Car culture vs. urban culture

My KCRW column tonight wades into the big divide in Los Angeles between those who see L.A. as a car culture city and those who crave a more transit-fed urban culture. There are no winners in the debate, only a need for co-existence. The piece airs at 6:44 p.m. on KCRW, will be online at the KCRW website and at iTunes thereafter, and the text can be found after the jump below.

This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

Los Angeles has always had a split personality. Going back to the days when the American settlers kept their distance from the Mexicans and Chinese.

The big divides of the past century have been those between the city on one side of the Santa Monica Mountains...and the San Fernando Valley suburbs on the far side. the other direction...the unwillingness of people north of the 10 freeway to venture south.

Both of those borders still function in the personal geography of too many Angelenos.

But the defining divide of the century we're now in could be between those who see LA as a car culture city...and those who rebel against that oversimplification.

They crave an LA where the main modes of getting around are transit lines, buses, bikes. Or walking in small, attractive urban neighborhoods.

Many already live in that city, of course, and their ranks are growing.

Both urban cultures, if you want to look at them that way, have arguments on their side.

But the most important thing to know about these two fundamental world views of LA is that they're not exclusive.

They're not even really in the sense that neither side is ever going to win.

The skeleton structure of Los Angeles was laid out originally for horses and wagons, then extended outward by rail lines.

But the big outward expansion happened along boulevards. By people who joyfully gave up the old Red Cars and Yellow Cars in order to drive their own Fords and Chevys.

That culture demanded wide streets, spreading as far as possible from the city center. With enough outlying services and political clout that they never had to go downtown.

That legacy is a structural fact of life.

Most of LA's four million residents live far from the pockets where appealing urban communities are forming. Downtown and in Silver Lake, in Leimert Park or along Tujunga Avenue in the Valley.

If the Westside subway extension is built, the main mode of getting around on the Westside will still be the car.

And as the environmental impact report on the subway recently pointed out, not only that but the traffic jams that exist today won't be any better.

The subway...and the Expo Line and other transit projects...*will* offer alternatives that much of the city doesn't have now.

A spine for the new urban LA to continue growing along.

The big crowds that flock to Downtown's Old Bank District for Art Walk, and to Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, show there's a definite hunger for more density.

Same for the recent festival in which seven miles of city streets were shut down to cars on a Sunday. Bikes and skateboards took over, and maybe 100,000 people took part.

That's big, and encouraging. But also a subset of the city's larger social context.

An event that happened a few days later may be just as telling. That was the civic outrage expressed when a band stopped traffic on the Hollywood Freeway to perform a protest song.

If you think that got people going, wait until President Obama comes to town this week to campaign for the Democrats. Obamajam on a Friday afternoon.

Stop by at to tell us how you see LA's future.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.

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