Jun 072008

My ticket is bought and paid for: one-way to Tokyo on August 5th. I should be on a night bus to Kyoto by the 8th, just in time for the final three weekends of 2008’s Suma Season.

I’m so excited I can’t even tell you.

I decided to go with a one-way ticket not because I intend to stay in Japan permanently, but more because I don’t really know how things will go this time around. Peder’s flying in from Norway on the 7th and has a 2-month round-trip ticket; our plan is to get separate apartments as close to each other as possible, spend weekdays at home programming, and weekends catching up with friends, going to festivals, & enjoying the fabulous Japanese summer.

In addition to an application that the two of us will be developing for an architecture company in Northern Norway, Dean’s business in California has been booming – and it looks like we’re almost ready to resume working together on a part-time basis. He’s got two surveys on the West Coast in the next two months that I’ll most likely participate in, and by total coincidence, he’s heading back to Japan just a few days after myself.

So basically, I’m gonna play it by ear.

If work goes well and I’m able to support myself while slowly replenishing savings, I’ll hang out for awhile, perhaps hopping over to Korea or Thailand to renew my visa once it expires. Or maybe China to finally get started learning Chinese. And if things don’t go well, I can always buy another one-way ticket back to LA.

But to be honest, for now, I’m not all that interested in staying in LA. I continue to come here because I like being near my family and friends, but the thing that bothers me to an intolerable level is how ludicrous it is that we have to use cars to get anywhere.

Even before gas prices got so out of control, the concept of getting in a big tin can to sit in traffic on a freeway, waste my own time, burn precious natural resources, breathe fumes, and dump pollutants into the atmosphere seemed just ridiculous. For the life of me I can’t figure out why everyone just accepts it. Sure, there may be little subcommunities where you don’t have to drive as much – but the fact remains that we really have no decent alternative out here. Buses have to sit in the same gridlock as everyone else. And if you want to get out to some more distant residential area (i.e. my dad’s house), you still have to drive, which invariably means sitting and wasting time in traffic.

And now that gas prices have reached a mindboggling $4.50 a gallon, just going to the gym costs several dollars – which I do pretty much every day. And that’s in a Honda Accord. Could you imagine if I was still driving my Firebird?

I suppose I could always try another city – Chicago, New York, or San Fransisco. If there’s one thing I’ve realized during my travels it’s the incredible benefits of living in a place with either a highly developed mass transit network OR a very centralized urban area where everything is accessible on foot.

Example: The first time I came back from Japan, I traveled almost immediately to visit some friends in New York City. At that time, I absolutely hated it. In comparison to Japan it was filthy, smelly, covered in graffiti, and populated by some of the rudest people I’ve met. Go out at night and you can literally feel the lack of safety.

But you know what?

I stopped there again for Noz’s wedding on my way home from Israel and spent a few days with some friends who live in the city – right in the heart of West Village. And for the first time I really saw New York’s appeal. You can walk or subway just about anywhere, and the streets are always bustling with activity. The nightlife is poppin any night of the week and theres an area for everyone – young, old, rich, poor, hippie, athlete, beach bum, etc. If you’re a local, you always bump into friends – just like Kyoto. Because unlike LA, New York is not based on “car culture.” It’s a street culture. In LA you can’t go anywhere without driving, so 9 out of 10 of sidewalks are completely empty.

Sadly, the crime, dirtiness, cold winters, and ludicrous cost of housing are still a bit too much for me to think about making a home in The Big Apple – but all I’m saying is that I’ve finally seen its appeal.

Anyways, I’m ranting. The point of this post was to say I leave for Japan on August 5th and have no idea how long I’ll be there.


I added a little blurb on my projects page about this website as a code project, and about the Google Maps utility I wrote for the travellog page, if anyone’s interested πŸ™‚

  19 Responses to “Foot Culture”

  1. Nice! August 5th – 3 days after I return to the states to finish up my last semester of undergrad. Though I should be back in the Tokyo area in mid-January. I agree with the idiocy of the car culture in not just LA, but most any large US city. Maybe these $4.50/gallon gas prices will get people to maybe think about better public transit, or better urban design?

  2. Here are some thoughts about why Los Angeles is such a car city compared to to others:

    Los Angeles as a major city is around 100 years old, just about the same age as the commercially viable automobile. It has never been bombed back to the stone age and allowed to rebuild in a more modern way, as have Tokyo, Berlin, many other more mass transit-centered cities. In its formative years, it was never so thoroughly poverty stricken that the majority of residents had no choice but to take mass-transit (resulting in today’s minimal coverage). It is not old enough that it formed in the time of narrow, small, cobblestone roads that encouraged tightly packed habitation such as Boston, New York, and even Chicago. And unlike San Francisco there are few geographical boundaries that forced people in the past to build efficiently. Also, in the early 20th century, oil company lobbying set the policies of the State of California on a car-centered path (culminating in the shutdown of the rail line that once went from downtown LA to Santa Sonica beach right down Santa Monica Boulevard.) This was done based on the now-laughable concept of “Who would want to take a train when they could drive?”

    From at least the middle of the 19th century people lived along the banks of the Los Angeles river, and around the early 20th century people began to live along the coast. That formed the beginnings of a wide, open city boundary early in the region’s settlement.

    High gas prices have the potential to change the way we think about urban planning, but it would take a century for any meaningfully large amount of any major city to adjust, because of the inherently ineffecient process that cities employ to build roads and the size of the problem.

    It appears to be more likely that absurdly high gas prices will sooner shift the auto industry to other energy sources that will allow us to continue our LA car culture for a lower cost. The better solution of course would be to redesign the city, but any serious effort to do that would require such a heavy application of eminent domain that it would make the DOT’s acquisitions of land for the federal highway system in the 1950s look like child’s play.

    A slightly more realistic measure that could be undertaken in the US is to build a federal, nationwide high speed rail system. This has never happened in the U.S. because our more capitalistic society frowns upon large scale railroads because they are almost never profitable (Amtrak is largely subsidized) and until recent events, our highway system was the envy of the world.

    However now given the very high gas prices and their effect on the economy (from airfare to consumer products, which must be delivered by diesel trucks) now may be the time to consider a long term US high speed rail project. That would of course not help LA’s specific problems, but it could help distribute the problem and could reduce the kinds of economic negative effects that will ultimately come with increasing costs of transportation of goods and people.

    Any such project would face tremendous lobbying opposition from the auto and oil industry – but perhaps the railroad industry could match them.

    Such a rail system would certainly be a more beneficial use of China’s money than blowing holes in the Middle East and then filling them in.

  3. James: Awesome…what will you be doing back in Tokyo? Are you making a (semi-)permanent move?

    Noz: Damn, that is QUITE a comment! Did you find that somewhere or come up with it all on your own? Quite comprehensive and well thought-out…

    In any case, I totally see how it came to be – my point, though, is that people shouldn’t tolerate it as they do. People just all seem to have this attitude of “‘eh, that’s the way it is,” which is what allowed it to remain unchecked for so long.

    Oh well.

  4. Yeah that was all from the noggin. In fact I think that was the first time I have ever used any of the information I studied for my Urban Planning minor. I knew the history of LA and California just from being from LA, but the history of other cities and more general stuff came from college and just general history of the Western world.

    The pessimism regarding bureaucracy and the road design process came from personal observations made while working for the Cities of Irvine and New York, as well as hearing my Dad talk about how the City of LA’s road and bridge division (barely) functions.

    Regarding the US rail idea, as soon as we got to Europe in ’04 and I saw with my own eyes that it was possible for a geographically large “country” to have a unified reliable train system, I became interested and I read all I can regarding rail systems in the US.

    There are a few projects in early stages in the US, such as the California High Speed Rail system:

    and an even earlier-stage project connecting Disneyland to Las Vegas:

    There are probably more around the US, but I am sure I can be forgiven for focusing on the California projects.

    The history of the transportation systems that we use in the US today goes right back way before the invention of even the steam engine in the early 19th century to the industrial revolution in a relatively unbroken chain of politics, corruption, and family connections.

    That we have an even minimally function transportation system in the U.S. AT ALL could even be seen as a testament to the hyper-capitalistic system that underlies much of United States transportation policy. Among the contenders to that policy is the environmental movement: one of the reasons why we rely MORE on foreign oil now than 30 years ago despite much presidential rhetoric is because the environmental movement has prevented (either by fiat or by enormous compliance costs) drilling for oil in the plains of Colorado, Montana, and regions of Alaska.

    From an engineering point of view there is a more frustrating side of this: that the combustion engine has not improved in efficiency all that much in the past 50 years, despite tremendous improvements in materials engineering and computer modeling. It is absurd to believe that Ford Motor Co.’s troop of the best automotive engineers in the US is unable to build an engine that gets over 35 miles per gallon. Rather, engine standards are set by the Federal Government as a product of lobbying and corruption.

    The web of connections between big oil, the federal government, and carmakers has ensured that the requirements for engine efficiency have barely crept up over recent decades, as the automakers and oil industry have a symbiotic relationship. However last week GM announced that they are closing several Hummer and SUV factories, so perhaps they have lobbied themselves into a hole. A number of carmakers have “pledged” themselves to buliding more fuel efficient vehicles, but you can bet that as long as the “automotive-petroleum complex” stands strong in Washington it seems that American cars will not get that much better.

    Luckily foreign manufacturers build cheaper better cars that are more efficient. Unfortunately for us, the automotive-petroleum complex has an answer for that; they have ensured that imported cars face such high import taxes that the cost of foreign-made cars approaches the cost of far inferior US-made cars. Combine that with the steady loss in value of the dollar and it becomes uneconomical to acquire a foreign made car OUTSIDE of the US and you get the situation we have now.

    This is why I will be commuting to my Bar Exam class in LA by bike. Fight the power!

  5. Awaiting moderation? Is it possible that I have rambled on for so long that I have triggered some kind of anti spam measure?

  6. In case my comment that awaits moderation is lost, I’ll answer your question, Justin, again much more succinctly: Yes I came up with that on my own, based on experience, observation, and history.

  7. Justin: It should be a semi-permanent move, I will be going to graduate school (Environmental/Urban Geography) for at least my masters, maybe until my Ph.D. (depending on scholarships and such).

  8. Nice comment noz.

    Justin…..come visit me in China if you get the chance

  9. wait!, you’re going to japan again????

  10. Justin, looking forward to your arrival dark brother, see ya soon.

  11. Noz,

    I am illuminated by and in agreement with your assessment of LA and US commuter history and dilemmas. Thank you for detailing it so lucidly here.

    Curious…has a study even been done to see if the already existing LA River waterways could be used as routes for Mass Transit? I’m thinking some sort of elevated rail or monorail system like Chicago’s, except the trains run elevated high above the concrete river bed, enough so as to not ever worry about getting wet. As these channels are already cut through much of the city, it would curtail the eminent domain issue. Of course connector spans would need to be run to existing rail lines and to other destinations of choice where the river does not already go.

    Also, I cannot understand the recent replan and construction of Santa Monica Blvd.(Big and Little – that go thru Century City and Westwood) didn’t include, nor allow for, a future return of an East-West rail system in that corridor. They definitely had (but no longer have) the space for it.

    Perhaps Justin needs to consider expansion with side bar chat rooms on this site…

    Who knew?


  12. My mom lives right off of Santa Monica at Greenfield, one block west of Veteran, so I have seen that street’s redesign. It appears to have been purely focused on improving traffic flow; I can no longer turn left onto Greenfield from Santa Monica, which prevents cars stopping in the tiny left turn lane and creating a traffic wave behind them that goes back to the other side of the 405. Of course there have been multiple new lanes created closer to Century City, which in my minimal driving there during my visits is a big improvement.

    Of course, the city is just playing catch up. Here in NY people have a less elegant solution to these issues: drive on the sidewalk, the shoulder, the median, and ignore traffic laws.

  13. Dan, an answer to your river-rail question from my Dad, (City of LA Engineer for 33 years:)

    On the surface, pun intended, this transit idea would make sense, you can build 20-40 miles of monorail for the price of one mile of tunnel. The problem is, ALL the bridges that cross the LA river are designed to clear the “high water mark” by exactly the same amount that the monorail would have to clear the same high water mark.

    So all the bridges will be right dead in the way of the monorail route. And there are probably hundreds of said bridges. While it is true that all of them could, in theory, be raised 10-12 feet to allow the monorail to pass under the bridge in each case, THAT will be one hell of a logistical problem.

    Monorail OVER the bridges? That would make more sense but it would have to clear by enough to allow house-moving under the monorail tracks. That’s 25 feet above the roadways or so, and the roadways are already 15-20 feet or so above the high water mark (so the BOTTOM of the bridges clears the high water mark)… but then even 30 feet of water and 40 feet of extra height on the monorail towers (properly designed for earthquake, wind and water loads) would STILL be way cheaper than any other alternatives.

    So the idea isn’t DOA but it will cost more than “the usual elevated railway” because of the excess heights.

  14. WOW….I love it when I unintentionally spur such thought-provoking discussions. And to think I expected to get little more than the typical “Come onn, America isn’t THAT bad” reaction πŸ˜‰

    (Yeah, for some reason it looks like first long comment did get stuck in the spam filter. I didn’t think that happened for registered users though…weird πŸ˜› )

  15. Man, you think YOU got it bad…imagine all the poor bastards who have taken jobs in commercially appealing communities (downtown, Santa Monica, etc.). and yet must live in neighborhoods with lower property values (SF, Valencia, or even fucking Riverside). That is why the 405/101 and the 60/10 freeways are fucked. I literally have to time my drives to the counter-commute unless I feel like sitting in traffic for up to 2 hours at a time. In other words, I could have gone to San Diego in the time it takes to go from Santa Monica to Northridge :(.

    The truth is, we silver spoon bastards don’t have it that bad…no matter what, we can afford to pay for gas…we just buy 2-3 fewer drinks at the bar (or in your case, at the 7-11). Others must now pay double the gas to drive 2 hours each way to work, in order to make enough to sustain a middle class family. These are the people who are really suffering.

    LA is pretty screwed right now.

  16. By the way…come on, America isn’t THAT bad!!!

  17. Nick, you are right. Our spoons are indeed silver and we have the hard work and sacrifice of our parental units to thank for that. And so I invite you all to join me in a loud “Thank you, parental units!”

  18. THANK YOU nick!

  19. Thank you, parental units πŸ˜‰

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