It was the 20th century California Dream: a suburban home, a flash car to get you to and from work and a freewheeling lifestyle. But the dream's flipside was a nightmarish sprawl with an unsustainable footprint. By century's end, Los Angeles was plagued by traffic snarls that threatened to lock down the megalopolis.
"We crossed the Rubicon into gridlock in 2007," says Denny Zane, ex-mayor of Santa Monica and now executive director of MoveLA, a lobby group intent on restoring mobility to Angelenos. "Traffic was like ice slush. Then it crystallised in a moment." The city's wealthy Westside, near the 10 and 405 freeways, endured epic jams. "You could see the future and it wasn't pretty."
The city of movement was stalled, open to jibes like Mayor Len Brown's claim that Housing Minister Nick Smith, eyeing Auckland's greenbelt, favoured a flawed LA model of "suburban sprawl and unbridled land availability".
It was a dystopian vision that threatened LA with a "precipitous decline into second world status", overtaken by economic titans like Mexico and Brazil.
If the catalyst for change was life in the slow lane, and cascading economic setbacks, the solution, pushed by a business, labour, environmental and official coalition forged by MoveLA, is to reject LA's "sprawl model"- based on cheap fuel and land - for dense urban growth linked by public transport.
"When the moment of truth arrives, and it ain't pretty," says Zane, "the common interest becomes very evident." This was just as well, because in California any revenue raising measure needs a two-thirds majority to pass.
In 2008 the MoveLA coalition, backed by LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, put Measure R - a half cent sales tax increase - on the ballot. It sought US$40 billion ($48.8 billion) for transport relief [resurfacing streets, building cycle paths, installing new signals, etc], plus expanded or new rail and bus routes over 30 years.
The intent, said Villaraigosa, was to shift LA "from the car capital of the world to a transit-rich megalopolis". Measure R passed with 67.8 per cent.
A subsequent vote, Measure J, which hoped to extend the time frame to 60 years, failed with 66.1 per cent of the vote. Undeterred, the city opted to accelerate its construction programme, aiming to finish in 10 years. The expansion will double LA County's "fixed guideway transit system", using rail or rights of way, from 193km and 103 existing stations, to 380km and 200 stations. Anyone who boards a bus or train in LA County - the City of Los Angeles plus 87 other cities; part of a bigger Southland region - can travel one way, with unlimited stops, for US$1.50 ($1.82). A day pass, allowing unlimited rides, is $5.
In 2012 LA Metro debuted the Expo Line to Culver City, on LA's Westside, and the Orange Line extension to Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley. Construction began on extending the Expo Line to Santa Monica, while routes to the city's international airport, LAX, and elsewhere are in the pipeline.
Besides connecting to other transit systems outside LA County, LA Metro focuses the city's orientation from unsustainable peripheral growth to core areas where most people live and work. Stations are seen as hubs for economic development, a template Zane knew from Santa Monica's 3rd St Promenade.
"When we did 3rd St 20 years ago and adopted the mixed-use, multi-family, higher-density housing model, a young Dutch architect named Jan van Tilburg designed the first mixed-use project anyone had seen built in Southern California for decades. He's designed more than 30,000 units. That was unheard of 20 years ago. Now it's standard practice."
Smart city development, emphasising public transport and mixed-use, dovetails with California's Global Warming Solutions Act 2006, which seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25 per cent to 1990 levels by 2020. In 2012 the Southern California Association of Governments adopted a US$524 billion, 20-year regional plan to curb emissions. Almost half is earmarked for public transit.
"It's certainly a welcome state of affairs when what you need to do to reduce greenhouse gases is also what you need to do to develop your economy," says Zane. Transit ridership in LA County is up "significantly".
Zane says federal-backed loans, where Washington becomes "a smart lender rather than a big spender," allows LA to expedite projects by stimulating local investment.
The LA story reflects wider trends. The US Metropolitan Research Centre says there are 40 million McMansions "that no one wants".
A 2011 study, "The New California Dream," from the Urban land Institute, found Southern California was oversupplied with a large unsellable inventory of single family homes, a legacy of the state's real estate meltdown that triggered the 2009 recession.
The recession may have axed the sprawl model but demographics were already rejecting it. Young people wait longer to marry and have kids. Baby boomers are ageing. Both groups want "walkability," with easy access to a full range of urban amenities. "Developers are all becoming new urbanists," laughs Zane.
At the same time, car ownership is no longer a rite of passage for many young people. While kilometres travelled per capita have steadily shrunk across the board in the US, the most significant drop is with the under-30s.
"The car used to be the signal of adulthood, of freedom," a Ford Motor Company executive told the New York Times in 2011. "Now the signal into adulthood for teenagers is the smartphone." A 2011 US survey found 46 per cent of 18-24-year-olds chose internet access over a car. And by 2008 the number of 16-year-olds with a driver's licence - 50 per cent in 1978 - had plummeted to 30 per cent.
"The prevalence of high-quality information is changing our choices," says Amanda Eaken, deputy director of sustainable communities with the National Resources Defence Council.
"You can go to Google Maps and find out how long it will take, and the cost, to walk, drive, cycle, bus or train somewhere."
Mass transit also brings health benefits - less smog and more exercise through walking and cycling - and helps prime household budgets by reducing the need for multiple family vehicles, savings that flow into the local economy.
"I think the drive model is basically broken," says Eaken. "We're in a very different era to when [petrol] was cheap. People talk about affordable housing. We talk about affordable living. If you add up the cost of all the driving to get to that dream home, then the old model doesn't work anymore."
• 37,272,314 - Total boardings for buses and trains in LA in February
• 35,180,418 - Total in February 2011
• $1.82 - Cost of a one-way bus or train ticket in LA County, which covers 87 cities