Los Angeles survival guide – Transport

Posted 7 September, 2008 by graham in usa

Big car, originally uploaded by GrahamKing.

First, you’ll need a car, and I do mean first. There are drive-through restaurants, pharmacies, and even drive through banks (ATM’s and real human tellers). If your car has tinted windows, you might not even need clothes.

In the first half of the 20st Century Los Angeles had one of the most extensive tram (called trolleys, or streetcars) networks in the world, covering over 1000 miles. Around the time of the second World War the tram companies were struggling. General Motors acquired them, ripped up the lines, widened the streets (trams typically ran down the middle of the road) and replaced them with buses. By 1963 all the trams were gone. Conspiracy or economics? Read the full story of the demise Los Angeles’ tram system – click on ‘Show transcript’.

In 1993 the first line of the new L.A. metro system opened, and Los Angeles now has good public transport, with a metro, mainline trains, and buses. The metro doesn’t go to the airport, or to the beach, but it serves the rest of Los Angeles pretty well. I expected it to be popular only with poor people and those who have had their license suspended for drunk driving. It is popular with those people, but not exclusively. No-one has told Angelinos that talking to strangers on the underground is forbidden, so it’s a surprisingly friendly place.

When I share my surprise to friends about the metro system, they usually turn to their partner and say “We should go ride that metro one Saturday, see what it’s all about. Do you want to do that? It’ll be fun”.

The Amtrak mainline train runs from San Diego on the Mexican border, up the coast through Los Angeles, and on to Santa Barbera. It is called the Pacific Surfliner, and it gets surprisingly close to the surf of the Pacific Ocean. The trains are massive two-story affairs. When I rode one there was no-one else there, insane amounts of legroom in sofa-style seats, power-plugs for your laptop, a well stocked bar and snack car, and it cost about $12 from L.A. to San Diego.

The overwhelming majority though, drive. This is partly because they can watch Oprah on their in-car TV when the traffic slows down (I’m not making this up), but mainly because it’s their God given right as Free Americans. And as you would expect, the freeways are BIGGER. I have counted 10 lanes in each direction on one freeway.

In L.A., more than anywhere I have been, your vehicle defines you. Men, and butch lesbians, drive pickup trucks, with macho names (Super Duty, Titan, etc), huge engines, and a high rated towing capacity. This is not because they have to haul or tow anything, but simply because they are men. Pickup trucks come in many sizes and price ranges, from small dusty student models, to 4-door family models.

Women have a much greater choice of car, depending on their age, marital status and political views. Students get a dusty Honda Civic, divorcés a soft-top Mercedes Roadster, liberals a Toyota Prius with an ‘Obama 08’ bumper sticker, and conservatives a luxury S.U.V.

If you get awarded a Purple Heart (a military medal) in addition to the medal itself you can get a license plate holder. Many more people see your license plate than your chest.

L.A’s great contribution to transportation are carpool lanes, more properly called High Occupancy Vehicle lanes. I’m not sure where they were first invented, but Los Angeles has certainly taken them to heart. Many highways have been converted so that the inside lane is reserved for cars with two or more people in them. In rush-hour being able to use this lane can make all the difference. A legal test case showed that being pregnant doesn’t count as having a passenger.

Hybrid cars and electric vehicles are allowed to use the lanes even if they have a single occupant. Partly because this is all a bit latte-sipping liberal, and mainly because the California government is seriously short of funds, there is pressure to turn them into toll-lanes.

A politicians choice of car is vital to their career. Arnie, the state governor, drives the butchest S.U.V. converted to bio-diesel. A real man, but environmentally sensitive. Now if he would just make another movie and donate the proceeds, California could keep it’s car-pool lanes.

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