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Answer: Best place to get to work by public transit May 22, 2011

Posted by Bob Cook in Financial Planning & Analysis.

For those of you old enough to remember, Johnny Carson got a lot of late-night laughs at the expense of L.A. traffic, smog and culture.  Ed McMahon would give Johnny’s Carnac an answer and Carnac would intuit the question.  It was sort of a comic Jeopardy


Ed:    Clean air, a virgin and a gas station open on Sunday

Carnac:   Name three things you won’t find in Los Angeles.

When Carson moved, in 1972, from NY to L.A the two cities were world’s apart.    New York was a traditional city with a strong downtown and people living in the boroughs and suburbs, like New Rochelle where Dick Van Dyke lived . Most folks either walked to work or road trains, subways, or buses. 

L.A., though, was different.  No one walked … anywhere.  Few people took public transportation.   Downtown was somewhere over there, but you couldn’t see it through the smog and, while Gertrude Stein originally said it about another California city, her description applied: “There isn’t any ‘there’ there”.   Urban theorists like Lewis Mumford derided L.A. as “100 suburbs in search of a city”, and if you wanted to go out on Sunday, it was a real problem that the gas stations were closed because you probably couldn’t get there (assuming, for the sake of exposition, there was a “there” there) via public transit.

Johnny Carson’s jokes about smog and traffic formed the American opinion about what L.A. and, by extention, the rest of California were like, and how they were so different from the rest of country.  California was a place of freedom but a place where people spent an inordinate amount of time in their cars, squinting through the smog, not actually being able to see the “Hollywood” sign.  It was not an inaccurate depiction … and it applied to many of the newer cities in the American West, not just to those in California. The resulting belief, though, of where transit was strong and where it was weak would within a generation be reversed.

Carnac must be scratching his head

Answer:   Best place to get to work by public transit

Question:   What is California?

That, Mr. Carnac, is not a joke.

According to a recently-released Brookings study, eight of the top ten U.S. metropolitan areas, ranked according to the share of working-age residents with access to transit, are in the West; four are in California.  The list:

  1. Honolulu HI  (97%)
  2. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA (96%)
  3. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA (96%)
  4. El Paso, TX (94%)
  5. San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA (92%)
  6. Modesto, CA (90%)
  7. New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA (90%)
  8. Salt Lake City, UT (89%)
  9. Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL (89%)
  10. Las Vegas-Paradise, NV (86%)

As Gomer Pyle, another icon of mid-20th Century television would say, “Surprise, Surprise”. 

So, what’s happened over the last fifty years?  How could this be?  It turns out that low-density suburban sprawl … that nemesis of public transit … has crawled across landscapes in the East more than landscapes in the West.  Metros in California and other western states have avoided sprawl … partly through the discipline imposed by the physical geography and partly through political will.  It was the natural geographic barriers in the form of mountains, deserts, and an ocean, combined with strong land use controls, primarily resulting from a desire to preserve those natural resources, that resulted in metros of the West ultimately being built to higher densities than those of the East. 

Consider this comparison:  While the city of Chicago, proper, is probably more dense than the city of Los Angeles, proper, when you include the Chicago suburbs which have expanded unimpeded like a prairie wildfire, the Chicago metro is much less dense than the Los Angeles metro, where the surrounding hills and mountains block sprawl… because, besides, who wants to live where real wildfires happen?

And sure, while the West doesn’t have anything like the high-volume, high-speed rail systems of New York, Chicago and Boston, those systems … born more than a century ago … no longer serve a large proportion of those metros.  Only so many people can live in the boroughs, the precincts, and the close-in suburbs.  Now most live far from the reaches of those century-old transit systems … and they typically live in low-density communities that put their homes an un-walkable distance from the closest bus stop. And even for those who are close to the old hub-and-spoke systems, the jobs are no longer mostly at the hub, anyway.  Jobs are in the ‘burbs not served by those systems.

In California and the West, on the other hand, jobs and homes are frequently within walking distance of a bus stop.  And while … sure … not many people today ride public transit to work, they could if they wanted.  In the future … as gas prices rise, as legislation curtails the use of energy-wasteful, environmentally-unfriendly personal transit, and as growing populations and ever-increasing densities lead to traffic congestion … people probably will want to ride buses (or whatever it is we call multi-passenger conveyances in the future); in California and the West.  High-population densities will allow that to happen.

Implications for the geography of jobs

It used to be that discussions about “quality of life” focused around weather and natural amenities.  These were often cited as the main reasons for the western (and, to a lesser extent, southern) migration of the U.S. populace.  Companies expanded in the West because it was easier to recruit young employees there.  Some of us, including myself, used to think, “yes, it’s nice living in the West, but the lack of public transit will be its downfall … as oil prices rise and as cities grow so large that highway gridlock sets in”.   We thought the westward flow of jobs would cease.  We were wrong.   It’s the other way around.   While the older parts of Eastern cities … those with high population densities and good legacy transit systems are positioned to prosper with a greater desire for public transit, the metros, overall, are not.   Expect companies to continue to expand disproportionately westward.

Commuting to your job is and will continue to be a lot easier in the West.   Who would have thought it?  Surprise, surprise.


1. Mike Giles - May 23, 2011

Good article Bob. I grew up watching Johnny and loving the Carnac skits. Thanks for the reminder. The results of the Brookings study are not what I would have thought. But after pondering it for a moment, it seems logical. Transit projects require large amounts of real estate, complex in structure. The most effective development and use of public transportation would seem to approximate the historical expansion and maturity of the country from East to West. A significant challenge for any public infrastructure project is dealing with the rights of private property ownership. I would think that the volume and complexity of private property ownership rights (i.e. per square mile) must decrease, going from older metros to newer ones, making it proportionately easier to plan and execute “big picture” transit system and housing development.

2. Carson Realtor - October 5, 2014

Very good blog post. I absolutely love this website.
Keep writing!

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