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Los Angeles and the automobile: the making of a modern city.

Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of a Modern City.

Scott L. Bottles. University of California Press, $25. This past summer, motorists on the carclogged freeways of Los Angeles took to shooting each other, wounding and occasionally killing fellow commuters. Southern California's fixation on the automobile has always drawn criticism from the national (i.e. eastern) press, but this outbreak seemed to confirm that L.A.'s car culture had gone mad.

Southern Californias are hardly alone in their passion for the automobile. Nationwide, for postwar suburban boom and the more recent growth beyond the suburbs suggest that, for good or ill, most Americans prefer to live in places that can be reached only by car. But Los Angeles has led the way in urban decentralization.

How did it happen? Scott Bottles provides convincing evidence that Los Angeles became a car-oriented city not because of bad planning but in spite of good planning. Far from encouraging use of the automobile, the city's planners spent the early part of the century promoting mass transit and trying to build up Los Angeles's urban core. The city even went so far as to ban downtown parking in 1920. After a huge public outcry, the ban was repealed in less than a month. Angelenos would not be denied their cars.

Mass transit buffs who like to criticize Los Angeles's "love affair with the automobile' usually overlook the fact that it was trolleys and commuter trains, not automobiles, that initially created the city's urban sprawl. Indeed, rail transportation put Los Angeles on the map. The city was a backwater community until the Southern Pacific railroad linked it to the rest of the country in the 1880s. Rather than develop into a traditional "walking city' like Chicago, which grew up just a few decades earlier, Los Angeles used the new rail technology to evolve into a large, decentralized metropolitan area linked by inter-urban train to Long Beach, Pasadena, and other Southern California cities.

Across the country, "streetcar suburbs' were attracting families eager to escape the city. But the cities continued to grow, too, drawing immigrants and farmers. By contrast, Los Angeles's city center lacked the housing that provided a counterweight to the suburban urge in other cities. Streetcar companies took advantage of this situation by purchasing tracts of land far removed from downtown, building houses, and then extending their railway lines to the new developments. Soon Los Angeles had the largest electric railway system in the world.

Why did this mass transit system disappear? Bottles lays most of the blame on the inefficiency of the trains and trolleys. Riders complained of overcrowding but at the same time demanded that fares be kept down. Mass transit just couldn't compete with the pleasure of driving your own automobile. In fact, the electric train tracks got in the way. Streetcar companies made one last attempt to boost their fortunes in the 1920s with a plan to build elevated tracks, but the Los Angeles Times crusaded against them, decrying "their darkening shadows and their depressive gloom,' and the proposal was defeated at the polls. By the 1940s, city planners were ready to throw in the towel. They started building freeways.

Bottles fails to explore the deeper issues raised by Los Angeles's inexorable sprawl, the most serious being the isolation of social classes. As other metropolitan areas follow Los Angeles's lead, class barriers around the country seem certain to harden. On a more prosaic level, Bottles does make a persuasive case that Metro Rail, a multi-billion dollar subway currently being dug beneath the city, will fail, and not just because it will serve too few people. Southern Californians have become hooked on the freedom and convenience of the automobile. It will take more than snipers to break the habit.
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Author:Noah, Timothy
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1987
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