Can Los Angeles Break Its Car Addiction?

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There’s a story familiar to many Angelenos about the nefarious corporate conspiracy that killed the Red Car, Los Angeles’ glorious but short-lived early twentieth century public transportation system. It’s a dramatic fable, which also happens to be profoundly untrue.

The tale begins in 1901, when railroad magnate Henry Huntington broke ground on what would soon become the largest electric trolley system in the world, connecting myriad villages and housing developments (many built by Huntington’s real estate interests) throughout the Los Angeles basin, cohering them into a single urban megalopolis. It was an efficient, extensive, and affordable mass transit system for the people.

But then, soon after the founder’s death, General Motors bought up the whole system in order to destroy it. Greedy GM executives tore the rail out of the roads to make way for freeways, securing the future for the sale of millions of GM-produced private automobiles in Southern California. The rest is smog-choked history.

The real story is far less theatrical. The demise of the Red Car did not in fact require a devious capitalist plot; it was brought on by factors that were as natural to Los Angeles as the sunshine. Unlike older American cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco, which all emerged as centers of trade and finance, Los Angeles’ economy was never based on a single dominant industry with a geographical metropolitan hub. Instead, film production, airplane manufacturing, agriculture, and other staple industries were dispersed widely throughout the massive region. The centripetal force that, in other cities, drew hundreds of thousands of laborers to a single square on a map in the morning and then back out again in the evening, necessitating the development of a mass regional transit system, has never existed in LA. Once the private automobile came into wide use beginning in the 1920s, high-speed roads and freeways simply made more sense than streetcars or subways. Accordingly, LA at mid-century set its sights on an automobile infrastructure whose development set the city on a singular course to a future dominated by cars, just as New York’s earlier investment in the construction of a subway system ushered in a century of urban life dominated by public transit.

Like most nostalgic yarns, the perseverance of the myth of the plot to destroy the Red Car says more about its tellers’ present hopes and dreams than about the actual historical past. And here in LA, while trapped in our steel boxes on a four-lane freeway that’s moving a little bit faster than we can walk, our dreams are about transit. We fantasize about more and better subways, streetcars, bus rapid transit, car shares, bike lanes, and bike sharing. We dream of being liberated from our seats behind the steering wheel.

It’s the job of Los Angeles’ new chief of transportation, Seleta Reynolds, to turn those dreams into physical infrastructure.

Before being hired by Mayor Eric Garcetti this summer, Reynolds helped lead San Francisco’s Livable Streets office in the city’s transportation agency. She sees a bit of LA’s future in San Francisco’s present.

“In San Francisco, people are truly multimodal,” she told me. “They take taxis, they take Uber and Lyft. They ride their bikes, they take bike share. They take the ferry, they ride the bus, they take the Muni Metro. Sometimes they drive, they take car share. There’s this huge web of choices available to people that they’re able to use whenever they want. That’s the direction we need to be moving in Los Angeles.”

Reynolds imagines a future in which an Angeleno can open an app that tells her not just the route to her chosen destination, but the best combination of modes to get there — bike to light rail to a bus to another bike, for instance — as well as the combined cost of the entire trip, and a one-click payment for all of the separate fares. In her view, the lifestyle habits of the digital age are already pushing us in that direction.

“You see it when you look at millennials,” she said in her West Coast-inflected Mississippi drawl. “If you give them a choice between a smart phone and a car, they want a smart phone. They consider driving a distraction to texting. They do not want to drive, and they want to live in cities where they don’t have to have a car.”

That city is not Los Angeles, at least not yet. LA is a city in which it’s not uncommon to take the freeway to get from one side to the other of the same neighborhood. While LA actually beats New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and almost the entire rest of the country in access to bus lines, those buses crawl at an average of ten miles an hour when not on the freeway, in a city of more than 500 square miles. LA also has a robust light rail system, but its ridership barely edges out San Francisco, a much smaller city, and still falls short of Boston, an even smaller city. LA is a city with a stubbornly car-centric infrastructure in a country that may be moving away from cars.

Or at least that’s what Reynolds believes. “It’s probably too early to say,” she suggested, “but we may have passed peak driving. There’s a societal shift away from driving. That is happening regardless of what [the city is] doing. We just need to be able to catch up and enable it and make it stick.”

One of the keys to making it stick, she believes, is bike sharing, an innovation that has gotten off the ground in New YorkChicago and the Bay Area, but, despite concerted efforts, has so far eluded LA.

“That’s really the barrier for bikes to fit into that truly multimodal trip choice scenario. If I ride my bike downtown, and I don’t want to ride it back home for whatever reason, I can put it on the bus, but that’s about my only choice. Whereas if I had bike share in my neighborhood, I could pick up a bike in my neighborhood, ride it to downtown, drop it off down here, and then I don’t have to worry about it.”

But while it’s easy enough to imagine a thriving bike-share program in neighborhoods like Echo Park, Silver Lake, and Venice, where bicycles are already ubiquitous, in poorer areas, the picture may be more complicated. Bikes can carry a whole different set of associations in poor communities than they do in more affluent ones. In a low-income neighborhood, a person on a bicycle might be presumed to be a drug dealer, or someone who lost his driver’s license on a DUI charge. That negative image is a disincentive to cycling.

And even aside from the social stigmas, it’s just unsafe to ride bikes in some parts of town. Sahra Sulaiman, who works with at-risk youth in Watts and Boyle Heights and reports for StreetsBlog LA, told me that “in lower-income communities where the public space is contested because of gang activity, crime, and/or intense policing by law enforcement, youth and men of color who choose to walk or bike alone are most at risk for being recruited for gangs, being jumped — and having their bike stolen — or being subjected to constant stops and searches by police.”

In the late 90s, when Reynolds worked for the city of Oakland, she became accustomed to the challenges of pitching increased investment in bike infrastructure to marginalized neighborhoods. When she went to community meetings in places that had been habitually neglected by the city, she was presented with long lists of urgent needs that had gone unaddressed for years. The last thing people wanted to hear about was bike lanes.

“Bike lanes can be associated with gentrification,” Reynolds noted. “When we talk about the power of street transformations to strengthen local economies, to some people, what that means is the arrival of $4 toast. Like, you’re going to make this a street for hipsters, and I’m not going to have a place in this community.”

Jamaal Green, an Urban Studies and Planning doctoral student at Portland State University and the blogger behind Surly Urbanism, remarked “semi-jokingly” in a post last year that “the forces that destroyed black and poor neighborhoods with highway construction from the 40s to the 60s are the same ones now pushing bike lanes.”

Elaborating on that thought today, Green told me, “I think we should be wary of calls for bike infrastructure placement when framed primarily as an amenity or attractor for some preferred demographic because that often means folks aren’t at all thinking about people who actually live in these neighborhoods.”

A few months ago, a local real estate developer handed out flyers in the Arts District, a neighborhood adjacent to downtown with a Blue Bottle, a Stumptown and a Handsome coffee, a vintage video game arcade bar, and a brand new mega-development that leases 363 square foot studios for close to $1,500 a month. The flyer invited Arts District renters to a bike tour of Boyle Heights, a nearby neighborhood that has been home to low-income immigrant communities for generations. “Why Rent Downtown When You Could Own in Boyle Heights?” the flyer read, describing the area as a “charming, historical, walkable and bikable neighborhood.” The bike tour would be followed by a discussion over “artisanal treats.”

When Boyle Heights residents got a hold of the flyer, a backlash ensued, which included some threats of violence. The developer canceled the tour and apologized for the flyer.

Gentrification tours are not the same as livable streets initiatives. But when the language of the latter is appropriated to sell the former, long-time residents of newly “up-and-coming” neighborhoods can be forgiven for failing to draw the distinction.

Adrian Lipscombe manages the bike share program for the city of Austin. She is currently working on her dissertation at the University of Texas, studying the perception of bicycle transportation in minority communities. “In Austin, we have 100 people moving here a day. Seventy of them bring cars with them,” she explained. “So we have lots of issues with gentrification, as well as with traffic and congestion. Bike facilities do not lead to gentrification, but there can be some bias from communities that don’t see them as something they use. There can be a lot of, ‘who is this really for?’ So it’s a matter of getting into the neighborhoods, talking about their needs, understanding their main mode of transportation, understanding the history of all the things that never got fixed, and then figuring out how to fit bicycle facilities into that context.”

Those are guidelines Reynolds will need to follow as she implements the Mayor’s new Great Streets initiative, a program to transform selected traffic corridors into beautified, bike-and-pedestrian-friendly districts that boost the neighborhood economies and, one hopes, keep people out of their cars.

“I’m interested in finding partners and champions in these communities, and make the Great Streets initiative a project for people who already live in them today,” Reynolds said. “It’s not just about how clean the streets are, or that the signals work. It’s about those things, but it’s also about making sure the streets are a reflection of the people who live there now.”

Gentrification notwithstanding, if you’ve spent even a single afternoon wasting your life away in LA commuter traffic, it’s hard to imagine any major change to the city’s car-centric transportation regime being anything but an improvement, for rich and poor neighborhoods alike. When “the West’s first freeway,” the Arroyo Seco Parkway between downtown and Pasadena, was built in 1940, there were one million cars on the road in Los Angeles. Today there are nearly six million. Just as the Red Car system found itself overtaken and rendered obsolete by the changing mass transportation demands of an earlier Los Angeles economy, LA’s septuagenarian freeway system looks increasingly like an antiquated solution to a set of transit needs that belong to a different century.

On the other hand, once upon a time, more than four decades before the West’s first freeway was laid down, Los Angeles went through another feverish bicycle craze. Bicycle clubs sprang up all over the city at the turn of the century, and a wooden elevated freeway for bikes was erected near the current route of the Arroyo Seco Parkway.

The fever came and went. It was killed off by the rise of the private automobile, and by the development of a new mass transit innovation that was easier, faster and more efficient than the bicycle: The Red Car electric trolley system.

This story originally appeared on Medium. A shortened version appeared in Huffington Post and Capital & Main.

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