Category Archives: LA

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.

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.

The Problem with Marriage Story

One of the front runners in tonight’s academy awards is Marriage Story. Having watched Marriage Story on the weekend of its Netflix release, I feel the award is justified but at the same time, reveals a lot of what is wrong with the culture of Hollywood movie-making. 

Marriage Story. Source: Netflix.

I was raised by divorced parents, so Marriage Story resonates with me strongly. I appreciate the films emotional realism (the nuanced expressions of the characters making their outbursts all the more vivid and powerful), its moral ambiguity (the story never being that simple) and deft portrayal of the intricate emotional web of romance. By the end of the movie, my face was wet with tears. 

And yet, something about the characters’ lives is just a bit too good to be real. The repeated jaunts from coast to coast. Nicole’s (Johanssen’s Character’s) career as a Hollywood B-list actress, with a scandalous reputation. Nicole and Charlie’s effortless coasting through the most gilded hillside and beachfront neighborhoods of Los Angeles, as if money is never an actual issue. 

“In LA, there is space,” everyone tells Charlie. On what planet are these living? LA has one of the lowest homeownership rates in the country. 

The root of the issue with Marriage Story is a little thing called representation.

Its not just about race (as popularly perceived) but about class and geography. By confining its gaze to a privileged creative perspective, Marriage Story, like many other Hollywood movies loses its power and its appeal.

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?