I've just arrived in Los Angeles for stop no. 7 on the book tour for The Lost Subways of North America. I'm going to be giving a talk Monday at 7pm at Village Well in Culver City. LA friends, I'll be here until Wednesday, and I'd love to hang if you're around. I have some thoughts, having returned to LA after being away for a bit.
Every time I come back to Los Angeles, I'm shocked at just what people in LA put up with. The casual level of disorder that Angelenos put up with has apparently spread everywhere, and I'm really not sure what to make of it. Sure, the crime rate is way, way down when I was younger. Yes, really. As of last year, the Los Angeles crime rate was less than half of what it was in 1990, and about the same as where it was in 2008. The difference is, LA feels extremely unsafe in ways it didn't before.
To illustrate: because I am the transit person, I took transit from LAX to my hotel in West LA. It's a straightforward ride - shuttle bus to the LAX bus terminal, then the #3 Big Blue Bus to the Expo Line light rail. It took me more time than a taxi, but it only cost $3 and I wasn't in a rush.
My trip from LAX to the hotel runs through some of the richest areas in North America. (I pulled the data from Niche, if you're interested.) My trip started in LAX, which is in Westchester, median household income $145,000, and proceeded to pass through Marina del Rey, median household income $133,000; Venice, median household income $124,000; Santa Monica, median household income $100,000; and finally Sawtelle, median household income $100,000. For comparison, the national median is $69,000, and LA's median is $76,000. This definitely ain't the 'hood.
But it definitely felt like the 'hood. Passing through Santa Monica, a homeless fellow got on the bus and proceeded to light up a crack pipe. The bus driver called the cops on Mr. Crack Smoker. Mr. Crack Smoker refused to throw away the crack or get off the bus, and started yelling at the bus driver.
Discretion being the better part of valor, I decided to get off the bus and walked the extra few blocks to transfer to the Expo Line light rail. Of course, when I got on the train, fully half of the passengers in my train car were homeless, with the same sights and smells you see in an encampment under the freeway. Not gonna lie: I felt unsafe on both on the train and the bus, and I have a LOT of tolerance for this stuff. After all, I've ridden transit in Detroit, Memphis, Cleveland, and New Orleans, and I generally feel safe while on the train or the bus, even if the surrounding neighborhood is a hot mess.
Thing is, statistically, LA is a LOT safer than all of these cities. I pulled the FBI crime reporting data for 2022, and LA's violent crime rate is 620 violent crimes per 100k population. LA's crime rate is a third the rate of Detroit (2051/100k) and Memphis (2107/100k). It's about half the crime rate of Cleveland (1463/100k), and New Orleans (1385/100k).
But what the crime statistics don't adequately capture is the feeling of safety, or the lack thereof. California feels unsafe, because there's so much public disorder and neglect. It's just normal in California to see tent cities and sketchy RVs posing a public health hazard in neighborhoods full of millionaires. It's like a cyberpunk novel, in all the wrong ways.
I suspect LA feels less safe today because the housing crisis has allowed the sense of disorder and neglect to spread from poor neighborhoods to rich ones. As recently as ten years ago, you had to watch your back, but there were clear delineations of what was and what wasn't safe. That line has largely broken down in California, because the housing crisis has just gotten out of control. Ironically, these are problems of prosperity. LA and SF are prosperous, with job creation vastly outpacing housing construction. Because Detroit and Cleveland have been in decline for decades, rent is cheap. In the Rust Belt, even crackheads can afford a roof over their heads - not unlike LA's crackheads 30 years ago.
Decent people shouldn't have to put up with this shit. Public parks and squares should not be health hazards. Public transport should not serve as a moving homeless shelter. And these things can and should be fixed. But it requires actually doing something about the crisis. It requires pushing our governments to do better, build more housing, and enforcing the law in public spaces.
This is something LA (and the Bay Area) are not doing a whole lot of right now. But it is happening elsewhere. When I gave a talk in Sacramento last Thursday, I spoke with a group of reformers who successfully got the City Council to adopt the kind of housing reforms that I've been pushing in this space for years, allowing a lot of new development and focusing it near the underused transit system. It represents an acknowledgment that things have to change dramatically to end this crisis.
LA can absolutely do the same, but it requires making the same kinds of hard decisions.