Posts tagged transportation

My trusty ’07 Toyota Prius, circa 128,000 miles old. Photos by Gary Lai.

I still remember my wife’s family’s 4th of July celebration even after nearly a decade later. I had just moved to Los Angeles and and was the proud new owner of a 2007 Prius. I was harboring high expectations about showing my wife’s family the car. We had been married for almost 15 years and I was already acquainted with my wife’s family ritual revolving around any new car. Family would gather around the shiny new vehicle to “ooh” and “ahh” appreciably in harmony. Just a year before I witnessed this tradition first hand when one of my wife’s cousins bought a new Subaru WRX.

Remembering this ritual I attempted to be helpful, parking close to the garage so that no one would need to venture too far away from the house during the summer heat to check out my new car. I walked in, set down our potluck dish, then proudly announced my $28k purchase.

The sound of crickets was deafening.

Needless to say, I could have parked in San Bernardino. No one even bothered to come out to look at the car at any time during our visit.

That was then, this is now. The boring, pedestrian, and weird Toyota hybrid is now the most common car across the city. My wife and I recently counted 97 Priuses pass by in just a span of an hour and a half while seated at a Silver Lake restaurant outdoor patio.

Hollywood has even taken notice. There a scene in La La Land when Emma Stone’s Prius keys are surrounded by scores of others on the valet board. Automobile anonymity.

Angelenos need to face reality: the era of the Mustang or the Mercedes SL500 convertible is over. The Prius is the car that most represents Los Angeles today.

A snapshot recently from Astro’s Coffee Shop in Silver Lake. From left to right:  Honda Insight, 2 Toyota Priuses (Third Generation), Chevy Volt.

Don’t kill the messenger! I’m a “car guy” too. I spent a sizable time during my 80s era youth salivating over Ferraris and Lamborghinis. I wasted most of my young adulthood tightly griping a controller in front of a TV playing Gran Turismo on the Playstation. I owned an illegally modified “rice rocket”, an Acura Integra, for 10 years. I even had the honor of driving on the track at Laguna Seca behind the wheel of a 2004 Dodge Viper. However, when it came down to buying a car for driving in Los Angeles a decade ago, I chose a Prius.

Why? Because…

1. …I am a Landscape Architect on a limited budget who lives in a very expensive city.
2. …our traffic is the absolute worst in the country. LA commuters waste an average of 81 hours a year in traffic compared with the next worst cities, Washington DC and San Francisco, tied at 75 hours of annual traffic purgatory.
3. …owning a BMW M5 capable of 0-60mph in under 4 seconds is meaningless in a city where you rarely afforded the opportunity to “speed” over 35mph.
4. …in a city with the worst air quality in the country, I drive a car that emits a fraction of carbon versus a gas-only internal combustion engine vehicle. I’m not the only one that made this decision. Los Angeles is now the leading city in sales of alternate fuel cars: Teslas, Volts, Leafs, and of course, new generation of Priuses.

Angelenos, I understand anyone’s apprehension and concern. Los Angeles invented car culture and its difficult to fathom Los Angeles choosing something so pedestrian as symbolic of our auto-loving city. Take heart, in the near future there will still be sexy, exotic fire-breathing sports machines rolling into parking lots along Sunset Blvd. or Beverly Blvd. for valets to lustily salivate over. For the foreseeable future certain cars will retain their status symbol.

But change is visible just over the hill of the proverbial 405 freeway: Millennials have stopped driving and are ride sharing; Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers have decided saving money and protecting the quality of air is more important than “status”, especially while stuck for hours every day in traffic.

The emergence of the Prius shows that we have, indeed, turned the corner on transportation.

Plaza University trolley car of the Los Angeles Railway Company, showing two conductors posed in front, ca.1900-1910. Photo: Public Domain

Plaza University trolley car of the Los Angeles Railway Company, showing two conductors posed in front, ca.1900-1910. Photo: Public Domain

Photo by Seth Babb

Photo by Seth Babb

This week we’re taking a detour from the works of Ralph Cornell for a quick post about some unearthed light rail tracks I’ve long admired. A few years ago, while Vermont Avenue was being re-paved, I came upon the tracks of a long gone rail line that once ran across Vermont Ave until the late 1950s. It wasn’t anything grandiose or marked historical, but it’s appearance speaks to the many layers still there underneath every city.

Cities change over time, and identifying these layers is important to help us see the failures of the past. But these remnants also help to lay out future possibilities by providing an understanding of the present and the requirements of a city as it evolves. The Vermont rails and the counties wide system are now defunct pieces of Los Angeles history, but as Bruce Springsteen once wrote, “But maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” – an idea reflecting the possibility that our city’s past can be reborn as something relevant today.

Junction at Main Street, Spring Street, and 9th Street, Los Angeles, ca.1917. Photo: Public Domain

Junction at Main Street, Spring Street, and 9th Street, Los Angeles, ca.1917. Photo: Public Domain

Sculpture and Plaque at former location of Pacific Electric Monrovia Station. Olive and Myrtle Avenues, Monrovia, CA. Image by Christina Lynch.

Sculpture and Plaque at former location of Pacific Electric Monrovia Station. Olive and Myrtle Avenues, Monrovia, CA. Image by Christina Lynch.

While exploring the town of Monrovia recently I found myself drawn to a sculpture anchoring the courtyard of a residential building. I was surprised to discover the artwork was created to commemorate the former location of the Pacific Electric Railway’s Monrovia Station. As a mass transit user, I was curious about this regional train line, enthused to learn that this former rail line was once the largest provider of inter-urban electric railway passenger service in the world.

The privately owned Pacific Electric Railway was begun in 1901 by railway executive Henry E. Huntington and banker Isaias W. Hellman. The railway would ultimately provide transit via buses, streetcars, and light-rail inter-urban cars. While freight lines were abundant, light rail electric and trolley lines for passengers – which Huntington had run in San Francisco – were less prevalent in Southern California, particularly outside city areas. In the pre-automobile era of the early 1900s, when most roads were unpaved and transportation was typically via horse, these light rail passenger lines were the most economical ways to connect outlying areas to city centers. In conjunction with Hellman, Southern California’s leading banker at the time, Huntington believed the time had come to begin building systems of light rail lines to connect outlying areas to Downtown Los Angeles.

The Pacific Electric Rail Logo. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Pacific Electric Rail Logo. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Huntington and Hellman’s motives were far from altruistic. With ample financial and political clout, a strong driver behind Hellman and Huntington’s desire to develop light rail lines was to offer (and provide) electricity and transportation to developing areas. In addition, these rail line owners also purchased land – either outright or with partners – surrounding property acquired for the right of way for rail lines.

Ultimately, Huntington and his partners came to own a significant amount of land holdings north, east and south of the city.

With the Pacific and Electric’s main terminal located at 6th and Main in Downtown Los Angeles, light rail lines were developed to extend service in all directions outside the city, ultimately forming four districts: the Eastern District (serving towns in Riverside and San Bernardino counties), Southern District (serving the Long Beach area and northern parts of Orange County), Western District (Hollywood, Santa Monica and the San Fernando Valley area) and the Northern District, covering the San Gabriel Valley area. By the 1920s, this Southern California network of more than 2,100 daily trains utilized over 1,000 miles of tracks and was the largest electric railway system in the world.

The Pacific Electric Building in Downtown Los Angeles, circa 1909. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Pacific Electric Building in Downtown Los Angeles, circa 1909. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Completed in 1907, the Pacific Electric’s Monrovia-Glendora route serviced the San Gabriel Valley, with much of the rail line running along present day Huntington Drive. With 39 stops – including San Marino, Arcadia, Monrovia, and Glendora – the railway provided a vital link between cities and the growing countryside. Typical weekday service was a car every half-hour to Monrovia. The addition of two and three trains every ten or fifteen minutes was often provided to accommodate rush hours.

The arrival of the mass-produced car and then government funding of public road systems for the car ultimately doomed these inter-urban rail lines. While the Pacific Electric owned extensive private systems of rail beds, many of the rail lines where laid within city streets. As these urban streets and the suburban areas the rail lines helped develop, development began accommodating more and more space for cars, with conflicts rapidly developing. Fueled by the novelty of cars and the slowing of train running times due to at-grade crossings and heightened congestion as trains competed for roadway space with cars ridership flagged. The 1930s saw the rise of express roads and early freeway systems. While planners intended to include interurban tracks in the center of these highways in the Los Angeles area, the plan was never implemented. Most electric rail lines were gone by the 1930s, with only a few surviving into the 1950s.

On my daily commute today onboard the Metro Gold, Red, and Purple lines into DTLA, I’m thrilled to experience the rapidly growing ridership and appreciation of our mass transit systems. I’ve enjoyed overhearing fellow passengers marvel at the beauty of the surrounding San Gabriel mountains, or discuss the pleasure of stopping off mid-week in Old Town Pasadena, or to shop at the farmer’s market.

Yes, we grumble about over-packed commuter cars and delays in service. But more often, we share an appreciation of not having to be chained to our cars as we glide by a congested 210 Freeway. Ultimately, I believe commuting with my mostly unknown fellow mass-transit passengers provides a sense of community that sitting individually in a car never could, or can, provide.

Bishan Park, Singapore | Green corridor with Kallang River which connects Singapore Strait and Lower Peirce Reservoir. CC photo: commons.wikimedia.org

Bishan Park, Singapore | Green corridor with Kallang River which connects Singapore Strait and Lower Peirce Reservoir. CC photo: commons.wikimedia.org

As cities become more dense the need to address the concerns of mitigating the way in which citizens move through the city becomes magnified. As of now, the prominent method of transportation has focused upon the automobile, with increasing progression toward implementing public transportation. However, those more interested in bicycling haven’t found the road as accommodating. Generations of infrastructure development has made automobiles the primary and sole owner of the road, with little concern for permitting other methods of transportation as plausible or safe options. The result has been high levels of air pollution, urban runoff, and congestion on the road.

In recent years, cities such as New York, Chicago, Barcelona, and Calgary have implemented projects to initiate methods to mediate transportation of cars, buses, and bicycles to create a safer integration of circulation. Los Angeles has followed with its own project, MyFigueroa, proposing improvements throughout the Downtown area to accommodate for the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, and drivers with planting, signage, and a protected bicycle lane network. As this is a step forward to a better integrated system for a dense urban hub, why not increase the momentum and address the health, safety, and welfare by implementing principles that can resolve other issues derived by urban conditions? Methods and materials can be utilized to develop systems to decrease runoff and increase air quality.

Thermal imaging capturing temperature distribution, with blue showing cool temperatures, red warm, and hot areas appear white. CC image obtained from NASA Earth Observatory webpage.

Thermal imaging capturing temperature distribution, with blue showing cool temperatures, red warm, and hot areas appear white. CC image obtained from NASA Earth Observatory webpage.

Since the inception of the first public park, it has been known that green open spaces aid in resolving health issues of those living in dense urban environments. Utilizing trees and other plants goes far beyond aesthetic appeal to a city, but can also service as an improvement of public health, both mentally and physically. With additional services such as mitigating urban heat island effects, planting can be integrated with the improvements currently proposed to filter and reduce polluting factors within the downtown area.

A few cities like Copenhagen, Denmark and Quezon City, Philippines have initiating large scale propositions to preserve and develop green spaces for public health. Quezon City has developed a plan to create open spaces that service as a “green lung”, utilizing plant materials that can filter and absorb toxins and pollutants, as well as contribute to carbon sequestration. Sustainable practices such as green lungs and curb breaks in parkways can be implemented into propositions, such as the MyFigueroa project that proposed bikeway networks, to dramatically mitigate conditions create by urban development. As much as the tree canopies above can filter light and reduce heat island effects, why not use plant materials contaminants along the bike routes that can filter water and reduce runoff.