Sometime during the second hour of a 20-minute drive on the 101, after my fourth phone call to my brother saying I’d be a little — make that pretty, no, very, okay, outrageously — late for dinner, I wondered yet again why Angelenos tolerate these routine episodes of paralysis. It has been nearly 60 years since John Fowles sang of Los Angeles as lithe and flexible, like a dancer’s body: “The great flow of power up and down the freeways, easy and controlled and fast — everywhere this characteristic American mode of moving, a sort of jet age tempo.” The city still finds its way back to that loose-limbed rhythm now and then, but a lot of the time it moves more creakily. Freeway traffic shuffles, lurches, or, as in La La Land, gives up on the idea of going anywhere at all. Standstill traffic is not an occasional malfunction; it’s the logical outcome of the way the city was designed over many decades and at great cost. You’d think a high enough pile of miseries — blown meetings, kids not picked up from school, deliveries unmade, birthday parties missed — would lead to a consensus that the entire metro area needs a mobility upgrade. The wonder is how many years the city grumbled and shrugged, with a New York–style whaddayagonnado?
More recently, though, the answer to that rhetorical question has changed into a catalogue of specifics elegantly laid out in Renewing the Dream: The Mobility Revolution and the Future of Los Angeles, edited by the New York architect and writer James Sanders. Decades of experience have made it clear what never works: wider freeways, longer commutes to more far-flung exurbs, and more plentiful parking, all of which simply breed more cars. We also know what does work: more transit options, greater density, redesigned streets, and trimming away excess parking. The book, a sumptuous collection of essays (by Sanders, Nik Karalis, Frances Anderton, Donald Shoup, and Mark Vallianatos), plus interviews, paintings, photographs, sketches, and renderings, makes the case that L.A. is finally ready to give up on the failed strategy it has clung to for so long. The whole urban agglomeration is in the middle of a multi-decade build-out of its metro and bus system, though it has been slow to win over riders. The reinvention of L.A. is official policy now, at least in some of the metro area’s fragmented jurisdictions. Parking minimums have started falling away, accessory dwelling units (i.e., “granny flats”) are legal now, and neighborhoods that once allowed only one residence per lot are starting to absorb buildings of three and four apartments. “The book’s premise of the densification of Los Angeles is based on what is happening, not an aspiration,” Sanders says. One startling metric: In this city of mansions, ranch houses, and bungalows, almost all new construction now consists of buildings with five apartments or more. L.A. is filling in. Cue the howls of NIMBY rage.
The question of whether and how to remake L.A. breaks down into ultralocal skirmishes. Bands of neighbors organize to protect a few low-rise streets from an invading tower, citing the usual litany of character, infrastructure, and gentrification. Yet those parochial squabbles have global resonance. Cities everywhere have replicated Southern California’s skein of interchanges scything through the landscape and its roadways lined with towers that are so moated by driveways and parking that popping next door means boarding a two-ton vehicle for a two-minute drive. Having led the world astray, L.A. can teach it to undo its mistakes, a responsibility that gives Renewing the Dream an epic cast. In the book, Sanders and the L.A. studio of the international architecture firm Woods Bagot promote a slo-mo revolution, not some fast-breaking tech-style disruption. They advocate the triumph of the carless, or at least the car-light, fairly low-mileage lifestyle abetted by innumerable policy decisions and multibillion-dollar expenditures. Glossily illustrated, lucidly written, and thoroughly reported, the book makes an argument that is simple yet — pardon the expression — seismic: Many drivers would happily ride a bike, grab a scooter, even ride a bus, if only those choices were safe, quick, and convenient. Unfortunately, Americans find themselves in an existential traffic jam, locked in their cars, unable to ditch them and walk.
To help crack that conundrum, Woods Bagot inventories all the surface parking lots big enough for new construction, then figures out how best to use all that extra acreage for housing. This is the kind of study that, in a rational world, would act as an owner’s manual for a city with too many parking places and not enough beds. Looking a little further ahead to a future when electric vehicles will turn the gas pump into a relic, the firm imagines repurposing all those service stations into plazas, markets, and even zones for vintage-auto meetups. One pre-EV, pre–Woods Bagot transformation is already on the way: Destination Crenshaw, a mile-long art boulevard running through the heart of South L.A. and terminating at the new Sankofa Park and an equestrian statue by Kehinde Wiley.
Sanders writes an elegy for the courtyard apartment and the bungalow court, those efficient endangered species of Southern California low-rise architecture. It’s an ancient and seductive way to live that crops up in Seville, Copenhagen, Berlin, Mexico City, and a million other locations but, like the fan palm, always felt ideal for L.A. That is until it was legislated into obsolescence in the 1960s by onerous parking requirements. The power of the parking space is one of those inexplicable insanities, as Henry Grabar exhaustively expounds in Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World. The need to stash a room-size vehicle at its point of origin, its destination, and just about anywhere in between has become the primary shaper of cities. Those obligatory patches of oily asphalt are so expensive to incorporate into new construction that it’s more economical to build nothing at all. The courtyard apartment, the setting for so many noir movies and starlet fantasies, the satisfying merger of efficiency and luscious landscape, didn’t accommodate enough cars. Instead, L.A. invented the “dingbat” apartment, essentially a street-front garage with living space above — a dainty structure distinctly unsuited for an earthquake-prone zone.
Sanders doesn’t just mourn the courtyard apartment; he shows how to reintroduce it into the real-estate wilds with a design that’s both gracious and compact, old-fashioned without being precious. If I were moving to L.A., I might want to live in Sanders’s California Court — if it existed, if it weren’t just a verdant isle moored to an eight-lane boulevard, and if I could afford it. More important, it can’t just be an appealing one-off, like, say, Bestor Architecture’s companionable Blackbirds development in Echo Park or MAD’s ivy-covered village elevated above Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. These enclaves can provide models of moderate density and hidden pleasantness but not enough to reengineer a sprawling megalopolis’s DNA.
The essayists are clear-eyed about the power that mythology has over reason. Slipping behind the wheel can evoke the feeling of freedom even when the driving itself is hemmed in by construction slowdowns, speed traps, detours, and the Google lady’s disembodied voice instructing you at every turn. In truth, the freeways have always seemed more convincingly utopian from certain vantage points than others. Ansel Adams looked through his lens from the sky and saw them as elegant waves rippling across the hills. The Chicano painter Carlos Almaraz saw those suspended highways as sites of spectacle and violence where flames, explosions, and gruesome deaths are periodic occurrences, like earthquakes and mudslides. In his 1982 painting Longo Crash, the flames from flipped cars shoot up from the layered horizontals of streets, ocean, sky, and the slender band of concrete viaduct.
Almost all American cities started mainlining car traffic as soon as it became available. The result is an addiction: The more vehicles flow through an urban area’s arteries, the faster the system breaks down. Yet few families or places can quit the car just like that; such a drastic move would bring life to a halt. And so each sick metropolis takes a few tentative steps — putting in a single streetcar line, say, or painting a few bike lanes. Then it panics and stops. Los Angeles is special, not because its car culture is more powerful than other cities’ but because it is facing the problem squarely and swallowing the pain. In that spirit, the authors of Renewing the Dream don’t just complain or fantasize. They sharpen their pencils and come up with a vision reminiscent of a time when architects used such primitive implements. L.A. doesn’t need another furious sermon or soft-focus fantasy. Wishful thinking won’t make it more livable. Despite the title, this book is no dream. It’s a practical, panoramic collection of ideas that are already in play and reports on steps already taken.
As I read, though, my mind turned back to that immobile rush on the 101, and my optimism faltered. I wondered whether the book is a collection of rubber bands and thumbtacks instead of a robust and lasting vision. In an interview with Sanders, UCLA professor Michael Manville describes downtown L.A. as a colorful walk-to-work enclave and the one area where neighbors don’t complain if a new high-rise goes up next door. But the pandemic was brutal for the city’s central business district, just as it was for many others, and the pall has yet to lift. Whatever the future of downtown may hold, the present offers a grimmer form of walkable density: a growing city of tents and cardboard bivouacs lined up along Skid Row. L.A. has L.A.-size problems that at times seem to be growing faster than the solutions can pare them back. It’s hard, for instance, to hold on to a sunny attitude when you look over one of those dozen-lane stretches of interstate that wind through a great city and see its sluggish rivers of steel, each of its 100,000 pairs of taillights representing a human being, armored, impatient, and usually alone, cursing all those other people they can’t hear or even really see but whose daily destinies they share. Perhaps that road winds slowly back to the days of Fowles’s exhilarating flow. For now, even the blithest visionary must have moments when it feels like a slog through a stagnant mire.