Will Self: How to let yourself become part of LA’s autopia

In all civilised cultures there are patterns of social conformity that act to align the wayward individual with her conformist fellows as invisibly but irresistibly as magnetic waves arrange iron filings around a lodestone. In Los Angeles, not to drive is

New Statesman
Traffic in downtown Los Angeles. Image: Getty

People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles,” or so the opening line of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero would have it. For myself, I’ve never seen the least evidence for this, any more than I have that happy families are all alike. Everywhere I’ve ever driven in LA, its inhabitants have cheerfully braided me into their steely weave until I too have merged with their allconsuming automotive abandon.

This time, arriving from Dallas, I was offered for $40 extra per day a retro-styled Dodge Challenger in DayGlo orange with a black stripe running from hood to trunk. This is a reincarnation of the humpbacked shark of a car synonymous with those Seventies belted-cardie-wearers (and sometime crime-fighters), Starsky and Hutch. Without any ado I heaved my plastic, roared off the lot on to Airport Boulevard and passed the Airport Endoscopy Centre – a timely reminder of what a pain in the ass 21st-century air travel can be.

In all civilised cultures there are patterns of social conformity that act to align the wayward individual with her conformist fellows as invisibly but irresistibly as magnetic waves arrange iron filings around a lodestone. In Los Angeles, not to drive is an aberration on a par with being . . . well, homeless. Heading north on La Cienega I passed CAR CASH: Borrow Against Your Car, and pondered the ghastly predicament of those who had sub-prime car loans; at best, driving a car in a big city is a ceaseless calibration of time, speed, distance and money, by which the human psyche is transmogrified into a hideous chimera, part satnav, part spreadsheet. But to have the added anxiety that the rubber matting might be pulled from beneath your feet . . . well, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Coming down off Baldwin Hills, with their dipping-prehistoric-bird oil pumps, I passed under the Metro Expo Line and fell to considering the bizarre history of LA transportation. Even now, in 2013, the light railway line from downtown to Santa Monica, some 20 miles distant, is only just about to reach the coast, joining together by public transport two urban centres that became incorporated into greater LA decades ago. True, there was once an extensive streetcar network that covered the entire LA basin, but by the early Twenties – around the same time car ownership reached one per head of the population – the steel tracks began to be pulled up to make way for more tyre ones.

This Eleatic paradox lies at the very core of LA’s polymorphously perverse being: the light railway line halving the distance to Santa Monica and then halving it again and so never arriving, while the Streamline Moderne skyscrapers, chelonian under their copper shells, win the race in a few short years. Looking at photographs of LA in the Twenties, I’m always struck by this technological discontinuity: the buildings so sleekly speedy, while the cars retain the flimsily foursquare aspect of horseless buggies. Narrowly avoided by the snout of my Challenger, a cyclist huffing along beside the six lanes of spluttering traffic is just such an anachronism. Reyner Banham, in The Architecture of Four Ecologies, his Starsky & Hutch-era survey of Los Angeles, coined the term “autopia” to describe the city’s vast concrete graticule of freeways and boulevards.

In European cities, despite the botched bits of Le Corbusier that have been bunged down on them, car transport remains quite at variance with the built environment: the Arc de Triomphe is inexorably eroded by the circulation of Citroëns, but in LA the car is the built environment; traffic reports have the epochal character of earthquake warnings and by night the city’s very fabric ripples in the convection of its own exhaust fumes, so that merging with the freeway one is flipped end over end, a satellite orbiting the daemonic earth.

I concede, when it came to it I probably wouldn’t last five minutes but I still have a childlike passion for Los Angeles, and in particular for its car culture. To be in a place where people say porte cochère with no hint of affectation (indeed, “porte cochère” is about the only thing they say unaffectedly) is some kind of strange liberation for me. Everywhere else I drive the traffic jam presents itself as a vicious instantiation of the human predicament under late capitalism, but in LA it’s just the stuff of a very ordinary workaday madness.