Alissa Walker on ‘Erosion of cities or attrition of automobiles’

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I came across an fascinating video last week called “The American Love Affair.” It’s a 1976 film made by Lee Rhoads (yes, Rhoads) about the country’s obsession with cars. But really, it’s about how one particular place is paving the way—in this case, an endless gridlocked freeway—for the U.S.’s automobile dependence. And that place, of course, is Los Angeles.

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The film is entertaining enough—who doesn’t love that groovy soundtrack?—and the opening segment is brilliant: Drivers are interviewed about public transit while waiting in line at the pumps, including a rather articulate man sitting shirtless in his convertible who advocates for monorails with retractible tops (not a bad idea!). But the film evolves into a fairly critical examination of how L.A.’s transit system—called the best in the country, some say the world—was dismantled and discarded in favor of buses and automobiles. It’s heartbreaking for an Angeleno to see some of this footage. The sight of the Red Cars being loaded onto flat bed trucks and hauled off to their demise is almost too hard for me to watch.

Although the film was made 15 years after The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published, in a way, it serves as a fantastic visual companion to the concepts set forth in Jane Jacobs’ masterpiece. In the early 1960s Jacobs had only seen the first glimpses of our emerging auto-obsessed society, but in her chapter on “Erosion of Cities or Attrition of Automobiles,” she issues a cautionary warning—one that the Los Angeles of 1976 seems to have blissfully ignored.

“Today everyone who values cities is disturbed by automobiles,” she writes to open the chapter, a sentiment that I think we could all still agree to be true—even if we’re the ones driving them. The truth is that surrendering our public transit system in favor of freeways has sadly not made Los Angeles more efficient—indeed, both Jacobs and Rhoads point out that travel times across L.A. were no better in the 1960s than they were in the 1920s, which is probably still true today—and even the people who love their cars will be the first to complain that the problem is that there are simply too many of them.

As an example, Jacobs offers Fort Worth’s (since unrealized) plan for a purportedly car-free downtown designed by Victor Gruen. By stacking tens of thousands of cars into cavernous underground garages under pedestrian plazas, Gruen was not actually planning for a car-free city at all, he was building more real estate for cars. Gruen was, of course, the Los Angeles architect who invented the shopping mall, helping to dot Southern California with those windowless boxes ringed with the vast blacktop tundras of parking lots. (As Jacobs writes, wryly: “And there can never be enough parking.”) He basically transformed the American landscape into one big welcome mat for drivers. PARK HERE!

But cars don’t kill cities, Jacobs argues. “We blame automobiles for too much.” It’s not that cars need to be eradicated entirely, it’s that they need not be allotted so much space on our streets (or under our streets, as in the Gruen plan). More space for cars begets more cars. “The problem is how to cut down drastically the absolute numbers of vehicles using a city,” she writes. In fact, she specifically calls out Los Angeles as a place where “increasing car accessibility” has lead to the elimination of other options.

As the film illustrates, and as Jacobs agrees, it’s those options which are the real key, especially in a city like L.A. A truly successful city allows people to meet their daily needs by choosing various modes of transportation. But I would argue that the idea of “multiplicity of choice,” which Jacobs mentions frequently in this chapter is a perception more often than a reality. People will try a different form of transportation when they can see that it works. Maybe someone sitting on a bus will notice a cyclist pedaling down a bike lane. Or a driver sees a light rail train rocket by while stuck on an offramp. When it comes to visibility, our nascent transit system is claiming some visual territory. But the dominant infrastructural element, our best “advertising” for getting around, is still our freeways.

In the 35 years since this film was made, and the 50 years since this book was first published, Los Angeles has changed dramatically. We now have a thriving subway and light rail system that’s opening a major expansion in 2012, one of the most efficient and enviable rapid bus lines in the country, and a bike plan that’s adding 40 miles of bike lanes to our streets per year. We do have options now, but the real key is making those options more attractive to users—the only way to move L.A. forward is by getting more people to use the transit we have. In the film, the articulate shirtless man argues for an advertising campaign that would encourage drivers to try public transit. But we have more tools at our disposal today than that man, or Rhoads, or Jacobs, even, could have imagined.

Five years ago, I gave up my car because I felt that my transportation choices—rail, bus, bike, walking—were more interesting than driving in Los Angeles. The first thing people often say when I tell them this is that they don’t believe it’s possible. So I started taking photos of myself every time I was walking in Los Angeles, just to prove it. Soon after, I joined Twitter and used it to post updates—good and bad—about my experiences taking the bus. When I got a bike, I started writing stories on my blog about what it was like to bike around Los Angeles. I think that compelling, engaging stories being told about our transit options—even ones as short as a Tweet!—can help show Angelenos what they’re missing. Like Jacobs, I don’t think cars are inherently evil. I’m not saying that someone has to give up their love affair with a Southern California convertible. But I do want Angelenos to know that they have a choice.

“The American Love Affair” is one of many historical films and photos uploaded by L.A.’s Metro Transportation Library and Archive. I spotted it on Franklin Avenue; thanks to both of them for posting it.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. James Rojas says:

    It’s ironic growing up in LA, I walked, rode my bike and took the bus everywhere. Now I drive eveywhere!

  2. Just as a note, I believe Jacobs goes into much more detail about the demise of L.A.’s public transit system in her final book, Dark Age Ahead.

    As for Victor Gruen, it’s worth noting that while he is the mind behind the regional shopping centre as we know it today, he also was responsible for many downtown renewal schemes, including Forth Worth, as you mentioned. I would argue his downtown renewal schemes were at least as formative of the North American urban landscape as his shopping centres, however his influence in this regard goes less noticed and less talked about because his schemes mostly took place in smaller cities – from Fresno, California to Kitchener, Ontario. Big cities preferred high modernist schemes that small cities couldn’t really afford. Gruen’s schemes were more doable and more commercially-oriented than their high modernist counterparts.

  3. wrapacar.us says:

    Good post. I learn something new and challenging on blogs I stumbleupon everyday.
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