Although the many candidates for mayor of Los Angeles would be loath to admit it, there is not a single problem in their city that would not be well on its way to being solved, if by some magic, LA’s population were reduced by 50 percent. Friends who never complained before are now grumbling about the horrible traffic, and the city’s vulnerability to every kind of natural event, never mind natural disaster.
The recent onslaught of rain has wreaked havoc, but denizens of many suburban areas of town, including the San Fernando Valley, know that ANY TIME it rains, there are difficulties. Quite simply, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Poriuncula has been built out beyond the capacity of the environment to support it.
With far fewer cars on the perenially-clogged freeways, the notion that one could drive around the LA Basin to his heart’s content, and hardly be bothered by the traffic, (forget about gas prices) could once again become a reality. The last time that was true was about 1956. As the city expanded beyond all reason—starting in earnest in the early 1960’s and never looking back—housing prices began to take off, as well. It would not be until the mid-1970’s that real estate values skyrocketed, and by the late 1980’s, many first time buyers would be locked out of the single family detached housing market for good.
Always enterprising, the developers proffered their solution to this problem: New communities began to spring up in the middle of nowhere, forcing 90-minute each way commutes (or longer) for the lucky new homeowners. This also meant that formerly obscure byways would now become clogged, as the traffic problem spread far beyond the city limits. And what about the kids, left behind in these faceless, soulless new locales? Let’s just say that Charles S. Haas and Tim Hunter didn’t create their screenplay for Over the Edge (1979) out of whole cloth.
But Los Angeles is by no means the only American metropolitan area that is experiencing the symptoms of overdevelopment. When I moved to Fairfax County, VA—an extended suburb of Washington, DC—I was warned about the traffic, although it pales in comparison to LA’s. As it is, I now reside in a famous planned community, oh-so-careful to provide plenty of recreational opportunities and woodsy areas. “It’s like living in a park,” the brochures say.
Rec centers and trees there may be. However, there is also an incredible proliferation of new high-rise condos, that, when fully occupied, will tax two of the town’s main streets to the breaking point. Even now, finding a parking place at the Town Center shopping area presents a significant challenge. I wonder just what the “plan” actually is.
And, of course, the DC metro area has no shortage of housing developments built far, far out, offering the same long commutes, along with the joys of home ownership. Take heart, though. While the roads aren’t as good as LA’s, there are fewer cars—for now.
One of the promises of the Internet revolution was that we could work anywhere. Telecommuting, it was called. Certainly, there are those who are taking advantage of this flexibility, but there is still no major population shift away from the big cities.
Perhaps it is time for a new tax policy. Currently, all incentives exist to foster continuing growth, and the biggest money still comes with growth in places that really don’t need it. What’s wrong with putting some incentive into development of less congested areas?
Why can’t the government get behind such a method to achieve affordable housing, more open space, shorter commutes, and happier citizens?
Until it does, Los Angeles will simply be the negative role model for all other cities to follow.