The Enormity of US Transit

I don’t actually know how well known this is.  Within the Environmental Analysis major track, and the broader environmental community, it’s been so lamented that it’s become a bit of a cliche, but I suspect that many people outside these academic and activist communities are still unaware of the history and tragedy that underlies our current transit “system,” if you can call it that.

We haven’t always been a car culture.  Writing from the heart of the sprawling, cancerous, Los Angeles metropolitan area, it’s a bit hard to believe.  Nowadays environmentalists and urban planners alike strive to reign in the automobile and create a system based around rapid mass transportation and walkable, bike-able pathways.  But 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!  I mentioned in a previous post that 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.  In 1900, 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.


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 relationship both to the land and each other in far reaching and ubiquitous 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.  Are you fucking kidding me?!  This seeming overabundance of parking occurs because “conservative estimates identify an average of four parking spots per vehicle.”  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 all excited about hybrid vehicles.  Oh, and GM was the same company behind the huge front organization that bought up most of the countries light rail lines in the early part of the century and ripped them out.  Basically, fuck GM.  If there’s a company that deserves to go under it’s GM for being a conspiratorial, short sighted, profit whore more concerned with torpedoing technology improvements than adapting for the (still profitable) good of society.

So the fight goes on.  It’s just tough to realize that we’re not fighting on a new frontier, we’re actually struggling for regression.

Sources: 20th-Century Sprawl, Reinventing Los Angeles, Who Killed the Electric Car.


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