New & Notable: Inventing L.A.’s Autopia, Rival Trancontinental Rails, Rules For Sustainable Communities & Transportation Privatization

In 1920, as its population began to explode, Los Angeles was a largely pastoral city of bungalows and palm trees. Thirty years later, choked with smog and traffic, the city had become synonymous with urban sprawl and unplanned growth.

Yet Los Angeles was anything but unplanned, as Jeremiah B.C. Axelrod reveals in this compelling, visually oriented history of the metropolis during its formative years. In a deft mix of cultural and intellectual history that brilliantly illuminates the profound relationship between imagination and place, Inventing Autopia: Dreams And Visions Of The Modern Metropolis In Jazz Age Los Angeles (Berkeley: University Of California Press, 2009) shows how the clash of irreconcilable utopian visions and dreams resulted in the invention of an unforeseen new form of urbanism–sprawling, illegible, fractured–that would reshape not only Southern California but much of the nation in the years to come.

At 401 pages, it could seem like a daunting read, but those interested in Los Angeles history, urbanization, or the rise of the automobile will find this enjoyable. It’s a great compliment to the Metro Library’s historic transit and transportation studies collection. Many of these documents, which date back to 1911, have been digitized and are available on our website in full-text PDF.

Axelrod focuses on the 1920s when Los Angeles was growing at a fast clip. As we noted back in July, the number of automobile registrations in Los Angeles County quadrupled between 1914 and 1922 – making it very clear that the city’s embrace of the auto would set the stage for decades of congestion and other issues.

Going back further in history is another equally seminal story about transportation in the West. Acclaimed historian Walter R. Borneman has written a dazzling account of the battle to build the first transportation system across America.

Rival Rails: The Race To Build America’s Greatest Transcontinental Railroad (New York: Random House, 2010) is an action-packed epic of how an empire was born—and the remarkable men who made it happen.

After the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, the rest of the country was up for grabs, and the race was on. The prize: a better, shorter, less snowy route through the corridors of the American Southwest, linking Los Angeles to Chicago.

Borneman lays out in compelling detail the sectional rivalries, contested routes, political posturing, and ambitious business dealings that unfolded as an increasing number of lines pushed their way across the country.

The author brings to life the legendary business geniuses and so-called robber barons who made millions and fought the elements—and one another—to move America, including:

William Jackson Palmer, whose leadership of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad relied on innovative narrow gauge trains that could climb steeper grades and take tighter curves;

Collis P. Huntington of the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific lines, a magnate insatiably obsessed with trains—and who was not above bribing congressmen to satisfy his passion;

Edward Payson Ripley, visionary president of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, whose fiscal conservatism and smarts brought the industry back from the brink; and

Jay Gould, ultrasecretive, strong-armer and one-man powerhouse.

In addition, Borneman captures the herculean efforts required to construct these roads—the laborers who did the back-breaking work, boring tunnels through mountains and throwing bridges across unruly rivers, the brakemen who ran atop moving cars, the tracklayers crushed and killed by runaway trains.

From backroom deals in Washington, D.C., to armed robberies of trains in the wild deserts, from glorified cattle cars to streamliners and Super Chiefs, all the great incidents and innovations of a mighty American era are re-created with unprecedented power in this new work destined to be a classic.

Turning now to urban planning, author Patrick Condon discusses transportation, housing equity, job distribution, economic development, and ecological systems issues and synthesizes his knowledge and research into a simple-to-understand set of urban design rules that can, if followed, help save the planet.

Seven Rules For Sustainable Communities: Design Strategies For The Post Carbon World (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2010) clearly connects the form of our cities to their ecological, economic, and social consequences. This book takes on a wide range of complex and contentious issues and distills them down to convincing and practical solutions.

Of particular importance is how city form affects the production of planet-warming greenhouse gases. The author explains this relationship in an accessible way, and goes on to show how conforming to seven simple rules for community design could literally do a world of good. Each chapter in the book explains one rule in depth, adding a wealth of research to support each claim. If widely used, Condon argues, these rules would lead to a much more livable world for future generations—a world that is not unlike the better parts of our own.

In Last Exit: Privatization And Deregulation Of The U.S. Transportation System (Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 2010), Clifford Winston reminds us that transportation services and infrastructure in the United States were originally introduced by private firms.

The case for subsequent public ownership and management of the system was weak, in his view, and here he assesses the case for privatization and deregulation to greatly improve Americans satisfaction with their transportation systems. How can this be done?

Writing in the New York Times, Harvard University economics professor Edward L. Glaeser points out that:

Because the public sector controls almost all roads, airports and urban transit, we see the downsides of public control on a daily basis, but we don’t experience the social costs that could accompany privatization. A private airport operator might try to exploit its monopoly power over a particular market or cut costs in a way that increases the probability of very costly, but rare, disaster.

The complexity and risks of switching to private provision means that Mr. Winston is wise to call for experimentation rather than wholesale privatization. An incremental process of trying things out will provide information and build public support.

Yet many of Mr. Winston’s recommendations are incremental and can be done without privatization or much risk.

The book covers privatization and deregulation of roads, airports, air traffic control, mass transit, intercity buses and railway networks.