Saturday, August 08, 2009

Sea, cars and sun.

I just spent 2 weeks off in Southern California and it really is the best place to be on vacation – it’s convenient, laid-back and most importantly the climate is really the best in the world (even compared to Europe) in summer and so your body can rest fully.

The temperature in the midsummer goes from an average high of 77°F (25°C)to a low of 65°F (18°C) at night. It has the advantage of maritime and Mediterranean climates. Of course, I’m talking of just the few miles by the coast, from the Santa Monica bay to San Diego, not the Central Valley or the desert which can be hell (and often is).
No other place on earth has such an ideal climate in the summer months and it is the best in the country in the winter, which may explain why so many people live there and why it is so expensive.
But like anywhere else, there’s another side to the coin and in California, I think it is the high dependence on cars. More than the earthquakes or the fires when the Santa Ana wind blows, I think the car culture in California is what would be the hardest for a European like me to get adjusted to.
One the one hand, the road system is very convenient of course. Once you have figured out the freeway system, you don’t even need a map. And then, there’s always parking no matter where you go, even if you may have to pay for it. (However, you often find free parking if you are willing to walk 10 minutes which most people don’t seem ready to do). In fact, pretty much everything can be drive-thru so you don’t even need to park (Too much work!).

In many ways, Californian drivers are really pampered which may be why they are … the worst drivers! Of course, it all depends on your conception of a good driver but when you come from the East Coast or Europe, the way people drive in SoCa gets really REALLY annoying.
For one, they have absolutely no concept of faster traffic on the left lane and slower traffic on the right, which makes it very difficult to drive fast enough (and I’m not even talking really fast, just barely above the 65 mph limit) even on a six-lane freeway, and I suspect they just don't care (the "whatever" mentality so tyical of SoCa has its drawbacks) or that they simply have too many lanes.
Then, they take forever to turn, park and maneuver, even if it’s totally safe and if there’s plenty of room for them to do so. And they get totally freaked out if you are less than 30 inches (50 centimeters) from their car when you park. God forbid you may scratch their beautiful monstrous SUVs!

Of course, those are things that most Europeans experience when they come anywhere in the United-States but Californian have turned them into an artform.
I know it is cultural, I know it is because they are so used to having much more space than we do, but it is nonetheless annoying. I mean, it is perfectly okay when you’re on vacation, but I think it would take some time for me to adjust if I lived there and had to hurry to work in the morning for instance.
And then there’s the very fact that with a very few exceptions, you need a car to go anywhere. It is the worst place with this density of population for public transit. Everything is so spread out. You might think it is only natural that people decided to spread out and use their cars since they had so much space to begin with. Besides, Americans have always cherished personal freedom and mobility, rugged individualism and masculine force - look at the size of those SUVs!.
Surprisingly this has not always been the case. There was a time when an efficient mass transit system in Southern California using streetcars, light rail, and buses existed. It was the Pacific Electric Railway better known by the locals as “Red Cars” and the “Yellow Cars”. It interconnected system interconnected cities in Los Angeles and Orange Counties and also connected to Riverside County and San Bernardino County in the Inland Empire.

You might think such a system was doomed to fail with the rising of cars, but it turns out that the demise of the electric railway system was given a little push by the car and the oil industries. Basically, General Motors (along with Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum and a few others) created a holding to secretly buy street cars companies and dismantle them or replace them with buses manufactured by GM. In 1947, they were charged with conspiracy. It was known as the Great American streetcar scandal.

Granted, the demise of the trolley system was probably a matter of time and it disappeared in many other countries, including France. The environment was certainly not a concern back then – in fact, at the beginning, cars were seen as improvement over the horses and their dirty manure. Yet, it is a cautionary tale for the present when you consider new urban initiatives such as Platinum Triangle in Anaheim (CA) and its more transit-oriented environment or the expansion of Metrolink, the rather new (1991) regional rail system that serves Southern California. There is a real war going on with lobbyists of all kinds and in this economic crisis, and budget crisis, the way money is spent on infrastucture will shape the future of the rgion.


One thing that might help is people’s concern for the environment (even if it has slightly decreased recently) and the continuing congestion in the region. A strong and efficient transportation infrastructure is needed but it will take years.

In the meantime, and despite its car culture, traffic congestion, earthquakes and fires, Southern California is probably still one of the best places to live and definitely the best for a relaxing vacation.

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