Los Angeles: where even angels drive a car

LA_freeway_2009

Los Angeles – a city shaped by the car – has launched (probably) the world’s largest ever traffic management system. Every one of the city’s 4,500 traffic lights now shine and blink in a complex symphony conducted by a software program in an underground traffic nexus that crunches data from every corner of the city. Synchronised traffic lights (or ‘traffic signals’ as they call them in the US) mean you can now drive enormous distances on LA’s long roads without catching any red lights. It also means the city can respond dynamically to events, incidents and disasters. Traffic can be diverted, stopped, paused and freed – all in a few automated seconds – taking into account pedestrians, cyclists and the flow of the rest of the network.

It seems to be working too. The LA Transportation Department reports a 16% increase in speeds on the roads and a 12% reduction in delays at major intersections. It’s laudable progress and an impressive system but hardly a revolution for commuters. LA residents still endure hours in their cars every week. There are still limited alternatives to driving and gridlock is still a major headache. But what can a car-centric city like LA really do? It can’t rebuild itself with less sprawl, and gridlock notwithstanding, Californians love their cars. So what is next for LA? How can they keep the cars but lose the gridlock?

Around the world cities try to incorporate, manage, mitigate or combat cars in a number of ways.  The Hong Kong solution is to tax cars heavily while offering decent alternatives. Between 40% and 115% ‘first registration tax’ for private cars  makes crowded trains and buses rather appealing. However from an urban planning perspective, Hong Kong could not be more different from LA. It’s extreme density means public transport benefits from economies of scale unavailable in LA. Hong Kong’s strategy has made their citizens world’s most publically transported with some 90% of journeys in the city using a bus, train, tram, taxi or ferry. But while LA could just as easily tax cars, the public transport system cannot possibly serve the whole population as it does in Hong Kong. Cars need to be part of the solution in LA.

A congestion charge of some kind would probably help the most congested roads in LA. The city’s first congestion charge (on the 110 Freeway) is in its pilot year but there are many routes that could benefit. As transport expert Jonas Eliasson explains in this TED Talk, a small congestion charge in Stockholm reduced traffic to the CBD there by 20% – enough to eliminate gridlock. His message is that complex systems like city traffic need to be left to self organise under the influence of carefully chosen ‘nudges’ from authorities. Unfortunately he doesn’t mention any other ‘nudges’ apart from congestion charges. Perhaps motor mad cities need to think more laterally.

For example, LA could always follow Bogata, Columbia, and hire mimes to publicly ridicule bad drivers at large intersections. We can’t find any data on the effectiveness of this initiative but it is not as ridiculous as it sounds. In many cities poor etiquette, bad manners and a total disregard for the rules of the road are some of the main causes of traffic problems. From all accounts LA suffers from all these issues, so perhaps the city should focus more on the human side of driving. Then again, human nature and human error (those evil twins) may be the heart of the problem. Perhaps after California passed legislation last September allowing for ‘autonomous vehicles,’ LA will be the first city in the world to ban human drivers on some routes. That would be a revolution for commuters. Unfortunately it may also be a long time coming, so in the meantime we would love to hear your own favourite solutions for the world’s many car crazy cities.

 

4 Comments

  1. Jim Bak says:

    Although the Los Angeles system is effective, the cost of both time and money will prevent widespread implementation in a world that desperately needs to manage the gridlock that will only get worse as population levels continue to increase. For example, L.A. likely spent upwards of $50M of the $400M it spent on the project on installing infrastructure for the sole purpose of understanding the speed of traffic on arterials and side streets that hadn’t previously existed. However, the technology exists today to use a much less expensive approach that collects real-time speed data crowd-sourced from actual vehicles traveling those same roads. In fact, many transportation agencies around the world are shifting towards these more cost-effective models that employ data and analytics tools from traffic data analytics companies, like INRIX, for a fraction of the cost the city of Los Angeles spent on their system.

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  2. Esteban says:

    You write “Californians love their cars” and while this may be true, should it matter? It might matter to politicians peddling for votes but if we are going to build more sustainable cities for the long term then perhaps citizens need to make compromises (i.e. taking the bus to work). Then again, are you trying to suggest that real change in cities can only occur when it aligns with consumer/voter preferences? This may be true but the question is an interesting one.

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  3. Better Cities staff says:

    It’s a great debate: is this the difference between a city leader who sets a vision for how the future could look and pushes citizens to get there, versus one who manages by consensus and ends up realising that people are by and large reluctant to change?

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  4. Esteban says:

    The way I see it if a leader in California tries to ‘push citizens to get there’ and they really don’t want to get there, then they vote for the other guy. If the other guy is managing by consensus then he is never going to make the tough decisions and perhaps that means zero progress on things like energy efficiency or carbon reduction. That’s the beauty and the problem with democracy in my opinion. In a democracy people have enough power such that if they love their cars, that really matters. This contrasts starkly with a place like China where if government wants to make a change then it goes ahead despite what the people might vote for if they could.

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