Nobody Walks in L.A.: The Rise of Cars and the Monorails That Never Were
By Matt Novak, April 26, 2013
Artist’s conception of a future monorail for Los Angeles, California in 1954 (Source: Novak Archive)“Who needs a car in L.A.? We got the best public transportation system in the world!” says private detective Eddie Valiant in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Set in 1947, Eddie is a car-less Angeleno and the movie tells the tale of a an evil corporation buying up the city’s streetcars in its greedy quest to force people out of public transit and into private automobiles. Eddie Valiant’s line was a wink at audiences in 1988 who knew quite well that public transportation was now little more than a punchline.
Aside from Detroit there’s no American city more identified with the automobile than Los Angeles. In the 20th century, the Motor City rose to prominence as the home of the Big Three automakers, but the City of Angels is known to outsiders and locals alike for its confusing mess of freeways and cars that crisscross the city — or perhaps as writer Dorothy Parker put it, crisscross the “72 suburbs in search of a city.”
Los Angeles is notorious for being hostile to pedestrians. I know plenty of Angelenos who couldn’t in their wildest dreams imagine navigating America’s second largest city without a car. But I’ve spent the past year doing just that.
About a year and a half ago I went down to the parking garage underneath my apartment building and found that my car wouldn’t start. One thing I learned when I moved to Los Angeles in 2010 was that a one-bedroom apartment doesn’t come with a refrigerator, but it does come with a parking space. “We only provide the essentials,” my apartment’s building manager explained to me when I asked about this regional quirk of the apartment rental market. Essentials, indeed.
My car (a silver 1998 Honda Accord with tiny pockets of rust from the years it survived harsh Minnesota winters) probably just had a problem with its battery, but I really don’t know. A strange mixture of laziness, inertia, curiosity and dwindling funds led me to wonder how I might get around the city without wheels. A similar non-ideological adventure began when I was 18 and thought “I wonder how long I can go without eating meat?” (The answer was apparently two years.)
Living in L.A. without a car has been an interesting experiment; one where I no longer worry about fluctuations in the price of gas but sometimes shirk social functions because getting on the bus or train doesn’t appeal to me on a given day. It’s been an experiment where I wonder how best to stock up on earthquake disaster supplies (I just ordered them online) and how to get to Pasadena to interview scientists at JPL (I just broke down and rented a car for the day). The car — my car — has been sitting in that parking spot for over a year now, and for the most part it’s worked out pretty well.
But how did Los Angeles become so automobile-centric? How did Angeleno culture evolve (or is it devolve?) to the point where not having a car is seen as such a strange thing?