Category Archives: Transportation

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.

If We are Serious about Fighting Climate Change, We should not Bail-out the Airlines

The COVID-19 outbreak has crippled the US airline industry. A precipitous decline in travel demand has forced carriers to cut flights by 40 percent. A temporary national shutdown of air travel may be the only way for the aviation industry to stop hemorraghing money.

In the grandest of (American) corporate traditions, the airlines are now lobbying the federal government for money, a “bail-out” to put it bluntly.

With Democrats and Republicans apparently nearing a deal on the Coronavirus stimulus package, it looks like the airlines’ request will be granted (an exact amount has not been specified yet).

The airlines’ collapse has taken a tremendous economic toll across the country. At Philadelphia International Airport, more than 1,000 workers have been laid off since last Wednesday. A total shutdown would put as many as 750,000 airline employees out of work.

And yet, helping aviation workers is not the same as helping airlines.

Its not just that airlines have squandered the last decade’s profits on stock buybacks and executive bonuses (rather than improving worker pay). Airlines have a hefty carbon footprint.

Air travel is by far the most polluting means of transport. According to the BBC, a short-haul flight emits 154 grams of CO2 per passenger per kilometer, triple the emissions per passenger traveling in a four-person vehicle. Collectively, commercial aviation accounted for 2.4% of global carbon emissions in 2018, more than the sixth-heaviest polluting nation, Germany.

Almost one-quarter of global aviation emissions came from flights originating in the United States (two-thirds of which came from domestic flights).

The Democratic draft bill circulating in the House would require airlines to reduce Carbon emissions to 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2050–and have the government buy out old, less fuel-efficient jets–as a precondition for $50 billion aid.

Yet with much of the planet having burned the last few years (and countries obligated to limit temperature increases under the Paris Climate Accord), even this target seems to modest.

The airline industry’s failure provides a once-in-a-life-time to go big for the planet. Emulating Greta Thunberg, we can take radical steps to support airline industry workers while phasing out jet-fueled aviation technology once and for all.

The federal government can do this through the following steps:

  1. Let the airlines collapse. The government could potentially buy up the aircraft.
  2. Provide a separate stimulus package for airline industry workers (could also carry over to cruise industry) by paying pre-layoff monthly wages, up to $60-75K per year.
  3. Invest stimulus money in development of a National High-Speed Rail Network.
  4. Also invest in research into sustainable aviation technology (e.g. electric aircraft) and long-distance maritime travel (e.g. hydrofoils).
  5. Give airline workers priority in hiring for new high-speed rail or sustainable long-distance air/sea travel services.
Navy Hydrofoil or Hovercraft. Hydrofoils “float” above the water, reducing drag and increasing speeds relative to conventional boats.

When the economy recovers, companies might regroup, or the government could (if it bought up aircraft) establish its own airline. But an interconnected high-speed rail network would reduce air travel demand on short-haul domestic routes, where air travel is the least carbon efficient. Airlines would be compelled to focus on long-haul international routes, whose higher fuel costs would increase the incentive to develop sustainable technology.