Out of Control Policy Blog

Would Angelinos really prefer to travel like Parisian straphangers?

We often assume that severe congestion equals bad mobility. It's true that increasing congestion means that mobility is worse than it used to be, but often mobility in a highly-congested auto-oriented place is still better than transit-oriented alternatives.

Here's University of Chicago's Robert Bruegmann reacting to the complaints of gridlock-weary Angelinos:

    Even when speeds on the freeway decline to 20 mph, drivers throughout the Los Angeles area move more quickly than they do by car or public transportation at the center of almost any large, older city in Europe or the United States.

    Clearly the problem is not that congestion is objectively worse in Los Angeles. It is that the highway builders of the 1950s and 1960s were so successful in building their way out of congestion that people became used to driving across the entire metropolitan area at a mile a minute and made choices about where they lived and worked based on that reality.

    When it comes to automobile travel, Los Angeles, perhaps more than almost any other large city in the world, suffers from a deflation of greatly raised expectations. After all, the residents of Paris, New York or Tokyo never even entertained the possibility that they could drive through the center of the city at 60 mph.

Buegmann explains that as the anti-road mentality became more popular, LA decided to spend big on rail transit. And yet transit accounted for less than 2 percent of trips in the LA area in 2003, which is actually a smaller share than 20 years ago:

    Why has this happened? I suggest that it is because so many people are locked into unrealistic assumptions about the way transit worked in the past or could work in the future.

    First of all, and contrary to much popular opinion, it is clear that L.A.'s highways were not intended to hurt the central city, as many have suggested, nor were they part of a devious plot to eliminate alternatives to cars.

And we shouldn't be so quick to use a city-vs.-suburbs framework. Economic growth in suburbia need not come at the expense of cities. Cities and suburbs can succeed together.

In fact, as Bruegmann points out in his new book, much urban gentrification took hold thanks to suburbanization. It's only after manufacturing companies moved out of the city that goateed hipsters could turn the vacated buildings into airy lofts.

Back to LA:

    The fact is that Los Angeles had a terrible traffic problem in the 1920s and '30s. Many downtown business owners felt that this congestion was threatening their very existence at a time when investment downtown had lagged and there was fierce competition from outlying centers such as the Miracle Mile or Hollywood.

    Not surprisingly, downtown businessmen were highly enthusiastic about plans for a massive superhighway system to bring people downtown more efficiently. Starting in the 1940s, the Los Angeles area embarked on one of the most ambitious programs of highway building in American history.

    This campaign was largely successful. Anyone who is old enough to have driven in L.A. or in most other U.S. cities in the 1960s or '70s can testify to the sense of liberation that accompanied the completion of the new roads. Suddenly it was possible, in a matter of minutes, to make trips that had previously taken hours. People in Santa Monica soon thought nothing of accepting dinner invitations in Pasadena. This increase in mobility meant greater choice in jobs, housing and recreational outlets. This, in turn, helped fuel an enormous amount of growth and prosperity in Southern California.

Entire LAT piece is here.

Ted Balaker is Producer


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