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


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.

5 responses to “How should LA urbanize? Look to Seoul”

  1. Have you ever lived in Seoul? I’m guessing that’s a hard “no”. The reality is a disgusting, filthy cesspool of phlegm, piss, vomit and trash strewn over every possible surface. Everywhere. South Korea has the highest or close to the highest rates of suicide and divorce in the world, and the lowest rate of subjective wellbeing and birth rates. The people are desperately unhappy, mutually abusive, and the wonderful urbanization you think looks good on paper is, in reality, a clusterf*** of filth and misery. Being able to move people from point A to point B (and having but many tens of thousands of kilometres on the roads there myself, I can guarantee is not a delight there) does not an urban paradise make, especially when it doesn’t work. My 14 km drive from home to work used to take over an hour. If the subway can get you there, be prepared to have someone else’s face smashed into your armpit for the duration. People who write about the wonders of other cities should need to spend a few months there before they attempt to write with any authority. Seoul is where faith in ones fellow man goes to die, get exhumed and then vomited on.


    • Just beause I praised Seoul’s approach to housing and transportation policy does not mean that I consider it an urban paradise. Sorry to hear about your struggle. LA ain’t heaven either. Indeed (as our COVID-19 response is revealing), US infrastructure is on a third-world level these days.


  2. I think your attitude towards radial transit systems is mistaken. NYC and Chicago (which are highly radial) have much higher transit ridership than LA (which is less radial – the Green Line and future Crenshaw Line are circumferential). This is to be expected: cities with a strong core generally have more transit ridership (the ridership to that core is super-high and well beyond the capacity of private care), while cities without a strong car have lower transit ridership (because commuting by car is feasible, while mass transit serving anywhere-to-anywhere trips with high frequency is unaffordable to build and operate).

    It seems that you are suggesting that LA build medium-density housing throughout the region, with a comprehensive metro network like Seoul to link it together. The problem with that is that Seoul is one of the cheapest places to build rail in the world, while LA is one of the most expensive, about 10 times more expensive. A network like Seoul’s is simply unaffordable in LA. Therefore, the only way to avoid gridlock is to focus development on a smaller number of existing or future lines, forming a mostly radial network, and particularly on the downtown core. Necessarily, the development on these corridors will be high-rise not mid-rise.


    • It only seems unaffordable if you ignore what Angelenos currently spend on their cars. At a median annual spend of about $9300 a year, Angelenos will spend over $73 billion on their cars this year alone. And much o the reason for that ‘LA is ten times expensive to build’ is due to auto-based regulations and broken policies that should be reformed.


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