LA Metro aims to "ease" traffic. Why aren't we trying to end it?

Like many native Southern Californians, I’ve endured our infamous traffic (and unending jibes from out of town visitors) as long as I can remember.  Unlike most, however, I grew up in a profoundly technocratic household and spent my childhood dinner table conversations debating demographic projections and arguing how best to manage our region's infrastructure.

ARGO Street Quality Identification Device (“SQUID”) is very much in that pioneering, technocratic spirit and aims to improve how basic public services like street maintenance are delivered.  The uniquely affordable sensor measures street roughness and leverages computer vision to determine street quality, the same underlying technology powering self driving cars.

This agile and easily implemented technology can help digitize street inspections as a starting point to automated road detection and supports self driving cars by supporting well maintained and easily identifiable streets.  It also shows that computer vision isn’t magic and offers an intuitive path to operationalizing this technology in roads today.  

Recently returning to Southern California from that world to take the lead on a big water data project, the recent triumphalism surrounding the recent completion of the Expo line to Santa Monica has struck me as particularly odd.  Sure I’ve loved riding my beloved gold line, and I’ll enjoy the novelty of taking the train to the beach on a weekend when the excitement dies down.  

Yet light rail only serves approximately 1% of transportation trips in Southern California, and further only 25% of transit trips occur via train (the vast majority is on buses).  Shouldn’t our government aspire to provide more public benefit than these expensive inelastic trains that only serve as functional daily transportation for a small slice of Southern California’s sprawling metropolis?  Los Angeles is a dynamic city and deserves better than rigid, fixed transport.

LA Metro, however, plans to spend $42 billion over the next forty years on transit projects to fund bus terminals and a dramatic expansion of LA’s light rail system.  But even the biggest dreams of LA Metro’s light rail expansion don’t come close to the same coverage as our historic red cars, which extended all the way to Redlands and Newport Beach as well as providing dramatically greater breadth within LA.

LA's current light rail plan on the left and historic red car system on the right.

Rebuilding a portion of that red car system won’t solve our traffic problems; instead as the signs say “LA Metro eases traffic.”  So why exactly are we spending billions of dollars on a plan that doesn’t even aim to solve the problem?  The strangest thing about LA Metro’s plan is that “innovation” section discusses streetcars and circulator projects rather than the obvious: self driving cars.  

Autonomous vehicles already putt around Palo Alto and have driven millions of miles.  The tragedy though is that despite LA Mayor Garcetti’s admirable goal of making LA “the First City to Do Autonomous Vehicles Right,” LA Metro’s $140 billion plan doesn’t even mention the technology.  And as Andrew Ng, former Google Brain researcher and currently Chief Scientist at Baidu, has articulated, self driving cars require regulation and infrastructure investment:

“Autonomous driving's biggest problem is addressing all the corner cases--all the strange things that happen once per 10,000 or 100,000 miles of driving. Machine learning is good at getting your performance from 90% accuracy to maybe 99.9%, but it's never been good at getting us from 99.9% to 99.9999%. I think it is more promising to start with a different goal: A shuttle/bus that can only drive one bus route or just in a small region.”

That approach is perfect for Southern California, which is lacks a central hub like Manhattan in New York and would benefit hugely from the flexibility autonomous vehicles afford.  Imagine if rather than 40 person buses, you had fleets of 6 person pods picking up passengers precisely where they are using ridesharing technology similar to lyft or uber.  That would solve the last mile problem that traditionally cripples public transit.  

Furthermore, such pods could trail each other on freeways nearly bumper to bumper at high speeds, dragging off one another like cyclists in a peloton and achieving dramatically greater fuel efficiency.  The resulting lower per mile costs and potential public subsidy for reduced congestion and pollution could provide the economics to create near ubiquitous adoption, transforming Southern California’s urban landscape in the process.

Such pods would not need to park near high value business districts, freeing up Southern California’s scarce land for more valuable uses.  Southern California’s spread out suburbs might even switch from traffic choked sprawl into the network of garden cities it was always meant to be as old car parks and garages are transformed into new public spaces.

That vision will take some time to implement, but note the important barriers aren’t technological so much as technocratic.  Autonomous vehicles are already here.  Deploying them in the wilds of an urban environment will require regulation to ensure safety, just as the introduction of locomotion required different rules regarding walking on train tracks than those society was habituated to with horse paths.

The $42 billion LA Metro plans to spend over the next forty years could be repurposed into an integrated plan to prepare LA’s roadways for autonomous vehicles and pilot this pod approach in an LA neighborhoods or on dedicated freeway lanes.  Southern California’s highway network already provides solid coverage of the region and high speed autonomous pods offer the promise to leverage that existing investment rather than building soon to be stranded light rail assets.  

That modest pilot could be implemented in the immediate future with existing technology through a creative public private partnership with the many, many corporations lining up to be the world’s first to deploy self driving cars in a live urban environment.  Even if those cars were limited to dedicated lanes they could be supplemented with subsidized car networks like Uber or Lyft to solve the last mile problem.  And critically such a pilot puts us on a path toward potentially ending traffic across the region through ubiquitous pod deployments. Many will say such a change is impossible, but the advance of autonomous vehicle technology is inevitable.  

Los Angeles historically has been the city of the future, a place where dreams come true and the impossible is realized.  The city has fallen on hard times in recent decades, experiencing stagnating employment growth and steady traffic, but Southern California boasts a world beating cast of creative talent, attracting entertainers and engineers the world over with our famous weather and laid back lifestyle.  

Among those are many who believe, as Carey McWilliams once did and I still do, that the “most fantastic city in the world will one day exist in this region: a city embracing the entire region from the mountains to the sea.”  Rather than than simply easing traffic, why not flip Los Angeles’s infamous congestion on its head and be the first city to end it?

-Patrick Atwater

It remains unclear how "streetcar and circulator projects" qualify as innovation.

It remains unclear how "streetcar and circulator projects" qualify as innovation.

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