Car Culture’s New Chapter

Paula LabrotBy Paula Labrot

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Car Culture’s New Chapter
Pacific Electric Company’s Red Car network of trolleys and buses that covered over 1,100 miles of LA connecting neighborhoods and communities and contributing to “urban sprawl.”
Look to the future! EVs will not be the only solution to carbon-free vehicles. Choosing which future fuel will be the winner now is not a good idea. Los Angeles is the car culture capitol of the country. It is, literally, built into the city. If you drive down Wilshire Boulevard and study the buildings of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, you will find the storefront windows laid out closer to the ground than in other cities, so drivers could ‘”window shop” as they cruised up and down the street. LA’s freeways were once viewed by futurists as the epitome of innovation and engineering genius, according to Colin Marshall, author of “A Los Angeles Primer.” Reyner Banham, a Los Angeles architectural critic, wrote glowingly about the freeways, ranking them as “among the greater works of Man.” But there remained those pesky nuances that the freeway people skimmed over in their hurry to build out the future. Nuances that lined the pockets of the automotive industry and destroyed the public transportation infrastructure systems that were already built. Today, the current rage for electric cars has emerged as the darling of the car culture. In an executive order, Governor Newsom has called for elimination of new internal combustion passenger vehicles by 2035. It is, however, important to think through technologies like electric cars, because they come with a lot of infrastructure investment and permanency that could squelch other, possibly better, possibilities.
The Dutch Lightyear 1 solar car can go 450 miles on a single charge.
A Little History—“Show Me
the Money”
Just as Mulholland and his developer cohorts made fortunes from diverting Owens Valley water (paid for by citizens of the City of Los Angeles) to the undeveloped Valley where they had large land holdings (re-watch Chinatown), so corrupt city officials, business interests and land speculators laid out the transportation plans for roads and freeways in Los Angeles.
James Kushmer writes in “A Tale of Three Cities” that Henry Huntington and friends built miles of track for the Pacific Electric Company’s Red Car network of trolleys and buses that covered over 1,100 miles of the region, connecting neighborhoods and communities. By buying rural lands, building railway networks, and reselling land plots to individuals, Huntington fueled the horizontal growth known as urban sprawl, also referred to as “Los Angelization.”

Bill Dotson, writing for the USC Digital Library, explains how the fate of the Red Cars was inextricable from LA’s postwar car culture. “The Red Cars were inconvenient and did not run along many of LA’s urban neighborhoods. They did not take into account the metropolis that Los Angeles would eventually become. Cars became cheaper and more plentiful. Starting in 1947 and into the 1950s, LA built and expanded its freeways and organized its streets and other features to better support the car and personal, rather than public transportation,” Dotson wrote.
Los Angeles urban planners jumped into freeway development, spurred on by the usual special interest groups and financed by gas taxes levied on the public.

“One of the leading advocates to freeway development was Harry Chandler, the publisher and owner of the Los Angeles Times. Chandler, who owned large amounts of stocks in automobile industries, used his paper to promote the automobile…,” notes Jovanni Perez, who writes eloquently about the ruthless, racist community displacements of working-class immigrant communities who lived along the planned freeway routes but had no political influence. If you had money, the route went around you. If you had no money or influence, the route went through you.

Over the years, as more people came to LA, more cars came to LA. Traffic jammed. LA got smog. Engine emissions became a problem. Air quality control boards were established. The need for cleaner fuels emerged.

Future Fuels
Electric vehicles are one way to reduce carbon emissions but there are big eco-downsides in their production, maintenance, and disposal. There are other eco-friendly technologies as well that can use existing roads and engines.

Natural gas vehicles run very clean and require no big infrastructure adjustment; the United States is loaded with natural gas. Not only is it clean, it is cheap and readily available.
BioNGV or Biomethane is an energy obtained from organic waste. Many cities today use biomethane for their public transportation vehicles.

Hydrogen cars’ only emission is water, but, at this point, the processes used to obtain the hydrogen in a usable form produce either CO2 or use toxic products and metals harmful to the planet.
Biofuels are fuels produced from biomass or green waste, e.g., plants, cereals, agricultural waste, and can be used as an energy source in vehicles. Ethanol comes from vegetable resources like beets, wheat or corn and produces 75% less greenhouse gas than gasoline.

The Dutch Lightyear 1 solar car, a very long-range car, can go 450 miles on a single charge.
Piston engine cars can be powered by nitrogen.

All these technologies have kinks to work out, but scientists and engineers are closing in on solutions.

Emerging Technologies
Future energy technologies are on the cusp of refinement and efficacy. I could give you a list of new battery technologies about to pop that would blow your mind. Believe me, lithium batteries, mostly produced in China, are the floppy disks of future fuels.

The changes are coming fast and furiously. Letting the government choose which future fuel will be the winner now is not a good idea; it just makes a few people and energy corporations uber-rich and sticks the public with permanent infrastructure we may not want next week.

And the bill! Our grids are not ready for, or capable of this kind of sea change yet. Let things emerge.

Remember how computers were all wired and not very portable? Remember how fast all the advances happened? How fast we went from analog to digital? From floppy disk to jump drive? There are so many technologies closing in on real solutions to eco-friendly fuel. Let’s not stifle the competition and get stuck hard-wired to a predictably limiting technology.
Vamos a ver!
Paula Labrot

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September 30, 2022