Monday, April 28, 2014

True Density

At a dinner party in Boulder last weekend, there was some incredulity when I insisted that LA is greener than most people assume.  The mild climate and density are key contributors to LA's low carbon footprint.

No one argued with the fact that LA's generally mild climate requires minimal energy for heating and cooling.  However, they didn't believe that Angelenos generally endure shorter (in distance) commutes than the national average.

Like I wrote in Hometown, there is a huge disconnect between the way people actually live in LA versus the portrayal in Hollywood movies.  Firstly, a sizable portion of Angelenos are poor.  They don't consume much because they can't afford to.  Even amongst Angelenos with money, they still consume less resources than their economic peers around the country due to climate and density.

In general, the denser the neighborhoods, the closer the services*.  The population-weighted density of the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana (12,114) metro area is on par with San Francisco-Oakland (12,145). In fact, we are second only to NY-Northern NJ-Long Island metro (31,251).

Compare the density of my soon-to-be Boulder neighborhood
with the density of my current LA-area neighborhood.  Each dot represents one person and I used the highest setting on The Racial Dot Map to create both.
I used the same magnification settings to show the Boulder area around my new apartment
and the area around my LA neighborhood.  Notice the difference in dot density?  Or the difference in racial diversity?  The red areas in Boulder are mainly graduate student housing.

The large blank/white areas represent commercial zones and employment centers.  Some of the smaller ones are parks, but most are retail and commercial zones.  Notice the absence of a dense city core and the checkerboard effect of neighborhoods interspersed with white areas?  This checkerboard helps explain why so many workers are able to bike or walk to work in metro LA.
LA traffic is heavy and unpredictable. People who can afford it, and do not have family members commuting to far-flung jobs, live close to work.

LA is NOT a paragon of greenness.  We can definitely be greener.  I only make the point that it does better than the popular misconception believed by many.

If we could combine the density and diversity of LA with the bike path network and environmental awareness of Boulder, the beauty of the beach with the beauty of the mountains, it would be my dream community.  However, having a foot in both communities won't be a tough life.  ;-)

* There are exceptions in highly dense poor areas ignored by retailers.


America's Truly Densest Metros brings up an interesting point about density as a function of distance from city hall (their proxy for the city center).
Notice how the density drops off much more slowly as you leave the city center for LA vs. NYC?  If you look carefully, you will actually see slight .increases. in density around 17-20 mi and again 29-32 mi from city hall.  This reflects both the population density of the inner ring and second ring suburbs and the land devoted to light-industrial manufacturing scattered around LA.  My neighborhood was originally a street-car neighborhood about 18 miles from downtown LA (DTLA).  The trolley tracks were ripped out and light rail is slated to return.

This density plot explains the unique hell that is LA traffic.  There is literally nowhere you can go to escape density and traffic.  Hence, Bad Dad and I made the decision to be non-combatants in the freeway scrum even though that limits our job prospects and the size of our house.  We are not unique in coming to this conclusion.

The average commute time interactive map shows that LA commute times are about average for the nation overall, despite the larger reliance on public transit (slower) and traffic gridlock.  This is true only because people live closer to work.  Don't be fooled by the large darker red areas.  Few people live there, so the population-weighted commute distance/times is much, much shorter than the area-weighted one.


  1. This is really interesting - thanks! Coming from New Zealand I did not have many preconceptions about US cities but one was that LA went on for a long way. I had forgotten that the centre was quite dense. Love the maps.

  2. Thank you. I'm a planner with the L.A. Department of City Planning, and L.A. is probably the most misunderstood city in the country, certainly by people outside of it, and often even by people who've lived here their whole lives.

    1. A skeptical scientist looks at the data before drawing conclusions. We need more citizen scientists.


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