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Los Angeles: So Close Yet So Far

Colin Marshall photo
Colin MarshallLos Angeles
Los Angeles: So Close Yet So Far
"Of course you need a car in Los Angeles," they say, even though you don't, although the city has yet to come fully to terms with twofold nature of the its own urbanization: the biggest rail-building boom in America, but also a need to reorganize around this new transit network

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I spent a few of my years in Los Angeles hosting a podcast called Notebook on Cities and Culture, which began with me interviewing writers, comedians, filmmakers, architects, and other such cultural types not just in a variety of locations around the city (often wherever the interviewee of the week felt willing to meet, as effective a manner as any of getting to know the terrain) but also, in one way or another and no matter the subject more directly at hand, about the city. In later seasons, the show expanded and had me recording in places like San Francisco, Toronto, Mexico City, London, Copenhagen, Osaka, and finally Seoul, where I live now. No matter the city under discussion, Los Angeles served as a basis of comparison. While a guest there might offhandedly say that “here, of course, you need a car,” a guest somewhere else might offhandedly say something like, “Now, in Los Angeles, of course, you need a car, whereas here...”

Usually I cut them off right there, declaring that I'd got along without a car in Los Angeles just fine. This motivated one listener to come up with a Notebook on Cities and Culture drinking game: take a shot every time Colin says he doesn't have a car in Los Angeles. I endorsed it, not just for its inherent humor value but also because it allows its players to feel, in a visceral way, the persistence of myths about the city. My own experience, and that of more and more friends I came to know as time went on, told me you don't need a car there, but most of the people I talked to about the city insisted that you do. This held truer among those not resident in Los Angeles at the time than those who were, but even lifelong Angelenos — the ones who've presumably seen the past thirty years of new urban rail construction happen before their very eyes — held fast to the perception of private automobile dependence.

This isn't to say that Los Angeles has never suffered from that disease of twentieth-century America, booming into its own as it did in twentieth-century America. “One way or another, a member of the L.A. middle class should have his (or her) four wheels to be effective, and few but the very poor — the Negroes, Mexicans, old people, and less fortunate students — are without them,” wrote the New Yorker's Christopher Rand in the mid-1960s. These poor may ride on buses, but preferably for short hauls only, as a citywide bus trip takes up hours. There is no other cheap way to move unless one counts walking, which is thought eccentric, is seldom adequate for the time and distance involved, and is not encouraged by the city’s layout: some streets have no sidewalks along them; many others are dreary stretches scaled to the automobile.”

Or as Cees Nooteboom wrote when he came in the early 1970s: “On the third day, I ventured outside. I walked, which was crazy — not because it is dangerous but because it does not make sense. In a city with streets longer than fifty kilometers, the measure of one foot is absurd, and so is the use of one's feet as a means of transportation.” On the previous day he'd given one of the buses of Los Angeles' ironically named Rapid Transit District a try, only to reject it as bewildering and impossibly slow. English architectural historian and Los Angeles celebrator Reyner Banham wrote around the same time that, “like earlier generations of English intellectuals who taught themselves Italian in order to read Dante in the original, I learned to drive to read Los Angeles in the original.” Nooteboom, the Dutch novelist and traveler, came to the same conclusion: to get a handle on the city, he'd have to get a car.

I, too, thought I would have to get a car. Before moving to Los Angeles I'd made many visits to the city, my fascination with it growing each time. But I'd stayed, without exception, deep in its “west side,” a large but amorphous section (most Angelenos draw the line somewhere in the two miles between La Brea Avenue and La Cienega Boulevard, though purists may go as far as the 405 freeway, four miles from the ocean, or downtown, fifteen miles from it) often heard as a byword for well-off suburban disconnection. Though most of my experience of the west side at the time happened technically within city limits, it did indeed reflect unreconstructed suburbanism: miles of single-story single-family detached houses, drinks in their backyards, the most convenient bus ride downtown involving at least one transfer and taking nearly two hours.

No train has run through the west side for over sixty years, or at least none had until very recently. The Pacific Electric Railway's Santa Monica Air Line went out of service in 1953, submitting to the trend then sweeping America, as well as much of the rest of the world, of cities replacing their rail lines with bus lines. In their heyday, the privately run Pacific Electric and Los Angeles railways, popularly known as the “red cars” and “yellow cars,” constituted an urban transit system that stood as the envy of the country and perhaps the world — as well as the tools of real-estate speculation that, driving at first through distant, empty, and residential development-ready tracts of southern Californian land, gave Los Angeles its distinctive and enormous shape in the first place.

The streetcars finally fell to the automobile after World War II, but Los Angeles' shape remained, and its wholly rapid transit-free era (or its era with Rapid Transit in name only) lasted all the way to the nineties. As traffic worsened and grumbling about that traffic and the resulting air-quality issues worsened even more so, a conspiracy theory gained traction after it came to popular attention (in forms including but not limited to the plot of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) that a holding company with such car-oriented investors as General Motors, Firestone Tires, and Standard Oil had bought the streetcar systems of more than 25 American cities, including the Los Angeles Railway, not long before dismantling them.

Thus the notion of the “great American streetcar scandal” was born, and its adherents, often old-timers always ready with a lament about how “GM took away our trains,” turn up at gatherings of Los Angeles history enthusiasts to this day. But the available evidence points less to the acts of a shadowy cabal than to the habits turned ostensible preferences of the people. Scrapped proposals for new public transit systems, including a monorail network dreamed up and long passionately advocated for by no less a non-driving Angeleno than Ray Bradbury, litter the second half of the twentieth century in Los Angeles history. The city couldn't even get its act together to get a few of the billions when the federal money hose turned toward urban transportation projects in the sixties and seventies, losing out to San Francisco's BART, Atlanta's MARTA, and the Washington D.C. Metro.

All throughout this time — and even, to an extent, still today — the suspicion persisted of a deeper incompatibility between public transportation and Los Angeles' very nature. Some cast it in terms of a bred-in-the-bone west coast obsession with personal freedom, a condition necessitating the mechanically aided ability to go in whichever direction you please, whenever you please, as fast as you can get away with. (There's also the “car culture” conception of the automobile as a vehicle, as it were, for self-expression, one increasingly hard to square with the utilitarian blandness dominating the roads for the past thirty years.) “They've done studies,” said others who pointed to the numbers suggesting — or at least to the idea that numbers might exist that suggest — that something like a subway could never work in a city so expansive and “multi-centered.”

Many Angelenos simply resigned themselves to the conclusion that, while Los Angeles had grown too dense for easy car commuting, it would never grow dense enough to support efficient transit, although some kept the dream of getting around as the citizens of a “real city” do alive in their dinner-party griping. “The freeway system is not perfect — what transport system ever is?” wrote Banham in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies in 1971. “Even though it is vastly better than any other motorway system of my acquaintance, it is inconceivable to Angelenos that it should not be replaced by an even better system nearer to the perfection they are always seeking. A rapid-rail system is the oldest candidate for the succession, but nothing has happened so far. The core of the problem, I suspect, is that when the socially necessary branch has been built, to Watts, and the profitable branch, along Wilshire, little more will be done and most Angelenos will be an average of fifteen miles from a rapid-transit station.”

The first thing to get done, as it happened, was that “socially necessary” branch running though Watts between downtown and Long Beach: the Blue Line, which entered service in 1990 and began the second era of Los Angeles urban rail. The Red Line subway between downtown and MacArthur Park, later to reach Koreatown and North Hollywood, followed in 1993; the Green Line, built into the median of the Century Freeway running between Redondo Beach and Norwalk, came in 1995; the Gold Line reaching out from downtown north to Pasadena and east to Atlantic Boulevard opened in stages in the 2000s; and most recently came the Expo Line, which later this will begin moving the public between downtown and Santa Monica, thus bringing the west side's rail-free period to an historic close.

It's fair to say that even those Angelenos only vaguely aware that Los Angeles had trains at all recognize some importance in this. Promotion both official and unofficial for the coming opening of the second half of the Expo Line, which has only gone as far as the mid-greater-Los-Angeles municipality of Culver City since the first half opened in 2012, has a certain breathlessness. Metro Los Angeles themselves produced a nifty video showing off the train's complete route, but its swooping aerial drone shots and dramatic lurches between slow and fast motion can't conceal — and at times they even emphasize — the dispiriting lack of development on either side of the tracks: until its arrival at Santa Monica Pier (or half a mile from Santa Monica Pier, anyway), the as yet unpassenger'd Expo Line passes an awful lot of houses, anonymous low-rise buildings, and of course, parking lots.

Maybe, as in other great cities of the world, the development will come, turning the Expo Line's stations into the centers of well-populated hubs of all manner of human activity. But it hasn't come yet for the now 25-year-old Blue Line, built, like the Expo, on an existing right-of-way but still surrounded by two-dimensional landscapes of industry here and residence there, most of the neighborhoods seen along the way still best known as backdrops of the gang-violence cinema spectacles of the eighties and nineties. This has done its part to bolster the perception, often aired by Angelenos as a reason not even to try to do without their cars, that transit in Los Angeles “doesn't go anywhere” — that is to say, it doesn't go anywhere near where they live nor anywhere they usually go.

Los Angeles Without a Map author Richard Rayner never learned to drive, despite having arrived in Los Angeles from his native England in the early eighties, deep in the city's era of car dependence. “It was weird not to drive, it really was,” he told me when I interviewed him on Notebook on Cities and Culture, “because a lot of the city was still quite empty. I was friendly with this family, and the father was a lawyer in Warren Christopher’s firm downtown. I was taking to one of the daughters, and she said, ‘Well, how do you get around?’ I said, ‘I take the bus.’ And she looked at me and said, not in any sense of irony, ‘Where do they go?’” Well, he replied, they go everywhere.

The buses did go just about everywhere then, and they still go just about everywhere now. Metro's combined bus and rail map is a sight to behold, but quite a few Angelenos, despite the city's bus system's status as the busiest in the country, see only the rail lines. Like many if not most Americans, they've internalized the notion that buses exist as a public service meant specifically for people too poor, old, young, or infirm to drive a car. This perpetuates a feedback loop: expectations of inferior bus service lower the quality of service further, which in turn lowers expectations further still. Ask a car commuter in Los Angeles why they don't try the bus, and you'll hear the details of the prejudice: too slow, too inconvenient, too bumpy, too dirty, too crowded, too high a probability of confrontation with creepy or even dangerous elements.

To be fair, that prejudice isn't wholly groundless. I, too, avoided the bus when I could, preferring to go places the trains didn't on my bike, which often got me there faster than the bus would have anyway. Most don't come with a reasonable frequency (the bus-riding narrator of Los Angeles Without a Map, when asked by his girlfriend if they arrive on time: “'Never had to wait more than five minutes,' I lied”) and provide a bumpy ride when they do. More frequent, but much more crowded, are the “Rapid” buses that ran down Wilshire Boulevard, which I'd catch when I needed to get far into the west side from my home in Koreatown. (The extension of the subway under Wilshire recently got underway, although it won't reach UCLA until the crushingly estimated year of 2035.)

That Rapid branding comes perilously close to an out-and-out lie, evoking as it does the concept of bus rapid transit systems, which, with such infrastructure as dedicated lanes, off-board fare collection, all-door boarding, and full signal priority, allow buses to attain subway-like levels of efficiency. Not only do Los Angeles' Rapid buses have none of that infrastructure, they run in the outermost lane, the only one in which, due to right-turning cars, full-fledged bus rapid transit can never operate. One night I rode one of these buses to Westwood's Hammer Museum for a talk between New York transportation guru Janette Sadik-Khan and Los Angeles Department of Transportation general manager Seleta Reynolds, and during the Q&A asked in frustration when Los Angeles will have bus rapid transit, rather than buses for which traffic lights kind of stay green and which sometimes have their own lane during certain hours of the day unless cars also really need to go in them.

Achieving that, said Reynolds, will require “a lot of storytelling,” a response that at first increased rather than decreased my frustration, but I get what she meant: in a city that has spent decades and decades not thinking about transit, even the most obvious improvements, tested and proven elsewhere, need a strong sales pitch up front. But I do fear a backfire from the story often told on behalf of the current wave of transit-building: that it will take cars off the roads. That probably does count as an out-and-out lie, and you don't have do look far to find a traffic engineer who will tell you why. In a major city, road capacity built equals, in the not particularly long fullness of time, road capacity used; those benefiting from a new train line will be the ones riding it, not the ones remaining on the freeways.

Seoul has both an extensive subway system and surface traffic issues that, at their worst, would bring the most rush hour-hardened Angeleno to tears — and I could say the same of almost every other major city I've been to. Though the understanding that most world capitals have robust transit infrastructure has by now spread across the consciousness of Los Angeles, the understanding that they also have bad traffic hasn't. Some, like Singapore, have made strides toward the dreamed-of goal of “solving” traffic with variable road-pricing schemes, which remains almost as politically unpopular in American cities as trains used to be, especially among those who remember, or claim to remember, the old hop-in-the-car-and-go, “twenty minutes to everywhere” Los Angeles, the ones who complain loudest when told that extending the subway requires removing palm trees.

Me, I'd gladly pull up every single palm tree in the city myself if it meant getting the system done, but even if Los Angeles installed one the size of the Seoul Metropolitan Subway (eighteen lines, more than 200 miles of track, more than 400 stations) under itself overnight, it wouldn't solve the city's problems of circulation and connectedness at a stroke. Los Angeles' current transformation is twofold, a nature that doesn't get quite the attention or understanding it should: to the exact extent that it requires rapid transit lines to extent across greater Los Angeles, it also requires greater Los Angeles — its commerce, its industry, its education, its services, its people — to reconfigure itself around those rapid transit lines. In all probability, the subway isn't coming to the doorstep of your house, or anyone else's.

Newly arrived Angelenos, I reckon, will thus do more to shape the Los Angeles of the future than the ones already rooted there. They come having heard it for lord knows how long described as the city without public transportation — “of course, you'll need a car there” — only to find a city in the midst of, at least by America's austere standards, an urban rail-building binge, not just laying new track but connecting lines that already exist (fusing part of the poor old Blue with part of the shiny new Expo) to form a new set of grand axes. They'll also, for the foreseeable future, have the paradoxical experience of discovering modern Los Angeles' transit: surprise that it has so much alongside surprise that it still needs so much.

And even if Los Angeles has remained as perfection-seeking as Banham saw it in his day, the transit infrastructure that does exist has a long way to go before it attains that perfection. You may well find yourself crossing vast expanses of nearly functionless concrete to get to a station, waiting fifteen minutes on the platform for a train to arrive, or searching in vain for that prime indicator of urban civilization, a usable bathroom. But one can remain optimistic: at least it's not as old as New York's, as poorly implemented as San Francisco's, or as already falling apart as — despite all that federal money that went into building it — Washington D.C.'s.

Max Planck famously said that science advances one funeral at a time. A city, in a sense, advances the same way: just as the passage of one generation of scientists attached to their particular theories allows the next generation to advance their own, more accurate ones, so the passage of one generation with fixed ideas of the way a city should be built and lived in allows the next generation to build and live in a more refined way. Twentieth-century Los Angeles, we might say, performed an experiment, testing the idea of whether a true world city can emerge from suburban materials. To the extent that the next generation of Angelenos locate themselves not in those west-side detached houses houses but in the fully urbanized city emerging around the transit network, that result of that experiment has come out negative. And so Los Angeles advances to the next one.

See also my site, or follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Many episodes of my video essay series The City in Cinema cover Los Angeles, as do some of the pieces I write for Guardian Cities. If you'd like to subscribe to the Where Is the City of the Future? mailing list, which offers updates on this project as well as a curated selection of other articles related to the cities it will cover, please become a supporter here on Byline.

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