Imagining a Los Angeles With Fewer Cars

This talk was first published on Capital & Main on March 10, 2016

(The following talk was given last night [3/9/16] by Robert Gottlieb at Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design.)

This is an interesting venue for my talk. If, historically, the school has been engaged in making the automobile a more attractive object for consumers and industry alike, then my talk seeks to do the opposite. Can we envision eliminating or at least reducing the automobile’s role in Los Angeles? And, if so, what would that mean for the ArtCenter College of Design and its long history with the automobile?

Let me start with a recent New York Times Sunday Business article on the design firm Ideo with its slogans of “slow becomes fast” “auotomobility” and “autonomous driving.” The headline for the piece was “Helping Ford Go Beyond the Car,” although it could have also been headlined “How to save the car while also capturing its alternatives.” Is this the route for the ArtCenter College of Design?

What the article didn’t provide was any context for the past, any information or evaluation of the impacts of the automobile, particularly in a place like Los Angeles (as well as globally) and whether there was another kind of vision about the automobile’s future that would mean fewer of them rather than expanding automobile’s imprint on daily life, albeit through a more modern high tech, sharing economy, app-filled approach.

To provide a bit of context for my own talk, I’d like to share a bit about my own activist history, including two events I helped organize, as well as my own research and writing and my own vision about the future of the automobile in Los Angeles.

The first event involved a 1968 demonstration in New York City. It was sponsored by an organization called the Urban Underground, which I had helped create. The Urban Underground consisted of planners, designers, architects and a handful of irascible visionaries like Murray Bookchin. Thanks to players like Robert Moses, New York City was losing some of its appeal as a livable, walkable and neighborhood-oriented place, due in part to the inroads made by the car into the transportation mix of the city, even in Manhattan. Manhattan’s streets were more and more gridlocked with traffic and plans continued to be developed to increase the road infrastructure dedicated to the car. The Urban Underground demonstrators took to the streets to proclaim that the streets literally belonged to the people and that cars should be banned in Manhattan.

The second event took place 35 years later in 2003 not too far from the college along the eight-mile stretch of the Pasadena Freeway from Glenarm to downtown Los Angeles. This event, called “ArroyoFest,” closed down the freeway on a Sunday morning in June so that people could walk or bike on the freeway and then celebrate at a festival at Sycamore Grove park midway along the route. What was striking about ArroyoFest was its impact on a sense of place along those eight miles. As I later wrote in my book Reinventing Los Angeles, residents along the route noted how disorienting and liberating it felt that Sunday morning, to open their windows “and hear birds and the wind and breathe the air in a way [they] had never experienced before.”

The notion of moderating speed – and pace – was also what made it distinctive. Some bike riders timed their ArroyoFest ride and then compared it to a car commute the next day and found that in this case, the bike was indeed faster than the car. But the purpose of ArroyoFest was not how fast a bike could go without cars but to enjoy the route, whether on a bike, a skateboard, a wheelchair, on foot or simply stopping and looking. One of the bike riders noted that seeing and experiencing the parks along the freeway route and to feel the cool air coming out of the tree-lined landscape was “magical.” “I always knew the parkway was built to be beautiful, but seeing it at the appropriate speed clarified my vision,” he said of the experience.

Although ArroyoFest was a one-time event, some of the participants subsequently became engaged in planning bike rides and walks on the streets in Los Angeles; streets that would be closed off to cars for several hours. Those walk and ride events, the quarterly CicLAvia happenings first launched in 2010, and including one that just took place three days ago, have become a new, albeit temporary part of the Los Angeles streetscape. They are relatively costly because they are temporary but they are also important because, like ArroyoFest, they provide a different experience of place.

The ArroyoFest route was selected due to its own history as a place and as a route. It had been the designated route for the Cycleway, a bike freeway proposed at the turn of the 20th century by then Pasadena mayor Horace Dobbins when Los Angeles was considered the bike capital of the nation. It was the route for the Arroyo Seco Parkway, conceived during the 1930s as a blended route designed to connect with rather than pass through its storied neighborhoods and scenic landscape. It had several interurbans that circled through the area – the electric rail cars that were part of Los Angeles’ expansive rail system that included 6,000 street cars travelling along 115 routes with over 1,000 miles of track laid in a complex set of grids.

The Arroyo Seco Parkway of course became the Pasadena Freeway, the first Freeway in the West, and those eight miles have turned into the most dangerous stretch of freeway in Southern California. The Parkway was originally designed for a maximum speed of 45 miles per hour and its scenic route was designed for drivers to appreciate where they were rather than how quickly they could get to where they wanted to go. For the promoters of the car, however, speed was the goal, and, as General Motors head Alfred Sloan once famously remarked, it needed to be designed for its “comfort, convenience, power and style.” But today the drive along the Pasadena Freeway, especially when you try to enter or exit the freeway at several points along those eight miles is more a fearful than comforting experience. These are the spots where you need to accelerate from five miles an hour to 60 miles per hour in just a few seconds and where those graceful curves represent obstacles rather than part of the pleasure drive it was designed to be.

In those 100-plus years since the Pasadena to Los Angeles Cycleway was first proposed, the planners, designers, business leaders and major power brokers have made choices about the design of the region, whether from its transportation decisions, its imported water system, its jobs-housing mismatch, its parking regulations or its overall land use strategies that have turned Southern California into the auto-dominant region it is today. It brought us the smog attacks that began in the 1940s and took another dozen years to realize that vehicle emissions were the single largest source of the air pollution issues we confronted then and we still confront today.

It brought us the Sig Alerts and the two to three hour home to work commutes. It brought us a parking footprint that includes an average of four parking spots for each vehicle and a parking area to land area as great as 81 percent in downtown Los Angeles, even with the push for making downtown a walkable place. And it has created a powerful alliance of automobile and fossil fuel company interests that have sought to influence the climate debate by promoting climate denial messaging even as their own scientists have indicated that climate change is a real phenomenon linked to the products – and the lifestyle, planning and design – that these companies have promoted.

The impacts from the automobile in Los Angeles are still pervasive.

  • There are the health impacts — in the city of Los Angeles alone, there is an annual cost of $22 billion in air pollution-related health impacts, with more than 2,000 premature deaths per year attributed to air pollution from vehicles. The health impacts due to traffic-related pollution, including from exposures to ultrafine particles, nitrogen dioxide and elemental carbon, a marker for diesel, are extensive. These include severe problems experienced by women such as their low-birth weight babies and premature births as well as pregnancy complications, miscarriages and higher incidences of breast cancer. There are the health impacts for all adults, including atherosclerosis, cognitive impairment, diabetes, heart and lung disease and emphysema. New research on health impacts from particle exposure are now connected to Parkinson’s disease and to psycho-social stress factors which are themselves health triggers.
  • There are the land use impacts. The City of Los Angeles has 86.5 square miles of its land area occupied by streets mainly filled with cars, or 28 percent of the City’s entire developed land area. Sidewalks for pedestrians remain narrow and, in a number of suburban communities, basically nonexistent. Streets are not made for walking or biking. Up to 75.2 million miles are being driven in the City of Los Angeles on an average day, including 53 percent of those miles driven on the freeways.

And the list could go on. So how could one possibly conceive of a Los Angeles without cars or at least with fewer cars, to transition to what one bike advocacy group has called the “Car Lite” diet. The idea of a Car Lite Los Angeles has clearly become part of the public discourse and even part of the agenda of some policymakers, at least in some specific ways. This includes L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne’s notion of the post-automobile “Third Los Angeles” and his argument about tearing down a freeway segments along the 2 Freeway for park land and other urban needs. It includes L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Mobility 2035 and Vision Zero and Great Streets plans. Pushback against such a car-lite transition remains strong, however, reinforced by the perennial complaint about increased congestion. Fighting between rail and bus advocates, debates about whether bike paths in some neighborhoods like Highland Park contribute to gentrification pressures, and, more generally, fragmentation among social movements into issue silos and competition by NGOs for scarce resources have not helped. There is a weariness in the fight against the automobile, an all-encompassing feeling that the car continues to be dominant, harmful to the very fabric of urban and social life, as the great French philosopher Henri Levebvre argued in his book The Right to the City.

Can change really happen then? It makes me think of one of the slogans from the events of May 1968 in Paris that also inspired us in the Urban Underground. “Be realistic,” the demonstrators in the streets shouted, “demand the impossible.” And nothing seems more realistic and more impossible to demand than a car free or at least a car-lite Los Angeles. But here’s what an agenda for change could build on.

  • The demographics of Los Angeles continue to change and that includes a different approach to public space.The neighborhoods where more people would rather walk or bike or take transit or see streets as public spaces are on the east side rather than the west side, in places like Boyle Heights rather than Beverly Hills. The cultural memory of the plaza can invigorate the culture of public life rather than the atomized culture of the automobile.
  • Southern California is the densest region in the United States.Say what? Aren’t we the capitol of sprawl? Both statements are true. Southern California grew horizontally. We created freeway suburbs. We failed to maintain neighborhood identities. Yet our suburbs are denser than suburbs in other places, and several of them, whether in the East Valley or in southeast Los Angeles, are some of the densest parts of the region, even as they are planned and organized in ways that remain dependent on the car and the freeway. They have the potential to re-establish a sense of place based on new patterns of where one goes and how one gets there, whether, work, shopping, play, school or other daily life activities. They could establish neighborhood-scale transportation systems. To paraphrase the mantra of the environmental justice movement: changes begins in the places where we work, live, play, eat or go to school.
  • This Changes Everything – climate change and the car. Naomi Klein’s masterful book about climate change, This Changes Everything, has, as one of its core arguments, that climate change can be the foundation (and also the governing metaphor) for a wide range of social movements as climate impacts become ubiquitous. It’s the food we eat, the houses we live in, jobs we have and how we get to the places we need to get to. Addressing the role of the car as a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is at the heart of any climate justice approach. As climate impacts emerge to become more frequent and intense, climate justice becomes a compelling way to frame the car-lite discourse and policy agenda.

Another way to frame the car lite argument and establish linkages between various social movements is to talk about – and envision – what a car-lite Los Angeles might look like. Some changes would include:

– More green space and open space; more urban nature. Cars (and their appendages such as parking) are not just land use hogs, but they are essentially privatizing space – and doing it with public funding! Fewer cars, less parking, fewer freeways mean more green space and open space. Trees can become part of the streetscape where parking lots used to be.

– More affordable housing, urban core food markets, neighborhood stores. Requirements for cars, such as the number of dedicated parking spots required for new housing, food markets, restaurants and other places, drive up the cost to build and maintain those places. Affordable housing developers will tell you that parking requirements (and the cost of the land to provide for it) will sometimes, even often, kill a project in places that might be ideal to build such housing. CicLAvia-related research pointed to increased economic activity along the route because people were also walking the streets and noticing the stores and places that were there.

– More physical health, less stress. Fewer cars create opportunities for more walking and biking. Less air pollution makes physical activity less of a challenge. Car driving can increase stress, and riding bikes can increase well-being. But the possibility of a biker getting into a car-initiated accident is perhaps the single greatest psychological barrier for bike riding in Los Angeles even with our region’s favorable climate and terrain.

– Revitalized neighborhoods/Greater sense of place. Heavy traffic roads and freeways depress neighborhoods, healthwise, economically and spatially. Fewer cars and fewer cars on roadways can be part of neighborhood revitalization and stabilization. They also reorient people to the places where they live and play.

– More local food growing. Not only would fewer cars improve (at least over time) soil conditions for places where food is grown (or would like to be grown) but the land available for urban agriculture would increase to the point that it could be considered a viable source of food security for many neighborhoods.

And there are many more benefits that could be identified; the point now is to make the change, even as we create the vision.

In 1967 a Time magazine cover story entitled “The Polluted Air,” showed a Los Angeles skyline obscured by a hazy smog. The article quoted then UCLA professor and meteorologist Morris Neiburger speculating that if 800 million Chinese (its 1967 population) owned cars then “a globe-encircling smog girdle could develop, and civilization would perish, not in an instantaneous cataclysm but in a prolonged suffocation, like dying in a caved-in coalmine.” Reaping the lessons from Los Angeles, by 2016, while failing to reach the level of 800 million car owners, China has nevertheless surpassed the number of car drivers in the United States and is approaching 300 million cars and trucks on the road. Professor Neiburger’s dystopian vision is one that is often raised when the focus shifts from the local to the global – the fault is China; we, after all, are doing better than we were in 1967, aren’t we?

But the local influences the global, whether in Los Angeles or in China. The fault is not just China but ourselves or at least those who have built the cars, planned our cities and resist the changes that need to come.

Let me end with a story. It takes place one year to the day after ArroyoFest took place, on the very same stretch of the Pasadena freeway where people had biked and walked the year before. My colleague (and fellow researcher) Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris was driving the freeway that day when she was forced to slow down and then come to a complete stop, just across from the Sycamore Grove park where the ArroyoFest festival had taken place. She waited and waited, as did others, when finally a group of mariachi musicians got out of their car and started playing.

Others began to look and then got out of their cars as well. Some street food vendors who had been in the park went through a hole in the fence and onto the freeway to sell their tacos and tamales and sweets and drinks. For more than a half an hour, the Pasadena Freeway turned into a spontaneous street festival and the stress of the moment passed and people joined in the singing and eating. Finally, the police chase (that had caused the Sig Alert) came to an end and people went back in their cars, including the musicians, and the cars once again began their crawl to their destinations.

The vision of that liberated freeway is a utopian vision that suggests what needs to happen. We need to get out of our cars and into the streets and to the places that we need to recapture for urban and social life. And we need the designers like you to not only envision how that might look but to become part of those movements for change, to help create another Urban Underground and to help transform Los Angeles as a place where cars no longer rule.

-Robert Gottlieb


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