If the navigability afforded by such apps has altered the way we get around everywhere, it is a downright game changer in L.A., a sprawling metropolis so vast only longtime residents could previously traverse it with confidence. Over two decades of visiting family here, I acquired merely basic knowledge of the freeways and an appreciation for Bette Davis’s tongue-in-cheek advice to starlets hoping to get into Hollywood: “Take Fountain.” Now, however, since relocating from New York City a few months ago, I can set out in my car without the faintest inkling of how to get where I’m going and trust that I will not only arrive but skirt traffic to boot. It almost feels like cheating.
The “Waze effect” may be a testament to the power of algorithms, but it is also a testament to the force of nature that is L.A. traffic. Angelenos are as intimate with their navigation app of choice as they once were with their dogeared, spiral-bound Thomas Guide. More than 2 million people use Waze in L.A., and so profound is its impact on the city that the rerouting of traffic through formerly quiet surface streets is the subject of heated debate, with so-called traffic NIMBYs decrying the new commuter flow. Updates to the app make headlines in the Los Angeles Times.
For newcomers and visitors, at least, there is no downside: technology has knitted together L.A.’s cities-within-cities and unlocked their secrets. A visitor who five years ago might have stayed in a hotel on the Sunset Strip and ventured only as far as West Hollywood for dinner can today book an Airbnb in Echo Park or a beach lodge in Venice and voyage to Koreatown for bulgogi on a whim without incurring a $50 cab fare.
Mass transit will soon be a far more viable way to get around the city, too. In November, residents voted to support a permanent sales tax, Measure M, that will provide $120 billion for transportation projects. Construction is already under way to connect the Metro system to LAX. Last summer, the Expo line was extended to Santa Monica, bringing light rail to the Pacific Ocean for the first time in more than 60 years. Sunday ridership on the line has since more than doubled, L.A.’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, told me, “meaning Angelenos and visitors alike are using the Metro even more to explore Santa Monica, Downtown, and everything in between.” And though weekday ridership has also increased, by some 13,000 people, parking lots along the line remain at about 50 percent capacity—a sign that residents are ready to move away from car dependency. “Most riders are getting to the station by foot, bike, or transit, or being dropped off,” Garcetti said, “challenging the stereotype of L.A. as a place where people are only interested in getting behind the wheel.”
A transportation revolution is not only changing tourism in L.A. It is also fueling an explosion of new cultural institutions and development across the city—just as an influx of millennials has brought the city’s population to more than 4 million, the largest increase among California’s cities last year. In Venice (part of “Silicon Beach,” in tech circles), five years after Google, Buzzfeed, and Snapchat all opened offices there, the main drag, Abbot Kinney Boulevard, more closely resembles New York’s SoHo than the derelict beach community it once anchored. On the east side, a creative class priced out of Brooklyn and Oakland is snatching up the Craftsmans and Victorians in Highland Park, Atwater, and Mount Washington, bringing a demand for cold-brew coffee, small galleries, and vintage stores.
Nowhere has the growth been more dramatic than in Downtown, where a burgeoning underground art scene was joined in 2014 by the Ace Hotel; in 2015 by the sprawling new Broad museum, jam-packed with classic works by the likes of Cy Twombly, Ed Ruscha, and John Baldessari; and last spring by Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel, a massive outpost of the blue-chip international gallery. The building boom continues. A Park Hyatt will go up in Ocean-wide Plaza, the $1 billion mixed-use complex under construction by a Beijing-based developer near the Staples Center. Another Chinese company, the Greenland Group, is building its own $1 billion project, Metropolis, down the street. Herzog & de Meuron and the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels have both recently proposed larger-scale developments for the arts district.
I had come to Downtown, again via Waze, to meet the Broad’s founding director and chief curator, Joanne Heyler. The line to get in snaked around the building, underscoring an announcement the museum had made 10 days earlier: in its inaugural year, the Broad attracted 820,000 visitors, nearly triple its pre-opening projections. On the first floor, another line formed at the entrance to a comprehensive exhibition of Cindy Sherman’s work. I sat down with Heyler at a long table in a private conference room. “I think L.A.’s moment might go down on record as the longest moment ever,” Heyler joked. And yet, she said, “it really is a city that I think has yet to be completely defined and is going to be in the distant future a quintessential twenty-first-century city.”