Joshua Tree as the Outskirts of Civilization

In my 9th grade geography class, Mr. Ferguson had several standard rants he liked to visit on us, like how high school freshmen were not yet fully human. We all had the potential of full humanity, and in a few more years we could achieve it, with work. We were halfway between primordial ooze and human.

Another rant was how we lived on the outskirts of civilization, Los Angeles being civilization. “And you can see,” he’d say,”as you go from LA towards the desert, that the people get less and less hip until you get here, right on the edge.”

At the time I thought he was funny and slightly mean, but probably wrong. I was living in Joshua Tree and going to school in Twentynine Palms. Almost three decades later, I’m back living in Joshua Tree and working as a therapist in Twentynine Palms, and I’m thinking he was probably right. I don’t know about people getting less hip as you leave LA–it’s arguably true, but depends a lot on your values and aesthetics–but look at this map of population density and you will see that I do live on the edge of civilization. (Click on it for a clearer view.) Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms are the last two splotches of orange (at least 100 people per square mile, no more than 250) heading east out of LA. Just east of us is all fewer than 10 people per square mile for an hour’s drive, then less than 1 person per square mile for another hour. It’s beautiful country, but desolate.

Southern California Population Density 2000

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape on May 19, 2013.]

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On Transportation

(Reblogged from Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, from December 23, 2011.)

I’ve been visiting Vancouver for a few weeks and most days we end up commuting at least once from the west side of the city to the east side and back, mostly by car, sometimes by bus. (I’ve done it by bike, too, but not on this trip.)

It’s about six or seven miles each way and takes about 30 minutes. Google maps says 20 minutes by car, and I’ve heard rumors of 15-minute trips, but I’ve yet to experience one less than 30. Yesterday, our commute was 10 miles and it took 50 minutes (extra Christmas shopping traffic, I’m told). That’s five miles per hour in the middle of the day. It was worse on the way home, at 3:30 rush hour.

I found myself quite impatient with this situation. Five miles an hour does not seem a reasonable speed to travel. I think of Los Angeles as congested, but in non-rush-hour traffic I expect to be able to get to another city in 20 minutes–from the train station in Los Angeles to my brother’s house in Glendale, for example.

The thing is, I’d be on the I-5 most of that trip. There are freeways all over the place in LA. This is strikingly not the case in Vancouver. We are on surface streets wherever we go, hitting stoplight after stoplight, very often with no left-turn lanes so traffic piles up behind each turner. Suddenly I miss all of those ugly, loud LA freeways.

Reanna and her family argue that the fact that it sucks to drive in Vancouver is an accomplishment. The more it sucks to drive, the better, because more people will use public transportation or bicycle. We fought to keep freeways out of here, they say. I was reminded of how upset my grandfather gets when he talks about the freeways in LA. The house he built was one of the houses they demolished to put in a freeway (it might have even been the I-5 that went through his house). Freeways went through the middle of neighborhoods, loud and ugly, splitting them in two. It’s very hard to imagine that happening in Vancouver, if only because the real estate is too expensive.

I am pro-public transportation, so when I’m not stuck in Vancouver traffic I think it’s a shame that LA was designed for cars. Maybe it is the relative ease of car-travel that has kept LA’s public transportation from moving to the next level — though LA, at least according to this article, is quite low in miles of freeway per person compared to other major US cities.

This situation does not strike me as a straightforward win for Vancouver, though. People still drive a lot, and in cars constantly in their least efficient mode, stopping and starting all the time. The busses use the same congested, no-left-turn-lanes roads as the cars, so they lose efficiency and speed along with them. Maybe the answer is to have the government quadruple gas prices or insurance prices to make driving a rich-person-only thing, and leave the roads for public transit. I’d much rather see public transportation that wins because of how great it is, rather than because of how crappy driving has become, but I guess I would take what I could get. Not that I could get quadrupling the price of anything related to driving even here in the most progressive part of Canada. That might be less popular than putting in freeways.

In thinking about all this, I wanted to be able to compare the transportation systems in different cities and found it quite difficult to do. We need a single-number transportation index that takes into account the average speed of travel, average energy-expenditure per mile, and how far people travel on average to live their lives in their area. People-miles per gallon-minutes, maybe, or maybe people-kilometers per joule-minute. Any economics or urban planning students out there looking for a project?