It doesn't have to be like this.

Photographer: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Self-Driving Cars Would Make LA the Greatest City

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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In late June, the acclaimed novelist, Boing Boing co-editor and all-around public intellectual Cory Doctorow announced that he was leaving London because, as he put it, it had become “a city whose two priorities are being a playground for corrupt global elites who turn neighbourhoods into soulless collections of empty safe-deposit boxes in the sky, and encouraging the feckless criminality of the finance industry.”

That got a lot of attention. The hashtag #WhyILeftLondon became a thing on Twitter (this piece by Guardian political columnist Rafael Behr was apparently another inspiration), and lots of journalists ruminated on what had gone wrong with the city on the Thames.

Less examined was Doctorow’s choice of refuge: Los Angeles. He wrote,

Why Los Angeles? I've lived there twice before. Both times, I found my neighborhood to be walkable, full of independent companies, and packed with people making cool stuff without any of the much-vaunted Los Angeles phoniness.

LA, and Southern California in general, have long been known for sunny vapidity. Amid economic troubles and racial unrest in the early 1990s, the city added a reputation as a sunny dystopia. But as it’s gotten older, LA has just kept getting more sophisticated, more diverse and more compelling. Whenever I spend time here, as I’ve been doing for the past week, I start thinking that I want to move here too, for a couple of years at least. I grew up near San Francisco, raised on a steady diet of LA-mocking Herb Caen newspaper columns. But -- and it pains me to say this -- I think I might now like LA better than the Bay area.

Much of the appeal is, as Doctorow hints, that the LA area is still affordable enough that normal people doing interesting things can live and work and start businesses here. There’s lots of insanely expensive real estate, of course, much of it concentrated near the coast, but even just a few miles inland you can quickly find cheaper, scruffier territory.

I think the key -- other than that LA hasn’t had nearly the influx of absentee foreign real estate buyers that London has -- is that this is less a city than a sprawling collection of urban villages. In and around almost every one of these LA villages is a mix of property values and development density. Yes, downtown LA is making a comeback, which is great, but it seems likely to become another thriving LA village with especially tall buildings, not a vortex that sucks all economic activity in its direction.

The big problem, though, comes when you want to get from one of LA’s urban villages to another. Here’s how things looked on Thursday at 5:25 p.m.:

source: google maps

I doubt that the 5:25 p.m. traffic map looks all that much different in New York and some other big U.S. cities. The issue is that in LA you have so many reasons to want to get from one place on that map to another. A superficial but telling example: any listing of New York’s best restaurants will be concentrated around lower Manhattan. Look at the LA Weekly’s “99 Essential Restaurants,” and they’re all over place: Boyle Heights, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, South LA, the South Bay, Pasadena, Venice, the San Fernando Valley and so on. But how do you get there in time for dinner? The "Saturday Night Live" skit “The Californians,” a soap-opera parody in which all conversation eventually devolved into a discussion of driving routes, was onto something.

That’s why, although LA’s big recent investments in public transit are welcome (“Los Angeles is building new subways!” enthused Doctorow), they aren’t really the ticket. Because of where I tend to stay during visits to LA (I spent this week at the Orlando Hotel on West 3rd Street), I’ve had this fantasy that when the LA county transit authority has completed the long-delayed Metro Purple Line, which stretches westward from downtown along Wilshire Boulevard, I would be able to rely entirely on public transit.  The problem with this idea is that (a) I’ll be at least 70 when the Purple Line is done and (b) being able to go back and forth along Wilshire Boulevard isn’t really all that exciting, come to think of it. Hub-and-spoke transit networks are never going to entirely fit how life is lived in LA.

Biking is also surely going to be a bigger part of LA’s transportation future -- the weather is great for it, and most of the terrain is too. But that’s really a way to get around within LA’s urban villages, not to get from one to another. No, LA will remain a city of automobiles (half of yesterday’s Los Angeles Times front page was devoted to an architectural review of Interstate 405). So what has the most potential to make life in LA dramatically better and different is a change in how we use cars.

The New York Times reported last year that Uber was “changing night life in Los Angeles” as it made it no longer necessary to have to drive everywhere. But while Uber and other car services remove the hassle of parking and the danger of driving after a night of drinking, they don’t really help with the traffic unless you’re using a car-sharing service such as UberPool. But if acceptance of those sharing services grows, and we begin transitioning to self-driving vehicles that make fewer mistakes and can thus safely drive closer together at higher speeds, the potential for moving LA from gridlock to constant motion is huge. If we are on the cusp of a revolution in automotive transportation, LA seems like the place that will benefit from it most.

I’m usually dubious of optimistic predictions like that, and I probably should be more dubious of this one. But something about LA makes me want to wish it true. If you could actually get where you wanted to go within a reasonable amount of time, and not have to spend so much mental energy planning and executing your driving strategies, LA really might be the greatest city on the planet. Of course, once everyone figured that out, real estate values would go up so much that nobody interesting would be able to afford to live here anymore. That will take a few years, though.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net