Los Angeles, unlike other western US cities, was shaped both by its rail and the automobile: originally a western rail terminus and a set of residential communities populated by rail-based migration from the American midwest, its many towns became connected to each other by high-speed highways and eventually merged into one vast metropolis.
Car culture - a love lost?
The vastness of L.A.’s relatively consistent density has generated discussion on ‘dense sprawl’. It might be argued that it will suffer from problems that occur in high density areas, such as traffic congestion and poor air quality and lack the benefits of accessibility that are traditional to dense urban areas with a good street life. Manville and Shoup quoted: “Los Angeles is both car-oriented and dense; it approaches the human density of San Francisco but dilutes it with the parking supply of a suburb. Any benefits Los Angeles might derive from its density are offset by its relentless accommodation of the automobile.”
The obvious social effects of a sprawling city are evident. Mass depression, obesity and individualistic societies are problems around the world. Cars allow freedom to not exercise and freedom to seclude oneself from society, which are reported to be detrimental to our health and our sense of community. Cars encourage sprawl, leaving empty plots along the way and may restrict the street life. Jane Jacobs argues “the more downtown is broken up and interspersed with parking lots and garages... the duller and deader it becomes”.
There have been advances in technology within the car industry such as low carbon fuels, hybrid cars and driverless cars. However, these very small steps in efficiency don’t solve the problem. Take driverless cars, for example, they may reduce traffic collisions and improve congestion and journey times but traffic congestion does tend to maintain an equilibrium. The law of induced demand states that, in general, when the supply of a product increases, so will the demand. Todd Litman also points out that “if road capacity increases, the number of peak-period trips also increases until congestion again limits further traffic growth. The additional travel is called ‘generated traffic’.” Driverless cars are an indication of a system needing radical change. Small steps in the efficiency of car fuels or automated systems will hold back the clock for so long; to truly secure the future of Los Angeles, as former Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa says, the need is to ‘remake the city’. For a city that has remade itself many times and has attracted its people on the premise of ‘a new life’, it seems fitting that major investment in public rapid transit systems is an appropriate way forward.
Los Angeles has expanded continuously and voraciously for the last 100 years. There is a feeling in L.A. that this cannot continue. Densification and controlled expansion is key in the future. If the city wishes to escape the suffocation of the car, it will need to continue to invest in public transit and convince communities of the importance of further mixed-use development in close proximity to that transit. Interestingly the ‘great auto-orientated city’ suits public transit, with long straight boulevards and the weather to facilitate walking, cycling or waiting for a bus. Cars cannot be allowed to dominate when other alternatives exist.