Driving in Philly v. Driving in L.A.

While at Disneyland, Holly and I had the chance to visit with some old friends from college who made their way to Hollywood. One interesting thing I noticed was the difference in how we described distances and landmarks. While Holly and I described things based on how many blocks or transit stops away they were, our friends described things in miles or in how long it took to drive there. While Holly and I would describe something based on its nearest corner or some nearby landmark, like a park, the most significant landmarks for our friends were the intersections of nearby freeways. It is an interesting reflection of how transportation affects culture. While Holly and I don’t own a car and either walk or ride transit virtually everywhere, our friends each needed their own car so that they could get anywhere. We left with them, and spent as much time trying to get out of the parking lot as it probably would have taken us to just walk back to our hotel.

In fact, to get everywhere we wanted to go, Holly and I actually had to rent a car for two days while in Los Angeles. Now, I do drive regularly enough that I don’t have much of a problem remembering how to do so (although navigating L.A.’s web of freeways is a bit different from plying the surface streets of Philadelphia); what amazed me, however, was just the sheer amount of time and distance we had to travel to get where we wanted, to the point that the car was the only option.

One thing that I think is telling is comparing the types and distances of driving from what we have done in two years in Philadelphia versus two days in Los Angeles. Holly and I participate in PhillyCarShare, which we have only used four times. Our first trip in Philly was to the nearest Home Depot to get a Christmas tree. The next was to a friend’s house in Upper Darby to pick up a bookshelf. The next Christmas, we went to the same Home Depot, but they didn’t have a tree we liked, so we went to the other Home Depot, along the Delaware River. Our most recent trip was to Ikea, to pick up yet another bookshelf. In total, these four trips added up to about 47 miles over a two year span.

We actually made the same number of trips in Los Angeles. First, I picked up the rental at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana and drove to our hotel near Disneyland in Anaheim. Later we drove along the Pacific Coast Highway to Dana Point to go to the beach, and drove home a faster, further inland route. On Sunday we drove to church in Anaheim, and later drove out to the Cheesecake Factory in Sherman Oaks to meet with some of Holly’s family. After returning the car to the airport, we had driven the same number of trips, but it had taken us a whopping 189 miles to do it all. That’s over four times as much driving as we had done in two years in Philadelphia.

I think it’s important to emphasize that these two maps are at the same scale, so I overlaid them:

I was just blown away, not only by the fact that you have to drive to get anywhere in L.A., but just by the sheer amount of driving one has to do to get anywhere!

Now, I will admit, that we were on vacation and traveling with a large group, and didn’t take the time to check and see what sort of transit options were available to us. But still, it is plainly evident that Los Angeles is a city for driving, at the expense of other modes of transportation, and so much so that it has become a part of the culture. That may begin to change as younger people demand walkability and urbanism—and, in fact, some of L.A.’s most desirable neighborhoods, including Hollywood, are also its most walkable. However, with it being such a part of the culture and having so much infrastructure devoted to driving, it may be harder for Los Angeles to make the switch than for other cities.

UPDATE: Holly reminded me of another little gem on southern California’s driving culture. I seem to be having trouble imbedding it, so if all else fails, just click here. You’ll be glad you did.


About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

2 Responses to Driving in Philly v. Driving in L.A.

  1. dan reed! says:

    I’m a little more bullish on transit & walkability in Los Angeles. I got a chance to spend a week there a few years ago and got around exclusively by foot and Metro. It’s not New York, but LA has several dense, walkable places (Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, downtown, Pasadena, and many more) connected by a robust bus system and rapidly expanding rapid transit network.

    And as Jarrett Walker at Human Transit points out, Los Angeles’ organization as a “constellation” of activity centers actually makes it a great place to run transit because there’s always demand in both directions (as opposed to everyone commuting into the city in the morning and back out in the evening), while the mountains and ocean (and fights over water rights) serve as barriers to development, creating suburban areas that are actually kinda dense and could (with some help) one day support good transit.

    Compare that to a region like Philadelphia, which does have a dense, transit-friendly core (and legacy streetcar & railroad suburbs), surrounded by progressively lower-density areas that can at best support infrequent or rush hour-only transit. If there’s a point in the future where we have to “think beyond the car,” as it were, it’ll be a lot easier to do that in the San Fernando Valley than in, say, Chester County, PA.

  2. great post

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