Traffic Free LA: An Absurdly Easy Plan

We were promised flying cars and all we got was an extra lane on the 405

The neighborhoods of Paris, the beach, Disneyland, a village, the Getty Center. What do all these places have in common? They’re beautiful, therapeutic, and desirable. They’re designed for people, not machines.

Why couldn’t Los Angeles be like that?

Two Great Ironies

The first great irony is that if there was any city in the United States whose climate is best suited to be a beautiful, outdoor-centric city, it would be Los Angeles. Yes, we have a few weeks of heat waves in the summer and a few rainy days in the winter, but the rest of the year our weather is pristine.

If we could make money off our weather, we would. Wait…we do! Tourism, Disneyland, beaches! For most of the year, Los Angelinos turn on the weather channel for pure entertainment, just to look at the rest of the country boiling under the sun or buried under feet of snow.

Instead, for various reasons, we find ourselves trapped in traffic and our neighborhoods utterly consumed by vehicles instead of people. It seems utterly absurd for a city whose logo might as well be the palm tree!

The second irony is that LA is the city that constantly reimagines the future and renders it with utmost photorealism in our multimillion dollar blockbusters films and EXPORTS these visions to the rest of the world! Yet the world seems to be flying past us when it comes to alternative transportation like a bike whizzing through car traffic.

Let’s change this.

Let’s completely get rid of traffic in just a few years and at the same time let’s make our city a beautiful, vibrant place to experience life.

We Need To Think Like Elon Musk

Here is Elon Musk scoffing at California’s “solution” for intra-city transportation, its high speed rail project:

“It has the dubious distinction of being the slowest bullet train, and the most expensive per mile. We got some superlatives there…we’re setting records at the wrong ends of the spectrum!”

This critique could be leveled almost word for word at our current inter-city transportation system, our current car-centric infrastructure.

Elon Musk frequently talks about reasoning from first principles and not from analogies. Applying this mindset to problem solving would mean not trying to adapt old solutions to new problems, but stripping problems down to their essential components and crafting solutions accordingly.

Before Elon Musk unveiled his vision for an alternate mode of transport between cities, the now famous Hyperloop, in 2012 he described the features a near perfect mode of intra-city transportation system should at a PandoMonthly Fireside Chat using this style of first principles thinking:

  • Something that can never crash
  • Immune to weather
  • Goes 3 or 4 times faster than the bullet train
  • Go from downtown LA to downtown San Francisco in under 30 minutes.
  • It would cost you much less than an air ticket than any other mode of transport.

Yet instead of a transportation system of the future, the best LA seems to be able to imagine is a one lane expansion of its worst freeway and adding a few additional metro stations. We were promised flying cars and all we got was an extra lane on the 405.

That project incidentally cost $1 billion and it’s crowning achievement was to allow a more cars to sit in heavy traffic every day.

What Could Be LA’s Hyperloop?

What would be the characteristics of the ideal transportation system for Los Angeles?

It would be human centered

  • It would make Los Angeles quieter, healthier, and cleaner.
  • It would allow us to enjoy our pristine weather.
  • It would be extremely clean, without toxic gases polluting our air or oil dripping on streets, in our sewers, and oceans.
  • It would actually improve mental and physical health.
  • It would be orders of magnitude safer.

It would give back, not take away from the city

  • Over time, it would reduce the cost of infrastructure spending.
  • It would boost the local economy.
  • It would vastly increase the curbside appeal of the city.
  • It would give back much of the space used to store, maintain, sell, and fuel cars.

It would be faster, cheaper, greener

  • It would be as fast or faster than the car or the metro.
  • It would not require almost any new infrastructure.
  • It would require a fraction of the energy, plunging our carbon footprint and getting us completely off foreign oil.
  • Most importantly, it could be done NOW. It would require no new technological breakthroughs.

Sounds too good to be true right??

Cars Are F*ing Slow

Here’s the ugly truth, cars are terribly slow.

Sure, one car can travel fast on a freeway. So can several hundred. But how fast can tens of thousands of cars go altogether? When you need it most, LA freeways are clogged with traffic, bringing your zippy commute down to a screeching halt.

Much of our driving is done on city streets where cars usually travel around 40 mph. However, your average speed isn’t close to 40 mph. How slow actual traffic on city streets?

Guess, you’re not going to believe it. I couldn’t.

It’s 17.3 miles per hour. Not 17.3 mph during rush hour, mind you. 17.3 mph on average. And that’s after the city synchronized all the traffic lights!

That’s not much faster than the a galloping horse (12 mph)!!

Yep, cars can’t cruise around town at 40 mph because they have to wait for each other. That’s disturbing because most of us never think about this fact when talking about cars.

Our automobile centric transpiration system doesn’t just feel bad. It is bad. It sucks!! This is what we pay billions of dollars for? I want my money back. And I want my time back.

The Car Is An Absurdly Terrible Transportation Mechanism

Cars are mind bogglingly inefficient. Electric vehicles are an improvement, but they don’t solve the basic physics problem of the automobile: namely 4–6000 pounds of metal transporting a mere 1–200 pounds of human and a bit of cargo.

We’re essentially shuttling ourselves from here to there in giant, metal living rooms on wheels! It’s insane!!! Think of all the energy we’re squandering with such a large difference between cargo and vessel.

Cars aren’t simply a terrible transportation system. They mutilate our cities, making streets unwalkable and ugly. They contribute to pollution, and lead to decline in health and increase in anxiety. They kill people directly and indirectly. They are causing unnecessary oil wars, costing us trillions, and killing the planet. I could go on but I’ll stop there.

They also contribute to really high rent and real estate prices. According to this NYTimes piece:

In some cities, like Orlando and Los Angeles, parking lots are estimated to cover at least one-third of the land area, making them one of the most salient landscape features of the built world.

Cough, cough, cough!!! At least one-third of the land area! That’s insane! No wonder the rent is so damn high!!

Imagine reclaiming all that land back for housing, parks, walkable spaces, and retail.

Autonomous Vehicles?

Autonomous vehicles might help with some of these issues. They might even reduce the number of cars needed, since most cars currently sit idle. They will certainly decrease traffic accidents, probably eliminating them altogether.

However, just as city planners and engineers everywhere falsely assumed that expanding streets will decrease congestion (they didn’t, they just allowed for more traffic), we might totally be underestimating the demand autonomous cars might create. If you could get anywhere at the push of a button, think of the exponential increase in driving distances and number trips that will occur.

This phenomenon isn’t speculation. It actually has a name: the Jevons paradox. Read more about how the traffic alleviation and carbon reduction arguments are unclear: http://www.vox.com/2016/2/27/11121416/study-fully-automating-self-driving-cars-worse

A Boring Solution?

Elon Musk himself has had it with LA traffic and has teased plans to dig tunnels underneath the city to relieve congestion.

His reasoning in a nutshell is that our buildings utilize 3D space, yet our transportation system does not. Digging multiple levels of tunnels, he reasons, would solve this problem.

This solution has a few issues. It’s expensive, even with the cost savings that Elon’s ingenuity would no doubt bring to tunneling. But most importantly, it still doesn’t solve the problem of the incredible inefficiency of the automobile and all the problems its size brings to cities.

Autonomy And Tunnels Miss The Point

Both of these alternatives also miss a crucial point. The city shouldn’t be designed for the car. It should be designed for people. We should get out of these metal bubbles and see other fellow human beings. We should be able to literally smell the roses, which as of right now, are few and far between because every street has been commandeered by cars.

The dream should be to make cities like LA livable. They should be more like the places mentioned above, places everyone pays money to visit: the neighborhoods of Paris, the beach, Disneyland, pleasant university campuses.

The future of our city should not be a sci-fi dystopia like Tron or Blade Runner, where people need to go from here to there at the push of a button because they can’t stand to settle for where they are.

Our city should not serve transportation or the pursuit of the dollar. It should serve us. Kids should be able to roam around without fear of getting killed. We should be able to roam around.

We should want to roam around.

This is a picture of my street. It is tragically representative of almost every LA street.

From Google StreetView

The sidewalks have been reduced to a footnote, a joke.

They are littered with lamp polls, fire hydrants, street signs, electricity polls, trees, and the occasional discarded couch. Sometimes the sidewalks even forget about themselves and just disappear!

Do humans even live here? Where are the people?

The main street is wide open. Look at all that empty space. Who is this designed for?

So Here’s The Plan

I think there’s a cheap, fast, easy solution to this. And it’s not rocket science. It’s a simple mix of off the shelf parts:

  • Roundabout intersections
  • Awesomebuses
  • Electric motors
  • Bicycles and bike-like featherweight vehicles

Here’s how the pieces fit together:

The Bike

Bikes are awesome. They’re cheap and fun. You can feel the wind in your hair, the sun on your skin, all the while getting your heart pumping, giving you some exercise!

But average speed of a bicycle is 10–13 mph. That’s below the car’s average 17.3 mph.

Fear not, it gets better.


The Electric Motor

Now we add an electric motors to the bicycle. These things can go up to 28 mph! Even at more conservative speeds, say 20–25 mph, they’re faster than the average car on city streets going a pokey 17.3 mph!

But that’s not a fair comparison, pitting e-bike on the open road to cars restricted by traffic lights. These aren’t flying bikes! Surely they’ll need to stop at intersections as well.

Not necessarily.


The Roundabout Intersection

This is where you take out all traffic lights. You replace them with roundabout intersections. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. In many parts of the world, traffic roundabouts are actually used for cars. But in this case, we’re going to use them to eliminate waiting at intersections. And for safety buffs, taking out traffic lights has shown not only to be safe, but to actually increase traffic safety. More on that here.

So now we’ve set our average speed to 23mph and we’ve eliminated intersection waiting. Sweet right?

The skeptic in you is shaking your head at this naive plan: “Fine, let’s pretend for a minute that for short trips, maybe the electrified bike beats the car. But let’s be REALISTIC. We live in Los Angeles. People reside in Northridge, Santa Clarita, Simi Valley, and work in Downtown, Santa Monica, and freaking Orange County.

Is your brilliant plan having me haul ass 50+ miles on a bike??”

Wait for it...


The Awesomebus

This where the buses come in. These aren’t your normal people buses. We’re going to pimp out these buses a little. Here’s what I mean.

You’ll cycle from your house to your nearest freeway onramp. Oh yes, I forgot to mention, we’re not going to get rid of our freeways.

Each freeway onramp is now an UberBus stop. So you’ll wait a few minutes here. The key here is waiting just a few minutes. If we actually got rid of our cars, the savings would be huge (initial cost of purchase, cost of fuel, parking, insurance, car maintenance, accidents, road maintenance, etc). A portion of these savings could be channeled into a proper public transportation system with buses arriving every few minutes, not every few hours. And because everyone will be using these buses because cars are no more, the costs per person would decrease even more and the number of buses could be increased.

So your bus pulls up.

But this is no ordinary bus. First of all, it’s much wider, the kind you see at international airports ferrying passengers around. And second, the entire back of the bus opens up and becomes a ramp. You and your fellow Angelinos simply cycle right into the bus. The bus ramp closes and you’re on your way!

Because these buses aren’t running on a single line like metros, each bus can be flexibly scheduled to stop per every 5 to 10 onramps, without slowing each other down.

We could even build a system where they never actually stop at onramps, but onboard passengers via smaller pods that constantly pick up riders and dock them to moving buses: the bus equivalent of this cool idea!

The Good, The Better, and the Awesome

Notice the awesomeness of this plan. You’re actually, finally, FINALLY going as fast as the freeway allows you. Without any cars or traffic on the freeway, you’re always going 70 mph.

You remember those precious few days a year, those national holidays when there’s no traffic and you realize your 75 minute commute only actually takes about 25 minutes without traffic? If not, that’s because you’ve probably blocked it out.

Well, imagine your DAILY commute being that quick and painless: without any traffic, EVER!

I know, I know: the beancounter in you is all fired up right? What about weather? What about transportation of goods? What about contractors and delivery trucks? What about the elderly, the handicapped, or pregnant women?

Ironing Out The Details

Weather

Weather? In Los Angeles? What’s that? I’m only half joking.

We live in the most pristine climates in the world. We have a few days of rain a year and a few weeks of heatwaves. The rest of the time it’s almost literally sunshine and rainbows. Why the hell are we always indoors in our little boxes??

Ok, but really, what about when it rains or what about heat waves?

If we think of our bikes as convertibles, then there’s no reason to fear rain or shine. When the weather isn’t LA pristine, we retract our convertibles’ tops. Why can’t we do the same with bikes?

The Dorky Version
The Less Dorky Version

Not Fit to Bike

What about the handicapped, drunk, or pregnant? What about infants or the elderly.

Once you get the gigantic, unsafe killing machines that are cars off the roads, there are plenty of options for the unfit to bike.

Here’s just one example from a company called Organic Transit:

Just for fun, guess how many miles per gallon equivalent this thing gets. 1,800 MPGE. You’re reading that right.

Trucks

I think trucks could be designed to be much, much lighter. But relative to cars, they serve their purpose much better. Light trucks and vans carry cargo and people in bulk for contractors, schools, gardeners, small businesses, etc. And 18 wheelers bring us the goods from our stores.

These could actually easily be integrated into this carless utopia.

We still have those wide freeways. If one or two lanes are dedicated for uberbuses, we still have 2 or 3 additional lanes. We can simply dedicate one lane for 18 wheelers and another lane for light trucks and vans.

On surface streets, we can set aside roads with dedicated truck and van lanes. And if the final destination of these vehicles is not on such a street, they can use any existing street for their last mile at very, very reduced speeds, something like 8–12mph.

Notice that by getting cars off the road, we actually increase the efficiency of these vehicles by removing congestion. So now trucks and vans can move around the city faster.

Road Trips

If you want to travel to a nearby city that has yet to adopt this car free plan or just take a road trip, fear not!

We could build “carports” (think airport) at the outskirts of Los Angeles. So you’d bike to an uberbus, take that to the edge of Los Angeles county. Then you’d rent a car, leave your bike in a bike locker and you’re on your way to the open road!!

Or maybe we could allow for Uber and Lyft-like services to operate for those who want to take trips outside of Los Angeles. A car (using designated truck lanes) would come pick you and your buddies up from one of your houses and take you to the edge of LA county where he/she will promptly disembark at an Uber or Lyft station and let you and your friends be on your merry way to San Diego, Vegas, or San Francisco.

The Transition

Like any change in infrastructure, small scale implementations, careful monitoring and fine tuning will definitely be required.

Now, I’m by all means no traffic engineer. Such a plan will require feasibility studies, community input, pilots, etc, etc.

But as other, much less wealthily cities have done versions of this plan with varying levels of awesome results. That South American city with every other lane being bike only, that other city that planned for two years to ban cars for a month, I know that it’s not only theoretically possible, it’s

But so does any traffic construction project. The 405 expansion project slowed down hundreds of thousands of people’s commute times for years. It cost over a billion dollars. And it got us…one extra lane. One extra lane to enable just slightly more people to experience the joys of the 405, since studies have shown that what was supposed to be a connection relief project did nothing of the sort.

So will this plan require some effort? Yes.

But comparing it to just one congestion relief project, freeing up millions of hours, cleaning up our air, throwing less money away, revitalizing our street and civic life, helping everyone exercise as part of their daily routine, I’d say this project will repay itself hundreds of times over in both measurable economic gains as well as immeasurable quality of life gains.

Let’s do this in 7 years. Why do quickly? Because it’s actually cheaper and easier that way. Other cities are doing this. We’re kind of doing it. Trying to slowly get people on bikes. But his results with everything being harder and everyone being angry. No driver or cyclist (even when you’re both at different times) is every happy sharing the road with the other. Nor should they be. It’s quite a shitty and dangerous experience for both. And for implementation, it’s costly. Every street needs a study. Traffic studies, safety studies, construction of new sidewalks or semi separated lanes, on and on.

Instead, if we did this quickly, we would still do it in stages but we’d do things quite differently. You’d start with banning cars from some streets. And just add and add. Convert those traffic lights to roundabouts.

Best of all, completion would be very clean, instead of the lame compromise of having bikes and cars on the same streets.

The Marketing

Cars have had hundreds of millions in advertising dollars. Bikes need a marketing strategy in order to get public support for such a plan.

We need to rediscover how fun bikes are. Kids know this. Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost that sense of fun. We need to be able to see, smell, and feel the city, not just sit in a metallic bubble idling away our time and money.

We need to realize how cheap biking can be. When you add up the thousand we personally spend on cars, gas, insurance, maintenance, and the billions we collectively spend on infrastructure, and compare it to the puny costs of the simple bicycle, there is no comparison.

We need to realize the emotional toll cars have. From fatal car crashes, to the anxiety of daily traffic, to pollution, to noise, to ugly city design, cars have done unspeakable damage.

We need to immediately increase number of CycLaVia type events, where streets are temporarily closed for half a day and everyone is invited to parooz the streets on foot or on bike.

It’s so much more exhilarating than riding in a car. You have wind blowing through your hair, the sun on your face. You can see the faces of other human beings. You can’t help but smile. It is the most fun you’ll have in your neighborhood!

Bike Only Streets

Once there is enough public support, we can start converting minor streets into bike only streets.

Forget about these Micky Mouse bike lanes on major boulevards. They’re a joke.

They’re not safe, they’re not fun, they’re stress inducing. If this is the best Los Angeles can imagine, then our future is quite bleak.

Let’s slowly start converting streets to bike only streets. This will be a great proof of concept. Feasibility tests and traffic analysis can be conducted.

And let’s turn our carpool lanes into UberBus lanes. Let’s give bikers prime access to freeways.

Eventually as the number of cars are reduced, both organically and through legislation, major streets can be converted to bike only streets and in the end, all will be well.

Let’s Do This

Only when the bike is taken seriously as a primary mode of transport will it actually become a realistic option for everyone.

Without any major infrastructure spending and without waiting for a major technological breakthrough, we can turn LA from a transportation nightmare into a transportation paradise.

And for once, let’s export a REAL vision of the future to the rest of the world.

Wouldn’t Autonomous Cars Fix It All?

Post Script: The Invisible City

I leave you with this passage from one of my favorite books growing up:

“Many years ago, on this very spot, there was a beautiful city of fine houses and inviting spaces, and no one who lived here was ever in a hurry. The streets were full of wonderful things to see and the people would often stop to look at them.”

“Didn’t they have any place to go?” asked Milo.

“To be sure,” continued Alec; “but, as you know, the most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between, and they took great pleasure in doing just that. Then one day someone discovered that if you walked as fast as possible and looked at nothing but your shoes you would arrive at your destination much more quickly. Soon everyone was doing it. They all rushed down the avenues and hurried along the boulevards seeing nothing of the wonders and beauties of their city as they went.”

Milo remembered the many times he’d done the very same thing; and, as hard as he tried, there were even things on his own street that he couldn’t remember.

“No one paid any attention to how things looked, and as they moved faster and faster everything grew uglier and dirtier, and as everything grew uglier and dirtier they moved faster and faster, and at last a very strange thing began to happen. Because nobody cared, the city slowly began to disappear. Day by day the buildings grew fainter and fainter, and the streets faded away, until at last it was entirely invisible. There was nothing to see at all.”

“What did they do?” the Humbug inquired, suddenly taking an interest in things.

“Nothing at all,” continued Alec. “They went right on living here just as they’d always done, in the houses they could no longer see and on the streets which had vanished, because nobody had noticed a thing. And that’s the way they have lived to this very day.”

“Hasn’t anyone told them?” asked Milo.

“It doesn’t do any good,” Alec replied, “for they can never see what they’re in too much of a hurry to look for.”

  • The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster

AN UPDATE:

Since I wrote this piece, I have launched a startup with the aim of making urban mobility fun, easy, affordable, healthy, carbon free, sustainable, and car free using featherweight electric vehicles!

Check it out and let me know what you think: http://haveago.city