for community. Regarding the USA, read this:

          • Henry Miller

            Cause and effect it hard to pin down though.

            Buses have several advantages over street cars. You don’t have to maintain rail, just pavement that the road department is going to do anyway. If something is in your way you can go to a different lane to pass. If you want to change routes you don’t have to tear up rail.

            Make sure you read the above from a 1940 mindset. We have learned of some objections to the above reasoning that would not have been obvious back then.

          • Lee Ratner

            I know about the General Motors streetcar conspiracy and consider in bulk. I generally follow the opinion that America was motorizing fast and early, the streetcar companies were politically not popular, and politicians had no electoral reason to save transit.

          • Lee Ratner

            @Henry Miller, a lot of current transit advocacy is basically looking back with 20/20 hindsight. Kind of. There were plenty of people who recognized that you couldn’t have everybody drive everywhere in private cars in the mid-20th century too. These weren’t just radicals. General Election, of course they did have vested interest, put out a film about it.

        • Alon Levy

          No, the buses were a lot worse and this was remarked at the time – the reference on this is The Bus is Young and Honest, an account of how John Hylan and other populists extracted surplus out of streetcar companies just because they could. Evidently, bustitution led to a sharp, immediate decrease in ridership.

          • Lee Ratner

            Is there any data about this in European and Asian countries with trams because these countries mainly municipally owned and operated street car networks at the same time.

          • Alon Levy

            I don’t know. French data on this would be precious. (Germany buried the trams as Stadtbahns rather than bustituting as in the US or France.)

          • Matthew Hutton

            But some of that is probably people choosing to buy a car at a moment when the change occurred when they probably would have anyway over the next 5 years or so.

            Part of the reason that rail has had a renaissance is of course because car traffic congestion is more unsolvable than they thought in the 1940s and part is that the service quality is enormously better.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Also NIMBYs are probably blocking more road construction than anticipated.

          • AJ

            Not disputing the data, but why would a bus have been worse than a streetcar stuck in mixed traffic? The new (toy) streetcars built in NA in the 90s-today generally preform worse than buses because they are basically buses but can’t drive around a parked car. What was different during the bustitution era?

          • Alon Levy

            Because the bus was equally stuck in mixed traffic, and had (and still has) worse ride quality.

            The toy streetcars have shit frequency and are so short they’re uncompetitive with bicycling and usually also with walking. But the longer, more frequent light rail lines from the 1980s got much higher ridership than the buses they replaced even net of speed.

  11. jpf

    Late to the party, but:

    It seems like there are some interesting questions here: Why are so many jobs clustered into limited spaces in places like NYC or Paris but those same forces don’t seem to apply in LA (or, say, Silicon Valley)? I’m skeptical that preexisting transit is really driving job density in wealthy cities in the absence of other advantages of job density. The workers that management bothers to think about almost certainly would rather drive anyway and a driveable office would be an advantage for the company. So what are all of those people in Midtown office buildings doing and are they doing it in LA also? If so, where are they doing it in LA? Where do people work in LA if not in a big CBD? What are they doing there? I guess maybe I’d like to flip the question a bit — why isn’t New York job density more like LA? Inertia?

    My hunch is that LA for some reason has a very different mix of employment than somewhere like NYC that makes it less attractive to locate in a big CBD. LA remains quite a bit more focused on industrial and large logistical uses (e.g, ports, big warehouses) than most American cities these days and I suspect that enters into it. It has, to my knowledge, never been a particularly large financial center or base for large corporations (esp outside of entertainment). The classic LA industries also require a lot of space. You can’t locate an aircraft factory or a movie studio just anywhere. The oilfields are where they are. Etc.

    • Lee Ratner

      You can argue that New York, Paris, and similar cities benefited from having a lot of cultural institutions that could not be moved as easily as jobs. In New York at least, Broadway, the Met, MOMA, and the Museum of Natural History, etc were not going anywhere. Same with the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, and other cultural/tourist institutions in Paris. So the big cultural institutions that drew in the tourists domestic and foreign and kept the locals entertained saved the jobs in the city.

      • AJ

        LA and Houston have excellent museums, many of which are rail lines, but because of the broader modal mix most tourist access those museums by car. For a city like Paris where urban tourism is an important share of the local economy, I think you make a valid point about sustaining a transit oriented economy, but the tourism usually follows the built environment; people don’t drive within Disney World, but they drive everywhere else in Orlando.

        • Lee Ratner

          I was talking about why Manhattan didn’t decline in the post-war period compared to the job sprawl that happened in other pre-car cities. Manhattan’s museums, cultural, and shopping institutions already existed by 1945 and weren’t really what you would call moveable. So the jobs stayed too.

    • Henry Miller

      Trade offs are in play. If you are in the center of the city you can hire people coming from every direction. If you are out on the edge you can only hire people from one direction. importantly, most people have a 30 minute max commute, so you can’t get people who happen to live on the other side of the city to apply for your jobs.

      Who you are trying to hire matters as well. Parking downtown is painful (transit options are okay in even the worst transit cities). However once you are downtown the concentration of people means that you have a lot of options close to do over lunch. Thus many people overall prefer working downtown is the best option because of all the things you can do over lunch. Companies that ask their employees tend to stay downtown, while those who don’t ask move out to the suburbs.

  12. Anthony Robert

    Off-topic question: what is the most car-oriented city in the world outside the US? Would it be some place in Canada, Australia, or New Zealand?

    • Alon Levy

      Define “city.” The norm for first-world regions that are not very urbanized is high automobility; the American exceptionalism is that big historic cities like Chicago and San Francisco have the modal split of a Toulouse or Nice and big cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta, Detroit, and Houston have rounding-error transit usage.

  13. Anthony Robert

    BTW: a very good book about this topic (why LA developed car culture) is Los Angeles and the Automobile by Scott Bottles.

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