Future City L.A. - Part I: Mobility

Changing attitudes and what changes with them--the physical environment of the City of Los Angeles

Los Angeles Traffic Stop

This blog entry is the first of a series that investigates changing attitudes and with them - the changing physical environment of the City of Los Angeles.

If you know anything about Los Angeles, you know the single occupancy car has played a big role in our cultural ethos. One only has to watch the opening of La La Land to understand how much cars, and with them traffic jams filled with single drivers play in our collective imaginations. Since the Red Car lines were torn up from the streets in the early ‘60s, the car and the gasoline powered internal combustion engine has dominated how we get around, and how we think about, our City.

As a fellow Angeleno once put it to me; "time in my car is ME time." To her point, cars are specifically designed to mitigate the effects of boredom in traffic. For many. they are a kind of sanctuary. See Netflix's series on design Abstract and Ralph Gilles' episode on Car Design and the message is clear.

Granted, the car is an important tool, not only a convenient way to get around, but now a symbol of our identity. However its becoming clearer every day that the costs of our obsession with gasoline powered, single occupancy cars are pretty steep; including loss of productivity, extreme impacts on air quality, and among the highest costs of living in America.

Measures M and R

Thankfully, nearly 70 percent of Angelenos approved Measure M last year, adding a half – cent sales tax that will create more than $800 million a year to improve public transit. This comes less than 7 years since we passed measure R, an equal sales tax increase. The result of this commitment at the ballot box has resulted in new transit options which abound in our City; not only is there an extensive light rail system that serves most of us, the MTA has introduced a bike sharing program that is having the impact of increasing ridership, though we lag behind similar programs in other cities. Our intellect tells us “of course I am pro transit, I will vote for the transit measure” and yet, when it comes to our personal behaviors, if we have a car, we tend to use it. 

Autonomous Vehicles

An example of new technology that is really capturing peoples interest is the self – driving car.  Cities are catching on, collaborating with private companies that are developing  autonomous buses. A number of smaller cities in LA county are testing them right now. The idea of AV’s as public transportation is attractive because of their reliability both day and night, plying across preset routes linking people to the light rail lines or other modes of public transit. We have experience working with cities and AV’s; most recently in Las Vegas where they were used as a demonstration project, and I will say that they do one thing very well; convincing the non initiated to use public transit. It’s interesting to see how technological gizmos such as  touch screens and digital readouts perform a key function; primarily reassuring riders that the ride is safe. I guess it’s needed- and if that is what it takes to make more of us use public transit- then I am all for it!  See an example of an AV shuttle in Las Vegas here.

Fuel Cell Cars

Hydrogen fuel cell cars are a remarkable innovation, in that they burn liquefied hydrogen and emit only water. This technology is not something "in development".  In fact, you might have noticed the advertisement for the Toyota Mirai during this year's Superbowl.

The Mirai is  impressive, but what is even more impressive  is the political will that goes with the innovation to make it viable. In 2015, our Mayor, Eric Garcetti initiated the Sustainable City Plan, which creates ambitious goals for 2035; including creating charging stations for fuel cell cars.  As of mid 2016, there are over 40 charging station in California, with a goal of 100 stations by 2024. If you sign up for a lease or purchase one of these fuel cell cars; the state will give you the first three years of hydrogen fuel – free.

Electric Cars

Much further along are the sustainability goals the City has set for Electric cars, which envisions installing 1000 EV charging stations throughout the city in the next two years. Aided by private sector contributions, the LAPD has added 100 BMW i3 electric cars, and the Tesla Model S will also be added soon. Incorporating e-vehicles into the city’s fleet is a smart move. It helps to normalize the message of using more sustainable alternatives to gasoline powered vehicles. All of this will cut green house gas emissions. The plan will cut emissions by 45 percent in 2025, and 80 percent by 2050, with the intent of making Los Angeles “the first big city to achieve zero waste”.

As they say, one step at a time.

The greatest impact of technological change happens when the culture shifts to maximize its benefit. We are currently thinking about transportation in a traditional mindset - by that i mean the  single occupancy vehicle dominates the transportation landscape - for now. People will soon realize that this is a state of being with very limited returns- contingent upon cheap fuel, significant infrastructure investment, and low interest rates. If the new cars I mentioned have an environmental benefit; emitting only  a bit of water instead of smog, the addition of more new vehicles on the road will only compound traffic congestion.

My point is that these innovations are cool, but we have to get beyond  the fascination with the technology-- really starting to question our collective transportation habits. For example, often the first question I get about my own bike commute is "how fast is it?" as if getting from A to B as quickly as possible is the only consideration. Like all of our "lifestyle choices" how we move around the city is a habit. Thinking about the impact of our commute on the communities in which we live is something that (I hope) will naturally lead us to asking "what else can we do to make our city more livable by changing our habits around mobility?"

What I like is that in our discourse we are starting lessen the friction against using public transit. Design of the public realm has a huge role to play in this, and culturally, millennials  are starting  to link transportation choices  to health and well being; not only as individuals but as communities of concerned citizens.  Recently, I see more Angelenos questioning their habits, and incorporating usage of other modes; using public transit,   biking, and walking as a part of their daily routines. The futurists I talk with agree that mobility is going toward shared, multimodal, and free or virtually so.

Studies show that even the most ardent driver among us only uses his car about 5% of the time. If the reason you drive to work is because you always have, maybe its time to question that assumption, at least a day a week. I predict there will be a tipping point in the next few years where we will  look back at our behaviors and marvel at how much time, energy, and resources we dedicated to single car ownership and auto oriented mobility.

In upcoming blogs, I will investigate the impact this shift is having in the physical design of our  City.

Nate Cherry

Global Leader, Masterplanning and Sustainable Urban Development Ask me a question
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