Los Angeles vs. San Francisco – The Race To Solve Mobility Issues


Smart Cities Insider interviewed Timothy Papandreou, Director, Strategic Planning & Policy at San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA). Before moving to San Francisco, Tim worked as Transportation Planning Manager at Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro). As Tim has a great deal of insight into transportation challenges and opportunities of both cities, we asked for a comparison – Los Angeles vs. San Francisco. Which city does a better job?

Prior to working for San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), you worked about 8 years for Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (METRO). As you know both cities very well, how do you think the mobility challenges differ between them?

Tim Papandreou: First of all, I think we are lucky to have both global cities in one state. One is the global capital of technology, and the other is the global capital of entertainment. The difference between the two is scale. People, for some reason, compare the two spaces but use different geographies. The city of Los Angeles is over 469 square miles, with 4 million people in the city, 11 million in the county and 20 million in the region. Whereas the city/county of San Francisco is 47 square miles with 825,000 people in a region of 7 million people.

Another major difference is that the city of San Francisco is surrounded by water from three sides and there are really only five to six access points to get in and out of San Francisco. It is a very funneled and concentrated city which is great for public transit utilization and terrible for traffic congestion. Los Angeles is a very porous city. There are a lot of opportunities to get in and out of the city which works better for traffic, and due to the density, works well for transit too. It’s true that central Los Angeles is locked in by canyons and water to the west and south, but if you look at the central Los Angeles area, it is much more like many of the mid-western cities that are surrounded by land.

The intensity and density of Los Angeles modulates up and down depending on its centers much more than San Francisco does, which spikes in the financial area, then tapers down at the edges with the exception of a small pocket in Oakland. I see more similarities with Downtown Oakland and Downtown Los Angeles, with the exception that LA has more high rises. The street grid looks and feels more similar than to Downtown San Francisco.

Some colleagues and I compared the 50 square miles of San Francisco city and 50 square miles of Central Los Angeles city. They’re pretty similar in density, but because of the tight street grid and transit network, and hills that funnel through movement along key streets, you see proportionally more people walking, bicycling and taking public transit in the center of San Francisco, compared to Los Angeles. What’s interesting is that the Central Los Angeles area is similar in size but denser than the Bay Area.

If San Francisco is a mono-centric city, Los Angeles is a poly-centric city. That means that in Los Angeles, there is no peak direction, and because of regional through traffic, it can peak at any time of the day in any of the centers. The transit network in SF has a dominant inbound in the morning and dominant outbound in the evening. Many people on the freeway and the Golden Gate Bridge are not going to San Francisco, they are going through San Francisco.

Because Los Angeles has five downtowns within the city and a dozen big downtowns in the central part of the county (e.g.: Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood etc. ) there is a dominant inbound and outbound in every direction. The freeways create a funnel of congestion because they are not managed for demand. It is very hard to make a core transit network work in just one city center, it has to go to all downtowns to make it work like a network.

The Bay Area rail network is designed with about 50 communities in a horseshoe, and they are slowly building better downtowns around them. Some feel more walkable, easier to bicycle in – others, not so much. Similarly, Los Angeles is building a very robust rail network, and a few of the dozen downtowns are maturing in their mixed use urban form. The key difference is the large streets and the long street blocks and the grid of freeways every 3-4 miles, that feels more like you are in the Bay area’s East Bay or San Jose, rather than San Francisco.

San Francisco implemented a plan called Muni Forward to innovate the city’s transit system. Why is it such a unique project?

Tim Papandreou: Actually both regions, Los Angeles and San Francisco, have done this process. The transit effectiveness project is once in a generation opportunity to redesign the transit network to better meet the needs of the customers and accommodate the current changes in the city.

We rationalized all of the routes, looked at the times and the frequencies, and basically did a refresh. We said “based on demographics in our current network of people, jobs, places, and special events, this is how the network should be redesigned.” We looked at strategies to make it more reliable, to improve travel time, and make the connections work better. We also looked at the infrastructure. How do we make sure that the transit services can stay reliable?

Muni Forward San Francisco

© SFMTA – Muni Forward

We looked at the whole customer experience from very beginning by looking at the map, looking at the train, looking at the bus, then looking inside the bus, information inside and outside the bus, then looking at the network itself – stations, stops, lines, streets, the frequency and the services. The whole system was redesigned.

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