Transportation Inequities in Social Landscapes
Los Angeles: 2022
Gas prices climb into the $7.00 range, the $8.00 range in boujee city parts. The political climate would suggest that drivers seem to mind, some having spent more than their hourly wage commuting to work. Yet traffic on the northbound 405 Freeway inches along, clogging the twelve lanes of concrete Cal Trans promised would relieve hours spent babysitting the brakes, inhaling the combined pollution of the thousands of cars around, and cursing the unfortunate circumstance you will arrive to work an hour late despite calculating the ideal time to battle the roadway beast.
It’s Tuesday afternoon in Malibu, California. At 3:45 p.m. The Angelinos know what I’m talking about. I’ve missed my window. The sweet spot. The brief intermission when taillights part like the red sea. I have two options: brave the three hours’ worth of traffic toward Irvine, or wait until 8:00 p.m. to glide on home.
I challenge the concrete monster and its vehicular cronies with my optimism, losing the battle most ludicrously on the first on-ramp, littered with the fallen. Commuters whip out novels, turn up podcasts, sing, and dance to Harry Styles’ latest hit. I armor myself with a mind-soothing instrumental playlist.
Halfway through the drive—at 5:45 p.m.—I compare this hellish experience across thirty-five miles to my commute experiences in London, England. On the tube that cost me £2.00 from Shoreditch to Soho. The tube has its irreverence: A stranger’s nose in your sweat-christened armpit, pushy tourists who don’t understand the obvious “Mind The Gap” warnings. But overall, I’d trade a humid yet affordable ride on public transportation over a lonely three-hour commute across similar distances.
The Automobile Curse
Of course, this desire brings California’s lack of efficient public transportation and obscene automobile dependency to the forefront. Growing up in the blooming urban sprawl, I once thought cars were the ideal mode of transport—the only option for transportation. And for Californians and Americans alike, they are.
From an urban planning standpoint, I cringe thinking about the car-crazed phenomenon. Though Los Angeles has implemented electric car incentives and policies to reduce air pollution, the environmental damages to the car-dependent society are astronomical. Smog lingers and spreads throughout the greater metropolitan area, crippling lower-income neighborhoods with asthma-related health issues that they lack economic opportunities to treat.
With the adoption of climate action plans, green building alternatives, and mitigation efforts, several Los Angeles municipalities strive to develop mix-used communities, a hybrid construction of housing, retail/commercial, and office uses. As opposed to California’s notorious sprawling suburbs, mixed-use developments promote walkability. As an urban anthropologist, I admire the goals of mixed-use developments. In an ideal world, they are utopian islands of environmentalism, social equity, and progression beyond automobile reliance. However, no development is ever utopian.
Amid the ever-growing costs of living and rental and mortgage prices, mixed-use developments have evolved from egalitarian bastions to yuppie-esque bachelor pads, complete with a steeply priced gym membership. With these being said, residents of mixed-use developments still drive cars.
Why? Because the automobile represents so much more than a means of transportation. American culture elevates the vehicle to the likeness of a golden chariot, a vessel of the American Dream itself. The car is the status symbol of wealth. Of success. Of ultimate prestige. Bentleys, Aston Martins, supped-up F1-50s with all the bells and whistles. These cars, they reward us with attention, perceptions of affluence. In reality, they are the hot ex-boyfriend that makes you look good when you stand next to them but does little good for anything else.
The Great Transportation Equalizer
Living in the United States, I grew accustomed to the judgment that accompanied car ownership. Stereotypes rule supreme: accountants drive the safe Toyota Corolla—ask my CPA partner about this one—and rich soccer moms drive black Escalades. Business executives zip around in Teslas, and hippies opt for Subarus. Not to claim that London does not have its fair share of car personalities—because it does—but on the underground transportation network, accountants read the newspaper, rich soccer moms let their children watch Peppa Pig on their iPhones, hipster millennials read hardbounds, and the homeless humbly ask for a spare 20p. All coexisting in silence, sitting on the same blue cloth seats, holding the same red painted handles, riding the Circle Line that bridges Zone 1.
A true Londoner knows that the unwritten rule is to never speak on the underground. Perhaps that’s why such a diverse crowd can navigate the tube in societal congruity. Spending a year and a half living in London, riding the underground, and witnessing this curiosity, reignited my hope that status-leveling public transportation could, in fact, thrust communities closer to becoming ideal cities.
Enter The Non-Place
The skeptical part of me questions the untroubled social behavior. It is my job to do so. After researching global public transportation behavioral trends, I suggest the lack of discord could be because sites of transportation are non-places. In this case, while occupying a physical dromonym, public transporters do not acknowledge the mental state of being. They are on the way to a place. In transport. In the non-place that is neither here nor there. Therefore, are they sharing a place with those considered other?
Various modes of transportation share non-place attributes: planes, airports, buses, trains, cruises, and ships. Cars, too, can establish non-place manners. However, I argue cars are exceptional because of a sense of ownership and individuality.
Infrastructural overhauls are necessary to build a more just and accessible public transportation network in California. An additional two freeway lanes every five years will not solve traffic congestion, especially not with growing populations and refusal to transition from automobiles. Growing in tangent with booming oil prices should be efficient and alternative modes of transportation. Economic and cerebral investments are necessary to advance green energy and sustainable mass transits, such as electric buses and rails.
In pursuit of creating an ideal city, we, as the residents, must foster human egalitarianism and environmental sustainability through our transportation modes.