Kicking the Auto Habit

The New Republic, December 15, 1973

Once she was on the freeway and had maneuvered her way to a fast lane she turned on the radio at high volume and she drove.  She drove the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Hollywood, the Hollywood to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura.  

       — From Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion

Los Angeles

ANGELENO LIFE is unthinkable without the automobile.  People meet friends at the Thriftimart parking lot; they grab a bite at Bob’s Big Boy drive-in; they cruise down Sunset Boulevard looking for action; they drive 20 miles for dinner or a movie.  It’s impossible, they say, to cash a check, buy a quart of milk, get to work or school or play without leaping into a four-wheeled steed, most of the time in solitary splendor (93 percent of freeway commuters drive alone).  The costs are smog, congestion, waste of energy and land (forty per­cent of the city surface is devoted to the care and move­ment of automobiles) — but Angelenos wouldn’t have it any other way — or so it seemed until recently.

For longer than most people can remember, Ange­lenos have been complain­ing about air pollution, sprawl, the lack of mass transit.  But this was half-humorous small talk, like complaining about the weather; no one really ques­tioned the Southern Cali­fornia life-style or doubted it would last forever.  Voters in 1968 could have approved a $2.5 billion mass transit system; they thumpingly turned it down.  Whenever Sam Yorty, the long-time mayor, was asked about smog or rapid transit, he’d say the problems weren’t serious and anyway he had no power to do anything.  Even when the Environmental Protection Agency last July ordered Los Angeles to reduce drastically its use of motor vehicles, using parking surcharges, car pools, more buses and even­tu­ally gasoline rationing, people figured there was no cause for alarm: Con­gress would see the light and deadlines would be eased.

Suddenly the deadlines are here and no reprieve seems possible.  Washing­ton is talking about 10 or 15 gallons weekly gasoline quotas, Sunday closing of gas­oline stations, and immediate cutbacks of diesel fuel and heavy heating oil.  Freeway speed limits will fall, rotating blackouts are a good possibility, and those multiple family cars will spend more time in the garage.

She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour, Normandie 1/4 Vermont 3/4 Harbor Fwy 1…

KICKING THE AUTOMOBILE habit will be painful.  Los Angeles is laid out incon­veniently: low-density residential tracts meander randomly around linear com­mercial strips and, except for the so-called central business dis­trict, there are no high-density employ­ment centers.  The daily commute cycle does not flow in the typical in-and-out pattern but moves rather in an almost Brownian motion over the whole area, creat­ing during summer days a pervasive blanket of smog.  To get away from the smog, people settle on the fringes of existing development, thereby creating more sprawl, more auto traffic and more smog.

Another problem is that there’s no alternative in sight to the private automo­bile.  At one time when the Los Angeles basin was a clear-skied collection of separate communities, with farms and open space be­tween them, an exten­sive railway system made inter­city travel quick and pleasant.  The Big Red Cars of the Pacific Electric ran from San Fernando to Hollywood to Beverly Hills to Santa Monica and Watts and Whittier and Long Beach and San Bernardino.  Then came the auto explosion and the freeways and the sub­urb­aniza­tion of the entire basin.  Rail lines were ripped up and rights-of-way lost.  (The last Big Red Car ran in 1961 on the line through Watts to Long Beach, and when inves­tigators later looked for causes of the Watts riot they often cited Watts’ isolation from public transportation.)

The Southern California Rapid Transit District, formed in 1964, today oper­ates about 1,500 buses, but the routes are so unlearnable, the service so in­fre­quent and the distances so vast, that only those too old, too young or too poor to drive an automobile are generally found on buses.  (Example: a person trying to get from Sherman Way in Canoga Park to the Century City complex off Santa Monica Boulevard would first call up RTD information.  He’d be advised to take the 81 bus south to Hollywood and Highland, then transfer to the 91W west on Hollywood to Century City.  This rela­tively short and simple trip would take about two hours.)  Travel without a car might be aided somewhat if taxis or jitneys were available to fill the gaps be­tween bus runs, but the Yellow Cab Company, with its monopoly franchise, is ridiculously expensive, and jitneys are illegal.

A further difficulty is the Angelenos’ intense psycho­logical attachment to the automobile, an attachment not easily shaken by ecological exhortations or mone­tary disincentives.  A recent opinion survey for the EPA found that even if buses were frequent, cheap and convenient, few commuters would give up the door-to-door privacy and luxury of their automobiles; three-fifths of those queried even said they’d find it difficult to join a car pool.  Similarly the 10-cents-an-hour sur­charge on downtown parking, scheduled to take effect next July, is not expected to deter many people (except the poor) from driving — they’ll pay 80 cents more per day, just as they’ll pay higher gaso­line prices and taxes to a point way up the elasticity curve.  “Buses just don’t appeal to people here,” says an EPA official, “though we think an ultra-mod­ern rail system will” — a thought shared by science fiction writer Ray Brad­bury, who suggested some years back that Walt Disney should be made mayor of Los Angeles because he was the only person capable of making rapid transit attractive enough for Angelenos to ride it.

So that she would not have to stop for food she kept a hard-boiled egg on the passenger seat of the Corvette.  She could shell and eat a hard-boiled egg at seventy miles an hour (crack in on the steering wheel, never mind salt, salt bloats, no matter what happened she remembered her body) and she drank Coca-Cola in Union 76 stations, Standard stations, Flying A’s…

DESPITE THESE and other formidable obstacles the Southern California Rapid Transit District is pushing ahead with plans to build a new $6.6 bil­lion rail sys­tem.  High-speed trains would serve eight major corri­dors, and feeder buses would plug some of the holes in between.  The exact design of the trains is uncertain; steel wheel on steel track would be the simplest, but some of Los Angeles’ aerospace geniuses are pushing for magnetic levitation, air cushions, personalized rapid transit cars and other unproven exotica.  Whether construction takes place will depend again on the voters: a rapid transit financing scheme, based on a one cent sales tax hike and a 25 cent fare, will be on the ballot next November.  Should voters approve, the sys­tem would take twelve years to build, and critics already are predicting huge cost overruns and other problems.

Rapid transit is, in any case, a long-range prospect; meanwhile Los Angeles must come to grips with the immediate probability of gas rationing.  Mayor Tom Bradley wants the RTD to run more frequent and faster buses; the RTD insists that the energy crunch means that diesel fuel as well as gasoline is in short supply, so that fewer bus runs rather than more are in the offing.  Even if diesel fuel were obtainable, new buses would not be easy to come by: the two US producers, GMC and Flxible, turn out only 3,000 buses a year, and cities all over the country are scrambling for them.  Then there is the perennial California headache of multiple jurisdictions.  To establish bus stations and express lanes the RTD needs, but doesn’t always get, coopera­tion from the 77 separate municipalities and assorted regional agencies in the Los Angeles area.  “It’s enough to drive Kafka up a wall,” one transit official exclaims.

Other methods for coping with the gasoline short­age include computerized car pool matching systems and employer-paid mass transit fares.  These will be tried within the next year or two.  Gas rationing, once imposed, is likely to stay on indefinitely, if not be­cause of fuel shortages then because of feder­al clean air standards.  EPA calculates that even with catalytic con­verters, vacuum spark advance disconnecters and other anti-pollution hardware on vehicles, it will still be necessary to cut back driving by over 90 percent on bad smog days, and the only way to do that is by lim­iting the availability of gasoline.

In the first hot month of fall Maria put seven thousand miles on the Corvette.  Sometimes at night the dread would overtake her, bathe her in sweat, flood her mind with sharp flash images of the irrevocability of what seemed al­ready to have happened, but she never thought about that on the freeway…

LOS ANGELES as a megalopolis will survive.  People will get to their jobs one way or another, and they will have private automobiles, though perhaps not gaso­line-driven ones.  But the city’s unfettered mobility and endless growth will change, possibly for the bet­ter.  Angelenos will spend fewer mind-numbing hours enclosed in metal and glass cocoons.  When they do drive it will be with other passengers, and there’ll be conversation, not just radio sounds.  They will eat less drive-in food, ride bikes more often, and read more (on trains and buses).  The air will be cleaner, too.

Other changes will come, though not immediately, in the cityscape itself.  EPA is talking about regulation of “complex sources” — proposed new developments such as shopping centers, sports arenas, office build­ings or housing subdivisions, that don’t themselves emit air pollution but which, because of their location, stimulate greater use of automobiles.  Increas­ingly such new developments will be stopped.  New housing and new jobs will be built close together.  It will take time, lots of time, but Los Angeles will prob­ably emerge from the energy crisis as an overpopu­lated version of what it once was — a collection of relatively self-contained communities connected by intra-city rapid transit, an American prototype still, but of a less helter-skelter way of life.