issue 195 - May 1989
Splitting the city
Los Angeles has been totally taken over by the car. But it is not unique.
Most Western cities (and many in the Third World) have followed the same pattern
- dividing their populations into haves and have-nots. Mick Hamer reports.
On the surface Los Angeles seems to be an exceedingly convenient city. With hundreds of miles of freeways criss-crossing the city and its surrounding suburbs, cars can move around two or three times faster than in European cities like London. But the impression of speed is all it is.
This is because 'Angelinos' also have to travel three times as far. London averages 11,500 people per square mile. But Los Angeles has around half this figure. And the county of Los Angeles, which includes local centres such as Hollywood and Pasadena, has less than a tenth of London's population density. Speed is not much of an advantage when the additional distance you have to travel soaks up the time you gain.
Los Angeles has a transport system which is extremely inefficient in its use of space and energy. Its renowned 'smog' (a sort of photochemical soup of car exhausts warmed by sunlight) is just one of the unpleasant by-products of its dependence on the car. It also has grave social problems. Although the city has the second-largest bus fleet in the US, only three per cent of journeys are made by bus. Outside the denser inner area, bus services barely exist. Inside this core the bus passengers are almost exclusively blacks and hispanics.
It's almost impossible to live without a car in the 'drive-in suburbs'. Driving is as natural as breathing; to be carless would almost be un-American. How do you get to the bank, the shopping mall, school, the office or the recreation centre? The answer is obvious. You drive because things are so spread out you can't do anything else. Downtown there is another less-mobile city. Here the people rely on public transport. Many cannot drive. Others cannot afford a car. Some are old and have never learned to drive. And, in any case, driving is unpleasant because of the congestion. Public transport is expensive, unless it is subsidized. And the poor can't afford high fares. The middle class suburbs object to the subsidies. 'Why', they ask, 'should we subsidize buses we don't use'.
The inner-cities tend to be the older and more historic parts. They are now being violently disrupted to make them fit for cars. In this process people are being edged out and treated as second-class citizens. The car gets first-class treatment. Motorways loop their way through inner-cities, putting the convenience of drivers before everyone else's lives. The multi-story car parks add an air of isolation.
In many ways the division between the inner-city and the suburb is economic. Rich people are far more likely to own cars than the poor - not least because a car costs a lot to run, So the richer, car-owning suburbs have houses with gardens, car-ports or double garages. Around the corner there is a mini-mall with the usual mix of video rental shops and small convenience-food stores. A few minutes drive away is a shopping mall with acres of parking for the cars which rumble in and out all day and into the evening.
The inner-city is poor. Fewer people have cars. Exclusive shops are congregated near the few pockets of inner-city wealth. In cities like Chicago the expressway system actually funnels commuters from the upscale inner-city shopping and financial centre directly into white, middle-class suburbs.
This division between rich and poor creates social tensions. These tensions erupted in the mid-1960s, with riots in the Watts sector of Los Angeles and in Detroit. In England, in the early 1980s, riots erupted in London's Brixton, and in towns like Birmingham and Liverpool. Superficially these were simple race riots. But the causes were more than skin deep. What was taking place was a growing polarization between two cities. One poor, black and immobile; the other, largely white, middle-class and mobile, a safe and comfortable car-ride away. The two groups live separate lives.
Social dislocation is one effect of the rampant suburbanization which has been made possible by the automobile. But cars are also extremely wasteful in their use of land. A standard six-lane highway can carry 85,000 cars a day - the equivalent of about 120,000 passengers.
Together with the necessary junctions, approach-roads and hard shoulders, every mile of motorway takes up nearly 25 acres of land. On the other hand, a double-track railway can easily carry 200,000 people in a day - on less than one-sixth of the land of the motorway. Mind you, there are alleys in Venice, barely 12 feet wide, that regularly carry more people (on foot) than the average motorway.
It is no accident that cars should have dominated North American and Australian cities so completely. Cars need vast tracts of land. Not just for the motorways, but also for parking, whether at home, downtown for office workers or by the supermarket for shoppers. About one square mile of parking is needed for a million cars. (There are more than three million cars in the county of Los Angeles.)
Urban sprawl and the inefficient use of land also produce a huge increase in energy consumption. People living close to city centres, tend to take a bus or a train when they travel. People in the suburbs are much more likely to have cars. Australian studies have shown that people in the suburbs use about five times as much energy getting to work as those living in the inner-city, because they travel the longer distances by private automobile.
The irony is that the more space we devote to automobiles the more they demand. Even Los Angeles now realizes the limits of basing transport policy solely on the car. A study by the California Department of Transportation last year conceded that despite a $61 billion road-building programme, no amount of further road-building could ensure free movement for drivers.
Mick Hamer is a journalist based in London.