By Odysseus Bostick, April 8, 2014
BOSTICK REPORT-It was once said to me that the incremental changes are the ones most capable of causing major shifts. This is the process of moving mountains. The wind kisses little corners of jagged rock, each breeze stealing away with a grain of sand, and the gale of years has the power to strip granite.
Imagine you were a politician. You know that people don’t typically enjoy new taxes as much as they pretend to enjoy new taxes. Everybody complains to your office about traffic and the crummy state of the roads only gets magnified by each moment stuck in traffic.
There are two things you need: better roads and a better transportation system. The easy way to demonstrate your efficacy is to get a road crew out there and patch up the offending potholes.
Flighty electeds can always lower the heat in their districts with short-term fixes that will “solve” the problems of a constituency because filling the pothole validates the individual’s complaint. It represents a responsive elected official who listens to the populace. It also caters to Los Angeles’s history as a car culture.
By removing the Red Line, an infrastructure change, government officials incited a cultural transition from a mass transit community to a car community. As the mode of transportation shifted, the demographics of our populace evolved. Or devolved, depending on your opinion of a car culture.
Now revisit your life as that politician with all the calls about traffic and transportation. What’s easier for you? To respond to the complaints about traffic and bad roads with a pothole fill-spree or to initiate a long term conversation about rebuilding a public transportation network – something that will most certainly take years of construction, a massive paradigm shift in the way our roads work, and a certain temporary continuation of traffic misery until new rail lines are completed?
No brainer. You go for the short-term solution with a quickness … and it worked! People were happy. You found that every filled pothole resulted in another happy voter. So you filled more. And more. And your success became more dependent upon the car culture.
Then the money ran out. And the roads got worse. And worse. And worse. You heard less music coming from the car culture and more horn honking. Your streets became choked in traffic and pocked with holes.
In the meantime, a resurgence in mass transit faith sprung up from the corners of your city. Weirdo, New Yorker-wannabes started getting together and demanding an exit from the car culture. Groups became political and convinced the right politicians to join them until eventually they restarted a move to rebuild mass transit in your city. But, it’s only halfway done.
This is Los Angeles today. A sprawling network of neighborhoods ranging across a huge swath of land. Partly reconnected by rail and bus, partly mired in the morass of a car culture.
So, you face two options, both incremental increases in sales taxes, each divergent in its support of cultural mores. One drags us further towards mass transit and the other further cements us into the car culture. No one in their right mind would, as CityWatch columnist Ken Alpern recently alluded, support both tax increases because placed together, they would amount to more than an incremental increase. The passage of one will most certainly capsize the passage of the second.
Taking the long view, these are cultural choices as in, what kind of a culture do you want to support in your city?
The car culture is centered on the individual. Powered by gasoline, built for comfort, and inherently less physical for the driver, the car culture is the mode of transportation for the obesity epidemic. It has catered to the development of the fast food industry and convenience foods scientifically engineered to live “fresh” on the shelf until you shove them down your pie hole en route to the office.
The car culture people have been found to be more depressed, less satisfied, more divorced, and generally unhealthy. They drink solitary. They die sooner and are subjected to more morning drive-time banter on the radio. God help them.
The mass transit culture focuses on moving people, not cars. It is inherently more social, whether you want it or not. More often than not, the social classes will mix – if not in conversation, then at least in jockeying for elbow-room. This results in less social strife and equalizes the sense of opportunity, if not the actual reality of economic mobility.
The mass transit people walk to and from stations, frequently stand during their ride, and read more during their commute to work. They see the plight of their fellow man and cannot escape the misery of their city’s less fortunate. This is good if only for the fact that they are more aware of the misery around them.
Mass transit people are healthier, live longer, have less work to do when they get home, see more of their city, and are generally more social drinkers. By riding mass transit together, they also increase their chances of meeting people outside their social circle of work. Best of all, they are less afflicted by drive-time banter on the radio. God bless them.
These two different cultures are created by incremental changes. Both require sacrifices. One is the short view and one requires a longer view, but they are equal in the sense that they are infrastructure choices that drive the evolution of our culture.
These are the divergent paths we face here in Los Angeles and we have a massive opportunity to participate in a public discussion on the merits of both pathways through the debate over two ballot measures to raise the area sales tax.
One measure pushed by fairly conservative city council members comes in the form of a massive road bond. Its main focus is repairing our roads and sidewalks, thus perpetuating our current car culture.
The second, more ambitious measure, is pushed by public transit advocates and would be an extension of Measure R, the sales tax bump passed to fund the re-creation of a robust, functional public transit system.
We owe it to ourselves to demand that these two measures, both potentially to be placed on the ballot but on separate election cycles, be discussed simultaneously. The advocacy for each is an advocacy for the evolution of our culture in divergent directions. The passage of each represents the pathway of our local culture. That much is at stake.