Welcome to the city of Los Angeles

Counting car dealerships and contemplating doom at the world's largest auto mall.

Published November 13, 2006 8:01PM (EST)

On our way to a Borders bookstore in Cerritos, Calif., on Friday night, my daughter started counting auto dealerships on Studebaker Road with growing alarm.

"Hummer, Jeep, Volvo, Chevrolet," she ticked off. "Dad, I count 13."

Actually, there are at least 25 car dealerships at the Cerritos Auto Square, located on the southern frontier of Los Angeles County. And you don't have to be a 12-year-old from Berkeley to be stupefied at the endless rows of gleaming automobiles. It is an impressive sight. If it isn't the largest auto mall in the world, the Cerritos Auto Square definitely ranks in the top two or three. And if Southern California is the epicenter of global car culture, then Studebaker Road can lay a solid claim to being that epicenter's ground zero.

Despite all the balloons, my daughter's brow was furrowed. Earlier that day, we had spent two hours in a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam stretching from the San Fernando Valley nearly all the way to Lakewood, a suburban community next door to Cerritos (and immortalized by both Mike Davis and Joan Didion). It was not difficult for her to draw a connection between the midday gridlock and the breathtaking automotive abundance of the Cerritos Auto Square. There are too many cars in Los Angeles.

Since my kids were born, I have periodically been driving them down to Lakewood to visit their great-grandmother. One of the great joys of parenting has been to watch how the same basic experience takes on different hues as their understanding of the world grows in sophistication. Two-year-olds are just glad to get out of the car at the end of the trip. Twelve-year-olds look at 14 packed north and south lanes of a stretch of I-5 and I-405 between San Diego and Los Angeles, and start making connections with global warming and dependence on foreign oil. We spent a lot of time in the car this past three-day weekend -- 19 hours, as I was reminded forcefully by both children on the long ride home. There is little doubt in my daughter's mind, or mine, that if the rest of the world continues to follow Los Angeles' example, we're all doomed.

This is hardly a new insight, but an article in this morning's Wall Street Journal about Toyota's expansion plans contained a distressing statistic that is keeping the Hummer dealership on Studebaker Road front and center in my head.

The Japanese auto giant, which recently passed Ford Motor Co. to become the world's No. 2 auto maker by sales and is poised to overtake General Motors Corp. as early as this year, aims to open three more new plants by 2009 as part of a "global master plan," boosting its production capacity by 450,000 vehicles a year.

According to the document, which has circulated among top Toyota executives since earlier this year and was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, the company expects global auto sales to rise to 73 million vehicles in 2010 from 65 million last year, a five-year growth rate of 12 percent. The blueprint says the projected surge in sales over the next decade will be driven principally by the so-called BRIC nations -- Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Toyota isn't alone in expecting a sharp increase in demand. Global Insight, an economic-research and consulting firm, says global auto sales over the next five years will grow 3.2 percentage points faster than in the previous five years, a major shift for the industry after decades of slow growth, especially in the U.S. and Western Europe.

I suppose we can take some shallow comfort in the knowledge that a minor percentage of those new sales will be hybrids. But that won't be nearly enough to contain the damage that all the new cars are going to wreak. We can talk all we want about improvements in fuel efficiency, increased production of biofuels, and perhaps even renewed commitments to public transportation systems and pedestrian-friendly urban design. But the freeways of Southern California pose an intimidating challenge. My daughter's face bore an almost perpetual frown this weekend after the drive down Studebaker Road, counting the car dealerships. I can't say I blame her.

UPDATE: Don't look to the Democrats for much help either. Treehugger alerts us to the news that John Dingell, the Detroit Democrat whose House district includes the headquarters of Ford and GM, and who will be the new chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, "was asked about vehicle efficiency standards and replied, 'Im not sure that there's any urgent need for us to address those questions.'"

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Auto Industry Globalization How The World Works Toyota