FROM A SUBURB of Washington, DC, my mom and dad regularly took my sister and me into the city to visit museums and the zoo. The train ride was the best part. I loved watching the world whoosh by the windows before we sank into the dark tunnels, and I loved staring at the maps — the crisp contrast of yellow, blue, red, and green — and the sleek metallic cars strung together in a silver blur.
The DC metro is traced in thick colorful lines against a white backdrop, and the crisscrossing routes resemble a bird: the Blue and Orange Lines form the beak, body, and tail as they start off separate and then run parallel through the city before splitting up again. The Red Line, shaped like a windswept U, creates the wings. Back then, the map not only showed the routes in operation, but also the ones under construction. I was captivated by those lighter-shaded lines — they seemed to hold the promise of a world not yet realized, but carefully planned and certain to come.
I pored over other maps too — atlases of the earth and the solar system. I played Risk by myself, and part of the fun was imagining exotic places — Irkutsk, Kamchatka, New Guinea — and then conquering them. In fifth grade I won my elementary school’s geography bee and went to the state competition in Richmond. I went again the year after, and again in eighth grade. I spent downtime memorizing countries, cities, and rivers, exports and imports, religions, customs, and transportation systems — all subjects that weave their way into the bee. To this day, I can recall random countries and their capitals: Montevideo, Uruguay. Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. I still remember the question that eliminated me from the competition in my last year: “What Asian capital city’s name means ‘little wooden temple?’” I guessed Bangkok — but no, it’s Kathmandu.
I sometimes think in maps, too — I can plot out ideas visually in my mind, connecting them with lines. I have an acute sense of direction. Once, after I moved to Los Angeles for college, I went on a double date and navigated a friend’s car from USC to the Beverly Hills Hotel and then to a gelato shop in Pasadena that I had visited just a single time three years prior. This was before smartphones, and I didn’t use a map. I had one in my head.
People like to say that Los Angeles was built for automobiles, but that’s only half true. Since the 1950s, it’s been difficult to imagine the City of Angels without freeways, but a thousand miles of track once crisscrossed the Southland. Those railways were largely torn out or paved over, but if you know where to look, you can still see the scars. The thick medians on Santa Monica, San Vicente, and Venice Boulevards once carried trains. Other abandoned rights-of-way snake through neighborhoods such as Silver Lake and Cheviot Hills, forming worm-shaped lots of land. Still another set of tracks parallels much of Slauson Avenue; you could probably walk from LAX to Union Station on those rails, but you can’t take a train — they’re long gone. Only a ghost of that Los Angeles lingers — its bones buried beneath a reconfigured skin.
I can rarely drive or bike down any of those roads without my mind wandering to the trains I could be taking if only history were different, and I’m not the only one: online there are dozens of fantasy metro maps — comprehensive grids connecting Venice to Echo Park and Van Nuys to Long Beach. This is transit nerd porn, and like other kinds of titillation, some is high quality, some crude — hand-drawn or slopped together in low-grade consumer software such as Microsoft Paint. I have not published my own efforts (till now), but I have sketched on old street maps, and in my journal I once laid out an entire system while on a train ride from Sarajevo to Budapest. But these slapdash maps always strike me as a bit sad, even my own.
Other attempts, feigning sophistication, are crowded with routes and stations. Like bad science fiction, they’re not grounded in reality. The city they depict is unrecognizable and therefore unappealing. On screen, as in the case of the movie Her, the image of a car-free Los Angeles is tantalizing, but the fake map utterly disappoints. In the film, everyone walks or whisks about on trains, and a real-life station in Hollywood magically exits onto the beach. (Global warming has apparently moved the coast inland.) If you look carefully you can glimpse the fake map as Joaquin Phoenix passes through a station, although it’s easier to find close-up copies online. (Just search “subway map her.”) Some of the station names obnoxiously repeat. (There are at least three Westwoods — one of which is in about the right place, another in Studio City, and a third lost around Compton.) Others — such as Schoolboard, Nail Spot,and Apple — are sheer nonsense. The color scheme is chaotic — it’s a map designed to hide, never to be examined or dreamed over.
The best maps invite scrutiny and offer the tantalizing promise of more. They adhere to established principles of design — the lines are crisp, bright, and uniform, the fonts official, recalling London’s tube, or the New York MTA, or even Los Angeles’s budding system. I find these designs the most satisfying — worthy of my passion. They touch an inner desire to create order in a city snarled by traffic. If playing Risk as a kid felt satisfying because it let me conquer the world, the best fantasy maps are equally gratifying because they pretend to conquer Los Angeles.
I usually take the Red and Expo Lines to USC, where I teach, and I often think about these make-believe systems on my commute. Some people obsess about meeting celebrities; others sit in rush hour dreaming up flying cars or helicopter transport. Many of us fantasize about food and sex — I fill my mind with such things too, but more often than not these useless lines snake into my imagination, and I contemplate the subway that might run under my feet from Hollywood and Highland to Santa Monica Boulevard, jogging west for a mile, and south again down Fairfax.
A real subway map is also a kind of fantasy. If you look at the official depiction of Los Angeles’s system, you might fall for the illusion that the Red Line runs in a straight diagonal from Los Feliz to North Hollywood, when, in fact, it runs due west underneath Hollywood Boulevard before turning about 45 degrees, heading northwest after Highland. Three lines in the system have stops on Western Avenue, a straight north-south boulevard. On the map, however, none of these stops fall on the same vertical plane.
Such distortions occur because subway maps aren’t meant to be accurate representations of geography — they are diagrams designed to help us get from A to B. This means that distances are compressed and stretched for legibility. In New York, with probably the most familiar train map in America, the MTA makes Manhattan look like a fat paddle or maybe a mudskipper dangled by its tail; Central Park is almost a square. But that’s wrong. Manhattan is more slender, like a crooked finger or a chicken bone, and Central Park is over three times as long as it is wide. Also, the map has been turned about 30 degrees counterclockwise so the tip of Manhattan points north. The real island extends northeast. This makes it easier to ride the train, and simpler to give directions, but it also gives the false impression that the Upper West Side is indeed west of the Lower East Side, when most of it isn’t. If you draw a straight line running north to south, you’ll realize 86th Street at Central Park West has the same longitude as the middle of the Williamsburg Bridge over the East River.
Unless you make your living as a delivery driver, chances are you’ve crafted a distorted mental map of your neighborhood too — the places you go and those you don’t — a diagram distinct from all others. After 12 years of living in Los Angeles, I hate to admit that the Valley is still a mystery to me. (Note how I completely neglected it in my hand-drawn map — along with the South Bay and Eastside — oops.) I know there are things I enjoy over the hill — blintzes the size of my forearm from Brent’s deli, and line dancing with lesbians at Oil Can Harry’s — but mostly everything north of Mulholland is an amorphous blob with the 101 running through the southern edge on the way to Santa Barbara. Another misconception: having never lived or worked west of the 405, I’m constantly surprised by how much city is over there. Somehow I always expect the beach to appear right after the freeway, but the land just goes on and on for car-clogged miles before dumping everyone into the ocean (or so it seems). My friends who live on the Westside typically express the opposite opinion. I’ve met Santa Monicans who think Culver City is the edge of civilization. Pasadena might as well be in Arizona.
What’s more, the places we go are not always where we think they are. Walking downtown, it feels like Figueroa, Spring, and Broadway all point north, but they don’t. They’re on a 30-degree tilt, angling to the northeast. Driving down Santa Monica Boulevard toward the ocean can feel like driving west, and that’s the general direction, but it’s actually west by southwest once you cross La Cienega. We say the 101 and the 405 run north and south, but whole sections turn 90 degrees to the east and west. There’s even part of the 101 between Agoura Hills and Calabasas where you can drive “northbound” but actually face southwest. We simplify directions because it’s too confusing to remember all the minute curves of the freeways. Our brains can understand the cardinal points more easily than the ordinal. We do it for simplicity, but fail to realize this simplicity is simply a lie.
When I set out on foot, or bike, or train, Los Angeles looks different than it does from my car. Behind the wheel, I’m enraged by every idiot who speeds up or slows down or weaves into a new lane without reason (or a turn signal), and when I get stuck behind a cyclist, I can’t help but get annoyed. They’re so slow. In the car, in a hurry to get where I’m going, the city can look like a giant series of strip malls and billboards planted around pockets of activity. But on two wheels without a bubble of glass and steel, you’re inclined to notice all the art deco buildings. You can smell the jacaranda in the spring, and the petals stick to your shoes and bicycle tires and sometimes even land lightly on your hair. You see the empty lots that could be buildings, or pocket parks with playgrounds. You’re aware of people sweeping their stoops, walking their dogs, holding hands as they cross the street. I would never wave hello at a driver I didn’t know. Would she even see me? And if she did, wouldn’t she find it creepy to discover I’m just saying hi? But on a bicycle: you nod and make eye contact with other cyclists as they pass — the camaraderie of the road, or perhaps a recognition of the risks.
I saw the SUV just before impact. I screamed — too late. Struck on my left, I hit the pavement with my right knee, then hand, then helmet, the impact flipping me off my bike and onto my back. Car bumpers loomed, stopped at the intersection for a red light, and a thought charged to the surface of my mind: They won’t see me; they’ll run me over; I will die.
I didn’t, of course. Nearby pedestrians ran to help me to the curb, the driver stopped, someone called 911, someone else waved down a passing police car, and the paramedics arrived in under 10 minutes. Given Los Angeles’s hit-and-run epidemic (20,000 annually) and the horror stories I’ve read about ambulances not coming and cops blaming cyclists for every accident regardless of circumstance, I was lucky. Nothing broken — just bruises and a left knee that occasionally still aches.
In the months that followed I thought a lot about the crash. I’m not particularly reckless (unless cycling in Los Angeles is your definition of). I was riding on Delongpre Avenue, a side street with little traffic, passing straight through the intersection with Highland, which has a light (something I assumed would make me safe). I had the right of way, which makes no difference if the driver coming from the opposite direction doesn’t see you as he makes the left.
So maybe it was just a case of wrong place, wrong time — but lying in bed with my legs on ice, I had plenty of time to wonder how I got there. I thought about Los Angeles, and what I want it to be: I thought about all those imaginary subway lines weaving through my mind, creating an image of this town different from what others see. I stared at the maps online, as I often do when bored, and I considered that although I’d rather bike than drive, it could have been me behind the wheel, accelerating through an intersection. I keep coming back to something the driver said while we were waiting on the corner for the police officers to finish writing their report. He was a guy not too different from me — slim with a mop of brown hair, late 20s, early 30s — all shook up, worse than me, and after apologizing profusely and offering to pay for my bike’s repair, he said, “You know I skateboard all the time.”
In the moment, I was annoyed — he could have killed me. I doubt he meant anything by it, but his words later struck me as fundamental and profound. Like the city we live in, we view ourselves differently depending on the context. I am a driver, except when I am a cyclist or a skateboarder or a pedestrian. I am at work, unless I am at play; I am the boss, until I am the employee. I am in control, and then I am powerless. We transition fluidly between these roles, crisscrossing a town that we invent for ourselves as we please, our maps in our heads, mostly unaware that others are doing the same, until bang, we collide.