Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

The hub of car culture takes a turn to public transport

with 7 comments

The Toronto Star reprints something they credit to The Economist. Oddly enough I cannot find the original on the Economist web page.

It has some distinct echoes for us here. Once again Zev Yaroslavsky, the man who nearly stopped the subway with a ballot initiative, is talking about a neighborhood revolt against transit oriented development and “elegant density”. “Joel Kotkin, an urbanist at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., compares it to rewriting a DNA code.”

But there is not one mention of the transit system that created Los Angeles – the Pacific Electric – also known as “The Big Red Car”. In fact this has entered popular culture. Watch almost any black and white silent movie from Hollywood’s early days – most were shot outdoors and with no sets – and there will be a street scene with trolley or interurban car. (For the impatient the trolley footage starts a 6:52 – but it is worth watching the whole thing – trust me)

Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (spoiler follows) was about the plot to build freeways and destroy rapid transit

Judge Doom: A few weeks ago I had the good providence to stumble upon a plan of the city council. A construction plan of epic proportions. We’re calling it a freeway.
Eddie Valiant: Freeway? What the hell’s a freeway?
Judge Doom: Eight lanes of shimmering cement running from here to Pasadena. Smooth, safe, fast. Traffic jams will be a thing of the past.

Eddie Valiant: So that’s why you killed Acme and Maroon? For this freeway? I don’t get it.
Judge Doom: Of course not. You lack vision, but I see a place where people get on and off the freeway. On and off, off and on all day, all night. Soon, where Toon Town once stood will be a string of gas stations, inexpensive motels, restaurants that serve rapidly prepared food. Tire salons, automobile dealerships and wonderful, wonderful billboards reaching as far as the eye can see. My God, it’ll be beautiful.

and the classic line

Eddie Valiant: That lame-brain freeway idea could only be cooked up by a toon.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 13, 2008 at 7:11 am

7 Responses

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  1. Zev Yaroslavsky is grandstanding and he knows better.

    Three million more people are expected in Southern California over the next three decades, as as the economic and environmental limits of sprawl and congestion have been reached, that only means one thing — density, responsible re-centralization along major transit corridors and building the rail lines to accommodate them.

    Politicians like Yaroslavsky need to be HONEST with Los Angelenos about the way their city will change whether they like it or not. The only issue on offer isn’t the changing of Los Angeles’ DNA, it’s whether we will have a mass transit system that will keep Los Angeles economically and environmentally sustainable or whether Los Angeles will decline with the inevitable decline of its car culture.

    The best days of the Los Angeles “car culture” are long behind us, where everyone felt a divine right to drive and park a single-occupancy vehicle anytime, anyplace, anywhere in Los Angeles on demand, conveniently and affordably in time and money, and expected everyone else to do the same, unless they were poor and of course would get a car as soon as they could or were marginal and weren’t worth consideration.

    Kiss the Los Angeles car culture goodbye. We will never be a car free city. We may even be car majority city. We will never again be a car-only, car-entitlement city again.

    Dan W.

    April 14, 2008 at 9:29 am

  2. Yes, well said, Dan.
    We may never be indeed a car-free city, but at least – we will have much more options in the near future. in fact, we already have many more options than we had a decade (or two) ago. Several new Rail lines, vastly expanded (and improved) bus service, etc.
    This lame idea of creating a “car culture” was the Worst idea in a long history of LA’s bad ideas! The so-called “Car culture” destroyed our once-efficient public transportation system and now LA is behind the rest of the world (!) as far as quality of mass transit – due to lack of Rail network; we still don’t have a citywide Subway network.
    So, let’s concentrate on creating a decent Metro-Rail network so we can start moving freely again!

    Alek F

    April 14, 2008 at 12:58 pm

  3. The Star is wrong when it says Los Angeles epitomizes sprawl and is what other cities try to avoid. For all its flaws, LA is the densest or second densest city in the US. And it continues to grow denser while most North American cities are going in the other direction. Look up “who sprawls most”. Cities with a dense centre tend to keep sprawling while cities with more uniform density, like LA, tend to densify over time.

    I don’t know that LA needs points of very high density to improve its land use overall. It needs intelligent infill, but mostly it needs good brownfield and greyfield conversions to essentially ground-oriented mixed use, and it needs commercial and retail uses to be much more compact and less auto-oriented.

    Just looking at results, VMT and gasoline consumption went down last year in southern California. And despite the stereotypes, Californians already consume less gasoline per capita than most other North Americans, lower than the Northwest, and they are the lowest electricity users.

    LA already reaches transit-supporting residential density (counting the various transit subsidies) on a large proportion of its urbanized area. What it needs now is the transit, and the destinations.

    Martin Laplante

    April 15, 2008 at 7:07 am

  4. Martin

    I have corrected the typo but the Star is not the author merely the vector.

    And I agree with you about destinations – “There’s no therethere” was not originally said about LA but accurately characterizes it

    I think that large urban areas need as much variety of densities as possible. Some way of reading the place by what it looks like helps. Landmarks are necessary. Open spaces – of various sizes – as well as rows, and blocks as well as towers – singly or in clusters. Places. Not undifferentiated anything.

    We call it “sprawl” as shorthand for what we recognize as almost universal in “less than urban” places all across North America. Where, if you wake up in a hotel room and look outside, you still have not the slightest idea of where you are.

    Stephen Rees

    April 15, 2008 at 7:36 am

  5. Peter Calthorpe, architect and urban designer, ( ) has done some significant work in LA and other US cities. He gave a lecture last year here in Vancouver where he introduced his “transit boulevard” idea, consisting of a light rail line in a generous road median (often taking a couple of lanes away from cars) with continuous four-storey development consisiting of two or three stories of multi-family residential on top of ground-oriented retail and second floor offices, and with attached town houses extending for a block or two on the cross streets on either side of the boulevard. He calculated that LA could comfortably accommodate 10 million more people in human-scaled urban environments in such developments by converting some of the exisiting arterials to transit boulevards.

    However, I understand the limitations to development there now include a serious concern about water.


    April 15, 2008 at 4:39 pm

  6. Sadly, the only vacancy there at present is for a designer

    Stephen Rees

    April 15, 2008 at 6:39 pm

  7. […] been promoting development at highway interchanges in this area. They are even better at it than Judge Doom. The map also shows mode share – and how, at present, transit does not meet much need in the […]

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