08 October 2005

08.10.05. Transport of Delight: The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los

Transport of Delight:

The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles

By Jonathan Richmond. Akron, Ohio:

The following review by James Smart appears in Technology and culture, July 2005.

"This book is a study about the failure of thought and its causes," writes Jonathan Richmond in his introduction to Transport of Delight. "It starts with a bizarre decision: to construct a comprehensive rail passenger system in an environment where it appears incapable of providing real benefits." Richmond analyzes the decision to redeploy rail-borne public transit in a metropolitan area infamous for its congestion, smog, and sprawl, and, most importantly, where he believes that by any rational measure buses provide a superior mode of transit.

He finds the explanation for this decision in the power of myth and symbol, image and metaphor, citing extensively from linguistic experts such as Susan Langer, George Lakoff, and Martin Fossand on his first page quoting a passage from Russell Ackoff's The Art of Problem Solving: "We usually try to reduce complex situations to what appear to be one or more simple solvable problems . . . sometimes referred to as 'cutting the problem down to size.' In so doing we often reduce our chances of finding a creative solution to the original problem." This is exactly what Richmond believes happened in Los Angeles beginning in the 1980s.

Richmond has done his homework. His book is based in part on more than two hundred interviews with public officials. He presents a history of Henry Huntington's Pacific Electric, the storied Red Car system that once operated 1,100 miles of track radiating in all directions from Los Angeles. He evaluates the case for modern light rail and the forecasting methodology used to predict passenger demand for the first route planned for the Los Angeles area, the Blue Line connecting with the region's second-largest city, Long Beach. He reports that ridership forecasts were initially inflated. Then, just before the line opened, they were deflated in order to make the actual numbers look good.

Transport of Delight devotes considerable attention to the political decision-making process that led to passage of Proposition A, the local half-cent tax that funded the return of electric railways, a process ultimately dependent on "availability of a set of symbols, images, and metaphors which come together coherently to create a myth that acts with the power of truth" (p. 6). The human body's circulation system, for example, became a powerful metaphor for transit planners. Likewise valuable was the perception among civic leaders that electric trains were "sexier" than buses, a perception Richmond addresses at length in a section titled "The Train as Symbol of Community Pride: Penis Envy in Los Angeles."

Richmond notes the power of the mental image that remained after the last Red Cars disappeared in 1961, an image that gave rise to the notion that [End Page 661] the demise of a superior mode of transit was the result of a conspiracy in which General Motors played a key role. The first local railway started running between the harbor and downtown Los Angeles in 1869, the last Red Car line operated along this same corridor, and, thirty years after service ended on that line, rail-borne transit was reborn in the form of the Blue Line. This, Richmond feels certain, was a big mistake. In his view, buses are a superior mode of transit for Los Angeles, particularly in terms of their cost-effectiveness; just about everything involving an electric railway is vastly more expensive than rubber tire on paved roadway.

The Blue Line was brought into existence not on the basis of any rational assessment of available choices, but to reward political acumen, particularly that of County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn (now deceased, though his son became mayor of Los Angeles), through whose Fourth District was routed not only the Blue Line but also two other new electric rail lines -- all this in the wake of devastating riots in South Central Los Angeles and repeated recommendations that improved transit would have beneficial social consequences.

The problem was "cut down to size," yes, but Richmond is certain that it was the wrong size. Whatever one may happen to think about the virtues of different modes of urban transit, Transport of Delight presents an excellent case study in the power of myth, and it provides us with a compelling picture of a place where culture and technology blend seamlessly.


Available from University of Akron Press, 2005. Pp. xix+498. $49.95. The following is the Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/

Amazon Book Description

This unusual book develops a novel theory of myth to explain the construction of rail passenger transit in Los Angeles when it had little to offer the needs of a dispersed autopolis, whose urgent but dispersed public transportation needs could have been better served by developing the regional bus system. The author conducted more than 3000 transcribed pages of interviews and performed the detective work necessary to reveal an unlikely logic that held together a network of symbols, images, and metaphors that together present powerful mythical beliefs in the guise of truth.

Transport of Delight is a true interdisciplinary work, and includes a thorough analytical assessment of the Los Angeles rail program, with a focus on the Long Beach Blue Line light rail — the first of the new projects to go ahead. En route, it shows that ridership forecasting for this project was not only biased and statistically invalid, but in fact done to justify decisions made on other grounds.

A political analysis shows how consensus was reached to proceed with the light rail to Long Beach, but political explanations are ultimately found lacking, because they cannot explain why decision-makers would want to put the rail in place. It is only when provocative metaphors—of the need to connect communities and to restore a mythical balance to a dysfunctional transportation system—and symbols—of escape from the pressure cooker of poverty, of urban success, power and, indeed sexual acumen: the train is revealed as both a woman and a penis—are surfaced, that we realize that Los Angeles’ Transport of Delight is the result of the very human need to transcend complexity by providing mythical creations that appear to offer easy answers to society’s deepest problems.

About the Author
Jonathan E. D. Richmond has a Ph.D. in transportation planning from MIT, where he was a Fulbright Scholar, has taught at UCLA, the University of Reading and the University of Sydney, held a fellowship at Harvard, served as transportation policy adviser for the Chair of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission and consulted for the World Bank.

This review by Jim Smart, adjunct professor of journalism and public speaking at California State University Fullerton and Cal State San Bernardino. From 1981 until 1998 he served as head of media relations for the Southern California Rapid Transit District and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Permission to reprint a review published here may be obtained only from the reviewer.


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