The Desolation Way

Look at the photo above: this is the heart of downtown Los Angeles, just after the morning rush hour. Between Union Station and La Placita on the one hand, and City Hall, the various administration and court buildings, and the financial center on the other, lies this concrete trench (crammed with cars), spanned by bland concrete bridges (crammed with cars), leading to streets crammed with cars. While some of downtown, notably Spring, Broadway, and Seventh, are lively with human beings walking to work, shop, or dine, too much of it looks like this. Angular gray expanses of asphalt and cement, filled with thunder and smoke and little metal cells holding fleshy work units. When Le Corb touted the glory of the automobile, he didn’t foresee this bland desolation. But eighty years of trying to make room for cars created exactly that: a place that no one wants to look at or stay in.

Think platoons of robocars will solve the problem? They’ll but make it appear more acceptable, and not-so-eventually they will expand like any gas to fill all available space. They may be able to drop you off in front of any door you choose but then, how likely will you be to discover a door you didn’t even know existed as you walk from a parking spot, or, better yet, from a transit stop or bike corral, where you have arrived in the company of your unknown neighbors? Sitting passively in little pods divorces you from the random meetings that make dense cities so attractive, so productive, so inventive. Cities that walk are cities that thrive. People mixing on the streets and in Third Places produce innovation. Cars mixing on the streets create traffic jams.

The pollution cars bring may be the least of our worries: car culture infects you with a stultifying inertness. The only energy left you is to curse your neighbors hidden in their own cars all around you. In a city where people travel by transit, foot, and bike, transportation itself becomes a vast and highly-efficient third place.

Walkable cities, as Richard Florida noted a couple of years ago, foster democracy. Cars foster atomized populations easily controlled by demagogues haranguing them over their car radios four hours a day.

We don’t have to live in desolate isolation. It’s only a habit at this point. And habits are made to be broken.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted February 19, 2016 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Fantastic piece. BTW – there were a couple of interesting studies/article about the sociology of the street, and the impact of the automobiles a while ago. Might be a good time to dust them off again.

    HE MOTOR CAR AND THE TERRITORIAL AGGRESSION THESIS: SOME ASPECTS OF THE SOCIOLOGY OF THE STREET by Foel Richman

    The Social Ideology of the Motorcar – by Andre Gorz
    http://www.bikereader.com/contributors/misc/gorz.html

    Happy reading!

  2. Posted February 19, 2016 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read the Gorz; it should be required study for anyone wishing to flap their trap about cars & culture.

  3. Posted February 22, 2016 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    No matter if some one searches for his required thing, thus he/she needs to be available
    that in detail, so that thing is maintained over here.

  4. davistrain
    Posted March 4, 2016 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    “Demagogues haranguing them over their car radios…” Why does Rush Limbaugh come to mind almost instantaneously? I once met a fellow communications tech who would organize his day so that he would be out in the company truck when Rush was bloviating on the local talk-radio station. Never mind that the “conservative” element represented by him were the enemies of the working class; some of the techs I worked with were right wingers for various “social conservative” reasons–anti abortion, anti gay marriage etc. even though on economic issues they were shooting themselves in the foot.

  5. davistrain
    Posted March 28, 2016 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Regarding Mr. Gorz essay: First of all by using the term “bourgeois”, he raised a “red flag”–it’s a word seldom used in the US because, according to some observers, our whole culture is basically “bourgeois”, and that’s just fine with a lot of people. Motor vehicles are inherently inefficient and unsustainable, but trying to get the typical American to use other means of personal transport is an uphill battle. Indeed, many of us have an attitude of “I’ll give up my car (SUV, minivan or pickup truck) when they pry my cold dead hands off the steering wheel.” Consider that the steering wheel represents “control”–the car goes where I want it to go, and the accelerator represents “power”–the strength of 100 or more horses ready to do my bidding at the touch of my foot. Regarding the idea of living in a village with municipal bicycles and communal cars brings to mind some of the Utopian communities that have arisen over the years, and then “run out of gas” (to use a motorcar metaphor) when the charismatic founder dies, or when most of the ambitious people leave, and the “losers” left behind can’t keep the place running. And I tend toward the “liberal” side of the political spectrum–imagine what the right-wingers would have to say (if they even read essays by dadgum furriners.)

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  1. By Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog Los Angeles on February 19, 2016 at 10:05 am

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