Pesky Democratic Process

By Sean Carroll | August 26, 2007 12:53 pm

The LA Times has a front-page article, apparently free of irony, that laments the glacial rate of progress on constructing a world-class subway system for the city, and imagines wistfully how much easier it would be if only we lived in a one-party communist state. In particular, they look at the progress that Shanghai has made in building its own subway, and pout about all of those nefarious restrictions that Americans have to put up with because we give actual citizens a say in the process.

“If the government wants to do something, even if the conditions are not ready for it, it will be done,” said Zheng Shiling, an influential Chinese architect who teaches at Tongji University in Shanghai.

At the risk of only slight oversimplification, the system works like this: Planners draw subway lines on a map. Party officials approve them. Construction begins. If anything is in the way, it is moved. If they need to, Chinese planners “just move 10,000 people out of the way,” said Lee Schipper, a transport planner who has worked with several Chinese cities in his role as director of research for EMBARQ, a Washington-based transportation think tank. “They don’t have hearings.”

Schipper recalled consulting with one Chinese metropolis whose ancient city wall stood in the way of a transportation project.

“One of the members of the People’s Committee said, ‘Oh, I know how we’ll solve the problem. We’ll move the historic wall.’ ” It was, he said, as if a planner in Washington proposed moving the Potomac River to make way for construction.

One searches the article in vain for the part where they say “Of course we live in a democracy, and some people think that there are certain benefits to that kind of system, even if the government does have to ask permission before tearing down historic sites,” but the moment never comes. Instead, we are treated to stirring stories of the plucky citizens of Shanghai, who don’t raise a peep when construction displaces them from their homes — no, indeed, they are happy to be displaced, as it gives them a chance at a new life! (It might be that voices of complaint are not heard because they are actually silenced, but that smudges up the narrative.)

As a dweller in downtown LA, where a better subway system would be a life-altering good and the lamentations of fragile newcomers who are shocked at the presence of construction noise in a booming high-density urban core form a constant background chorus, I deeply sympathize with frustration at the demands the democratic process force onto city planning. But I’ll tolerate the delays if it means that, if the Mayor wants to tear down our apartments, he at least has to hold a hearing first.

  • daisy rose

    Here in Chicago the John Hancock Building could have been a lot higher were it not for the Casino Club – they are still there and the JH is a bit smaller. Still a beautiful building – The good of a few for the good of many – who Has rights?

  • Robin Varghese

    Yeah, and a quickly built subway so totally makes up for those occassional mistakes where people can’t hold their state to account, like the the Great Leap Forward with its 20m dead.

  • macho


    You’re just missing Chicago where Hizzoner the Mayor does have
    free rein to ignore the democratic process and bulldoze a runway
    or two when he feels like it.

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  • Miao

    I don’t get your point. Does the subway system in LA have anything to do with democracy in China?

    I don’t doubt anything you have quoted. I am sad about that.

    But the way you interprete it is not so right. From time to time when west western people observe something happening thousands miles away, they immediately judge it with their own standard without spending a minute trying to understand it.

    I am not trying to argue with you on whether China is a wonderful nation. Without any doubt, it is. But certainly it is not perfect.

    Democracy is good, but a more important problem is how it is carried out in certain society. In different countries, it leads to rather different political and economical system. It wouldn’t work if it is just a copy from somewhere else. Believe me, it will also be built inside China, sooner or later. It takes quite a long time to build a subway system, let alone democracy, isn’t it?

    Just be patient. When it is really built, I believe US will be confronting more serious competition. Why are you guys so urgent?

  • Sean

    Miao, the reason you don’t get my point is because you think I am denigrating the greatness of China, or engaging in some kind of competition, neither one of which I have any interest in doing. I am making the point that, while bureaucracy and inefficiency are undoubtedly bad and we should try to minimize them, giving the government unchecked power to destroy people’s homes and level historic sites is also bad. Worse, even.

  • DavidB

    I heard once an economic argument against a metro in LA that seemed to make sense: LA is too spreadout, not dense enough, it’s a giant suburb, it has no (or too few) centers which are so busy or densely populated that you could build a useful metro station there, from which one could easily walk to so many relevant destinations that enough passengers would choose to arrive there and make the metro station economically viable. I’ve only been on LAX, never in LA itself, but seen from an airplane it looked like that indeed.

  • Lee Kottner

    Having watched the endless community meetings and objections to construction of the 2nd Avenue subway here in New York, I can tell you that nobody likes construction noise and that even so, NYC will bloody well build the subway where it wants to. The major difference is that the city is required to mitigate the noise (by supplying double paned windows & AC units where necessary, using the quietest construction equipment made, and building sound dampening walls). But don’t think China’s the only place that runs roughshod over its citizens for the sake of infrastructure or just plain graft. Most of the elevated highways in NYC were built at the cost of razing whole neighborhoods, as was the World Trade Center. Eminent domain in careless hands has caused a lot of heartbreak and left us with some real eyesores. Now it’s being used to raze neighborhoods that have been dubbed “economically blighted” to make way for the condos of rich developers.

  • Stevie

    Sean, as someone who lived all last summer in Pasadena without a car (actually Altadena, but I worked at Caltech in Pasadena which was pretty unfortunate as Lake Ave is pretty steep and long) I understand completely. And as much as I would LOVE a better metro system in LA, I could see the difficulty. LA is so spread out that it is a given that wherever they try to build they will find something that needs to be torn down. Also, I don’t think LA could really ever be like New York City — with a subway stop every few blocks — because that would be just so much metro there would be no room for anything else (but Im just speculating). I do think, however, that that is what LA would need in order for people to really use the metro as their primary form of transportation.

    There is, for those who haven’t been to LA much, a metro system in LA — it’s just awful. My friend at USC laughingly told me just after I arrived for the summer that there is indeed a metro system (I didn’t even know this at the time) it’s just that no one ever uses it (of course, I didn’t laugh). The one time I did hear of someone using it, they still had to walk for about two hours to get to their location only to find out it had closed… even still, I refused to own a car when I came to LA. It was tough, but I managed. (When I had told an astronomy professor at my home institution that I would be going to Pasadena for the summer he looked at me sadly and said “LA is a doomed city.” I do hope he’s wrong because there are a lot of good things there.)

    Another LA resident told me that there had been great plans for LA’s public transportation system something like 40 years ago, but that they were suppressed by the auto companies… I don’t know if that’s true. But seeing how many cars there are in LA (and how little the carpool lane is used) it might not be far off.

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  • Leisureguy

    Good post. Whence the aphorism, “Beware of getting what you wish for.”

  • island

    I’m not sure that an “unchecked power to destroy people’s homes and level historic sites” means that the government has any desire to do this with purely arbitrary lines on maps, rather, their approximated ‘cut’ is more-rough’… is all.

    There is a great advantage, in terms of economic practicality, which careful research and planning *can* provide for, that “drawing [less-considered and more-approximated] lines on a map” does not not necessarily make up for, when haste makes waste.

    It isn’t simply that a bigger bureaucracy automatically equates to greater inefficiency, rather, some balance between the concerns of individuals and the needs of the society is actually the most efficient configuration possible.

    So when comparing the two systems, it’s more like, an “exact” science, vs., a more-rough approximation in the direction of the same end result.

  • Elliot

    Sean (with all due respect) you work in Pasadena and live in downtown L. A. (what ever that might be. It’s really about the worst downtown for a major city imaginable for those who have not been there. ) I think the answer to your problem has nothing to do with how quickly a public transit system can be built in L. A.

    Maybe you should ask some of the undergrads if they can solve this problem for you 😉


  • daisy rose

    To have a free society it is necessary to have an assessable and affordable transportation system –

  • French

    Here is a relevant NY Times article: Ire Over Shanghai Rail Line May Signal Turning Point (subscription required).

    I don’t know about the broader political picture here, and don’t know that it matters. The Los Angeles government has failed to put in place a decent, usable public transportation system. I think this is a huge failure, part of a larger problem — just look at the brown skies above the city. It’s unlikely that a communist government would have done any better — look at (or rather, smell) Beijing. But it’s still a huge failure.

  • Neil B.

    Maybe an “oppressive” government could do some good by preventing things like the auto/oil/diesel industry blocking the full development of electric cars/trolley systems etc., such as in San Francisco decades ago:

    About “Who killed the electric car …”

    We could have had much better/eco-friendly and more widespread public transportation, and early wide use of electric cars, if these things hadn’t happened. It was real.

  • Sean

    I hope nobody is under the impression that this post had anything to do with the feasibility or desirability of an LA subway system (or a Shanghai subway system, for that matter).

  • stray

    There are historic sites in LA?

  • Mike Schuler

    I get the point. It’s not about mass transit, it’s about the story writer’s seeming envy of the Chinese system because it can get a certain task done faster. The writer ignores or is unaware of what we would lose under that system.

    China has also solved the jail and prison overcrowding problem. If a jail gets too full, they take all the petty thieves and burglars and rapists and they drive them to a field outside of town and put a bullet in each of their heads. I’m sure there are lots of Americans that would love a system like that. I would rather walk however far necessary than give up any of my guaranteed civil rights. I question the intellegence and the patriotism of anybody who would be willing to trade any right for any convenience.

  • jick

    Judging from what I experience in South Korea, it is possible that some residents are paid for more than their house is worth. In that way (almost) everybody’s happy, those few who aren’t getting paid adequately will become minorities and cheerfully ignored, and the financial impact of over-compensation will be spread thin over the whole population.

    Usually, the richer among the residents will get paid well, because they own their houses. The poor, not having any right, will be given a little amount of money with which they can’t rent a similar housing nearby, and will be just tossed aside. (But your mileage may vary.)

    In Seoul there are many people who just long for their own apartment complex to be declared unsafe by the government, because then they can start the reconstruction project, create a bunch of taller, bigger, more expensive buildings, and reap off the profit. Never mind what it will do to the traffic, pollution, or all such city-planning problem.

  • Ellipsis

    here’s to the physical chemists that are working on batteries for our plug-in hybrids. may we get them soon.

  • Peter Erwin

    Stevie @ 9:
    Another LA resident told me that there had been great plans for LA’s public transportation system something like 40 years ago, but that they were suppressed by the auto companies… I don’t know if that’s true. But seeing how many cars there are in LA (and how little the carpool lane is used) it might not be far off.

    The reality is that there was a fairly extensive public transportation system in LA in the early part of the 20th Century: the “Red Car” system (a mixture of streetcars, buses, and light rail). The general view that emerged in the 1930s and 40s was that The Future is Cars, and so the rail system was gradually dismantled and the freeway system built up instead.

  • Hiranya

    I remember a cab ride from Caltech to UCLA and then from UCLA to LAX earlier this year as a couple of the worst journeys of my life, complete with huge snarling traffic jams and angry people filled with road rage cutting off eachother, getting into near accidents, and swearing. If I had to commute in LA on a daily basis I think I would feel like I had arrived in hell. Clearly something has to be done to fix that city – the only option cannot be the Chinese model!

  • Belizean

    The issue isn’t mass transit in LA. It’s that The LA Times has within the last decade moved from being a blatantly liberal newspaper to being a blantantly leftist one. [It’s even ahead of The NY Times on this trajectory.]

    No one would have been surprised to find this article in The American Communists’ Peoples Daily. Its presence in The LA Times is only surprising to newcomers, who have yet to realize that LA’s only major paper has degenerated into a propagandizing leftist rag.

  • Sean

    Those crazy leftists, always whining about how individual citizens have too much input on zoning and urban planning.

  • The AstroDyke

    Sean, since you live in Downtown LA & work in Pasadena, do you commute on the Gold Line?

    Stevie, it’s a shame you never tried the LA light rail yourself. It’s not an all-in-one solution, but for limited applications from Pasadena, it’s pretty good. (to Union Station to catch the Flyaway shuttle to LAX; to downtown museums; to the Fashion District; to parts of Hollywood; to the South Pas farmers market.)

    It’s worth re-iterating Peter Erwin’s comment that LA once had an extensive network of streetcars & trains — LA got sprawly on mass transit, not cars.

  • Count Iblis

    Expanding LA’s infrastructure is a waste of resources. Instead, one should build new cities and evacuate LA. At least, that’s what the Chinese would do. Just think about the big Chinese projects like the Three Gorges Dam and the South-to-North Water Diversion Project

  • Sean

    AD, I drive into work rather than commuting; the Gold Line doesn’t stop as close to Caltech as it would if the world were arranged for my personal convenience. But I keep telling myself I will start doing so on occasion.

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  • Maynard Handley

    Sean, I think the more interesting point here is the issue of delayed gratification.
    I think few in the US want the sort of situation that exists in China.
    However it is a fact that much of the US infrastructure is basically frozen in 1970, apparently unable to move on because of complaints by various groups. A more obvious example than LA subway issues is the completion of, say, highway 710 through Alhambra, and highway 110 through South Pasadena.

    The larger issue is that we seem to have created a situation now where nothing substantial can happen wrt infrastructure. On the one hand we have (often for goood reason) people who aren’t willing to accept govt reassurances about how they will be compensated; on the other hand we have governments that seem unable to comprehend the simple idea of buying out people for a FAIR price rather than insulting compensation; on the third hand we have various (usually very much minority) organizations who for whatever obsessive reasons of their own want to throw a spanner in the works regardless of honest assessements of cost/benefits for society as a whole.

    What we really want is honest assesment of the situation, and some ideas of how to resolve it. I do think that, until each of these three pathologies is admitted by the relevant parties, no progress is possible.

    On more general points:
    (1) The LA subway is not perfect, but it is nice for the situations when it works. For example I’ve used it to get to theaters, which is otherwise a nightmare for parking.
    (2) LA traffic is far more bearable if you get yourself organized, subscribe to some good podcasts, and listen to something interesting as you drive. I really recommend this way of doing things rather than letting yourself stew, or relying on whatever random stuff comes over the airwaves.

  • Haelfix

    A good subway service is completely doable in LA, and would of course be beneficial economically and environmentally in the long run. It just require that the state and city coordinates a sensible plan over several years/decades to finance.

    It would of course require cuts in other sectors to help pay, and given how spend thrifty they are, I doubt we will ever see such a thing (Californians love their local program initiatives). Ahnuld’s green push gives some incentive to completing this task in the not so distant future, but by most expert accounts it seems hopelessly ambitious and difficult. Still at least they’re trying, and thats ok.

  • Josh

    Ugh, and another thing that really bothers me is all those radical anti-government artists. If only …

  • Sacha

    And of course, in theory, the government agency in a one-party state is all-knowledgable and cannot make a mistake, and there is no need for citizens to have input into the process – a little like agencies in a centralised planned economy making decisions as to what will be required in the next five years. Now weren’t centralised planned economies such great successes?

    But real life is more complicated. By having open systems, information more readily flows, and there is a greater chance that information pertinent to the building of some subway will come to light. So what if it’s harder or messier – there is no guarantee that the end result will be better in a one-party system – it may be more quickly built, but the relative lack of information flow will mean that any problems with the construction may not come to light as quickly in a more open system. Think about the SARS outbreak – the Chinese govt denied the existence of the outbreak of SARS at the start, and was that a good thing to do?

  • Chanda

    This brings back lovely memories of places like parts of Hollywood Blvd collapsing when I was in high school. I continue to be amused by the effort to build a subway in the face of the massively stupid decision to let GM buy and destroy the street car system to help automobile sales/freeway development back in the 50s (40s?). Anyone who has ever been a teenager without a license in LA knows to have a good sense of humour about the concept of public transportation :) In the face of all this, I remain a proud product of East Los!


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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