← Back to blog

Escape from LA

January 27, 2017

I just came back from Los Angeles where I spent fours days driving a lot. The rare transition from never driving to constantly driving awakens in me dormant notions about car culture’s weirdness and its distortion of the urban landscape, but at the same time, I’m always amazed by how ordinary driving is, how ordinary everything seems from behind the wheel, and how America’s car-friendly environments are in fact its most “normal” places.

The last time I visited LA, what struck me was how it’s actually dense—something I noticed as I crawled through I-405 traffic jams and tried to park in Koreatown and stood in line at various Starbucks. LA is not as dense as New York, but it’s dense, and more than that it’s crowded, because people with cars (and the infrastructure that supports them) take up more space than people without cars.


     Dense Los Angeles (source)

During this visit to Los Angeles I noticed something different, which may be obvious to most. Soon after arriving, sitting on the freeway, I found myself thinking about Curb Your Enthusiasm—one of the only shows or movies I know of that realistically depicts the amount of driving LA inflicts upon even its wealthy inhabitants. Tedious car journeys are poor narrative material for mainstream Hollywood but perfect for framing the trials and exasperations that Larry David endures in his daily life. In a city so full of personal wealth, Curb attests, there is almost no way to supersede the freeway, and certainly not by buying one’s way out of it. Slight upgrades are available—owning a better car (and spending just as much time in it) or using the limited toll lanes for occasional slightly faster trips—but everyone is still basically stuck in the same traffic.

Don’t be mistaken—this is not an egalitarian condition. That Larry David is subject to the same transport limitations as you does not mean that everyone else in Los Angeles has it so good, which we’ll come back to. In an older transit-oriented city like New York, it always feels like there’s another level of speed for sale: If the subway or bus is too slow or inconvenient there are taxis and Uber (although the subway is often still faster) and you’re more likely to upgrade certain transit rides if you have a bit of disposable income. The super-rich in New York might travel exclusively by car, with a helicopter ride mixed in now and then. For longer distance intercity travel, the tiers become more distinct and one can buy real speed: Greyhound buses yield to Amtrak yield to commercial flights yield to private jets—all meaningfully distinguished from one another in speed and comfort.

Like America’s broader culture, its transportation embodies a myth of upward mobility, as Ivan Illich articulated in 1973:

The captive tripper and the reckless traveler become equally dependent on transport. Neither can do without it. Occasional spurts to Acapulco or to a party congress dupe the ordinary passenger into believing that he has made it into the shrunk world of the powerfully rushed. The occasional chance to spend a few hours strapped into a high-powered seat makes him an accomplice in the distortion of human space, and prompts him to consent to the design of his country’s geography around vehicles rather than around people.”

In LA, the flatness of upper-tier transportation simply means that more people are forced into high-speed travel with no comparable alternative. The inability to overcome the landscape’s physical constraints fosters insane scheming among those who would pay handsomely for better mobility: Elon Musk wants to build tunnels beneath the city to circumvent its congestion, a revival of a utopian modernism that is rarely realized and almost never works.

Ultimately, though, anyone in a city like Los Angeles with the means to extract themselves from the traffic jam doesn’t need a faster mode of travel to do so, and this is the dark secret of American urbanism that underlies the superficial equality suggested by rich and poor sharing the same freeways: Transportation problems are solved with land use, not more transportation, and the affluent can better afford to structure their lives so that they live near the places they need to go. You wouldn’t know who’s in which category by looking narrowly at who’s driving, but by knowing where they’re going, where they came from, and how long they’ve been stuck in traffic.