Kobe Bryant’s horrific death isn’t just a tragedy for his family and for hoops fans. It’s a sign of the times: Not even the rich and famous can avoid the traffic hellscape that American cities have created for their residents and commuters.
More than a decade ago, Bryant thought that he had devised a hack for Southern California’s permanent freeway gridlock. “Traffic started getting really bad,” he recalled in a 2018 interview. “I wound up missing … a school play” for one of his children, “because I was sitting in traffic.”
In other words, Bryant faced the same problem everyone in the Los Angeles metro faces: ceaseless traffic that sucks up time and kills quality of life. The post-World-War-II California dream of driving on vast roads to cheap houses spread out among the sprawling hills has become a congestion nightmare. According to Texas A&M’s 2019 Urban Mobility Report, the average LA commuter spends 119 hours each year — nearly three full work weeks — delayed in traffic.
Widening the freeways hasn’t worked; it’s just attracted more cars. In fact, LA has given up on that strategy in recent years, turning toward more public transit, but so far, it’s too little, too late.
Bryant had a solution that isn’t available to most. “So that’s when I looked into helicopters, to be able to get down and back in 15 minutes,” he said.
And it’s not just LA. The old saw used to be: As California goes, so goes the rest of the country.
With traffic, that is still accurate. Across the country, according to the Texas A&M report, the average commuter spends 54 hours a year delayed in traffic, up from 20 hours in 1982. Suburban Boston has become the new LA, in terms of traffic congestion, and growing states such as Florida and South Carolina, without having built transit to go with burgeoning growth, will get there, too.
Yet just as the once-wide-open road is clogged, space above it is increasingly clogged, too. Indeed, just before he and eight other souls crashed, Bryant was stuck above suburban LA in … helicopter and small-plane traffic, put into a holding pattern by air-traffic control to wait for the sky to clear.
New York has much better transit than LA — but it hasn’t kept pace with the city’s growth. The number of helicopter trips has soared here, with nearly 2,000 takeoffs and landings during the first five months of 2019, nearly twice as many as the year before, according to The New York Times.
Noise complaints from the people stuck on the ground are commensurately up, too. There were more than 3,300 such complaints in 2019, up from 1,000 the previous year. New York had its own Bryant-style crash last year, when a pilot slammed into a Midtown building in fog after dropping off a client in New Jersey. Only luck protected the people on the ground, keeping the death toll to one.
New services, such as Blade and Uber, are now offering helicopter trips not just to the rich, but to the masses, or, at least, the masses who have $200 per seat. “Fly over traffic” is Blade’s advertising hook.
“Flying over traffic,” though, only worsens the disaster that is regional transportation. What cities like New York and LA need is for everyone to have a stake in functional subways, buses and commuter rail.
The long-time secret of the New York subways was always that everyone takes them, from billionaire mayors to minimumwage workers. Nearly two years ago, the news that New York would allow Amazon to have a private helipad in Queens as part of its now-abandoned plan to build a headquarters garnered public outrage. Together with the city’s allowing its downtown helipad to be used for the increasing number of cheap commuter flights, it was a sign that we wouldn’t fix our transit system, but just allow a few people to avoid it altogether.
New York had a lot more of the political will needed to cut crime in the ’90s, because Manhattan has no gated communities, where people can avoid crime; likewise, it can only address its transportation challenges. It can’t escape those troubles.
Bryant, of course, wasn’t an urban planner, and he and his fellow passengers can’t have been expected to know that the safety record for helicopters, while inconclusive, is hardly reassuring. They died not so differently from the 236 people who died in traffic crashes in LA last year — victims of failing public infrastructure.