Category Archives: Cities

How Should LA Urbanize like East Asia? Mass Transit!

The final piece in the puzzle of transforming LA into a more dense, Asian-style megalopolis entails massive improvements to mass transportation.

To be fair, LA County’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been constructing an six-line “Metro Rail” network, consisting of two heavy and four light rail lines, over the last three decades. Two Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines round out LA’s modern mass transit system.

At the same time, municipal planning documents such as the City of Los Angeles’s Mobility Plan 2035 propose dedicate bus lanes on arterial thoroughfares across the city.

But the regional growth corridors anticipated for an Asian-style city require a more wider-reaching network, that not only crosses county lines but integrates mainline(i.e. “Commuter”) rail with the subway/light rail network.

As I discussed in my previous article, many of Los Angeles’ extant job corridors parallel existing mainline rail lines, which run Metrolink Commuter Rail trains. Unfortunately, because Metrolink shares track with private freight railroads, it cannot operate reliable service on much of its network. The Riverside Line, whose track is owned by the Union Pacific (freight) railroad, runs only nine trains in day (with no reverse commute service)!

Furthermore, many of the lines have broad stop spacing (following an American commuter rail tradition), with station density higher on the suburban fringe. The Orange County Line has only two stations along the twenty-mile segment between Downtown Los Angeles and Buena Park. The Ventura County Line stops at only three locations as it passes through moderately dense, industrial/residential neighborhoods in the North San Fernando Valley.

As Let’s Go LA wrote a few years ago, the San Fernando Valley segment of the Ventura County Line, the Orange County Line (north of Irvine), and the entire San Bernardino Line, should all be upgraded to a “rapid transit” or “express” service. This would entail high service frequency, narrower station spacing (1 to 5 miles) and electrified (i.e. non-diesel “clunker”) stock.

Through-running of trains onto subway tracks in cities like Seoul and Tokyo enables a higher level of subway, commuter-rail integration. Seoul Metro Line 1, for instance, integrates subway tracks in the center of Seoul with commuter rail service to far-flung suburbs like Suwon, allowing rapid-transit services from the Central Business District to penetrate the metro area’s most distant reaches.

Seoul Metro Map.

Let’s Go LA suggests such a set-up connecting the San Bernardino and Purple Lines, creating a single rapid transit line from San Bernardino to the Pacific Ocean (if I have time during the week, I will try to map out a concept of what this might look like).

Commuter rail aside, the subway/light rail network need to be expanded in a less radial fashion, accounting for the prominent role of the Santa Monica/Wilshire corridor.

Subway/commuter rail integration and subway expansion, regardless of the particular projects needs to meet a certain budget. This will require lowering LA’s construction costs to match those of peer cities in East Asia and Europe.

This concludes my responses to the question of how LA can urbanize like an East Asian megacity. Leave your feedback below.

How can LA urbanize like East Asia? Regional Growth Axes!

Last week, I wrote about how Seoul, and similarly-formed East Asian cities, provide a model for LA developing into a transit-friendly metropolis without densifying around a core. This model would prove more compatible with LA’s existing urban form and produce more equitable outcomes.

This second article in a series of responses to my piece examines how LA can densify following regional growth corridors, rather than concentrating in a single, high-rise downtown.

Like Los Angeles, Seoul is not only sprawling but “poly-centric”. A study from the early 1990s found that the city of Seoul alone had between three and twelve activity centers. A 2011 text on urban planning practices across the Korean Peninsula found that the Seoul Metropolitan area had three major centers: around the traditional Seoul CBD (around Seoul Station, north of the Han River), Gangnam (in the city of Seoul, south of the Han River) and in Incheon.

More than twenty locations met the authors’ qualifying criteria (20,000 jobs per square kilometer with total employment exceeding 50,000) for “jobs centers,” despite not sufficiently explaining employment distribution in the study’s model (examining the effects of the national government’s “Greenbelt” policy on Seoul’s growth).

Seoul’s polycentrism comes across more clearly when one examines a to-scale subway map of the region. A number of lines converge around the Central Business District. But the dominant pattern is of a tighter grid in and around Seoul city (with multiple employment districts rivaling Downtown LA) giving way to a more loosely-spaced grid around Incheon (the largest employment center outside Seoul City). As one travels to the south and north, urban development clusters along subway and commuter rail lines. Suwon, the largest city in Gyeonggi Province, lies at the junction of a subway and rail line.

Seoul Subway and Rail Map, to-scale. Source: Open Street Map.

Los Angeles, likewise, is a very polycentric city, with “employment centers” in locations ranging from Thousand Oaks down to the Irvine Spectrum. A UC Irvine study found that, from 1997 to 2014, employment “center” locations shifted 20 kilometers closer to downtown on average, and towards areas with passenger rail or freeway access.

Los Angeles Employment Centers in 1997 and 2014. Source: London School of Economics US Centre Blog.

Although job concentrations in Greater Los Angeles, are somewhat dispersed, they coalesce around a few distinct freeway and commuter rail corridors. The I-5/Ventura County Line corridor from Irvine to Simi Valley via Burbank; the I-405 corridor from Beverly Hills south to Long Beach; the San Bernardino and Riverside Line corridors from Downtown east to San Bernardino and Riverside; the 91 corridor from Riverside to Corona and the 15 corridor from Riverside to Temecula.

Employment Center Corridors in Grey, Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor (rough line) in Brown/Red.
Metrolink Map for Comparison. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Urban cultural attractions and activity centers cluster more tightly around the “Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor’, stretching from Downtown Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean (along Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards). This corridor also connects two of Los Angeles’ main job clusters and contains the region’s highest density neighborhoods.

Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor. Source: USC Dornsife School.

Rather than simply bolstering Downtown-or even the City of Los Angeles as a whole-, regional governing entities like SCAG should direct job and housing density towards defined regional growth corridors, in tandem with developing frequent, heavy-rail transit links along and between these corridors.

The development could follow a hierarchy similar to Seoul’s. The highest density of housing and jobs would cluster along the Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor, served by a tight grid of rail and Bus Rapid Transit (which the street network is well-adapted to). This could feed into another high-density axis, paralleling the 405 from Beverly Hills down to Long Beach. Less intense (but still mid-to-high density) residential and job development would abut the outlying corridors (which have less development to begin with).

Success demands that Los Angeles integrate its subway/light rail and commuter rail networks, making the latter a more reliable transit alternative.

State intervention may prove necessary.

And neighborhoods like Hancock Park, that occupy an excessive quantity of high-value of land, in the heart of the metropolis, must finally accept change.

How can LA Urbanize like East Asia? Densify Residential Streets!

Last week, I wrote about how Seoul, and similarly-formed East Asian cities, provide a model for LA developing into a transit-friendly metropolis without densifying around a core. This model would prove more compatible with LA’s existing urban form and produce more equitable outcomes. LA’s Downtown-focused redevelopment model encourages gentrification and limits new development to the point where it fails to make a dent in regional home prices (if not causing home prices to rise in areas being redeveloped-as the new housing in these areas becomes more desirable to the urban bourgeoisie).

What steps can LA achieve to urbanize its vast expanse like Seoul (or Tokyo or Taipei for that matter?). Over the next few days, I will attempt to answer this question through a series of articles. Today’s examines the effect of residential neighborhoods’ built environments on travel behavior.


As in American cities, most neighborhoods in Seoul have a pretty clear street hierarchy. Take the Bongcheon-Dong neighborhod in the southern part of the city, for instance.

Street hierarchy in Seoul’s Sillim-Dong area. Red= arterial street (generally, the streets that cut through the landscape like rivers and canyons); Yellow=neighborhood commercial; Blue= residential.

The residential streets (example in blue) are little wider than alleyways, with cars and pedestrians sharing the single lane. These empty out onto 1-2 lane neighborhood-serving commercial streets, with small shops or farmer’s markets stalls to serve the community (example in yellow). Finally, six-to-eight-lane arterials (red) ring the edge of the neighborhood. Like Sepulveda and Wilshire Boulevards, these behemoths carry torrents of motorized vehicle (auto and bus) traffic.

Tokyo has a similar hierarchy .

The arterial streets have taller buildings and more transit service than those in Los Angeles, but their street width is actually more hostile to pedestrians. Nevertheless, the Sillim bus stop, along one of Bongcheon-Dong’s (Seoul’s) main arterials, has among the highest number of boardings in South Korea. This confirms my long-found suspicion that the built environment surrounding residential streets influences travel behavior as strongly as that surrounding commercial arterials.

Sepulveda Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley is no wider than an arterial street in Seoul.

Think about it. Residential streets provide the first-last mile connection between one’s home and any destination they are trying to access. The presence (or absence) of retail and grocery stores around the corner determines whether a person will drive to a big box store to obtain necessities (most often accommodated through trip-chaining on a work commute).

Camarillo Street, Just east of Sepulveda Boulevard.

So far, most complete streets work in LA has focused on arterials. For instance, the Mayor’s Office’s LA Great Streets program focuses on major thoroughfares like Venice Boulevard, Robertson Boulevard, and Reseda Boulevard. The city of Los Angeles’s Mobility Plan 2035 downgraded arterial street standards but left local and collector street standards largely untouched.

To be fair, “narrowing” residential streets to Seoul- or Tokyo-style standards would require significant investment (even without political opposition), and the Mobility Plan downgrading intended to avert proposed widening rather than reduce street dimensions. Permitting developers to build into the right-of-way (a reverse form of “setback”) is a possible option, but one prone to a lengthy timeframe and haphazard implementation.

However, improved traffic-calming infrastructure, like bulb-outs and curb extensions, would make residential streets considerably less menacing. Opening up residential streets to cars and bikes would permit even more radical transformation.

Most importantly, loosening height and land use restrictions in residential neighborhoods will facilitate the clustering of homes and small businesses needed to support a car-free lifestyle. These changes are politically contentious in California, but not impossible to achieve.

To summarize, the following policies would help urbanize LA’s residential suburbs, a la Seoul:

  • Densification (no more Hancock Parks or San Marinos)
  • Relax zoning in residential neighborhoods (side streets in Palms need more corner-stores and bars)
  • Open up residential streets to bicyclists and pedestrians. Implement traffic calming measures and signage to compel drivers to respectfully share the road. Mayor Garcetti’s post-COVID 19 “Slow Streets” initiative could be a start.
  • End parking minimums (which attract cars into a neighborhood and reduce developments’ buildable area).
  • Densify arterial streets as well. Use their copious capacity to provide BRT or Rail Transit service.

How should LA urbanize? Look to Seoul

The COVID-19 crisis provides the most visible evidence yet that reducing automobile use in Los Angeles would drastically improve the region’s air quality.

LA Smog: Pre- and Post-COVID. Source: Reuters.

Longer term, California must cut down on vehicle travel in order to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions and stave off climate change.

Contrary to what one might expect, the biggest challenge in Southern California is not necessarily infrastructure (although America’s high subway construction costs impede development) but land use.

Limited housing development, particularly in jobs-rich areas like the Westside, has led to rising home prices, displacing low- and mid-income households to the suburban periphery. This forces populations that might have once relied on active or public transportation to buy automobiles and commute long distances to work.

The current development dynamics in Los Angeles concentrate density in Downtown and surrounding Eastside neighborhoods. This strategy is partly the result of staunch opposition to development from inner suburban homeowners. But it also reflects a business and political leadership’s desire to copy the East Coast (i.e. Manhattan) by centering the poly-centric metropolis around a high-rise “core.”

Most multi-family development in the LA basin is concentrated in Downtown LA. Source: Greg Morrow, UCLA, 2015.

As I have written previously, this focus on “re-developing” the inner city encourages the very gentrification that up-zoning should combat. It also fails to develop enough to make a dent in housing prices.

Rather than try to recreate the 19th-century cities of East Coast or Europe, Los Angeles should build out like the twentieth- and twenty-first mega-cities of East Asia.

Seoul at night. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The mid- to high-dense, amorphous sprawl of Seoul and Tokyo more closely matches the urban development pattern of Los Angeles than the ordered core-and-periphery pattern of Chicago, New York or London.

Developing housing and transit along East Asian lines would result in higher transit use, lower emissions and a more vibrant economy. It would also counteract a longstanding tradition of marginalizing East Asia in policy discussions.

Seoul vs. LA and the Euro-Atlantic City

For starters, let’s compare LA to New York and Seoul, South Korea.

Both Seoul and LA’s urbanized areas cover a broad swath of territory. Greater Los Angeles extends for more than 130 miles–from Ventura to Temecula. The Seoul Capital Area, which incorporates Gyeonggi Province and the independent cities of Seoul and Incheon, encompasses more than 12 percent of South Korea’s landmass.

Los Angeles (white) over Gyeonggi Province, whose outer boundaries delineate extent of metropolitan Seoul (purple)

Seoul sprawls densely. Travel 18 miles west of Seoul’s Central Business District, to Incheon’s Seongnam-Dong neighborhood, and you’ll still find yourself in a compact urban setting.

The neighborhood’s narrow streets, moderately-tall buildings (relative to the street) and diverse street-fronting land uses, make the area easily accessible by foot.

Los Angeles is frequently derided as “one giant suburb.” But its expansive suburbs are quite built up.

Travel 18 miles south of Downtown Los Angeles, to north-central Long Beach and you’re still in a neighborhood of small parcels and tight street grids. Development intensities are lower than in Seoul but higher than in the stereotypical suburb. On the residential streets, two to three story apartment buildings alternate with single-family homes. Pacific Coast Highway’s auto shops and strip malls leave a lot to be desired but some of the north-south streets like Pacific Avenue have more street-fronting retail.

By contrast, traveling 18 miles east of Midtown Manhattan brings you to Long Island’s Garden City, an almost exclusively residential area, dominated by single-family homes on spacious lots.

Its the same story with London.

The Euro-Atlantic core-periphery development model contains density within an envelope that both LA and Seoul greatly exceed.

As in LA, both jobs and population have dispersed in Seoul in recent years. As early as 1997, suburbs like Incheon and Suwon rivaled the central area of Seoul in employment.

Source: Hee-Yung Jin, Seoul Development Institute. “Seoul Metropolitan Area: Growth Patterns and Policy Agenda.” 2004.

Except Seoul’s suburban density is denser and more walkable than LA’s.

What Makes Seoul’s Suburbs a Model for LA’s?

I will get more into the specifics of what LA can do in a future article. Some general pointers:

  1. The streets are narrower, making it more difficult to drive (since the streets can’t accommodate “peak period” vehicle congestion) and easier to cross the street.
  2. The buildings are taller, more tightly spaced and more mixed-use in nature, reducing walking distances between different activity points. Note: LA’s zoning laws prohibit this!
  3. The rapid transit system (subway+commuter rail) is more extensive, with a less radial focus. Seongnam-do is served by a subway line running on a north-south axis through Incheon. This connects with both the employment centers by the port of Incheon (to the south) and an east/west line (to the north) connecting to Downtown Seoul. LA, by contrast, follows the Chicago/New York model of routing rail (and many bus) lines to converge on Downtown.
Seoul subway map with Seongnam do circled in black and north-south line marked in red. Source: Seoul Metro
Even with near-term expansion and re-branding, LA’s Metro remains pretty downtown centric. Source WIkimedia Commons

Results

Private cars only have a 23.5 percent mode share in Seoul, compared to a 70 percent mode share in LA. Almost 40 percent of Seoul-ites travel by subway and another 28 percent travel by bus.

Mode Shares in Seoul as of 2012. Source: Seoul Solutions

On the other hand, the average cost for a studio in a “normal” neighborhood in Seoul is only 537 dollars.

Source: Flickr

All aerials and streetview scenes courtesy of Google Maps.

De-Regulation or Land Reform?

The Rent is too damn high in LA! Median Rent last year for a one-bedroom apartment last year clocked in at $1,369 a month or $16,428 a year!

For low-income Angelenos (annual income with minimum wage is about $24,000), the situation is dire. High rents are pushing many out of their homes and onto the streets or out of the region altogether.

Many planners have long argued that the problem is one of bad policy. LA has high rents because it doesn’t permit too much new housing, causing housing production in the city to lag far behind the growth in housing demand.

And yet, two recent bills by the California State Senate that would have loosened zoning regulations for housing development around transit lines (where new housing would have the least impact on traffic and the most benefit for poor people), were opposed by many pro-tenant and pro-equity groups, a factor contributing to their failure.

SB 50 Up-Zoning. Source: Embarcadero Institute.

Curbed LA’s Alissa Walker explained why:

Westwood Boulevard is the address of several major LA destinations, including UCLA’s campus of 45,000 students and 42,000 employees, less than one mile to the north. Four blocks away is a dead mall leased by Google, which is busily turning it into a 600,000-square-foot office complex. But here, where Westwood crosses the tracks of a rail system that carries more than 300,000 people a day, it’s zoned for single-family homes. In fact, in the surrounding neighborhood, many of the 1940s-era houses, valued at an average of $1.4 million, according to Redfin, are being demolished so people in the majority-white, majority-homeowner neighborhood can build even bigger single-family homes.

In July 2018, LA’s City Council approved the Exposition Corridor Transit Neighborhood Plan, which would have allowed construction of taller, multifamily residential buildings along major streets within a half-mile of five E Line stations, including this one. Estimates showed that between 4,400 and 6,000 new housing units could be added across the entire plan area by 2035. But in October 2018, a group that often litigates over density-related issues sued the city for the plan, arguing that more housing would lead to increased traffic. Over a year later, not a single unit has been built.

It’s quite a different scene when you exit the train in my neighborhood, which is across town via the B Line (formerly the Red Line). On busy six-lane Vermont Avenue, a street lined with six-story buildings houses some of the highest percentages of transit-dependent riders in the city. Across the street from the station is a shuttered car dealership where a developer has proposed a large mixed-use apartment building. Several other new mid-rise apartment buildings have gone up within a few blocks of the station, including a supportive housing project for formerly homeless residents, with a second one proposed nearby.

Single-family homes get torn down here, too, but not usually by homeowners. It’s more often by developers who bought the homes with cash. Sometimes they replace them with rental apartments. But more and more, those developers are building condos that are more expensive to buy than the home they demolished. 

In other words, LA’s zoning system operates as a form of Social Apartheid. It empowers wealthy white homeowners to metaphorically wall off their communities from any type of affordable housing (driving up costs across the city as a whole).

Simultaneously, it funnels new market-rate, multi-family development into low-income neighborhoods of color, raising property values and displacing long-time residents.

Urban Planners need to tackle this power structure in order to build more affordable housing where it is needed.

Westwood: A Commercial Center surrounded by forest estates…

Fighting a power apparatus that supports elite landowners requires a more radical policy approach, one that redistributes development rather than de-regulating it.

Land use policies should at least attempt to equalize housing development, so that affluent neighborhoods densify at a comparable rate to low-income neighborhoods with similar levels of job density and transit access.

The state of California’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) provides one potential policy model. The RHNA imposes housing-development targets for cities and regions across the state (the state sets the targets for regions, and regional planning organizations then determine the target for cities). These targets vary according to the region or city’s perceived need for affordable housing (although many question the targets’ effectiveness).

A proposed Maryland law, the (not-so-modestly titled) Modest Home Choices Act of 2020 offers another example. The law up-zones single-family neighborhoods across the state (to accommodate duplexes and other forms of multi-family housing), so long as they’re located either in “high opportunity” census tracts (tracts with twice the regional median income) or in jobs-rich, transit-accessible census tracts with median income equal to or greater than the regional median-income.

Regardless of the policy, shifting multi-family housing development towards affluent neighborhoods will spare low-income neighborhoods the burden of housing market variability. Densification will also create more affordable housing options in affluent neighborhoods. Opening up these neighborhoods’ housing markets to low-income renters will undo the legacy of decades of race- and class-based “redlining”.


Class-conscious land use policy may sound like something from outer space.

But it is really just a new iteration of one of the oldest welfare policies, land reform.

Mural Depicting Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas’ 1937 Land Reform Legislation

From Tsarist Russia to post-revolutionary Mexico to Post-World War II Japan, policies that redistribute the landholdings of a privileged elite to the masses have played an important role in (partial) democratization and economic development.

Rather than expropriating the property of the wealthy, 21st-century “zoning” land reform will re-appropriate vacant parcels in wealthy neighborhoods, transitioning these parcels towards uses that accommodate a more diverse mix of people and uses.

In an age of Plutocracy and Climate Change, the “new” land reform will reduce inequity and encourage sustainability. By reversing decades of segregation, it will politically empower the poor.

More importantly, in the current (left- and right-) populist moment, the mantra of “land reform” will galvanize the masses.

By winning support from a broad coalition (e.g. renters, progressive activists, construction workers, developers), “land reform” policies are more likely to become law than the milquetoast “zoning changes” proposed by the SB 50 crowd.

Power to the People.

Dave’s Hot Chicken

Dave’s is part of LA’s hot chicken crowd. Although the lines are not as infamous as those at Howlin’ Rays (where the dinner crowd queues at noon) the hour-long waits are still a source of frustration and gossip. By a stroke of luck, I ended up around the block from Daves during some down time (mid-day on a Monday), with barely a line in sight.

And so my lunch at Dave’s came to be….

First thing I notice: they got some awesomely weird decor. The mural of lips and sleek white shades on the back and side walls lend an east side “hipster” look, while the rubber chicken painting screams “we ain’t taking any of this seriously!” I don’t know the rubber chicken’s name but he/she/they have to be one of the most endearing (and on a certain level, deep-that chicken’s face reminds me of a certain Paul Klee portrait) restaurant icons I have encountered in this country.

But what is a chicken mascot without some…., mouthwatering chicken?!?

Served hot off the fryer, Dave’s chicken “tenders” (as they’re diminuitively named) have an amazing taste and texture. The crisp and oily breading, which is coated in a peppery spice mix (watch your hands!), gives way to juicy, tender chicken meat. The spice mix’s robust flavor permeates to the center of the chicken

On an episode from Dave Chang’s Netflix show Ugly Delicious, one of the featured chefs remarked “every culture figured out that if you dredge the bird in flour and deep fry it that it was probably going to be good.”

Well Dave (no pun intended:)), you’ve got the perfect example here.

The crinkle-cut fries (serving more generous than the photo suggests), which are seasoned with a simplified version of the chicken spice mix, are also wonderful. Just remember to apply the side orange sauce to the fries rather than to the chicken (the sauce masks the chicken’s flavor).

And I know you’re going to ask about the white bread and pickle slices. How does that work? Well…

Rip off a chunk of the white bread, wrap it around a piece of chicken (pressing down so the spice mix seeps into the bread), top with a pickle and bite in! Repeat!


As an urban planner, conscious of the role restaurants play in neighborhood character and affordability, a word must be said about gentrification. Dave’s is located in a gentrifying-area of East Hollywood. Its foodie credentials and trendy vibe would seem to make it a weapon of the hipster invasion. However, at least when I visited, the diners were predominantly black and Latino, with very few stereotypical yuppies/hipsters.

Maybe I was visiting at the “wrong” time (The hipsters come for dinner?)?

Or maybe it’s the pricing. The combo plate prices offer a pretty good value for a restaurant of Dave’s caliber: $10.99 for the two large tenders and fries (my order) and $11.99 to replace the bare tenders with “slider” sandwiches. Dave’s reasonable price point may inadvertently make it more inclusive than its foodster kin.

Of course, a new fast-food joint in a low-income community might help perpetuate health inequities. Over the past four decades, misguided government policies have over-saturated low-income communities with fast foods, with grave public health implications. Even though Dave’s dishes probably use fresher ingredients than your typical McDonalds, they probably have as many, if not more, calories.

Readers. Have any of you been to Dave’s? What’s your favorite dish on the menu? What do you think of its role in the community?