Management & Operations

'Transport of Delight' paints a harsh picture of rail in Southern California

Posted on May 1, 2005

Transport of Delight, Jonathan Richmond’s new book about the development of Los Angeles’ rail system, is a fascinating contribution to both the public transport industry and, though beyond the expertise of this reviewer, very likely the field of myth, too. For it shows how ideas, even thinly substantiated ones, can work their way into public policy. What is unsatisfying is that the book appears to overlook why such myths might be important to cities like L.A., and why they continue to be perpetuated. Most of all, Richmond misses an opportunity to show us why L.A. is no better or worse in this regard than other cities — not only in America but around the world. For it is this policy disconnect — between what works and what doesn’t — that is the crisis that cities must repair in the next decade or so, or public transport might decline into irreversible irrelevance. If it does, we will find ourselves in a world less secure, less prosperous and possibly colder and darker than the one in which we inhabit today. More accurately, the book is really about how influential leaders in Southern California are attempting to resurrect the region’s glorious rail past, however brief. What a glorious history it was: more than 1,100 miles of interurban network laced with short-haul commuter rail and streetcar systems. The interurbans seem to have captured the imagination of Richmond, though he is among many (including this author). For good reason: L.A.’s interurban system was the largest in the world at one time, and it laid the groundwork for the auto-induced hyper-sprawl to come later in the 20th century. It has been said that Southern California is the first metropolitan region in world history to grow from a little over 10,000 to 10 million in a century and a half. Richmond is mistaken, however, when he suggests that those settling in Southern California at the end of the 19th century were somehow unique in their aspirations for suburban bliss. True, most early on came not from the “crowded, filthy cities in Europe,” as he put it, but from crowded eastern America seeking refuge from the same. What was different about L.A.’s sprawl is that it “lacked an urban core,” as Richmond acknowledges — or as one wag put it, it is a place where 50 towns are looking for downtown. Yet Richmond’s historical analysis breaks down here, because if anything the public transport myth should make more sense today; L.A.’s new residents, who increasingly hail from crowded Asia and crowded Latin America, more closely resemble 19th century European immigrants passing through Ellis Island. It is not leibenstraum but economic opportunity that links both. As Richmond points out, myth seeks to explain disparate situations and conditions in our experience and give comfort and order to our existence. Perhaps what cities really need to help create a sustainable mobility is the return to the American myths of community, perhaps informed by today’s communication technologies, for barn raisings and revivals, and in the 1950s and 1960s, for giving the stranger a lift, were as much a part of our legacy as the solitary pioneer, the rebel or the open road. — CLIFF HENKE

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