Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Autopia - the happy urbanist visits L.A.

On my recent visit to Los Angeles, I was told that rather than talking about the weather like we Canadians do, Angelenos discuss the route they took to get to their destination. With great pride, they tell their date the ingenious system of roads they took to get to the restaurant in the quickest possible time.

Having driven around the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area for the last week, I can see what he's talking about.

There are more cars in California than people in any of the other states of the U.S.A. With one of the largest high speed road networks, L.A. has the highest per capita car population in the world. The statistic is something like 1.8 cars per person. To call this a land ruled by the car is an understatement.

Ordinarily when I travel to other parts of the world I like to walk around to get a feel for the place. You can do this here, but on a limited basis, say along the beautiful walking/biking path that follows the beach and ocean in Santa Monica, or on a shopping street like Abbot Kinney Blvd or Melrose Avenue. But if you really want to get around, you need to get in a car, and preferably one with a GPS. (I laugh now thinking that we almost turned it down at the car rental agency, thinking it was an unnecessary extra cost! ha!)

There were things I saw here that I've never seen before, like a pedestrian walk/don't walk light to let you know when its safe to cross a six-lane-wide car parkade entrance, or people who got out of their cars and stood on the freeway talking on their cellphones while waiting in a traffic jam.

Obviously I'm not the only one who has made note of the car domination here. There's an excellent blog called Citythinkers (Los Angeles Magazine) where a variety of urban issues are discussed (one recent posting was on road rage in L.A.), is filled with comments on the negative side of living in 'Autopia'. There is actually an organization called FAST (Fixing Angelenos Stuck in Traffic) and an ambitious campaign called moveLA (a plan for subway expansion). They are on it.

When people talk about L.A., they are really talking about the city of L.A. and the surrounding cities, making up the greater Los Angeles Metropolitan area, where more than 18 million people cohabitate, often in single family dwellings. Some, but not many of those people live and work in the same place, one of the reasons that they need a car. Amenities tend to be segregated (just try to buy a bottle of wine for a dinner party while you are shopping on Robertson Blvd, a street dominated by clothing stores). People just get used to driving everywhere to get everything.

You would think that parking would be an issue but its not. It is in abundance wherever you go. Some would say this is incentive to drive more.

On an excursion from Santa Monica to Echo Park (a neighborhood within the city of Los Angeles), we were given a 10 point navigational instruction list. In truth, they were excellent directions, but almost an hour had passed before we hit point 3. (mainly because we were only going 20km per hour on the freeway). Then our GPS got stuck (yes they do this) causing us to miss a very important turnoff. Panic ensued as we listened to the manly GPS voice recalculating. Maybe we should have brought snacks?

I often complain about Calgary's car culture. The sprawled out lay of the land, the gas guzzling SUVs. Could the same fate await us? Could this be a cautionary tale? Michael Dear's statement in the introduction of Made in California-Art, Image and Identity 1900-2000 published by LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) says it all – "Watch California. Ready or Not, it is the shape of things to come."

Are you ready, or not?

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