Lost Pearblossom Highway

I remember living in Los Angeles in the early 1990’s, when the city conducted its first public hearings on a proposed new metro, for the LA Basin. That metro system is of course now up and running, and is spread out over five lines. But at the time of its proposal, the public was generally horrified at the prospect of a “subway” making its way out of downtown, and crawling towards the west side. Some of the more thoughtful concern came, for example, from the recording industry which was still largely located throughout Hollywood proper. Their worry, specifically, was with vibration and the effect that an underground rumble could have coming down either Sunset or Hollywood Boulevards. That may seem quaint now, nearly twenty years later. Yet, whether the train cars would travel above or below surface had not yet been decided in those early days. Memorably, however, apart from these more specific concerns, the spectre of public transport seemed to trigger something almost innately hostile and panicky in Southern Californians. Editorial, public feedback, and talk radio blasted away with outrage that a subway would destroy Los Angeles. Nay, destroy the very essence of what it meant to be Californian. I found this to be deeply ironic and odd. For one very simple reason: Southern California by that time had already been quite damaged. By the car.

thiebaud-freewayNow, that’s the kind of statement that is not going to go over well if you live within a half mile of the coast and your interaction with freeways is more limited to hopping every once in a while on the 10, to get to the 405. But for millions of people from LA to Riverside to Orange Counties, Southern California’s delicate landscape in just a short 50 years became a wastescape of concrete. The story is replicated throughout the state. With massive freeways cutting populations off from the coast, bisecting neighborhoods and older downtown grids, and towering over alot of public space in single, double, and sometimes triple elevated stacks. The notion that a new subway, either above or below ground, would ruin all that was just as silly in 1990 as it is now. But even the advent of the LA Metro and the San Diego Trolley has not halted California’s reflexive hostility towards electrified public transport. Recent additions to BART have been arduous and have run into strong public opposition in the East Bay, where new line extensions remain proposed, but not built. In the meantime, the noxious emissions from California’s 22 million registered automobiles, and 7-11 million other vehicles (depending on categories), goes airborne day after day.

California, at the 33 million mark, is currently running as many vehicles on its roads as the United Kingdom.  And, California is producing roughly the same amount of emissions also. Using just the Carbon Monoxide category, which is conservative, California vehicles emit about 6000 tons of CO every day. This does not include the full menu of other primary and secondary reaction emissions, now counted as green house gasses (GHG). California tries to console itself by a regime of very tough emissions regulation, which, interestingly via today’s news, is about to form the basis for a new national emissions standard. My take is less triumphant: higher emissions standards are marginal. Not transformative. Many of the gains captured by tighter regulations are given back in part by massive, widespread congestion and idling. While the traffic jam is a worldwide phenomenon and certainly not unique to California, highway congestion in the Golden State–especially during times of economic growth–is notorious. To this point, I think the growth phase of 2002-2008 with the attendant high oil prices showed that California has now discovered certain limits. Limits to its geography, its population, its infrastructure, and its uber-leverage to the automobile. The areas of the state most dependent on commuting some distance by car, for example, places like Riverside County and Stockton-Sacramento (places that saw waves of newcomers seeking cheaper housing from adjacent counties during the housing bubble) have been ravaged not only by the bust, but also by their uncompetitive transport profiles. It’s tough enough to have to commute by car in Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, or Orange County. Try commuting from San Bernardino County to LA, or Sacramento to San Francisco. The prospect of making such a  trip with favorable break-evens, on an all-in energy and housing calculation, was exactly the bet that many made this decade. It didn’t work then. And it doesn’t work now. And when oil makes its way back, to previous highs?

pearblossom-highwayOne of characteristics of energy consumption of which Californians are quite proud is the higher energy efficiency per capita the state manifests, when compared to the rest of the country. It’s true that California took the lead decades ago in appliances, and the gains captured have been huge. However, California achieves its efficiency victories in part by the temperate climate that covers the main population centers, that manufacturing takes place elsewhere, and that the efficiency metric is calculated off of GDP. All that is fair, and good. However, I would remind that California has to import 23% of its electrical power, with most of that coming during high-load daylight hours. Also, given that only a tiny percentage of the state’s population is able to even access public transportation, we have to set the efficiencies in the Power and Heating/Cooling sector against what are surely massive inefficiencies in transport. There is also a twist, or a paradox, unfortunately, to the type of energy efficiency gains that California has achieved over decades. The state’s successful targeting of home appliances, and residential/commercial building materials and practices are precisely the kind of micro-level gains that tend to accrue to greater macro level growth. Indeed, this phenomenon is broadly known as Jevon’s Paradox. However, in the particular case of California, the structure of micro gains leading to greater macro demand is better described by the Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate (yes that’s a mouthful but the observation is worth reading). Let me pause here, lest the reader become confused about my position, to state clearly that I believe all energy efficiency gains are good. Period. My aim is merely to show that the great gains made in power consumption have not been mirrored in transport.

What does the state of California spend, each year to operate and maintain its roads and highways? Before I answer that question, let’s go back to the state’s cultural hostility to public transport. Which is now almost cruelly ironic on a number of levels. First, the major cities of California were absolutely plastered with light-rail trolleys and street cars up until World War II. So not only is there no historical support for the contemporary belief that “public transport can’t really work in California” but the introduction, nay re-introduction, of light rail to Los Angeles and San Diego, for example, show that we can in fact lay down track over the post-war automobile grid, and capture riders. Significant numbers of riders. Secondly, the congestion on California’s highways and roads takes a big chunk out of the state’s potential productivity, and is hardly a “safe” environment when set against emotional fears that public transport brings with it noise, and crime. While I don’t have a recent study on lost productivity in a transport system overweighted towards the automobile, IBM research has started trying to quantify traffic congestion losses to GDP, globally. For all of Europe, for example, which they identify as having about 300 million drivers, they estimate current losses at 1.00% of GDP. And that’s in a region with very good public transport.

black-and-white-freeway2California’s recent transportation budget was about 17 billion dollars. Of that, I identified about 1-2 billion for public transport, and 3-4 billion just for road, highway, and bridge maintenance. A great deal of this budget obviously goes to administration. And, this does not capture Federal spending in the state. There is currently alot of volatility in the California budget as well (no surprise), and, in addition, the state is concurrently in the process of floating bonds to fund future projects. Another way to look at transportation spending is to take the total proposed budget of 103 billion, note the 17 billion for transportation, and then subtract 2 billion for public transport. There is really no surprise here: California’s roads and highways are by far its largest single class of infrastructure. And regardless of what is being spent, it’s not enough. The state’s highways may be in the worst shape ever. This has further pushed wear and tear costs to motorists to new highs, according to a new estimate to nearly 600.00 dollars per capita, per year.

The risk now is that the vehicle transport system has entered a phase of diminishing economic return to the state’s economy. In addition, it’s likely that the five main counties in the South: Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange, and San Diego which remain the stars of post-war growth are still set-up and vulnerable to the next oil spike which I see coming no later than 2012. Even on a cultural level now it’s harder to accept that the personal automobile either represents, or even provides, a Californian with the sense of freedom that did indeed mark the post-war period. Car commuting in California is a miserable experience. As someone once said, “sitting in morning rushhour traffic on the Bay Bridge, after you’ve had a bran muffin and a double latte, is not a good place to be.”

madrid-light-railI don’t see the introduction of EV’s solving the problem. Nor will higher CAFE standards solve the problem. Raising gasoline taxes to pay for more roads won’t solve the problem. Nor will penalizing drivers solve the problem. Here is the situation: until California builds more light rail and commuter rail, the commuter has no other choice. Neither on the Federal or the State level is there any serious plan to move Californians out of their cars. Oakland, Silicon Valley, and Los Angeles should all have a ton of either new or expanded light rail. After light rail and commuter rail have been expanded, which would impact the higher population densities, only then should the high-speed route from LA to SF be undertaken. Though, if the cultural barriers to rail remain stubbornly high, there is a case to be made that a successful high-speed rail project would trigger the necessary shift in public opinion, needed to build out rail statewide.

Can California grow its GDP on a sustained basis, should the state decide to continue with the post-war automobile-transport model? It now seems unlikely. The state is curiously bar-belled, with a high-margin knowledge and media economy that runs on electricity at one end–and an antiquated transport system that is almost exclusively an artifact of very cheap oil on the other. The gross inefficiencies, sunk costs and losses of the latter are eating their way into the great gains of the former. The sunk costs are of course particularly loathsome, as they clearly continue to drive policy and the hope that business as usual can be reclaimed.


Paintings/Photos: Derek Buckner, Freeway 2. | David Hockney, Pearblossom Highway. | Unidentified black and white photo, Los Angeles freeways. | Madrid Light Rail.

Further Reading:

Past Visions of Transportation’s Future in Los Angeles: Historical Maps.

Green Policies in California Generated Jobs, Study Finds.

State of California DMV Statistics for Publication.

State of California EPA Air Resources Board – Emissions Inventory for On Road Sources.

UK Department for Transport Vehicles Statistics.