The Future: It Doesn't Work

TIM BAKER

March 02, 1992|By TIM BAKER

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles.-- A transcontinental flight into southern California comes across the clear northern Arizona desert. Ahead is the painted Mojave, then the snow-capped San Bernardino Mountains. Beyond the jagged peaks, the vast Pacific sparkles in the sun.

On this morning, gray clouds fill the valleys which run through the western mountain slopes toward the sea. The clouds cover the narrow coastal basin. The airplane slides into them as it begins its descent. They're surprisingly dirty. They feel like cigarette smoke.

On the ground, you can no longer see the mountains. If it were a clear day, they would tower dramatically, 9,000 feet high and less than 15 miles away. But on this day, the smog smothers them. They're invisible. You don't even know they're there.

The 14.5 million people who live in the five-county Los Angeles metropolitan area have spread out over 100 suburbs which cram every valley. They stretch on and on more than 70 miles out from the center of the city. Actually, L.A. has no center. Instead, so-called ''Edge Cities'' have grown up. They meld into one another in a seamless, endless, urban-suburban mass. On the freeways, you pass shopping plazas, housing developments, office parks, malls, fast-food stores, housing developments, shopping plazas . . .

Eight million cars clog L.A.'s freeways. Rush hour begins at dawn and continues all day with only a slight break at lunch time. Even at 11 o'clock on Saturday night, the traffic on Route 10 from Santa Monica to Pomona reminds me of the morning rush on Route 95. Strict environmental requirements have barely been able to hold the line. With twice as many cars on the road, the smog is as bad as it was in the 1960s.

Air pollution, traffic congestion, drought. Only 19 percent of Californians can afford the $200,000 average price of a single-family home. And always more and more people. L.A.'s population has jumped 26.4 percent since 1980.

Certainly Los Angeles has accomplished wonders. It has repeatedly demonstrated the most important single characteristic of a great city -- the capacity to reinvigorate itself.

In the five years after World War II, Los Angeles started one out of every eight new businesses in the country. With its vibrant mixture of different peoples, it has now become the gateway to our flourishing Pacific trade. Japanese companies have over 900 subsidiaries there. Without natural harbors, Los Angeles and Long Beach both handle more tonnage than the New York-New Jersey port. L.A. has become the country's largest manufacturing center and second most important financial hub.

Last year Los Angeles' GNP was $360 billion. If it were a country, it would have the 12th largest economy in the world. But if, as we are repeatedly told, this city is leading the rest of America into the future, then I don't want to go.

Los Angeles is the direct result of California's refusal to plagrowth and invest in infrastructure. The state, county, city and town governments seem unable to shape or control the spreading suburban sprawl or the resulting pollution, traffic and crime.

The state's unwillingness to invest in transportation systems aggravates these problems. While motor-vehicle miles have risen percent since 1970, California has only increased the number of highway lanes by 15 percent. Few mass-transit and light-rail systems have been built. The state ranks last in the country in per-capita expenditure on transportation. L.A. now has a $1 billion backlog in street repairs.

Smog and crowded highways may be the most visible signs of the collapse in California's quality of life. But the decline of its once proud education systems will ultimately cause more damage. Since the adoption of the infamous Proposition 13 in 1978, the state's primary and secondary schools have been starved for funding. California now spends $4,598 per student per year -- $300 less than the national average; $3,500 less than New York state; $687 less than Baltimore city! Employers report high failure rates on applicant tests requiring only an eighth-grade education. As a result, the state's capacity to produce a high-tech work force for its famous technology industries is now in doubt.

California's outstanding public universities have also suffered. San Jose State provides twice as many engineers for Silicon Valley as any other institution. But, as the Wall Street Journal reported last week, the university has been forced by budget cuts to reduce its faculty by 12 percent and its classes by 20 percent, even after raising its tuitions by 40 percent.

I'll soon head home and leave southern California's problems behind. When my return flight back to Baltimore comes in over the snow-capped Appalachians, the Chesapeake Bay will glisten the afternoon sun. But the clear skies will reveal how suburban sprawl is relentlessly devouring the Maryland countryside below. Growth chewed up 145,000 acres between 1985 and 1990. Another million people will pour into the state in the next 30 years.

How can we absorb this relentless growth without destroying the quality of life? Even in the midst of this recession, that is the central question confronting us. Government, however, largely fritters about the problems of growth and infrastructure. The General Assembly hides from the consequences of further delay.

But the Baltimore-Washington corridor is filling up. Washington and its Maryland suburbs already have the third-worst traffic congestion in the country. If you don't believe me, drive down Route 95 one morning. It's headed straight toward Los Angeles.

Tim Baker writes on issues of city and state.

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