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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

LA makes list of 50 Top Low-Car Cities

Human Transit had an interesting group of observations today about how we move towards a low-car city based on a listing of the Top 50 Low-Car Cities in the US (defined by populations of over 100,000) pulled from Wikipedia and the Carfree Census Database.  Not surprisingly, the New York Metro area dominated the top three spots, and was followed primarily by east coast cities in the top 10.  California did make the list though, with San Francisco taking the 14th spot, and East LA sitting at #32 and LA at #49 overall. 
1. New York City, New York 55.7%
2. Newark, New Jersey 44.17%
3. Jersey City, New Jersey 40.67%
4. Washington, D.C. 36.93%
5. Hartford, Connecticut 36.14%
6. Baltimore, Maryland 35.89%
7. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 35.74%
8. Boston, Massachusetts 34.91%
9. Buffalo, New York 31.42%
10. New Haven, Connecticut 29.74%
. . .
14. San Francisco, California 28.56%
32. East Los Angeles, California 21.24%
36. Oakland, California 19.62%
45. Berkeley, California 17.01%
49. Los Angeles, California 16.53%
And, as Human Transit notes, the list deals with "incorporated cities, which are things of very unequal size and shape bearing little relation to the organic form of urban regions.  For example, Los Angeles at #49 would score much higher if the vast low-density San Fernando Valley were not part of the incorporated city, and high-density innermost suburbs like East Los Angeles (#39) were included instead."  In other words, on the bright side of things, car happy LA is actually more of a low-car city than expected.

The article posits three key factors behind low-car ownership: age, poverty, and dominant universities.  As such, older cities score well because they were built well before the car was commonplace, producing a functional urban infrastructure for residents without a car.  Poverty obviously mitigates the economic ability of residents to own cars, and a dominant university population increases density without a need or ability to own cars.

Interestingly, green guru city of the West, Portland did not even make the top 50th low-car cities, prompting another fascinating question from the article:
How long will it take for a city that lacks age, poverty, or dominant universities to achieve the kind of low car ownership that these 50 demonstrate?  How soon, for example, will a city be able to create a combination of density, design, and mixture of uses that yields the same performance as an old city that naturally has those features?

Portland is probably the most promising such city in the US, and it's not on the list.  Only 14% of households there don't have a car, so it's probably well down in the second 50.  Like many cities, Portland has been doing everything it can to build a dense mixed-use urban environment.  It's the sort of city that convinces the Safeway supermarket chain to rebuild their store with townhouses and residential towers on top.  But while people are moving into the inner city, they don't seem to be selling their cars when they do, nor do they seem to be going to work by transit

While Portland is successfully moving towards a dense urban condition, is appears people may not be willing to give up their cars yet.   So, is there much hope for traffic clogged LA?  No doubt we need to reduce the number of automobiles, and even more importantly, automobile trips in Los Angeles to improve environmental quality and alleviate traffic.  Hopefully downtown's resurgence and improved urban design and transit initiatives throughout the city will keep moving us toward this lofty goal.  While much remains to be done, at least our place on the list provides some hope that a less car-centered LA may be in our a future.

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