Los Angeles: Are Cars a Gateway ‘Drug’ to Poor Planning and Incompetent Governing?

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-It is easy to understand how street and prescription drugs became a gateway to opioid addiction, which now kills 64,000 people per year in the United States. 

But, it is much harder to understand how that great technological wonder of the modern age, the car, has also become a deadly gateway to most of the urban ills that we cannot live with, but are hard pressed to live without. 

Who are the car addicts? 

Once cars became affordable and easy to drive, they also became extremely profitable. Many business categories, along with “addicted” public officials and drivers, soon became car-dependent. These major addiction groups include the following: 

  • Most prominent are the large international companies, like Toyota, Honda, VW, General Motors, and Ford, that made their fortunes designing, building, and selling cars and trucks. This is their business model, and they are not about to plow billions of accumulated profits into such competing and less profitable transportation alternatives as bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, skate boards, golf carts, wheel chairs, subway cars, or diesel busses. As for switching to totally different consumer products, such as microwave ovens or anti-aging face creams, forget about it. 

This is why the world’s automobile companies are currently investing $100 billion per year in research and development for new automotive technologies, especially electric and self-driving cars. They are betting that this enormous sum can keep several billion people in the driver’s seat, and that cities like Los Angeles will maintain their auto-centric built environment. Even if their path to continued profitability chokes the planet’s atmosphere, ushers in the sixth great extinction, and makes cities hell-holes, they have no intention to stop designing, manufacturing, and selling all the cars and trucks they can induce consumers to buy.

  • Likewise, the world’s oil companies know that their record profits are based on the gasoline and diesel fuel consumed by cars and trucks. They, too, are not about to change to microwave ovens or face creams.
  • Next, lets take a careful look at the construction and engineering companies that build roads and freeways, bridges, auto-centric homes and entire subdivisions, apartment buildings, commercial strips, shopping centers, and parking structures. They, too, have no interest in killing the automotive goose that lays their golden eggs.
  • Next come the industries that first repair and then ultimately dismantle junked vehicles. They, too, would prefer to service and then eventually scrap old electric and driverless cars, instead of dismantling discarded microwave ovens for their parts.
    • Finally, we need to consider the driving public, especially in auto-centric cities like Los Angeles. Except for scattered early adapters, nearly all of those who can afford to own and operate cars, do so. They have adjusted to the social isolation of driving alone for work, school, shopping, errands, recreation, and socializing. 

Furthermore, as electric and self-driving cars become cheaper, safer, and easier to drive, it will become harder to break their driving habit – even when the built environment ultimately finally supports walking, bicycling, and mass transit over driving. Luckily, teens and millennials are already giving up on cars, so there is hope for the future as addicted drivers, like old soldiers, slowly fade away and the design of cities becomes less car-oriented. 

The climate change mitigation myth 

While automobile companies and their suppliers and dealers are ecstatic about the prospects of selling consumers a new generation of electric and driverless cars, we need to be skeptical about their marketing claims. As explained by Stan Cox at CounterPunch (“Are Driverless Cars a Good Way to Help Stop Greenhouse Warming, or is Greenhouse Warming a good Pretext for Selling Driverless Cars”) there is no basis for their frequent assertions that new automobile technology, especially electric and self-driving vehicles, will reduce greenhouse gases. On the contrary, Cox argues that these new cars will make driving easier, safer, cheaper, and more comfortable. In fact, the research he cites confirms that overall vehicle miles traveled will increase. 

In this new world drivers will experience the benefits of mass transit while comfortably sitting in their private cars. Instead of talking on cell phones and listening to radios, they can now read, doze, play cards and board games, work, eat, visit with other passengers, or watch TV.  Before long, they will even be able to send their driverless cars off to fetch something from a restaurant or supermarket. 

This big picture approach to cars may seem remote to Angelenos, in large part because the city’s entire built environment is based on driving cars. Furthermore, nearly every decision at City Hall is based on automobile driving. For example, 40 percent of the land area in Los Angeles is dedicated to congested freeways, gridlocked streets, buckled driveways, and barren parking lots. Even those appalling McMansions spoiling so many Los Angeles neighborhoods reflect LA’s car culture. Unlike the older homes they displace, these residential big boxes boast about their front double or triple garages, usually where the mansionizers quickly leveled mature trees. 

Likewise, every new building has required parking, and the location and inspection of gas stations, old oil wells, automotive repair shops, crude oil refineries, thousands of undergrounded oil and gasoline pipelines, and Aliso Canyon-type natural gas storage tanks require careful environmental reviews and inspections to avoid future disasters. 

Sometimes even well-intentioned public safety street improvements that would make Los Angeles less auto-centric, such as Road Diets, meet local opposition. In locations like Westwood and the Miracle Mile residents challenged these proposals because they feared they would remove parking places or slow down their cars.  

The global price of this addiction 

As a result of dependency of cars and their supportive built environment, accidents are the fourth largest cause of death in the United States (about 37,000 traffic deaths per year), while globally vehicles kill 1,250,000 people every year. Beyond these immediate deaths, there are additional deaths caused by toxic fumes discharged from fracking sites, refineries, and car exhaust pipes. 

We also need to remember that most modern wars, especially in the Middle East, are fought over oil fields, such as Operation Iraqi Liberation (OIL), the original name of the first Gulf War in 2003. Furthermore, since climate change has already begun, the Green House Gases (GHG) created by burning fossil fuels are its leading cause, with 100 large international energy companies responsible for 70 percent of all previous and current GHG emissions. 

It will not be easy to dig out of this mess, but the first step is to debunk the automobile industry’s hype about the energy and climate virtues of their new electric and driverless cars. The next critical step is to place climate change mitigation and adaptation front and center in the City of LA’s updated General Plan. Other Southern California cities, like San Diego and Burbank, have already done this, and they can show LA the way. Finally, the implementation of the General Plan must focus on upgrading LA’s built environment so it is no longer auto-centric. 


(Dick Platkin is a former LA City Planner who reports on local planning issues and controversies for CityWatchLA.  Please send any comments or corrections to rhplatkin@gmail.com.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.