Stereotypes about Los Angeles and sprawl

Let’s be precise when we try to debunk stereotypes about sprawl.

Eric A. Morris over at Freakonomics is challenging readers to debunk fashionable stereotypes (often promoted by the jealous folks from the Bay Area) about Los Angeles and sprawl. On Monday, he made clear what planning folks have known for a long time: LA is actually quite a dense city.

But be careful how you ask your questions. The stereotype Morris listed was “Los Angeles has developed in a low-density, sprawling pattern.”

As we lawyers would say: “Objection. Compound question.” Los Angeles is high-density, but it also sprawls, creating formidable land use and transportation problems.

As you can see, Morris’ other stereotypes have some of the same problems, although his answers will be worth reading. They are plagued with compound assertions as well as vagueness:

1. Angelenos spend more time stuck in traffic than any other drivers in the nation.

2. Los Angeles’s mass-transit system is underdeveloped and inadequate.

3. Thanks to the great distances between far-flung destinations, and perhaps to Angelenos’ famed “love affair” with the car, Angelenos drive considerably more miles than most Americans.

4. Los Angeles’s air is choked with smog.

5. Los Angeles is dominated by an overbuilt freeway system that promotes autodependence.

Here are my answers, most of which focus on the ambiguity:

1) Probably not true, but misleading. Atlanta’s traffic might well be worse, and other cities that did not build roads as much as us might spend more time stuck in traffic. But it’s misleading because if it’s not true, it hardly suggests that traffic isn’t a problem here — just not the worst in the country. That’s a low bar.

2) Not true, but misleading. Los Angeles has the most developed bus system in the country: the MTA runs literally hundreds of buses every day, and that doesn’t include other bus systems, such as Santa Monica, Culver City, and Foothill transit. But that’s not the point. The question is whether public transit is adequate to the needs of potential riders. The subway doesn’t go anywhere, and the bus service will get less reliable as funding cuts kick in (thanks to the faux moderates in Congress and transit-hating Larry Summers). Moreover, for middle-class riders, bus service is inconvenient, which really is the touchstone.

3) Not true. Rural drivers might drive more, and those in newer, and more far-flung exurbs probably drive more. The weasel word here is “Angelenos”: who counts? What about someone who lives in the region, but not in the city? If you’re stuck on the 405, it doesn’t really matter to you if the cars around you are from Santa Clarita or Palmdale.

4) True, but void for vagueness. I don’t know what it means to be “choked” with “smog.” The air in Los Angeles is far, far better than it used to be, in large part due to Clean Air Act mandates. Moreover, most people think “smog” means particulates, but in EPA parlance, it means ozone: I don’t know which one Morris is using. But the south coast air basin remains the only one nationally that consistently receives “extreme nonattainment” status. Houston, San Joaquin, and other air basins are catching, up, tough: perhaps they have gone as extreme as LA. That’s a kind of X Games I don’t want to win.

5) Not true, but misleading. It’s hard to say that LA’s freeway system is “overbuilt” when the city hasn’t built a new freeway in decades. And as Scott Bottles demonstrates in his wonderful book Los Angeles and the Automobile, the city as auto dependent long before the freeways came in. That said, the freeways certainly assisted in promoting the idea that we could build our way out of traffic, and they are constructed in such a way as to make rail lines down the middle of them virtually impossible.

I’m looking forward to see how Morris answers the questions, and in a lot of ways, he is asking the right ones. But let’s make them more precise!

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.