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How Big Can Los Angeles Get?

Four million and counting.

The Los Angeles of Her is a dense metropolis teeming with skyscrapers and speeding trains. In one exuberant scene, Joaquin Phoenix bounds through a Los Angeles subway station and emerges onto a crowded, sunny Dockweiler State Beach.

It seemed like fantasy when I first watched it. But then, in May, only three years after the movie was released, I found myself riding the newly expanded Expo Line to its final destination in Santa Monica, only blocks away from the ocean.

It made me wonder: Could Los Angeles grow to become a "real city" like New York or London? Last year, LA gained at least 50,000 people, according to a recent report from the California Department of Finance, pushing the population to more than 4 million people for the first time in the city's history.

"There has been a major change about how people talk about LA," Robert Gottlieb, director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College, told Motherboard. "People are recognizing that the car isn't going to be as dominant in the future."

Ah yes, the car. When I was born in Los Angeles in 1982, there was no subway system. Smartphones, and consequently Uber and Lyft, were decades away. You had to drive or take the bus, and the resulting traffic and smog seemed to kill any dreams that LA could handle any more people.

I left the West Coast for New York City and stayed for nearly a decade. When I moved back to LA, life in the city had changed so dramatically I wondered if I even needed a car.

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It was a scene straight out of Brooklyn: a girl, hair dyed silver and purple under a floppy black hat, sitting with a boy with a scruffy beard on a crowded rush hour train. They were on the Expo Line, however, not the L train, and Rossella Mastronardi and Julian Liguori were new to the experience.

"It's something I never rode before because I didn't live Downtown," Liguori, 21, told me. He and Mastronardi, 22, were commuting to and from Santa Monica College for the second time ever, a trip that was averaging them about 12 minutes.

"We get to beat traffic," Mastronardi said. "If we get out of school at rush hour, it can take us 45 minutes in a car to get home."

Neither own a car. Before, they rode the bus, used Uber and hitched rides with friends to get around. Now they plan to rely on the Metro to get to class.

Metro Blue Line / Expo Line, DTLA. Photo: Prayitno/Flickr

It's something I never imagined was possible when I went to the University of Southern California. Back then, the Expo Line, which now runs past campus, did not exist.

Public transit in LA could grow even faster if the $120 billion Measure R extension passes in November. It calls for funding for more than two dozen mass transit lines and extensions, including a subway line running under the traffic-clogged 405 freeway and a much-needed connection between the Crenshaw line and LAX.

Still, no subway project is going to make LA as walkable as New York City. The city still faces what planners call the "first mile/last mile" problem, where commuters need to find a way to get from trains to their homes and offices.

That is where ride-hailing services come in. Getting off the Expo Line, I got out my iPhone and summoned an UberPool, which took me (along with a mother and daughter fighting bitterly over why the latter wasn't married) five miles to my friend's house in West Hollywood.

"Previously, we had this dichotomy between the private car and public transit," Susan Shaheen, co-director of UC Berkeley's Transportation Sustainability Research Center, told Motherboard.

"Now people choose from different modes of transportation," she said. "They can Uber to transit in the morning for work, and in the evening they can take a Car2Go home."

A recent poll from the Pew Research Center found that 56 percent of frequent ride-hailing app users also use public transit, compared to 9 percent of non-users. It's a sign that Uber and Lyft aren't competing with trains, they are complementing them.

And while self-driving cars aren't a common sight now, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has already announced an initiative called the Coalition of Transportation Technology to plan how the city might accommodate them in the future. An MIT study from 2014 found that a fleet of self-driving cars could serve the entire Singapore population with one-third of the number of vehicles currently in use, thanks to the fact they are always providing trips instead of taking up parking spots. It's easy to see how that would benefit Los Angeles.

LA will also soon be home to bike-share programs in Downtown LA, Venice and Westwood—sure to be welcome in a city that ranked an unimpressive 58th in Walk Score's ranking of bike-friendly cities. (It was narrowly edged out of the 57th spot by Plano, Texas).

Map: City of Los Angeles

Alas, it's tough for LA Mayor Eric Garcetti to pull a Michael Bloomberg and simply mandate bike lanes be built across the city.

"In Los Angeles, the local city councils have a tremendous amount of power," Damien Newton, founder of Streetsblog LA, told Motherboard.

A map of the city boundaries of Los Angeles looks like a drunk tried to put a puzzle together and lost half of the pieces. Missing are independent cities such as Santa Monica and West Hollywood; the rest of the LA is divided among 15 city council districts. Connecting bike lanes across several of them can be a political challenge, as many councilmembers don't want to sacrifice space that could be used for cars.

That balkanization also has a serious effect on another factor slowing LA's growth: zoning.

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Once at Sunset Junction, in the heart of the trendy Silver Lake neighborhood, my friend visiting from Brooklyn took a look around, sipped her coffee, and asked me, "So, is this the main area?"

The skepticism in her face was understandable. Take a summer walk through even far-flung neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens and you'll find more people walking, chatting and playing outside than all but the most walkable streets of LA.

Geography and history have something to do with that. Early settlers in Manhattan were building on an island in a time before cars or trains. LA had plenty of land to sprawl out on, and when its population hit 1 million people in 1924, Ford was already pumping out nearly 2 million Model Ts a year.

More than a decade earlier, in 1909, LA became the first city in the United States to create residential zones—areas where commercial and industrial sites were forbidden. The move kept factories away from houses, but eventually led to vast tracts of single-family homes where markets, restaurants, and other businesses were banned.

The only way to do your grocery shopping in many LA neighborhoods today? Hop in a car and drive. That is a big problem, according to Mark Vallianatos, a member of the Los Angeles Department of City Planning's re:code LA project, because it disincentivizes people from relying solely on public transportation.

This real estate monoculture could be cured by allowing more mixed-use housing, he said, as well as permitting small businesses to pop up in purely residential neighborhoods.

That might help create more diverse, less car-dependent neighborhoods, but LA still has another problem: city councils, their constituents, and powerful special interests are sometimes loathe to let developers build up.

Drive by Western Avenue and Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and you will see the massive husk of a half-finished Target store. It was supposed to reach 75 feet into the air. The limit in the area, however, was 35 feet, and construction was halted in 2014.

With its current population, Los Angeles is nearly at capacity.

Armed with the restrictive California Environmental Quality Act and "activist lawyers" like Robert P. Silverstein, homeowners have waged war to protect their views and property values from new construction projects—even in dense, subway-filled areas like Hollywood.

"The big trend over the last 45 years has been a shift away from a pro-growth sensibility," Vallianatos said. "It moved from a pride that, over the first half of the 20th Century, LA was one of the fastest growing cities in America to a more slow-growth approach."

It wasn't always like this. Back in 1960, the city's buildings were zoned in a way that allowed for 10 million potential residents, according a paper from UCLA doctoral candidate Greg Morrow.

Now that number is 4.2 million people. By that standard, with its current population, Los Angeles is nearly at capacity. That could explain why LA is the least affordable rental market in America, with the average resident committing 47 percent of their income to rent.

Coincidentally, LA has more chronically homeless people (12,536) than any other city in the country, according to the US Housing and Urban Development Department. In May, the LA Times Editorial Board warned against NIMBY groups that wanted to "halt construction and freeze California in time," adding that it was "a recipe for higher housing costs, more homelessness and greater inequality."

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So can LA grow up? Not everyone thinks that it should. Wendell Cox, a public policy consultant who helped former LA Mayor Tom Bradley pass the funds to build the Metro in the 1990s, is now pro-sprawl. He thinks that instead of building in Downtown LA, more single-family homes should be allowed on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

"I realize that planners have this illusion that everyone wants to live in high density in the city," Cox told Motherboard. But he says that the suburbs is where people really want to settle down. More houses in the Inland Empire and Orange County, he said, would relieve pressure on the LA housing market.

"The land prices in Los Angeles are driven by what happens on the fringe," he said.

Mayor Garcetti on the Expo Line extension to Santa Monica. Photo: Mayor Garcetti/Flickr

Many city planners, however, are pro-density, as are politicians. Last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown introduced a bill that would let urban developments get around restrictive laws if they built low-income units and Garcetti wants to see 100,000 affordable homes built in LA by 2021.

One day, Angelenos might summon self-driving cars to take them through streets of skyscrapers, where 10 million people live and work. But for now, residents and tourists are enjoying how much LA is changing.

On the Expo Line platform in Santa Monica, a British couple gushed about how much easier it was for them to get around the city than on their last trip two years ago. Nearby, Dexter LaRoderick, 38, was waiting to return home Downtown after his second beach trip in four days.

"Before I drove everywhere," LaRoderick said. "Now, with Metro and Uber, it's like, who needs a car anymore?"