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.