(First time posting from our new Los Angeles correspondent, Ned Teitelbaum, a friend of ours from back in the days of fire, earthquakes, riots and O.J. We fled to our northern safety. He remained behind.)
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Recently, Zocalo Public Square, the not-for-profit ideas exchange, hosted a discussion at MOCA in Los Angeles that asked, “Is Car Culture Dead?” The question set off an internal alarm. After all, I lived in L.A., the city known more than any other for its love affair with the car. If car culture were dead, that would mean the end of the affair. And nobody wanted that. Or did we?
I took my seat in the auditorium and tried to remember how it had all started. It was after World War II, and we’d been promised that the car would liberate us from such quaint notions as public transit and a single, central business district. We’d been promised that it would bring all the advantages of the city right up to the white picket fence that surrounded our single-family homes, our pools and our patios with the outside barbecues. All these promises were fulfilled, spectacularly so, and a deep, abiding trust developed. And what is trust but the bedrock of a healthy, loving relationship?
Did we have, ahem, bumps in the road? Of course. What relationship doesn’t have a few? But we dealt with them, because that’s what you do in a committed relationship. Like the time we started choking on something called SMOG. Did we give up? Heck, no. We slapped catalytic converters on our tailpipes and changed the formula of our gas. Or the riots, remember those? Some would say they were brought about by social and economic inequities engendered by the use of our cars. But did we throw up our hands and give up like a bunch of East Coast metropolitans? Double heck no! We cracked down, giving our police more guns, more helicopters and more surveillance capabilities. Why? Because I’ll repeat: That-is-what-you-do-in-a-committed-relationship.
And the relationship has only deepened through the years, because what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Right? So who the hell were these Zocalo Public Square types to come in here and try to pull us apart? What nerve!
If William Shakespeare had been sitting next to me, he might have leaned over and told me, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Good ol’ Bard of Avon. He’s always there when I find myself starting to become unhinged. Why he calls me a lady is another matter that I won’t go into right now.
But alas, the great explainer of human nature had a point. The city had come to be known more for its dystopian commutes than its white picket fences, putting our relationships under a new kind of strain, one we’d never seen before, and one for which we have as yet to come up with a solution.
This new strain comes from two different though related developments. On the one hand, we can point to the five separate rail lines being built or extended that will connect such disparate and distant hubs of activity as Santa Monica (the beach), Long Beach (the port), Pasadena (the foothills) and North Hollywood (the Valley) to the resurgent Downtown (down by the river). By early next year, a traveler will be able to traverse the 5,000 square-mile (more or less) urban cluster from any of these points with just one transfer. And without a car.
On the other hand, there just seems to be no traffic relief no matter what we do. Emblematic of this is the just-completed widening of the 405. After five years of blasting through the Santa Monica Mountains, commutes are about a minute longer now than they were before the $1 billion undertaking was undertaken. And told-you-so’s of induced demand only make car commuters that much angrier.
Even I, a devoted road warrior, have to admit: While I still love my car, I am no longer sure I am in love with it.
Relationships, as the Bard well knows, are never easy, even when there are no Capulets or Montagues around to mess things up. And as Neil Sedaka reminded us many years ago, breaking up is hard to do. But the Bard (the Elizabethan one) provided a ray of hope.
“Hast thou considered opening up thine relationship?” He asked this casually, not even looking up as he texted his broker in New York.
I blushed so deep that any one of the new generation of Downtown chefs could have sliced up my head and put it in a salad. Of course I’d thought about it. I mean, who hadn’t, right? Like everyone else, I’d heard the talk. About how an open transit relationship would be better for the environment, how it would lower my car insurance, how it could extend the lifetime of my car. I’d even heard that it could spice things up in the garage, if you know what I mean.
Then one night, I found myself planning it out in my head. First, I’d leave the car at home, discreetly of course. I’d take the train or the bus, or even walk, if I could remember how. But no, the Bard shook his head. That would amount to cheating. Apparently, the way these things go, you have to be open and honest with your partner. Yeah, I thought, and take all the damned fun out of it!
But the Bard patiently walked me through it. I’d have to be loving and honest, and communicate clearly with my partner that the new arrangement was for the commute and for the commute only. There would have to be rules: There’d be no riding of the train to the end of the line just to see what was there; no overly chatty conversations with strangers asking you how to get to Union Station, and definitely no weekend passes! Maybe down the road, there could be a discussion about taking transit to an occasional Dodger game, so I wouldn’t have to leave in the 7th inning to beat the traffic. But that could wait. Still I wasn’t convinced. The Bard reassured me that the greater trust that would develop could even strengthen our bond. I looked at him quizzically. Strengthen our bond? Really? Where did he get this stuff? Nevertheless, I quickly jotted it down so I wouldn’t forget. If I could convince my partner about this bond strengthening stuff, I could have my cake and eat it too!
I watched the different people file into the auditorium. They chatted and smiled and shook hands with each other. They were, in sum, just a bunch of normal commuters, and they all seemed so satisfied with their lives that it brought me back down to earth. Who was I kidding? An open transit relationship was what they did in places like Vancouver or Portland. Or even Toronto. [Clearly our correspondent hasn’t visited us lately. – ed.] But I wasn’t in those cities. I was in L.A., a city that embraced a multitude of kinky lifestyles, but where taking the bus up Western was the ultimate taboo.
To avoid eye contact, I picked up the Metro pamphlet that was sitting in my lap. And then I saw it, a photograph of the first of the sleek, new Kinkisharyo LRTs that had recently started issuing from the Japanese company’s Palmdale assembly line. It was exactly like the one I had seen that morning on my way into work. I was stopped at a light, listening to Rush Limbaugh, when she appeared. I watched her slide gracefully through the intersection behind the lowered yellow-and-white, candy-cane striped traffic arms. A real slinky, if you ask me, she was quiet and cool as she carried her Expo Line passengers in air-conditioned comfort on the way to Culver City. And as the last car went through, I don’t think I’d ever been so revved up. The light must have changed, because suddenly people were honking and yelling at me to move. A silly, stupid smile spread across my face like I was a frat boy getting his first lap dance at Jumbo’s Clown Room. But no, this was better. This was 50 Shades of Kinkisharyo.
The panel participants came out onto the stage, and I folded up the pamphlet and placed it safely in my backpack for later research. The moderator, an ex-Detroiter named Mike Floyd, Editor-in-chief of Automobile Magazine, introduced everyone and asked each of the panelists how he had traveled to the event. Predictably, the car people drove. They were Terry Karges, Executive Director of the Petersen Automotive Museum, and Myles Kovacs, Founder and Editor of DUB Magazine. The transit people, you guessed it, took transit. Or walked. They were Deborah Murphy, an architect and Founder of Los Angeles Walks, a pedestrian advocacy group, and Mimi Sheller, Director of Drexel University’s Center for Mobilities Research and Policy in Philadelphia. Presumably, this latter participant flew then walked. Show offs, I thought.
The tension between pro-car and pro-transit people was so thick you could cut it with a wiper blade. Ms. Sheller got things rolling with her assertion that a national and global transition is taking place, with fewer people driving and getting licenses. Mr. Karges promptly disputed this assessment, putting forth that people still like to drive, and pointed out that the Forza Motorsport driving game currently has 43 million Xbox subscribers. To which Ms. Murphy responded that those 43 million subscribers need to get out of the house, go for a walk, maybe meet a nice girl who will make them forget all about their Xboxes. Mr. Kovacs, the urban custom car enthusiast, smiled knowingly and said that in L.A., you drive to impress, and what impresses is a fast, low-slung car with poor visibility. And so it went for about 40 minutes or so.
But then the audience got into it. Somebody asked about the self-driving car, and it was off to the races. In fact, that was the only thing anybody in the audience wanted to talk about. Clearly, the autono-mobile had captured the imagination of Angelenos. The self-driving car was seen as a panacea. Not only would it allow us to get more work done while stuck in traffic, but the traffic itself would be cured, because as everyone knows, traffic is caused by a-hole drivers constantly accelerating and braking for no reason. If not for these jerks on the road (and I admit, I’m one of them), our commutes would once again be smooth sailing. And there wouldn’t be any accidents either because these computers on wheels, as some are calling them, are much smarter than us. And if a pedestrian decided to throw himself in front of my car as part of some misguided protest about the 99%, well, manufacturers have thought of that too. Just out is a pillow-soft bumper so that when pedestrian and car collide, the pedestrian won’t feel a thing. Rather, he’ll think he’s at a pajama party and be grateful for the playful interruption to his daily routine.
I sat in wonderment. People were so enthusiastic about the autonomous car that nobody wanted to hear about the kinks that needed to be worked out. Things like liability insurance and computer hacking. And what about driving my own damned car? The whole thing, I’ll admit, seemed to be a big step backward to me. I mean, I hadn’t been driven around since I was a kid, and then it was because my bike had a flat and it was my mother doing the driving. I suppose I could derive some recompense in that I would dang-sure have a mini-bar in my self-driving car, and I’d toast and make faces at the other drivers who were stuck in traffic. But wouldn’t I be stuck too, you ask? Heck no, I wouldn’t be stuck. I’d have a mini-bar!
Eventually, though, I think all the non-driving would get to me. Because without the sheer pleasure and excitement of driving, what was the point of having a car at all? And that would truly mean the end of the relationship.
I was so upset, I went home and hugged my Prius.
— drive byly submitted by Ned Teitelbaum