The Worst of All Worlds: Los Angeles, California, and the Emerging Reality of Dense Sprawl


Eric Eidlin

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

operations - traffic, land use - urban sprawl, land use - urban density, policy - congestion, place - urban


Urban sprawl, Travel behavior, Transportation industry, Transportation, Transport, Traffic congestion, Quality of life, Population density, Los Angeles (California), Infrastructure, Housing, Gridlock (Traffic), Air quality


Los Angeles, California, is generally considered the archetypal sprawling metropolis. Yet traditional measures equate sprawl with low population density, and Los Angeles is among the densest and thereby the least sprawling cities in the United States. How can this apparent paradox be explained? This paper argues that the answer lies in the fact that Los Angeles exhibits a comparatively even distribution of population throughout its urbanized area. As a result, the city suffers from many consequences of high population density, including extreme traffic congestion, poor air quality, and high housing prices, while offering its residents few benefits that typically accompany this density, including fast and effective public transit, vibrant street life, and tightly knit urban neighborhoods. The city’s unique combination of high average population density with little differentiation in the distribution of population might best be characterized as dense sprawl, a condition that embodies the worst of urban and suburban worlds. This paper uses Gini coefficients to illustrate variation in population density and then considers a number of indicators—most relating either to the provision of transportation infrastructure or to travel behavior—that demonstrate the effects of low-variation population distribution on the quality of urban life in Los Angeles. This approach offers researchers, practitioners, and policy makers in Los Angeles and in smaller cities that are evolving in similar ways a useful and user-friendly tool for identifying, explaining, measuring, and addressing the most problematic aspects of sprawl.