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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
On the other hand, the average cost for a studio in a “normal” neighborhood in Seoul is only 537 dollars.
All aerials and streetview scenes courtesy of Google Maps.