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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