The AIA|LA held an event this month in connection with Dwell on Design called the "Architecture of Transportation" Design Symposium. The following introduction to the event was presented by Frances Anderton, host of DnA: Design and Architecture, and producer of "Which Way, L.A.?" and "To The Point," all on KCRW. Anderton eloquently set the stage for the day's proceedings: visionaries and designers seeking an end to L.A.'s "moment of immobility."
In his classic book, Los Angeles: The Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham wrote that "the language of design, architecture and urbanism in Los Angeles is the language of movement." He called it, "the uniquely mobile metropolis," in which "mobility outweighs monumentality to a unique degree." And that's how many of us have understood L.A., drawn here for over a century by its quirky, low-slung, drive-in and drive-by physical environment-as well as by its psychological freedom made possible in large part by this physical mobility, which came first from delivering people back and forth its expansive basin via the electric railroad and then, of course, via the car and the freeways.
But now we find ourselves in a moment in Los Angeles' history of immobility-where the re-growth of a multi-modal transit network and the growing stranglehold of a predominantly car-based network are out of sync. It's a time where affluent Westsiders have given up going to the Music Center; where the old maxim about surfing in the morning and skiing in the afternoon is only possible if you have a private airplane to ferry you across the congested Southland; and where a friend of mine told me she knew it was time to leave L.A. when she realized it took her the same amount of time to get from her mother's house in Lewes-a small town in Sussex, South England-to Victoria station in London, 47 miles away, by walking and taking a train, as it did to drive from her home in Santa Monica to the Getty Center, about five miles away.
This state of immobility is, at worst, is making the L.A. experience a lesser version of what it was, constraining that vital sense of freedom and making us feel hemmed in. At best, it is causing us to focus on our own communities, creating downtowns, arts centers, and parks in our backyards. It is causing us to change the way we live, for example, it has caused welcome grassroots mobility movement called bicycling. One of the nicest surprises in the past couple years is to see how much Mayor Villaraigosa has put his weight behind bicycle lanes on Los Angeles streets, and CicLAvia.
For my own part, I have made choices to accommodate this new reality: I rent in a multi-family building to remain in a neighborhood in Santa Monica where I can walk my daughter to a local public school and cycle to work. I should add that my neighborhood is Ocean Park, which was served as far back as 1896 by its own electric railroad extension and to this day is blessed with one of the essential constituent parts of a functioning transportation system: human-scale blocks and attractive, tree-lined, sidewalks that make the journey from home to transit stop-"the last mile," as transit planners call it-appealing.
Some will argue that L.A. could remain as essentially mobile as it was if we would only limit development, especially transit-oriented, dense, high development. But even if we agreed with that notion, or felt it to be economically viable-in a region driven by real estate development-we know now that the old, car-based form of mobility is simply untenable for other reasons having to do with consumption of resources as well as personal health.
We also know that when Los Angeles does finally have a viable multi-nodal system, we will be able to shimmy across the region in a manner as much akin to our predecessors of 100 years ago, as of 50 years ago. And in doing so we will have left behind the 20th century postwar model and caught up with 21st century cities globally that integrate high speed trains, subways, light rail, pedestrian, and bicycles systems with the car, because they know that just as information equals power, so does mobility. It's a present and future Los Angeles that might have astonished Reyner Banham.