What may come as a surprise to many people, however, is that at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, that system was already in place! In 1897, an article in the Los Angeles times proclaimed: “There is no part of the world where cycling is in greater favor than in Southern California, and nowhere on the American continent are conditions so favorable the year round for wheeling.” This was based on the 30,000 frequent riders in the LA area! In fact, the Good Roads movement, the first influential road building movement in the United States, was started not by automobile interests, but the League of American Wheelmen – a bicycle organization. One particular example of an early attempt at bike infrastructure took place in 1900, when a millionaire named Horace Dobbins nearly succeeded in constructing a bicycle path on an “elevated, multilane, wooden structure” with scenic views that would stretch from Los Angeles to Pasadena.
During the same time period, Los Angeles was widely recognized as having the greatest mass transit system in the world. “During peak hours, 6,000 streetcars each day served over 115 routes, covering 1,000 miles of track and between 520 and 700 miles of service.” But as the automobile grew in popularity and the automobile interests began to organize, this “electric railway paradise” was slowly gutted. (Gutfreund, 20th Century Sprawl).
Today, cars are a burden more enormous than most people even come close to imagining. Roads themselves constitute one of the largest investments of Federal dollars in US history. They have transformed the human landscape and our relationship both to the land and each other in far-reaching and omnipresent ways. But they also have more insidious consequences that most of us don’t think about. The ratio of parking area to total land in Los Angeles is 81%. That means for every office building, grocery store, or school, there are four parking lots of equal size. This seeming overabundance of parking occurs because “conservative estimates identify an average of four parking spots per vehicle” in LA. There are 3.8 million people living in Los Angeles proper – if even 1/2 of them have cars (and that’s a very conservative estimate) that means that there are nearly 8 million parking spots in the city. And cost? “The cost of all parking spaces in the US exceeds the value of all cars and may even exceed the value of all roads.” The cost of parking subsidies is somewhere between $127 and $347 billion annually, according to Donald Shoup, professor of urban planning at UCLA. To put some perspective on this, the US Department of Education has a budget of $158.4 billion (including significant additional funds from the recovery bill). No wonder we’re the world’s largest polluter behind China and we have an educational system in tatters.
Anyone who’s ever seen “Who Killed the Electric Car” knows about the EV debacle. For those who haven’t, let me briefly summarize. In 1990 the California Air Resources Board passed a mandate that called for a certain percentage of all cars on the road to be zero-emission vehicles. The percentage ramped up from 2% to 10% over the course of 13 years. Car companies initially responded, producing electric cars like GM’s EV1, a well-designed car that got 90 per charge and could be charged in a garage or at the numerous electric vehicle charging stations installed around California. It had zero emissions, and people who drove it raved about it. But even as they complied, the car companies simultaneously fought the legislation, eventually suing the state and getting CARB to drop the mandate. GM pulled all of it’s EV1’s off of the road and crushed them. Nearly 20 years later, we’re just getting excited about hybrid vehicles.
All of this has tremendous impact on urban planning and the architecture within our cities. On an aesthetic level, buildings in downtown areas and along freeways have been designed to appeal to people doing 60mph plus, rather than to the pedestrian on the street. On a more fundamental level, the way we move through our societies determines the special layout of our built environment. Cars reduce urban density in two ways: first, by requiring a huge amount of space that fragments the urban core, and second, by making lengthy commutes and suburban sprawl viable.
Any attempts at densification or the restructuring of the built environment toward more sustainable, integrated systems require that we first address transportation. Only by changing the way people interact with the built landscape can we then change the structure of that landscape.
Sources: 20th-Century Sprawl, Reinventing Los Angeles, Who Killed the Electric Car.