“Cars are an irrational love but not one that’s driven by Madison Avenue,” says Eric A. Morris. “Driving is simply faster and more comfortable than taking public transportation. A vehicle always sitting there waiting for you — and you can drink in it and play a stereo. I don’t think that’s irrational.”
Novels are full of people embracing Los Angeles’ snake pit of slithering roadways: Jeremy Pordage and his chauffeured drive from Union Station to the San Fernando Valley in After Many a Summer Dies the Swan; Philip Marlowe’s angry motoring through the Cahuenga Pass in The Little Sister; Maria Wyeth’s self-sedating escapes on freeways to nowhere in Play It As It Lays. Urban planner Morris, 40, may seem like a similar literary character, but both he and his fascination with the way Angelenos navigate their roads are very real.
Morris studied history and literature at Harvard and, after graduating magna cum laude, was headed toward a life of scholarship. Yet at the same time a showbiz gene had slumbered subversively inside him. Morris, after all, had been a professional child actor back in Chicago and, later, had acted in a couple of his college’s Hasty Pudding Theatricals productions. The thought of moving to Hollywood proved irresistible, although Morris decided that writing would be a more realistic career goal than acting.
“Everyone whose mother has told them they were good looking believes they can be a movie star,” Morris says. “But I saw what happened to other actors when I was young — they were out of work, begging for jobs.”
He drove cross country and, against expectations, fell in love with Los Angeles.
“It’s a phenomenal place,” he says. “There are mountains right in the middle of the city!”
He worked steadily from the mid-1990s onward, writing for the kinds of shows more people had heard of than seen, although he did write episodes for Star Trek and Jag, and created his own cultish cable series, Jack of All Trades starring Bruce Campbell. Then he decided to end it.
“I had become very cynical about television and thought it was a big waste of time for me and the audience,” he says. “I wanted to do penance for this by doing something to save people time instead of wasting it.”
Academia beckoned again, in the form of grad school. But where to go and what to study?
“I had no idea what ‘urban planning’ was,” he says, “but when I saw those two words I thought, ‘I bet it involves maps.’ And I love, love maps.”
Morris enrolled in UCLA’s Urban Planning department, where, improbably enough, a paper he wrote about the 19th-century urban crisis of accumulating horse manure attracted the attention of TheNew York Times. The Times invited him to guest blog for its Freakonomics site, where Morris tried to put our seemingly unique traffic headaches into historical perspective.
“To end the scourge of traffic congestion,” Morris reminded his readers, “Julius Caesar banned most carts from the streets of Rome during daylight hours. It didn’t work — traffic jams just shifted to dusk.”
This past February and March, Morris produced an impressive six-part Freakonomics series on transportation in Los Angeles. The project unfolded in the form of answers to a True/False quiz about myths that have grown up about L.A. and its citizens’ driving habits, the city’s smog, our alleged disdain for public transportation, etc. Among the shattered stereotypes: Compared with many of its contemporaries, L.A. is not a sprawling city; Angelenos do not rank high among city drivers as far as urban mileage is concerned; and, perhaps most surprisingly, we do not have an overbuilt freeway system:
“[Los Angeles’] network is one of the most underdeveloped in the U.S.,” Morris wrote. “According to the Federal Highway Administration, of the 36 largest metro areas, Los Angeles ranks dead last in terms of freeway lane miles per resident.”
This and other heresies flew in the face of all the comforting clichés about L.A. transit that even Angelenos had embraced, and Morris’ series created a buzz that earned him a return gig at Freakonomics to hold forth on urban quality-of-life issues. Meanwhile, when he is not profitably appearing on TV quiz shows, Morris is at work on his doctorate — and enjoying life in Sherman Oaks.
“The place I live,” he says, “dismisses another myth about Los Angeles — that there are no walking neighborhoods. I’m more of a pro-car person but I live in an incredibly walkable neighborhood.”