LA Ignored the Warnings

You could use the title for almost any story about reverses affecting Los Angeles’ economy, but this one happens to be about LAX.  According to LA Biz Observed blogger Mark Lacter, and the Daily Breeze, LAX is facing losses in its lucrative overseas business, business that has a largely unseen positive effect on the Los Angeles economy.  It’s so unseen that City Hall has utterly mismanaged the needed upgrades at LAX for the past 15 years, preferring to listen to NIMBY-minded voters than the economists, labor leaders and airline executives who kept telling them LAX’s huge advantage in international flights was not God-given, and that the airport needed some major fixes or the airlines would go elsewhere.

Sure, Air India’s decision to stop flying out of Los Angeles could be blamed on high fuel prices.  That alibi was already claimed by the Department of World Airports chief executive. But Air India still flies out of San Francisco, and fuel costs just as much up there.

The fact that you could reach dozens of cities overseas via nonstop flights from LAX gave this region an enormous edge economically.  But the locals didn’t care much about that and it was easy and more beneficial to make LAX and its stewards a target for political posturing.  And eventually, much easier for those stewards to tell the city council whatever nonsense it wants to hear.  It’s not their airport.  It’s Los Angeles’.

This is the problem with term limits.  The idea was to force the politicians to focus on their responsibilities as elected officials and not on their electoral fortunes.  This part of term limits has failed. The politicians are much less connected to the city they serve than they were in the days of John Ferraro and Gilbert Lindsey.  In Los Angeles, you now have a political culture built around tearing down city assets rather than protecting them, because having a few notches in your belt positions you for the next campaign.  So what if a critical institution like LAX is weakened?  That’s a trivial concern to the city’s political leadership now.

P.S. Bill Boyarsky has a post explaining what council members really think about when they think about LAX.

Those Selfless Angelinos of 1984

Give me a break!

This is from the LA Times’ series on traffic:

When Los Angeles traffic experts get depressed at the sorry state of the freeways, their minds sometimes drift to the improbable days of 1984, when the Olympic torch blazed through town and the city’s sea of cars parted.

For more than a week, downtown and Westside freeways worked as their creators had intended, whisking drivers from place to place.

The respite from congestion was flickeringly brief, but many still ask: Can the experiment be repeated?

For the 16-day event, transportation agencies put aside turf wars. Employees carpooled or worked staggered hours or took vacations. Truckers shifted deliveries to off-hours. Construction projects were rescheduled. Arterial lanes were reserved for buses. Two-way streets became one-way streets.

Actually?  Despite all the measures, the entire city was braced for the worst traffic in memory.  The staggered hours, shifted truck deliveries, etc. were implemented to keep the already crowded freeways from congealing into a gridlocked meltdown, among other things delaying athletes and media from reaching event venues.  It was assumed that the traffic would still be terrible.  It was a shock, a thrilling surprise, that traffic jams disappeared almost entirely.

But that’s not how young Times reporters and their sources remember it:

“We had essentially no congestion,” said David Roper, retired operations chief for the California Department of Transportation’s Los Angeles division. “What was behind all this was the feeling ‘I don’t want to be the guy who screws up the Olympics.’ “

You cannot be serious. This wasn’t altruism, it was fear!  So many people I knew left town entirely.  Everyone remembers that the 1984 Games made a profit.  What’s often forgotten is that it made a profit from a brilliant sponsorship campaign, and not from ticket sales.  Most Olympic events were not sold out.  Few wanted to brave the traffic.

The reporters’ point is, it only takes a small percentage of drivers to stay off the freeways for the commute to go smoothly for everyone else.  Today was proof.  I had to go downtown for the first time on a weekday since gas prices zoomed past $4 a gallon.  My route is basically the entire Harbor Freeway.  I didn’t go at the traditional peak, but even at 10 a.m., it’s usually blocked from somewhere north of the 105 through downtown.

Not today.  It was clear all the way, even through that crazy stretch where cars try pick their way to the correct lanes for the 5, 101, 110 and the exits.  And I’m sure it’s because of the gas prices. I hear anecdotally  that companies are shortening the work week, instituting telecommuting and making other arrangements to keep their employees from searching for work closer to home.

This is a big, fat, prize-bait series the Times is running.  Obviously, it was conceived before gasoline got so expensive.  The writers might not have expected it, but summer 2008 is going to be another Traffic Miracle, thanks to whatever you blame for high oil prices.  Maybe by the end of the week, they’ll have figured it out.

The “Silver Lining in High Gas Prices”: A Boost for Telecommuting

When I worked in Mayor Bradley’s office in the 1990s, I was part of a task force designed to increase city workers’ telecommuting.  At that time, oil was cheap, but traffic was horrible and air quality still (then as now) the worst in the nation.

We were mindful of the 1984 Olympics traffic experience, when just an 8 percent drop in the amount of cars on the road resulted in traffic that flowed like midnight.  Small changes can have a big impact on the traffic.  Less traffic idling was another anti-smog strategy.  So, we thought it should be possible for City Hall to set an example for the business community.

How silly.  When it comes to management, Los Angeles’ city government will never “lead the way” on anything.

Both management and labor perceived telecommuting as a threat.  Department heads didn’t want anyone out of their sightlines for any longer than was absolutely necessary.  They assumed the worst of their employees.  The unions demanded that telecommuting become a bargaining issue.  Typical of how city unions work, the labor appointee to our task force missed the first two meetings, then came late to the third and asked to speak with me privately.  She said, “We’re not sure if telecommuting is a way for managers to unfairly reward or unfairly punish our members, but either way, we’re going to oppose it.”  Then she sat at the table with the rest of the task force, repeating a few platitudes, knowing she’d killed the idea.

What emerged instead were 9/80 and 4/40 schemes to give some city employees the option of two to four weekdays off per month in return for a longer workday.  What it meant in practice was employees would work the same eight hours worth of tasks, stretched into nine- or ten-hour days, except with an extra day off every week or two.  It was nice for them, but chaotic when it was time to schedule meetings.  Most workers chose Friday to stay home, so Fridays went dead.  Add to that the introduction of casual Fridays — which started after I left the mayor’s office — and the end of each week became a world where Charles Bukowski would have fit right in:  Hardly anyone there, and those who did show up wearing sweats, old T-shirts and shoes you might use for wading into flooded basement.

I don’t know if that’s still the case over there; I haven’t been in City Hall for over four years.  But I digress.

In Southern California, every weekday there are tens of thousands of commuters who drive epic distances to get to work centers in LA and Orange counties.  In the 1990s, the Inland Empire land boom was just beginning.  My last commute was about 30 miles each way and that seemed painful and expensive enough.  Now gas prices have doubled since 2004, and many people are driving west from places like Temecula.   Temecula is almost 90 miles from downtown LA, and more than 65 miles from Santa Ana. Do the math.  If your car gets 20 miles per gallon, pretty good for a beep-n-creep voyage on crowded freeways, it’s costing you nine gallons per day to go back and forth from work = $36 per day just for gas.

I can’t imagine that at least some of those people, and the merciful among their bosses would want to alleviate that.  So, all of a sudden, telecommuting looks less scary, maybe necessary, and perhaps something that will be embraced in a rush.  That’s what Computerworld’s blogger Mike Elgan thinks:

One thing leads to another. High gas prices prompt employers (including the federal government) to allow employees to work from home once a week. Once that’s accepted culturally, an elephant appears in the boardroom: If it’s OK once a week, why isn’t it OK five times a week? (This is what happened with “casual Friday” — its once-a-week acceptance lead to the current trend of casual wear every day.) Once telecommuting is accepted, “extreme telecommuting” — working from the Bahamas or Paris or an internet-connected shack on the Australian Outback — becomes acceptable, too. After all, once you’re out of the office and connecting to the company over the Internet, it doesn’t really matter where you are, does it?

The last remaining barrier to the general acceptance of “extreme telecommuting” is purely cultural — it’s our irrational clinging to obsolete rules for how we work. As the cultural barriers fall, more of us will be freed to work from wherever we please, something which mobile technology and Internet communication already enables.

To me, that’s the silver lining in high gas prices.

Seth Godin, writing about the higher standards business meetings and conferences must meet to make it worth the (increasingly expensive) trip puts the onus on managers to make going to the office a value-added experience, or else:

If you’re a knowledge worker, your boss shouldn’t make you come to the (expensive) office every day unless there’s something there that makes it worth your trip. She needs to provide you with resources or interactions or energy you can’t find at home or at Starbucks. And if she does invite you in, don’t bother showing up if you’re just going to sit quietly.

I’ve worked in three companies that had lots of people and lots of cubes, and I spent the entire day walking around. I figured that was my job. The days where I sat down and did what looked like work were my least effective days. It’s hard for me to see why you’d bother having someone come all the way to an office just to sit in a cube and type.

The new rule seems to be that if you’re going to spend the time and the money to see someone face to face, be in their face. Interact or stay home!

How long before companies in Los Angeles, where the distance of commutes is among the most acute in the nation, adopt this kind of thinking?  I’m not sure they have a choice.

There’s probably money to be made in telling managers how to manage a virtual workforce, because a lot of companies will need to make this shift soon or they’ll lose valuable employees.

(A different version of this post appears on the blog I write for Dolan Media, From 50,000 Feet.)

“End of Summer”

My wife stopped me in my tracks this morning when she read me the following poem, which is in the current New Yorker:

End of Summer
by James Richardson

Just an uncommon lull in the traffic

so you hear some guy in an apron, sleeves rolled up,

with his brusque sweep brusque sweep of the sidewalk,

and the slap shut of a too thin rental van,

and I told him no a gust has snatched from a conversation

and brought to you, loud.

                                    It would be so different

if any of these were missing is the feeling

you always have on the first day of autumn,

no, the first day you think of autumn, when somehow

the sun singling out high windows,

a waiter settling a billow of white cloth

with glasses and silver, and the sparrows

shattering to nowhere are the Summer

waving that here is where it turns

and will no longer be walking with you,

traveller, who now leave all of this behind,

carrying only what it has made of you.

Already the crowds seem darker and more hurried

and the slang grows stranger and stranger,

and you do not understand what you love,

yet here, rounding a corner in mild sunset,

is the world again, wide-eyed as a child

holding up a toy even you can fix.

                                                 How light your step

down the narrowing avenue to the cross streets,

October, small November, barely legible December.

Sure enough, I went down to the beach late this afternoon, the same beach where only four days ago hung with the vapors of a moist, southern heat wave; and instead of the balminess I remembered, I saw clear, blue cloudless skies and felt a cool, almost chilly breeze.  Only the warmth of the water carried the reminder of the tropics that so recently drifted through here. 

It almost feels like the poem brought the change in the weather.  It certainly set the scene for the day.  

Why do I miss that icky, sticky heat wave?  Well, I really don’t.  It kept me awake and made it hard to concentrate on anything, especially work.   But the beach was amazing in a way it probably won’t be again for a long time.  I wish I’d thought to spend more time there.

“Palomar” to Premiere in Temecula

palomar-postcard.jpgMy friends Todd and Robin Mason have completed their epic scientific history documentary, “The Journey to Palomar,” and its first public screening will take place next week at the Temecula Valley International Film & Music Festival. It will be shown twice: September 13 at 8 p.m. and September 15 at 3:30 p.m.

The Palomar Observatory‘s Hale Telescope, at one time the most powerful telescope on earth, was first used by Edwin Hubble and played a crucial role in gathering evidence to support Einstein’s theories and the idea of the Big Bang as the origin of the universe. Despite its age, it is far from outmoded and keeps a busy schedule to this day.

Palomar is also a San Diego County landmark, so this screening is being treated as news by the local media. From the North County Times:

The film follows the career of George Ellery Hale —- considered the “Father of Astrophysics” —- as he wages a lifelong struggle to build the giant telescope that would turn the way humanity views the heavens on its head.

The film also tells the story of the creation of “The Giant Eye” —- the telescope’s 200-inch-diameter mirror —- and how it captured the imagination of Depression-weary America.

Considered the “moon shot of the 1930s and ’40s,” the American public hung on every word printed and every radio broadcast about Hale’s project from the time the government grant was given to begin construction until the giant mirror arrived in Escondido in 1947 and began its journey up the mountain.

(snip)

The husband and wife team of Todd and Robin Mason have had a video production company in Los Angeles for more than two decades. In that time, they’ve found success —- “we’re making a living,” Todd Mason said with a laugh —- working on commercial and promotional pieces for companies such as Nissan and Bank of America.

“We decided a few years ago we wanted to do something that we wanted to do,” Todd Mason said. “I’ve always been interested in astronomy and a friend told us the story of how the Palomar Observatory came to be and it seemed really interesting.” Continue reading

Labor Day Weekend Total: One Lost Pair of Glasses

Very hot weekend in Southern California. The thermometers underestimated what was going on, particularly out here on the coast. It wasn’t 114 degrees, but it certainly got higher than 88.  The  stickiness factor made sleep difficult.  Accomplishing a simple chore often required a change of shirt afterward.

The people around me all seemed sleepy and uncommonly gentle, looking to avoid confrontations if possible because arguing would take too much energy. This was not weather to provoke a riot. This was the kind of weather that makes you forget things.

My brother and his family were down from the Bay Area for the weekend. We made a point of going to the beach just before sunset on both Saturday and Sunday evenings, when the crowds were smaller and the temperatures more comfortable.

Sunday we were particularly late in going. It was just my visiting brother and me. We got into the water as the sun was disappearing over the horizon, and body-surfed until the late-staying lifeguard finally whistled us out.

I was juggling car keys, a cell phone, a shirt, a towel and glasses. Somehow in the approaching dark, I lost track of my glasses, a fact I didn’t realize til we had pulled out of the parking lot. I did a U-turn. “I know exactly where they must be,” I assured my brother.

Flashlight in hand, we hiked back down to the beach — Rat Beach butts up against the cliffs of Palos Verdes, and is accessed by a steep asphalt road and then a trail. We searched. I was shocked I didn’t find the glasses right away. In a flashlight’s beam, it was not easy to get reoriented. We spent an hour systematically walking up and down the beach but they didn’t turn up.

Continue reading

Here’s What “John From Cincinnati” Means

I get it.  The fact that I get it doesn’t make “John From Cincinnati” a good show, but if you’re wondering what it’s all about, it’s simple.

“John From Cincinnati” tried to answer the question of what would happen if the most potent figures from the New Testament, akin to John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, Joseph and Mary and of course, Jesus Christ, were to emerge in a contemporary setting.  What would the people around them do? 

The show asks:  Do you believe the New Testament?  Do you take it as a matter of not just faith but fact that Jesus performed miracles like raising the dead and walking on water?  Was the purpose of these miraculous feats to persuade the people of his times to believe he was divine, and that his words were prophecies? 

If you do believe these things, why would you find “John From Cincinnati” implausible? Isn’t there supposed to be a return?  Well, then, it could happen like it does on the show, couldn’t it?

shaun-butch-john.jpgThe show was rife with Christian mystical symbolism, but I don’t think the point of the show was to bring us all to Jesus.  It was, instead, a what-if, a fantasy, a film noir Second Coming. And yet, within the universe of the show, we are to believe that this particular Second Coming is a very good thing — for the characters in the show, and for humanity in general.  The crisis precipitated by 9/11 is “huge,” as John says.  Bigger than what we believe it to be already.  An existential threat that will require divine force to save us mere, frail humans from turning it into an apocalypse. Continue reading