Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Old News, Still Obsessed

I have lived in Los Angeles for about a year and a half. For much of that time I’ve commuted (aside from the occasional one or two day acquaintance auto loan) by bicycle and Metro Red Line. I’m one of the lucky 1.5% of the population for whom the mass transit subway system was intended. It is actually a convenient, efficient way to get to and from work and my house. It’s almost direct, and it’s as fast as driving at certain times of the day. Taking the Red Line costs me $2.50 each day while driving (depending on time and type of vehicle) can be twice that.

I’ve constructed quite the sturdy soapbox upon which to spout off about Los Angeles’ otherwise inefficient transportation system, it’s clogged freeways, it’s irresponsible, almost bravado-laden contribution to greenhouse emissions, and the fact that its buses -- even the so-called “rapid” lines -- average between 10 and 14 mph. I’ve become borderline arrogant in referring to my bicycle, skateboard, and use of the Red Line rail. But, lately, I have to confess, I get a lot of rides. In fact, the longer I live here, the more rides I get. My idealism is slipping into the cracks in the freeway system. The subway shuts down before one a.m., and I can often make it from Hollywood to Downtown on my bike faster than waiting for a bus; so, when there’s an auto ride available, I end up contributing to my city’s number 12 worldwide ranking for greenhouse gas emissions .

Los Angeles’s transportation history is as sordid and scandalous as every other part of the city. It gets much attention -- just about any resident asked is able to recite some portion of it, or at least toss out a buzz word (like red car or Roger Rabbit); such knowledge could be considered trendy in some circles -- and its current state is world-renowned. It’s treacherous sometimes, gridlocked streets corralled by 27 freeways tracking a daily collective migration of 100 million miles (that’s 4,015 trips around the globe each day). Only 11% of commuters use public transportation compared with 53% in New York. L.A. holds the title of “Most Car Populated City in the World” -- a hefty title when coupled with its position inside the country responsible for the highest emissions of planet-warming gasses -- with a registered car for every 1.8 people. Last week, I rode with a friend from Beverly Hills to Downtown, and it took an hour and a half. This is a distance of 12 miles; Google maps tells me it takes 23 minutes. But the complaints are old and boring news. No one cares. Everyone in the world knows how ridiculous it is, and yet, for now, we keep on.

Between 1883 and 1887, there were 43 street-car franchises issued by the City Council of the City of Los Angeles. Not all of these were for new lines -- a few were intended to allow route alterations or reconstruction in problem areas -- but for the most part a City Council existed that was, with urgency and intention, attempting with some success to create an effective transportation system for its citizens while simultaneously stimulating economic growth. Today’s version of these efforts is being tagged as “Smart Growth”. “Smart Growth,” interestingly enough, holds its focus more on real estate than on actual modes of transportation. It contends that denser populations (more and taller complexes) in locations adjacent to frequent bus stops and rail stations will encourage the use of public transportation and decrease the use of the automobile. It does not take into account the current state of the ego.

With a paper map of today’s Los Angeles and a set of highlighters, I tried sketching out the first 15 or so routes of the original rail franchises, just to get a feel for how things might have been. I didn’t get too far. Some of the streets have changed names which wasn’t nearly as difficult to decipher as verbiage like this:

"...the track of the street railroad shall be laid from the center line of Main Street to a point six foot easterly of the telegraph pole standing by the willow stump in the swamp; thence in a straight line to the westerly sidewalk of the street, and thence over the gutter along the sidewalk to such point as may be necessary to cross (and across) the sidewalk on to private property to reach the depot."

Swamp? On Main Street?

An article in the L.A. Weekly about another of L.A.’s great mythologies (the water) claimed that old trolley cars were used as landfill when the natural watershed was covered up. How resourceful.

My map ended up looking like I’d sketched a tiny fluorescent spider-web over a tight square in downtown with one long thread reaching to Exposition Park. These were just the early lines, however. Ultimately, the transportation system was running to Hollywood, the beach, Pasadena, and into the valley by the turn of the century, a complex combination of horse-drawn, cable, steam engine, electric, and even the “Trackless Trolley” (a goofy looking train car on wheels, made of Oldsmobile parts and powered electrically, which carried a 16 passenger capacity from downtown to Laurel Canyon).

A number of factors contributed to the end of what was regarded as one of the best transportation systems in the country for its time, but there was one intersection of factors in particular that may always reflect a unique Angeleno characteristic -- and a greater unique American characteristic -- that ultimately brought the system’s demise: the idolatry of the individual and individual gain, capitol investment in the automobile, mixed with the voracious tendency toward claiming territory (the original “Smart Growth”). There is a conspiracy theory that the automobile industry actually plotted the systematic destruction of the rail system, and this is partly true. But it wasn’t exactly a singular plot, nor even one whose contributors can be neatly connected with dots. The common factor can, however, most definitely be traced to the very same capitalistic interests that now threaten to destroy the globe (via both temperature and violent power positioning).

In the early 1900’s a man named Alfred P. Sloan was the president of General Motors. According to GM files, his business strategy, established via special unit in 1922, involved increasing auto sales while eliminating streetcars by replacing them with cars, trucks, and buses. He later formed a front company with Firestone and Standard Oil called National City Lines which began buying out rail systems in 45 cities across the United States in the 1920’s. Eventually, they replaced the lines with bus lines.

The government also contributed to the demise of L.A.’s rail. As part of Roosevelt’s New Deal to alleviate economic hardship during the Great Depression, new legislation ordered electric companies to sell off holdings that didn’t actually provide electricity. As many streetcars owned and operated by power companies did not, they became readily available to be swept up by GM’s front company.

Millions of workers surged the Los Angeles area for the war industries, and real estate prices soared. The government and the populace began looking toward an infrastructure to connect what was becoming a sprawling metropolis. An icon in L.A. history, and maybe even Angeleno royalty to some, Harry Chandler, whose father-in-law created the first successful L.A. Times and with whom he also partnered to bring water to L.A., sat on the board of directors for a company called Goodyear Tire & Rubber. Joan Didion writes of Chandler in her essay Times Mirror Square, “The Los Angeles highway system exists because Harry Chandler knew that people would not buy land in his outlying subdivisions unless they could drive to them...”

By 1926 Goodyear became the largest rubber company in the world. In 1951 Los Angeles began building its freeway system.

L.A.’s DNA, it’s attitude, and, in part, its wealth, are steeped in the automobile industry. But its collective ego may be more so. Current mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, recently unleashed GREEN LA, “An Action Plan to Lead the Nation in Fighting Global Warming.” He says on the city website, “We’re setting the green standard in L.A. Reducing our carbon footprint by 35% below 1990 levels is the most ambitious goal set by a major American city.”

The city as an institution may be “ambitious”, but some of its inhabitants lag a little behind, and it’s a bit tough to constantly avoid the deadly pull to join them. The Mayor also recently told a group of school children that our focus on the individual is problematic, that the “we” is where strength lies. L.A. is not renowned for its “community”. It’s renowned for its individuals, both positively and not, and the automobile is the ultimate American individual’s apparel/cage, reflection of self, and freedom. The other day a shopper at my job in Hollywood declared that he didn’t “give a shit about global warming.” He said he’d be dead when things got really bad, so who cares. Another, voicing his preference for a plastic bag, added, “Yeah, and I drive an SUV too.” A co-worker chimed in, “My dad doesn’t believe in global warming so neither do I. Who cares.” Frighteningly, there are people with similar perspectives across America, but when I visit cities like San Francisco or Seattle, such language has become extremely rare.

The focus on the individual in L.A. is a phenomenon. It is quite a wonderful place for artists and business-people alike, a city that is truly an open canvas for making possibilities into realities, for milking individuals for their strengths and often returning economically on them. Yet, this sets freedom to high demand, sets it to the standard of expectation.

Yesterday, while driving back from Mexico with two friends and sitting at a near stand-still on I-5 just inside Orange County, I launched a sermon, “Why is everyone still driving cars? This is so archaic! Had transportation kept up with information and communications, we wouldn’t have all of these problems.”

One friend sighed and said, “People want to go when they want to go.”

I stopped talking, knowing she was precisely right. It is the impulse to move about freely, on one’s own course, and at the exact moment one wants to move (along with the fascination of matching one’s perceived self aesthetically to a larger mobile body) that binds us to the automobile. There still is little excuse for lack of an alternate fuel system, however.

And, at the conclusion of the above, I am driving and getting rides even more than I was when I started typing this. I’m caving slightly to the ways of the Angeleno. I have to admit, there is something really satisfying about driving on the Arroyo Parkway at off-rush hours when it’s possible to get luge-like, reaching 85 or 90 mph; or, likewise, taking in the city by way of the 101 with strong chances that whatever’s on the radio came right up out of the ground beneath the wheels. I will probably never come to love the 405 and consistently get into fights with whomever is in the car with me while on the 10, but it’s hard to live in a city and not, to some degree, be governed by its infrastructure.