The Carless Majority in Central Los Angeles

Los Angeles has always been streotyped as the "city on wheels" where "everyone has a car." But this is actually misleading. In reality, in the old central part of Los Angeles — the area originally built up around streetcars before 1930 — a slight majority (51 percent) of driving age residents (i.e. 16 years or older) don’t have a personal motor vehicle (according to the 2000 census). Los Angeles actually is similar to other older, large metropolitan areas in the USA in that there is a very great difference in auto ownership and public transit use between the old central city and the newer layers of development in more outlying parts of the region.

The USA contributes one-fourth of all greenhouse gases generated in the world. A major contributor to this is the way people and goods are moved about in the USA. The extreme reliance on personal cars to get around is a lot of the problem. But this isn’t just a question of "individual preferences". Changes in the land use patterns in urban areas since the late ’30s have made it a severe disadvantage to not have a motor vehicle of your own to use. These changes in the way big urban areas are organized were the product of massive amounts of capitalist investment, as well as a government land use regime that supported the orientation of developers to relying on personal vehicle ownership.

This change was influenced by a shift in the profit strategy of real estate developers after World War 1. Prior to World War 1, real estate development in American cities was often very closely tied up with public transit companies. Many transit companies in American cities were either formed by, or heavily financed by, real estate developers. This relationship existed because open land on the edges of an existing city couldn’t be developed into housing subdivisions without public transit — typically streetcars — that connected the area to some urban center with jobs and shopping. Thus a portion of the profit in real estate development was funneled to public transit infrastructure.

With Model Ts available for less than $250 by the early ’20s, real estate developers saw the potential for a cost-shifting strategy. Financial responsibility for transportation could be shifted to residents, who would finance roads and buy their own cars.

The various successive layers of auto-oriented investment around major American cities since World War 2 has created a pattern where there is typically a very different level of public transit use and auto ownership in the old central city versus the newer rings of outlying development.

Los Angeles also exhibits this pattern. But it is hard to get statistics to show this because the old central city at the heart of greater Los Angeles doesn’t correspond to municipal boundaries, unlike San Francisco for example. This came about because the capitalist elite in Los Angeles were able to get the city to absorb vast areas of the city’s rural hinterland during World War 1.

So, to examine this question, I put together a series of census tracts that correspond to the service area of the old streetcar and bus transit system in Los Angeles in the ’20s. This consists of an area that runs from about La Brea Avenue on the west to City Terrace on the east, and from the Hollywood Hills and Highland Park on the north to Hyde Park and Watts on the south. It’s not a perfectly circular area because the city didn’t develop evenly in all directions.

In 2000 this area had a population of 1.65 million, and is mostly made up of working class neighborhoods — most of them very poor these days. However, there are a few affluent areas, like Hancock Park — an area of big houses and high incomes — and the highly gentrified Los Feliz-Silverlake area. If i were to leave out these more affluent areas, the carless majority would be larger. We can see this if we look at some of the statistics for particular central area neighborhoods. I divided Hollywood into two areas. The canyons and ridges north of Franklin Avenue — the Hollywood Hills — is an area mainly inhabited by executives, celebrities, and other members of the capitalist and coordinator classes. The flatlands running south from Franklin Avenue in Hollywood is a predominantly working class area (though under gentrification pressure in recent years). Westlake-Pico-Union is the most dense urban area in Southern California and is on the edge of the old downtown. Boyle Heights is a low-income neighborhood on the heavily Latino eastside.

Neighborhood Driving-age residents
with no vehicle
Hollywood Hills 9%
Hollywood flatlands 54%
Boyle Heights 57%
Westlake-Pico-Union 74%
Los Feliz-Silverlake 23%
(north of Slauson Ave)

When I talk to people involved in affordable housing in Los Angeles, one of the things they moan about is the city’s massive off-street parking requirement — more than 2 spaces for every new dwelling unit. This is essentially a subsidy to car ownership. People who live in rental buildings with free parking don’t get a discount if they don’t have a car. It raises the cost of new construction of housing. It’s true that affordable housing developers can often get a reduction in the amount of parking required, by applying for a variance. At times this is as low as 1.7 spaces per dwelling. Even so, affordable housing complexes often have unused parking spaces.

You can see the absurdity of this if you consider that this is higher than the actual need for offstreet parking for residents’ cars in central Los Angeles neighborhoods. For example, in the flatlands of Hollywood there are only 8 personal motor vehicles for every 10 dwellings. This is true despite the fact that many of the buildings in that neighborhood have been built since the city’s first requirements for offstreet parking went into effect in 1930. That original offstreet parking requirement, in effect from 1930 to 1960, required one parking space for each apartment.

In Los Angeles County (a region with 10 million people) as a whole only about 15 percent of the driving age residents lack a personal vehicle. There is clearly a dramatic difference between the central city and the outlying areas.

This pattern seems to be a general characteristic of large American cities. For example, in San Francisco 46 percent of the driving age residents don’t have a vehicle. Despite the advantages San Francisco provides for not relying on cars, it has a slightly higher level of car ownership than central Los Angeles. Two ossible explainers for this are the conversion of San Francisco into a bedroom suburb of Silicon Valley in recent years and higher average income levels. Meanwhile, in suburban Santa Clara County — the area around San Jose — only about 15 percent of the driving age residents lack cars — the same level as Los Angeles County as a whole.

The auto ownership level is affected by the land use pattern because in older, denser city areas there are likely to be lots of shops and services nearby, the buses run frequently, and jobs are nearby also. If there’s a bodega at the end of the block, you don’t have to jump into a car to get milk. And it may be harder to find parking.

Cars are expensive to own. It’s hard to do if you’re working a low wage job. In the highly dispersed San Fernando Valley, for example, only 27 percent of the driving age residents don’t have their own wheels — almost half as large a proportion as in central Los Angeles. But in Pacoima, a low-income neighborhood in the Valley, 44 percent of the driving-age residents lack a motor vehicle. This is high compared to the Valley as a whole, but lower than neighborhoods in central Los Angeles with a similar income level.

We can see the effects of class on the auto ownership rate by comparing auto-oriented suburbs that are about a similar distance from the downtown. I’ve selected Pico-Rivera, Whittier and San Marino for this comparison. They’re all auto-oriented suburbs 10 to 13 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. Pico-Rivera is a working-class Latino suburb. Whittier is a more "middle class" suburb with almost double the proportion of employed residents working professional and managerial jobs compared to Pico-Rivera. The third suburb is San Marino, a wealthy suburb of big houses founded by capitalist tycoon Henry Huntington.

Suburb Driving-age residents
with no vehicle
Pico-Rivera 32%
Whittier 20%
San Marino 8%

There are fewer people without motor vehicles in Pico-Rivera than in working class neighborhoods in the central city, and fewer people without cars in Whittier than in a central city middle class neighborhood like Los Feliz-Silverlake.

Thus car ownership and use is affected by both income and the land-use pattern.

The level of public transit use is also affected by the auto ownership level. But it’s not the only thing that affects public transit use. We can see this by comparing central Los Angeles to San Francisco. The best gauge of how well public transit in a city is used is the annual number of transit rides taken per resident. In San Francisco in 2000 there were 324 transit rides per person whereas in 1997 there were roughly 115 transit rides per person in central Los Angeles. (By comparison, the Chicago transit system provided 129 rides per resident in 2000.)

San Francisco has a very squeezed-together layout, there is very little parking in the downtown, and parking is scarce in general. Moreover, the city is very centralized with a huge proportion of the jobs in the downtown…the center of the transit system. This enables San Francisco to have a level of transit use similar to New York City despite the fact this is accomplished with a conventional network of buses operating in traffic-filled streets.

The effect of the land use pattern on transit use is clear if we compare older central cities to the newer outlying suburban rings. In the highly dispersed, auto-oriented San Fernando Valley in 1997 there were only 38 rides per resident on public transit — exactly the same level as Santa Clara County. The level of transit use in central Los Angeles is more than 3 times higher.

Back in the early ’30s, Los Angeles had the highest level of auto ownership of any large city in the world. Typically at least twice as high as other large American cities. To put this in perspective, however, the auto ownership level in early ’30s Los Angeles was similar to some of the more well-off third world cities today, such as Curitiba, in southern Brazil. From 1930 to 1988 the number of registered motor vehicles per 1000 residents in Los Angeles County increased by 53 percent. Changes in the land use pattern, higher real wages after World War 2, and the big increase in the proportion of women in wage work all are likely explainers for this increase. With the decline in real working class wages since the ’70s and large investments in public transit since 1980, the auto ownership rate in Los Angeles County has declined somewhat from its all-time high in the late ’80s. But a high level of reliance on cars is sustained by the massive investment in an auto-oriented layout of malls, business parks, and free parking, plus hundreds of miles of freeway designed to carry a high volume of traffic.

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