One of the biggest issues the authorities face in major cities is transport. Securing funding and planning for future public transport is challenging. However, accommodating the car is even more difficult. In some cases carless developments can be extremely beneficial to the local authority, the local community and above all the environment (that is until Elon Musk creates a sustainable driverless dream machine). 

Richard Rogers in ‘Cities for a Small Planet’ writes, “[cars] have eroded the quality of public spaces and have encouraged urban sprawl” .There is an assumption that cars are more flexible than any other mode of transport but, as Dorothy E. Smith writes, “we do the driving and can choose the direction and destination, but the way in which the car is put together, how it works, and how and where it will travel structure our relation to the world we travel in”.

In London we are relatively well off. Lets take a look at the history of another city. LA. 

LA intersection

LA intersection

The city of Los Angeles has long been the seductive mistress which lures in her prey with the promise of opportunity, lush landscapes, sunny skies, ocean views, surfing beaches and above all, freedom of movement. Los Angeles believed nothing was impossible and has prospered from the name L.A. , drawing people away from other historic cities to a land where dreams come true. Unlike many other cities which provide persistent images in your mind of historical landmarks or buildings, L.A. is often depicted by images of freeway intersections, traffic jams or sprawling grid patterns. So why do so many still flock to this city?

Hollywoodland 1923. In 1949 the letters 'LAND' were removed.  

Hollywoodland 1923. In 1949 the letters 'LAND' were removed.  

The urban history of Los Angeles is largely related to infrastructure and resources as in most cities but, as in the films the city is famous for, there is a theatrical story line with a concluding cliffhanger: Where does this vast but elusive, attractive but obscene, joyful but sinful city go next? The conflicts around L.A.’s networks have often been documented or even adapted into films. The ‘railroad wars’ may be described as the opening credits to Los Angeles’ history; Pacific Electric’s battle with the automobile was portrayed in the plot of ‘Who framed Roger Rabbit’ with the freeway taking over the rail lines and finally the famous Californian water wars are the inspiration for the film ‘Chinatown’. Securing the water in Owen’s River via the L.A. viaduct and the rapid growth of the early rail lines did indeed turn a small pueblo into a global metropolis and for a long time after the L.A. version of the American Dream was that everyone should have a car, a driveway and a yard. Any talk of other ways of living was deemed a ‘step backward’.

A brief history - a story of conflicts

California joined the United States around 1850 as a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Los Angeles had a population of 1,620. By 1930 the population had risen to 2.3 million (including the whole metropolitan area) and in 2012 to almost 15 million. 

LA 1869

LA 1869

In 1868 Southern Pacific Rail began to construct a railroad down California’s central valley and reached Los Angeles in 1876. Entrepreneurs began to invest in Southern California but the railroad only set off a minor real estate boom. It wasn’t until the transcontinental line, the Santa Fe, reached Southern California in 1885 that large numbers of midwesterners flocked to Los Angeles to reside, “A passenger could travel from Kansas city to Los Angeles for only one dollar” which would equate to about $25 today. Local banker, H. S. McKee, said in 1915: “The most conspicuous fact about Los Angeles lies in its being a residential and not industrial community.” After World War 1 and the increase in automobile sales the oil industry became the region’s leading sector closely followed by the movie industry.

Pacific Electric railway Map 1920

Pacific Electric railway Map 1920

Los Angeles’ growth was fortuitous because it lacked basic conditions for a new settlement to grow. Carey McWilliams said: “Without lumber and minerals, with only one natural harbour [San Diego], lacking water and fuels, and surrounded by mountains, desert, and ocean, there was seemingly never a region so unlikely to become a vast metropolitan area as Southern California. It is an artificial region, a product of forced growth and rapid change… Like the entire region, Los Angeles, its heart and centre, has developed in spite of its location rather than because of it. Southern California is a man-made, gigantic improvisation.” Los Angeles now operates the largest container port in the United States.

In 1901 Henry Huntington established the interurban ‘Pacific Electric Railway’, a light rail line. Whilst its predecessor, the Los Angeles Railway, was designed as a commuter railway, the P.E. was designed to promote his own residential real estate. Usually development would happen slowly along proposed routes of trolley lines and landowners would build a little at a time waiting for the property to appreciate once the railway was completed. Huntington had the money to expand the railway at a tremendous rate and could choose where he put the lines. He built the lines through his own land with the strategy to subdivide and sell the real estate. Huntington explains, “It would never do for an electric line to wait until the demand for it came. It must anticipate the growth of communities and be there when the builders arrive—or they may very likely never arrive at all...” Between 1904-1913 he completed 1100 miles of track, ran 900 ‘redcars’ and opened 500 subdivisions of land a year, “all within a block or two of a street-car line”.

After a while Pacific Electric went into decline, partly due to bad maintenance and the automobile becoming more affordable. Cars had right of way so the trolley journeys were held up and took longer. It is rumoured a subsidiary of General Motors bought some of the trolley car routes to make them into bus routes, allowing for the dominance of the automobile. It has been dubbed the ‘Great American Scandal’ or the ‘Red Car Conspiracy’. After a while Pacific Electric followed the trend and the trolley car routes were dismantled for freeways.

Pacific Electric decline

Pacific Electric decline

Although, the automobile industry was gaining momentum, Americans were not always as keen on the car as they are now. Previously there was nothing moving faster than 5-10 miles an hour. Children were encouraged to go out and play. However cities were filling up in the 1920’s, the Ford was being massed produced and as a result the death toll went up. The car had a bad reputation. A collection of motor clubs and other interested parties named Motordom came together and lobbied for rules that protected the car industry. They suggested that if a driver could be reckless, so could the pedestrian .The ‘jay walker’ was previously a slang word for a ‘country bumpkin’, a person walking around aimlessly looking at the big dazzling buildings. E.B.Lefferts, a P.R. advisor for the Automobile Club of Southern California, recognised that instead of making ‘jay walking’ a legal offence it would be more effective to make it a word of ridicule. If a person caught jaywalking was ridiculed then the onlookers would make sure they didn’t jaywalk in future. In 1929 Motordom effectively won and the car had victory over the streets in LA. Crosswalks became compulsory and freeways were built to get people in and out of the city.

Anti Jaywalking Campaign

Anti Jaywalking Campaign

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.  

Wilshire Boulevard

Wilshire Boulevard

There is no doubt that the automobile is part of the ‘Angeleno Psyche’ and that will not quickly change. Although car travel may one day become fully zero-carbon in efficiency, it remains a less than ideal mode of transport because it encourages sprawling expansion and segregation of communities. The ecological and social cost of neglecting low income and minority households must be considered when developing sustainable plans for the future. The preferred model for development is densification with public transport for economical, ecological, social and pragmatic reasons. 

Los Angeles has begun the process of regeneration through the work of Mayor Villaraigosa and the passing of new laws. Political resolve to press on and public support for change is gaining momentum. It appears Los Angeles now appreciates the need to develop through densification, expansion of public transport and control of the automobile. Through such policies L.A will continue to develop as an inspirational, exciting and modern city.

Major Sadiq Kahn is definitely a good thing for transport within our own city and hopefully his policies can also shape the city in a positive way for many years to come.

by Sam.