Ryan Bradley heads out on foot to find out what's wrong (and right) with transportation in Los Angeles.
I step off the plane. The basin up ahead is so arid it's practically a desert. Not all that long ago it was a miserably violent little cattle town way out West. One early visitor described the place as "new and unformed," full of "dangers, vices, self-sacrifices and cold-blooded crimes."
I've measured my step: 3-and-a-half feet from heel-to-toe. Multiply this by 52,800 and you get 35 miles—the length of this basin I'm about to walk across, shore to mountain and back: 70 miles, round trip.
This basin is prone to fires and earthquakes and hot desert winds. Most days are hazy. When rains do come it's all at once—before everything was paved, even the river, there were terrible floods. But there was oil, and a coastline for trade, and soon enough El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles del Río de Porciúncula was called Los Angeles. And, eventually, just L.A.
Everyone thinks they know L.A., even if they've never been west of St. Louis. Nobody walks in L.A., right? There's that Missing Persons song, or that line from Steve Martin's L.A. Story: "...it's not like New York, where you can meet someone walking down the street. In L.A. you practically have to hit someone with your car. In fact, I know girls who speed just to meet cops."
But the truth is people do walk in L.A. And bike. Fully 12 percent of all trips in Los Angeles are by bicycle or on foot—that's more than Austin or Portland. In sheer numbers, L.A. has more bikers and walkers than Washington, D.C., or Chicago, or even San Francisco. And it happens to be far safer for biking and walking than all three, according to a 2010 Benchmarking Report by the Alliance for Biking and Walking. I lump walking and biking together only because, until very recently, so did everyone else. In the 1990s biking and walking were "alternative," like rock music. Fifteen years ago, Los Angeles spent "about $1 million" a year on pedestrians and bike services. This year Los Angeles has earmarked $36 million on walking alone. Could it be that this western cow-town, this place that's synonymous with self-reinvention, is reinventing itself?
Writers tend to make sweeping proclamations about this place. Yeats did ("Los Angeles has everything in the future") and so did Didion ("Things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent") and so has every historian and academic who's ever taken a sideways glance at this basin. Here's my go: Los Angeles is the future of transportation in America. And it's always been.
Start with one J. Philip Erie and a four-cylinder, gasoline powered horseless carriage he assembled and rode through downtown on Sunday, May 30, 1897. It was the first automobile in L.A.—the beginning of a beautiful and terrible relationship. "This innocent-looking black tally-ho has about twenty-five miles an hour concealed in its vitals," wrote the Los Angeles Times in wonder. By 1915, there were 55,217 cars on the dirt roads and Los Angeles County led the world in auto-ownership. In 1910, the Times had replaced wonder with grief: "The traffic question has become a problem," wrote its editors.
All the while, as L.A. was becoming the city of the automobile, it was constructing the world's most extensive street-railway network. Not for nothing did Eddie Valiant, the detective in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, ask, "Why own a car? We've got the best public transportation system in the world!" But this nostalgic vision of L.A. as onetime transportation paradise is all wrong, too.
In 1949, rail-cars were overcrowded and unfairly priced and privately owned. General Electric, Pacific Electric, and National City Lines controlled nearly all of L.A.'s "public" transportation, and furor over the rails was such that the city council voted down a new light-rail line in 1949. That same year the city began building the freeway system. It was, and still is, among the largest public transportation projects ever undertaken by any American city, and it promised liberation (just look at the name: freeway). Soon other cities followed suit—Dallas and Houston and Phoenix and Tampa and Atlanta and Denver were developing in the image of Los Angeles, the image of Mr. Erie's black tally-ho.
Here's one assumption that's dead on: Today, L.A. has arguably the worst traffic congestion in the United States. Rail-cars may have made a slight comeback, but they're a disaster, too. Of the 3.8 million people living within city limits, just 4 percent use the subway (in Chicago, it's more than half: 1.7 million; in New York, it's almost two-thirds: 5.8 million). A 2008 RAND report titled "Moving Los Angeles" suggests adding tolls to the freeway system to pay for increased bus service and bus-only-lanes. The freeway may no longer be free.
Maybe, then, everyone's walking and biking because L.A.'s transportation system is broken. Or maybe Los Angeles is actually a pleasant place to walk.
I'm out of the terminal now and into the shade of the arrivals curb at LAX. I march due east toward Sepulveda, where I'll jog north until Culver and then east again. I have to make downtown by nightfall—17 miles from here. Seventeen miles, that's 25,645 steps.
"Young man," someone says and I stop. He's smiling and wearing a blue airport shuttle uniform; by now I've nearly reached the end of the shade, the end of the airport. "Do you know what you're doing?" he asks.
"Walking across Los Angeles," I say. The man in blue says something back but I'm already past him, into the sunlight.
Next up: Trees are sidewalk vandals.
CORRECTION: This piece has been updated with the correct original name of Los Angeles.
Photos by Ryan Bradley