De-Pave Paradise And Tear Down That Parking Lot

September 14, 2015

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(A post-concussion follow-up to yesterday’s post from All Fired Up in the Big Smoke’s Los Angeles correspondent, Ned Teitelbaum. Another in our series, To Live and Drive In L.A., The Battle for Road Space edition.)

***

Still emerging from the fog of my concussion, the city starts to come back into focus.

I see how the City Council passed the Mobility Plan 2035 by a broad margin, with all but two of our city council members voting in favor of it. rowenaavelaThe plan is a series of goals that includes such boiler-plate objectives as expanding bicycle ridership and providing frequent, reliable on-time bus arrivals. It looks great on paper. But implementing it without pissing off drivers? Well, that’s another matter.

Take Rowena Avenue, for example, in our Mayor’s own Silver Lake district. The street was one of the first to be put on a road diet two years ago, and there has been nothing but controversy since. Traffic is backed up, and nobody seems to be using the bike lanes. Drivers are frustrated, and frustrated drivers go where frustrated drivers go, namely onto our residential side streets. But the change looks likely to remain since it helps the city move toward its Vision Zero Initiative of reaching zero traffic deaths by 2035.

Bravo, I say.

But the acrimony over the Rowena fight has now wafted over to the Hyperion Bridge fight next door. hyperionbridgelaThere, another re-striping war has been engaged. Once again, activists want to reduce the car lanes, this time from four to three, with the extra space going to both sides of the bridge for walkers and cyclists. A template of a letter that people can e-mail to their City Council representatives was put out by the advocacy group LA Walks and urges the city to back this plan so people can enjoy “the bridge’s beautiful and historic belvederes,” from both sides. And indeed, one major difference between Rowena and the Hyperion Bridge is the latter’s almost irresistible invitation to stop and gaze, to take up the river breeze and just breathe. The letter asks, “Why do we want to prevent people from enjoying one of the city’s best views of what will soon be a revitalized LA River?”

No arguments from me. But the Board of Public Works has already balked once at the idea, and even the Mayor’s own rep at the time of the vote, Matt Szabo, refused to back the plan. Said Szabo, referencing the Rowena traffic clog, “I can’t in good conscience vote for anything that would compound that situation.”

toliveanddieinLA

Perhaps Mr. Szabo should take another look. Yesterday, I was on Rowena, and I noticed a distinctly calmer traffic flow. I even spotted a cyclist. I said ‘Hi’ but I don’t think he heard me.

sunshine hazily submitted by Ned Teitelbaum


Driving in the Age of Distraction

September 13, 2015

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(Another post from our All Fired Up in the Big Smoke Los Angeles correspondent, Ned Teitelbaum, in a series we’ve taken to calling, To Live and Drive in L.A.)

***

Even as the Jeep Grand Cherokee ploughed into the back of my car, I remember wondering if this could be payback for the time I myself had rear-ended someone about a year earlier. But that was in slower traffic, in Venice, and not, as was this, somewhere near Encino, south on a 12-lane superhighway known as the Ventura 101.

The driver who hit me was doing about 50, and though I was wearing my seatbelt, the impact was enough to give me a concussion, some herniated disks and a broken tooth. Still, by today’s standards, this was just a banal traffic accident. whiplashNo explosions, no deaths, not even any road rage.

The young tattooed driver who folks tell me was obviously texting apologized for, well, tattooing me. Yet I was confused. Weren’t young people giving up their cars so that they could stay connected to their mobile devices? I’d seen the phenomenon myself, on trains and buses and walking down Wilshire Boulevard. Maybe this guy just hadn’t received the memo. Or maybe it was because LA’s rail network hadn’t yet reached this deep into the San Fernando Valley, a part of the city which grew into its current form based on the primacy of the private automobile. And in fact here, as well as in other parts of our far-flung urban arrangement, distracted driving is still the norm. Which is how it came about that I was introduced to my new friend.

I can’t remember his name. All I remember were his tattoos. And the apologies. Because in the end it really was just an accident. toliveanddieinLAIt could have happened to anybody. Like the one I caused last year (no one was hurt). Or the one 10 years before that, in which I had a head-on collision with another distracted driver in another out-sized SUV (I was hurt, but survived to drive another day).

I guess these traffic accidents are just part of life, the price of doing business in a town that decided decades ago to embrace the automobile to the exclusion of all other forms of mobility. The chiropractor I am seeing says I should mend in a few weeks. Will I mend all the way? He doesn’t answer me. He tells me to relax, cracks my neck and sends me on my way.

submitted by Ned Teitelbaum


They Killed Meep

May 29, 2015

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He was only four foot four, so it is not hard to imagine that someone driving an SUV down Hollywood Boulevard at night could have failed to see him. Especially if he’d been jaywalking, as the police report said he had been. But the sad, tragic and completely unnecessary death of Ben Woolf, 34, who played the part of a carnival-show pinhead known as Meep on NBC’s American Horror Stories, was also disturbing for the manner in which he’d been killed – clipped by the side mirror of the SUV.

Surely this must be a daily occurrence, I’d thought after reading his obituary. How many times had I felt the blast of wind as a driver sped by with only inches to spare, pinning me against my parked car as I waited to get in? Just the other day, one of them had even flipped me off as he passed, ignoring my gesticulated plea to slow down. benwoolfI wonder now, if I’d been clipped by the side mirror, would the police report say that I too had been jaywalking?

After this latest near-miss, I remember I tried to be analytical, a little way I have of calming myself after a close call. I thought about how much safer that particular street would be if it were to give back a lane. You know, to the pedestrian. I’d read somewhere that narrower streets, and narrower lanes, had the effect of slowing down traffic. But a ‘street diet,’ as it is called, is never easy in this town, where what you drive and how you drive it are important status markers. Just try telling a guy in his brand new $150,000 Tezla that you’re lowering the speed limit or putting one of his favorite roads on a diet and you’re risking a lawsuit, if not a punch in the eye.

And the thing is, most of us have been on both sides of this equation. As pedestrians, we get it. Life is frustrating for drivers. Traffic keeps getting worse and the infrastructure wheezes. Streets are dug up, college campuses are shot up, and doddering movie stars crash-land their single-engine planes into golf courses. None of which is good for traffic (or golfers, for that matter). And let’s not forget the frequent fundraising visits of our commander in chief, which only worsen that pre-existing condition we like to call Carmegeddon. Thanks, Obama.

So like I said, we get it, because most of us are drivers as well. And when we get in the car, there’s usually a very good reason for it. suvpedestrianWe no longer Cruise the Strip, a fantasy about L.A. that is still very much in vogue for certain East Coast press elites. Contrary to their assumptions, we’re too busy, and we’re usually in a hurry. So much so that sometimes it can be a challenge to not hit a pedestrian. And once in a while, we actually do hit one, and they die, or come very close to it.

Even Eric Garcetti, our pedestrian-friendly mayor, got into the act shortly after assuming office. As he carried on what was undoubtedly important city business, the driver of the SUV he was riding in ran over a pedestrian. The woman who was hit survived with minor injuries, and to his credit, hizzoner’s driver stopped. And the incident did induce a reaction on the part of law enforcement. Only, many are saying, it was the wrong reaction. Rather than finding new ways to slow down and reduce the number of vehicles that pass through our increasingly crowded Downtown, One-Adam-Twelve decided to increase the number of tickets they were already handing out – for jaywalking.

There it is again, that word, ‘jaywalking.’ First coined a century ago, it was used as part of a campaign by the auto industry to orchestrate the takeover of our cities. antijaywalkingPedestrians, who had until then been strictly free-range, would now be corralled and told to obey different colored lights. And accidents between cars and pedestrians would no longer be the fault of the joyriding driver but of the jaywalking pedestrian himself.

This is, of course, what happened to Ben Woolf. As with the mayor’s driver, the driver of the SUV that struck Mr. Woolf stopped, and also was not cited. It was deemed an accident because Mr. Woolf had been jaywalking. As for the incident with the mayor, it occurred right outside the Times Building, and was even captured on security cameras there, which gave it a certain local flavor. But still, the Times saw no there there, as this too appeared to be a case where the victim was at fault.

Then two weeks ago, a young man named Eduardo Lopez got a jaywalking ticket for $197. antijaywalking1The Times reported on the extreme hardship the ticket presented for the 22-year-old, who lives with and supports his mother and four younger siblings in a one-bedroom apartment. When ticketed, Mr. Lopez, a hustler in the best sense of the word, had been running to catch a bus that would have taken him to Glendale Community College in time to make his first class. This after not sleeping for 24 hours and working the graveyard shift at a pallet manufacturing plant near LAX.

It may turn out that coverage of the unreasonable and punitive ticketing of Mr. Lopez will help hasten a shift city-wide in the balance of power from drivers to walkers. But that will come too late for Ben Woolf. Friends and fans alike were devastated by the news of his death, and filled the correspondence columns of Variety and other outlets, giving us a fuller picture of the man. One posting revealed that he’d done a more-than-passable job at learning Hindi for a movie in which he’d been cast. Another talked about how he’d be missed by the pre-school kids he worked with as a teacher when he wasn’t acting.

Yet another said simply, “They killed Meep.”

benwoolfmeep

It was an odd and moving summation of the sadness felt in the community for the unnecessary death of one of its own, a man we were as likely to bump into at Trader Joe’s as to see performing in the carnival world we call TV.

sadly but unsurprisingly submitted by Ned Teitelbaum


To Live And Drive In L.A.

April 10, 2015

(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. lovemycar6And 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? lovemycar3So 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). lovemycar8By 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?” lovemycar1He 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. lovemycar4Yeah, 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. lovemycarIf 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. kinkisharyoAnd 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. lovemycar2Presumably, 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. lovemycar7Not 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. lovemycar5I 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.

toliveanddieinLA

drive byly submitted by Ned Teitelbaum