Human Transit: Should L.A. Develop Like Paris or N.Y.?

7_24_09_downtown_galvan.jpgPhoto of Downtown L.A.: David Galvan/Flickr

For a decade Los Angeles has tried to build-up it’s urban core in an effort to densify and change the character of the city from its sprawling reputation to a more traditionally urban one.  However, instead of modeling its growth after that of New York, a pattern formerly referred to as the "Manhattanization of Downtown" by Mayor Villaraigosa, perhaps Los Angeles should be following the example set by Paris instead of our older brother on the east coast. 

That theory is put forth from Jarrett Walker, a public transit consultant who runs the blog Human Transit.  Walker explains why he feels that Paris is more like Los Angeles than it is like New York:

This observation has one interesting and controversial corollary for
Los Angeles.  At least from a transit perspective, the last decades’
effort to build up downtown Los Angeles as THE pre-eminent center of
the region may not be the path to a more sustainable city.  If you want
a really balanced and efficient public transit system, nothing is
better than multiple high-rise centers all around the edge, with
lower-rise density in the middle, because that pattern yields an
intense but entirely two-way pattern of demand.  If
balanced and efficient transit were the main goal in Los Angeles
planning, you’d focus your high-rise growth energies on multiple
centers such as Westwood, Warner Center, Burbank, Glendale and perhaps
new centers in the east and south, while continuing to add density in
the middle as opportunities arise.

I "spoke" with Walker over email yesterday and he expressed interest in hearing our take on how we think L.A. should be growing.  So what do you think?  Should we be scrapping "Manhattanization" for "Parisization?"  Feel free to leave comments here or at the Human Transit story.

  • Interesting article. I look to London as an example of a sprawling city with world class public transit. But I can roughly see Paris as like Los Angeles with world class transit too.

    Isn’t this already happening though?

    The Purple Line will join several of these centers together. Warner Center is connecting to the transit system via the Orange Line which will hopefully be upgraded to light rail some day.

    It might be fun talking up Los Angeles evolving into Paris, but for some reason there are a lot of American with an anti-France bias, which I do not understand.

    I would think a country that has the world’s highest-ranked health care system and didn’t follow George W. Bush down the garden path when he was misleading us into war under false pretenses against the wrong country would be one to admire.

  • David Galvan

    I think Los Angeles is already modeling more after Paris (perhaps London is a better example, but I haven’t been there so I can’t say) than Manhattan. But I think that Villaraigosa’s and Walker’s plans are not really in disagreement. “Manhattanizing” downtown L.A. is an attempt to raise the living standard in downtown L.A. specifically. But we need to Parisize on a county scale. Paris and London have been building up their metro systems for over 100 years. We basically re-booted ours when the blue line opened in the early 90’s, so we have a LONG way to go before we approach the established transit infrastructure levels of those cities. I think we just need more time.

    That said, I think we are moving in the right direction. This city has been mainly using a hub-and-spoke model for its rail system, with all systems leading, eventually, to downtown L.A.. Eventually, though, we should be starting more mini-hubs, in the other urban centers you mention. A hub in the westwood/century city area, for example, to connect a rail line from the S.F. Valley via the sepulveda pass and the purple line, which would cross each other: one going north/south, the other going east/west. LAX would be another hub, with the green line and, (one day) the harbor subdivision or maybe even a 405-alligned rail line. We’d definitely love to extend the orange line right of way east to burbank and glendale.

    In the end, all these ideas just require more time and money though. Perhaps the administration should be broken up? Have the county MTA just control rail lines, BRT’s, and the rapids, and let municipal agencies cover the locals?

  • I have to agree with David. My chief complaint with L.A.’s nascent rail system is that it seems to be designed to move people in and out of — or at least through — downtown. Yet L.A.’s downtown isn’t the city’s primary employment or entertainment center, as it is in many other cities. We need a system that can efficiently move people to and from the countless business, residential and entertainment centers spread throughout L.A., Riverside and Orange counties.

    I haven’t spent enough time on the Paris Metro to offer any valid comparison between L.A. and Paris. However, I can say, as much as Londoners love to hate the Tube, it offers the advantage of a fully interconnected system that allows users to move from any given point in the city to any other point quickly and efficiently — with a minimum of transfers, and without the inherent inconvenience of a hub-and-spoke system.

    As David pointed out, other cities have a 100-year head start on Los Angeles, thanks to the ill-advised dismantling of the Red Car system. But the emphasis in planning needs to shift from how do we get people where we want them to go, to how can we efficiently move people to and from the places the places they already go, and encourage growth in areas that will enhance the area’s quality of life. And that goes for bikeways, just as much as it does for transit.

  • I think it is quaint and funny that a discussion about which direction development in L.A. “should” move turns into a talk about efficient movement of people.

    The city does not exist to efficiently move people – the city is a mostly beneficial arrangement for its inhabitants who have access to resources and people collected from all over.

    Anyway, all of this talk of what “should” be happening distracts from what will actually happen:

    L.A.’s periphery will turn into a ghetto of grey and black market livelihoods, and filled with the throw-away humans our society creates with our criminal justice system. The various traditional downtown areas (as long as they can cling onto an economic base) will thrive with continued access to trade goods, rule of law, and high land values.

    Just about everything else will turn into a kind of wasteland/nature park, which will remain undeveloped because though the land is no longer valuable for habitation, private parcels will prevent anyone from re-assembling a ranch, orchard, agricultural, or extractive business on them.

    In short, LA will be surrounded by a brown ring of poverty and wilderness.

  • “This city has been mainly using a hub-and-spoke model for its rail system, with all systems leading, eventually, to downtown L.A.. Eventually, though, we should be starting more mini-hubs, in the other urban centers you mention. A hub in the westwood/century city area, for example.”


    Isn’t this what Metro is trying to do at least with buses? Well, at least the PowerPoint presentations I’ve seen refer to hubs and mini-hubs rather than grid travel.

    The two most transformative projects on the docket are the Purple Line and the Regional Connector. (This is not to say they are the only worthy projects.)

    The Regional Connector actually create the possibility of a “system”. People from one part of the county can easily travel to other parts of the county without the extra transfer on/off the Red/Purple Line. (John von Kerczek in his blogs posted really interesting ideas about eventually having a Hollywood Regional Connector and a Westwood Regional Connector.)

    Part of the reason anti-transit folks try to obstruct and defeat the Purple Line isn’t just because of its cost, but because they know of its potential power to transform the way Los Angeles thinks of itself.

    Having downtown, the whole Wilshire corridor, Century City, Westwood, Santa Monica all joined in way that doesn’t require an automobile, plus giving people traveling through Union Station via Metrolink and High-speed Rail convenient transit access to these hubs, and the possibility of giving the Crenshaw, Sepulveda and SantaMonica/LaCienega projects a strong artery to hook into, adding dramatically to their ridership potential means that there is a lot of convenient travel to a lot of desirable hubs that do not require an automobile, or for which driving an automobile would be more inconvenient than taking the transit.

    This of course reinforces development and redevelopment which reinforces recentrification reinforcing the ridership of the line. It won’t end sprawl, but it will offer a counterbalancing force to it.

    The anti-transit lobby isn’t as dumb as we think. They know that these two projects have the potential not just to offer an alternative to autos, but to change the way Los Angeles thinks of itself.

    For people with a sense of automotive-entitlement or superiority, the prospect that you don’t get to so easily look down your nose at people who do not have or choose not to drive a single-occupancy automobile, or that you might be expected to use transit and sit next to someone of a different class, race, culture that you would prefer not to have to associate with from the isolation of your automobile, is a disturbing prospect at least.

    Motorists will still have their cherished “freedom and independence” to drive, but those people who want to have “freedom and independence” from spending hours each day looking at the back end of the car in front of you and the high cost of automobile ownership will have a viable option.

    People and businesses will choose to locate in areas convenient to the system. People will consider accessibility to the transit system in planning their business events and social engagements. Locations that are convenient for transit riders are not always optimal for single-occupancy motorists.

    Anti-transit folks won’t be able to complain about congestion or not being able to get to places because there will be a transit option.

  • Ethan Elkind

    This was LA City Planner Cal Hamilton’s original idea for channeling growth in Los Angeles back in the 1970s. It was the product of years of community meetings and was called the “Centers” concept for Los Angeles. Here’s a link to a Planetizen article about it, complete with a map: Unfortunately the City Council never implemented it, although parts remain at the Warner Center and Century City.

  • One interesting thing to try here, if the resources existed, would be to the model the owl service in London.

    After midnight, it is possible to catch a bus from Trafalgar Square to almost any part of the sprawling city.

    Instead of downtown, what if Hollywood were treated like Trafalgar Square. Owl buses would go out from every direction from Hollywood/Highland, to Warner Center to Sylmar to Pasadena, to the San Gabriel Valley, to the Gateway cities, to Long Beach to San Pedro, to the Beach cities. (There would also be a few corridors not in Hollywood with owl service such as Wilshire Bld.)

    Think of how transformative that would be to how we think of nightlife in this town.

    San Francisco also has an owl system with routes offered that are not offered during the day, such as Owl 90 and Owl 91.

    Yes, I know we don’t have the money for this now. I am thinking from a transit planning perspective — going from the grid idea to destination based service.

  • The cats already out of the bag. The commercial centers in Burbank, Glendale, Warner Center, El Segundo, Westwood and Hollywood already exist. So, we couldn’t create a radial network like Chicago even if we wanted. Well we could, but it wouldn’t be very effective.

    Where the author is incorrect is in assuming we should direct our energies toward developing in these outer edges. FIRST, these centers need to be connected, preferably, by a 4-track system with super-rapid like commuter rail (2-4 miles) and more local rail (0.75-1 mile).

    La Defense is already well connected to several Parisian centers via rapid transit. Same can’t be said for any of our centers.

    And the solution should not be “density” per se, but rather thriving urban villages and connectivity – the type that allows a substantial portion of people to leave their cars at home when they go to work.

  • Wad

    Dan Wentzel wrote:

    Yes, I know we don’t have the money for this now. I am thinking from a transit planning perspective — going from the grid idea to destination based service.

    That would be a huge step backwards, Dan.

    Destination-based service is what you run when you have low ridership and limited resources to run a transit service. Destinations are where infrequent buses converge to allow for convenient transfers.

    In the Westside/Central Metro sector, you don’t have this problem. Notice how many local lines have a limited or Rapid counterpart? This tells you there’s a lot of frequent service and a lot of transfers.

    The aggregate number of smaller transfers is more than destination-to-destination service. While this makes transfers more convenient, it also makes rides excessively long and circuitous.

  • I actually don’t disagree with you, Wad. I am referring only specifically to “Owl” service. I’ve always read and been told and observed for myself that planning for lower-ridership, but necessary to have, “owl” services requires a different type of planning than regular service.

  • I think comparing cities is complicated because you can’t escape the fact that Paris and LA developed in wildly different ways. I don’t know enough about Paris to comment on that.

    I will say that even though downtown does not dominate the metropolis like in NYC, Chicago, or other eastern US cities, it does exert a pull that should be reinforced. I count five other “Satellite” centers in LA county worthy of similar reinforcement (densification/centralization): Westwood (Westside), El Segundo (Southbay), Long Beach (South County/Gateway), the SE San Fernando Valley, and the eastern San Gabriel Valley.

    1) Downtown Radials (counterclockwise)
    A) Wilshire Subway to Westwood
    B) Expo to Santa Monica
    C) South Broadway Line/Harbor Transitway to San Pedro
    D) Harbor Subdivision to LAX/El Segundo
    E) Blue Line to Long Beach
    F) Gold Line to East LA
    G) El Monte busway to West Covina/Pomona
    H) Gold Line to Pasadena
    I) Northeast route to Glendale/Downtown Burbank
    2) Crosstown Routes
    A) West (Sepulveda) Corridor: San Fernando to Redondo Beach via Westwood/LAX/ El Segundo
    B) North Corridor: Pasadena-Glendale-Burbank Media District-Universal
    C) Green Line
    D) Central (La Cienega/Crenshaw) Corridor: Hollywood-West Hollywood-Crenshaw-Inglewood-LAX-El Segundo
    3) Satellite Subsystems
    A) Long Beach
    B) Westwood Santa Monica
    C) Eastern San Fernando Valley
    D) Eastern San Gabriel Valley (centered on West Covina)
    E) South Bay (centered on El Segundo)
    F) Orange County CenterLine

  • John,

    I love the thought you’ve put into this.

    Is there a reason you didn’t include Hollywood as a center to pull? Is that because it’s already done a lot of that already? Just curious.

  • bikingla “My chief complaint with L.A.’s nascent rail system is that it seems to be designed to move people in and out of — or at least through — downtown. Yet L.A.’s downtown isn’t the city’s primary employment or entertainment center, as it is in many other cities. ”

    That’s not true. Downtown actually IS THE major employment center. Half a million people work there every day, the largest downtown west of Chicago. None of the other “centers” in LA come anywhere close to that. The rest of the employment in the county is spread around in suburban and exurban areas, which is very hard to serve with transit at all. That’s why overall ridership on the far west side is so low. If you’re gonna build a system at all, there’s little point in starting outside of the largest employment center. Go to Union Station at 8:30 am on a weekday. Teeming masses.

    But we should also keep in mind when looking at Paris as a model, that Paris is actually a very concentric city, with the center made up of the oldest and most expensive areas, radiating outward to the suburbs which are outside of the city limits, where the immigrants and workers live in slums. The creation of La Defense was done to add modern office space in a city where there is no land left, and everything is landmarked and cannot be demolished.

    I really fail to see how Los Angeles and Paris have anything at all in common. Los Angeles is much more similar to Tokyo, and is likely to develop that way, especially if transit became a strong component city-wide. We’d see much more of the hub and spoke type of development that Tokyo has.

  • At Human Transit I now have a new version of the post on this topic, concise and illustrated:

    Cheers, Jarrett.

  • Alek F

    Umberto Brayj, I agree with you.
    Great points.
    As far as comparing LA with Paris – this is purely laughable!
    Sorry, folks,
    but Los Angeles is nowhere even remotely close to Paris, London, New York, or any other city.
    Unlike Paris, LA does not have squares, safe public parks to gather (except artificially created places like The Grove, or Americana, where people are forced to walk in circles. How pathetic!)
    Paris (and all other European cities) has wonderful Architecture, something that cannot be said (at all!) about LA.
    Alas, LA was built for cars, not people (whereas Paris, or even New York, or other normal city, was built to move people, to provide livable conditions for people, not for moving cars around).
    LA’s sidewalks are out-of-shape, dirty, trashy, with homeless individuals invading more and more.
    And of course, LA’s public transportation is… oh boy! How should I put it?.. Almost non-existent, to put it mildly (especially considering LA’s size).
    So, it will take a heck of a lot more to start comparing LA with other cities (especially with Europe) than to build a few highrises and two subway lines.
    LA will need significantly better architecture, public squares, better sidewalks, mass transit, to start with.

  • Tom Rubin

    Interesing, talking about the possibility of LA developing more like Paris when, for the past several decades, Paris has been developing more like LA.
    Most people who visit Paris believe the that core city — which is all that most of them ever see — IS Paris. In reality, the majority of the population and ALL of the growth in Paris over the past few decades has been in the suburbs — which bear a remarkable similarity to U.S. style, yes, LA-style suburbs — with the one qualification that they are nowhere near as densely populated as LA’s suburbs.
    Paris has one of the world’s finest heavy rail systems — but it doesn’t really get too far out of the core central city. There is good commuter rail service from many suburbs to downtown, but, as is usually the case, it is almost impossible to utilize for suburb-to-suburb commutes unless you are lucky enough to traveling between an inner and an outer suburb on the same line.
    LA has, BY FAR, the smallest central business district related to the urbanized area size of any major city in the U.S. or the world. While it has been experiencing major growth over the past several decades, in large part due to the huge investment of public funds (including most of the rail transit investments, totally well over $10 billion to date and growing rapidly) to attempt to keep it “the center.” However, while the jobs have been growing in absolute numbers, and the core area population has also started to climb in recent years (again, due in large part to governmental directed actions and direct and indirect subsidies), the CBD job share has been dropping steadily for decades.
    LA has been, for decades, perhaps the best example in the world of the disbursed city, with literally dozens of pretty good sized business districts of various types, from Warner Center to Long Beach, Pasadena to Century City, etc. This distributed pattern has been key to making this place work, because greater LA is almost dead last in the U.S. among major Urbanized Areas in freeway centerline miles and total road miles per capita, so our road capacity is very limited compared to all other U.S. cities — a particular transportation problem, given that transit carries only a few percentage points of trips. Fortunately, we have one of the best jobs:housing balances and one of the shortest home-to-work trip lengths in the U.S., so the average LAite can still get around fairly well while driving a lot less than the U.S. UZA average.

  • Wad

    Alek F wrote:

    And of course, LA’s public transportation is… oh boy! How should I put it?.. Almost non-existent, to put it mildly (especially considering LA’s size).

    And of course, you are … oh boy! How should I put it? So extremely, painfully wrong, myopic, imbecilic … but I don’t want to make this about you. I have hope you can learn.

    A non-existent rail system that went from 0 about 20 years ago to about 10th busiest in the country today?

    A bus system that, with 1.25 million boardings on a weekday on about 2,600 coaches, is the second-busiest in the U.S.?

    A dozen other bus systems in L.A. County that supplement that figure with about another 150,000 boardings?

    That’s impressive, and it’s not discounted due to the fact that the riders … well, don’t look like you and me.

    LA will need significantly better architecture, public squares, better sidewalks, mass transit, to start with.

    Why? The only way this will happen is if L.A. develops these things in spite of the people who live here, not because of it.

    L.A. isn’t a person. Los Angelenos are.

    L.A. doesn’t need any of these things because endless traffic, hideous architecture and municipal squalor made us into the economic and cultural powerhouse that we are.

    It’s when we aspire to something better when we fail miserably. In other words, when we change, we “L.A. up” things.

    Yet I am not calling for you or anyone else to leave things be. We’re now at a point where we have more knowledge and wealth than the Middle America refugees who made L.A. into what it is. Therefore, we the people — not L.A. — need to figure out our destiny, know what works, know what doesn’t, and know the difference between the two.

    L.A. Streetsblog is a great place for us to deliberate on the details. Everyone here brings something, and a lot more come to learn. I learn a lot about pedestrian and bike matters here, because I haven’t followed those much. I do know mass transit, and I’ll provide the input here.

    I’m sorry about the snide comment above, but it had to work as an attention-getting device. Now you know that mass transit not only exist, what we have is shockingly well-used.

    It helps to know figures like this, because if anyone asks why should we add a rail line or more buses, the best answer is “Because we have the ridership and are not afraid to use it.” It’s best to remind people that investing in mass transit is money well-spent.

  • I think Paris is really pretty but sometimes doesn’t show it


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