Let's Fix LA's Traffic!

LA’s new mobility world is booming -- but our city’s traffic remains horrible. And a real, lasting solution seems like a pipedream.  

So what’s missing? Well, for starters, we need to think bigger and more holistically. We need to start imagining all-new mobility system models, to enable us to better right-size transportation, and exploit our super-cool new Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) technologies. We need innovative vehicle designs, and use fewer ones from the old paradigm. We also need a massive LA-wide mobility education (or “re-education) campaign ASAP.

We can fix LA’s traffic nightmare, and make mobility cheaper for millions of the city’s residents, get people out exercising, and, of course, reduce emissions significantly.

To accomplish this, I think we need a new LA mobility-improving moonshot project – like Google’s Loon Moonshot that will launch thousands of atmosphere-spanning balloons to deliver Internet to billions without it today.

Sadly, much of current thinking seems as gridlocked as our freeways. But with imagination, there exists an opportunity to invent and deploy an all new process that leverages our collective capabilities and fundamentally transform mobility, access, and life in LA.

Grid Morning

While California has long been focused on addressing clean mobility solutions, less work has been done to reduce the footprint (or wheelprint) of LA’s transportation system.

What’s the main problem we’re dealing with? We simply have too many cars that are too big for how they are used.

We could visualize the problem this way: A person walks down to the beach with 4 beach chairs in their hands. They open them up at the beach (arranged like in a car), and sit in just one. The next person comes to the beach alone with 4 chairs as well, as well as hundreds and thousands more do. The result? The beach fills up very fast with chairs, but not that many people.

The situation can feel bleak. A recent LAist article; “Nothing Can Fix LA Traffic, So Deal With It” suggests, “Politicians, agencies and transportation innovators” are hiding a fundamental truth: we can’t fix the traffic problem in the near term. (And that’s especially frightening when you consider the influx of new apartments and homes being built for new Angelenos.)

To use another analogy, let’s say LA’s transportation system was a 4-speed stick shift car. And let’s say we have been in second gear for the last century with our automobile system, and now we want to move into the next (third) MaaS gear. LA metro has become very innovative – but I feel their focus has been too limited. LADOT is doing important traffic safety work and preparing for the autonomous future – but immediate traffic relief doesn’t seem a top priority.

And we should be thankful for Silicon Valley and their amazing VC-backed new mobility services like Uber and Lyft. They have effectively “hacked” millions of passenger cars and made them into “taxis”. But when you have millions of way too big cars struggling to move in a big city, great software and gobs of cash won’t fix the problem. Nor will major legacy automakers, who won’t to disrupt their current car and truck sales business in the near term. So, where can we turn? Let’s start with redesigning the car paradigm.

We Need Better Vehicle Design

I am a car designer and see ways to improve mobility that software-enabled new mobility service providers and government (infrastructure and conventional transit) agencies do not.

I began to focus on right sizing mobility when I designed the first Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV) - which began production 23 years ago, and still in production today. I’m pleased that thousands of people drive my little 5hp vehicle for a nearby coffee, and not a 500hp Tesla. I’m proud our NEV has saved many millions of gallons of gas from being burned. I have also focused on the smart multimodal future for years and launched the first New Mobility Center in North America with the University of California in 1998.

Time to Put Mobility Services Where Upcoming Car Lite Consumers Will Need Them

LA struggles with new mobility adoption for a couple of key reasons: First, most of the region is suburban lower-density – where public transit doesn’t perform well. And while transit innovators are focusing on the first-last mile problem, few see that most users needing a first mile option to reach Metro light rail will also need a last mile option – to reach their destination in a timely manner.

Another big problem is “we” are deploying new mobility services in a piecemeal manner, and not locating them where a person wanting to ditch their car needs them. We need to focus more on where everybody is going in LA in their car each month. I think of this as your LA bubble - The area of the city you mostly live in.

For example a person lives in Burbank and works in Glendale will travel a consistent route each week. They may go to other areas of LA after work or on the weekends, but perhaps never south of Long Beach? To help them ditch their cars, we need to put the mobility options at all the places they need to travel. We should no longer randomly scatter new services around the region in a piecemeal fashion – and expect a good outcome.

Thankfully we can now use available cell phone data to see where everybody’s bubble is, and where our new mobility solutions should be placed.

A New Zone-2-Zone Mobility Model using both Local + Regional Vehicle Categories

My new plan splits our vehicles into two categories, creating a new mobility vehicle hierarchy. There is the new category of smaller and slower tier-1 local vehicles, and our familiar tier-2 freeway capable automobiles, SUVs, and truck regional vehicles.

The new tier-1 category will have both personal and group transportation vehicles. The small personal vehicles build on the walk and bike trips. There is an explosion of new pedal and electric micromobility vehicles being introduced today. These include skateboards, trikes, cargo bikes, self balancing scooters, motorized wheelchairs, golf carts, the NEVs I designed, and many others. (Note: these vehicles are very easy to manufacture or 3D print – which will help the local economy and hopefully generates more public interest in this new mobility plan)

The upcoming tier-1 group mobility vehicles may include pedicabs, NEV shuttles, and other new shuttles types - either human or computer driven.

The amazing early success of shared e-bikes and e-scooters (JUMP, Bird, and Lime) tells us LA loves these tiny wheelprint motorized vehicles. Now we just need to put these new shared e-bike + e-scooter systems in the right locations around the LA region.

Zone-2-Zone Key Ingredients

I imagine all of Southern California someday divided into a “cellular network” of (neighborhood, office park, downtown, other) zones. Each of the zones may be about 2 miles across, with a small mobility station or hub somewhere near the center. Rather than traveling (point-to-point) from your house to your office in a car, you would alternatively travel to the hub in a tier-1 mode, then transfer to a regional tier-2 mode, and across the city transfer back to a tier-1 mode for your last mile to the office. It’s basically a new hub and spoke model.

The good news about this mobility model is that it 100% fits with LA Metro’s transit system, but able to rapidly (and inexpensively) be deployed to all corners of the LA region. The design is like (SBCCOG’s) Walter Siembab’s visionary Neighborhood Center model.

This new model addresses the first-last mile problem head-on. It offers quick and cheap local and regional mobility. And I expect it to win over new microtransit services that pick up and drop off rider anywhere.

For immediate rapid deployment, initial hubs can be located at a neighborhood grocery store parking lot, at a Metro light rail station, or any central location with 2,000 sq ft of available parking. There needs to be a fenced pen to store, charge and rent tier-1 vehicles. There needs to be (a (decent sized) small fleet of (tier-2) carshare vehicles. But most importantly there needs to be a tall flag where riders can board or unboard a regional ride.

We will need to work with a major user group most likely to ditch their cars. That likely will be commuters – who take consistent trips each week. They can use a tier-1 vehicles to reach a regional van to their office park. And on nights + weekends tier-1 modes give them access to the carshare vehicles. This commuter bundle (vanpool 2.0) service will likely save consumers over $4000 each year over automobile ownership.

(Note: Lyft has recently launched a “bundles” incentive program. They are paying 100 people $500 / month for their Lyft, bike share, public transit rides and carshare use. This may work in a downtown city, but not so well in LA where TNC services cost a lot, and fewer can access public transit or carshare).

Local Lanes

Key to this plan is the need for wider bike lanes that allow more micromobility vehicles to travel safely. These Local Lanes need to be located within a mile from everyone’s home to access the hubs in a safe and comfortable section of the street.

Long Beach’s protected lanes, South Bay City COG’s Slow Zone Network, and the Enhanced Network plans in LA’s 2035 Mobility Plan have all laid the groundwork for the space conversions needed to build a comfortable and low stress network that works for scooters, e-bikes, and group NEVs.  

Vehicle Design

This plan calls for a number of new vehicle designs. First off, there is a  clear need for a new type of NEV that fits better with the local lanes. The zone-2-zone mobility platform also needs better designed group vehicles.

And there’s a need for an all new tier-2 narrow car, that splits lanes, and allows two cars to fit in one highway lane.

Ideally, we will co-design these new vehicles, and involve Art Center car design students, as well as other interested area students.

Vans by Virgin

SuperShuttle and vanpool vans are uncomfortable and very difficult to get in and out. This needs to be addressed. We should look to create a new Business Class van – looking like Virgin Air designed it with big pod-like seating for privacy, phone calls and mobile productivity.

Another needed (upgraded) van design would lower the price of regional travel and allow users to take their bikes and e-scooters with them. This new vehicle might remind us of our large military aircraft for parachuters, with large rear open door (for super fast boarding - when parked).

2 Cars in 1 Lane

I would love to see the majority of LA switch to zone-2-zone mobility, but the reality is there will be consumer resistance. Therefore, we should fast track the design and manufacture a new type of tier-2 tandem-seat narrow car. And when narrow car owners / users need more capacity, we’ll have carsharing services all over the city for them to get a bigger vehicle.

Some ask about safety? In fact, Volvo has researched this concept and found narrow cars can be as safe as any of their cars. Additionally, the narrow vehicle concept lends itself to autonomous driving applications in a very meaningful way.

To get a sense of what a narrow car might looks, check out the Nissan Land Glider on YouTube.

If We Can Change the Thinking; We Can Change It All

The inertia of our automobile culture is hard to stop. We need potent mobility education for LA’s younger people and meaningful “re-education” for those older. The good news here is LA / Hollywood is the capital of entertainment on our planet, and creative talent can engineer creative solutions.

I’d like to see a co-creation project for creating Public Service Announcements (PSAs), and the funding to get the best videos in front of LA residents. We need to immediately address the consumers’ financial understanding of transportation, and make a video about the “$50 / Day House”. This PSA will have the car dealer coming to a customer’s home each and every night to collect $50 for their 2 cars! Yes, the marginal cost is shocking! Two cars cost $50 a day/AAA figure. But there are so many other videos to make.

We should explore gamification, and getting neighborhoods to compete on their car reduction efforts.

It’s also vital LA residents can experience new mobility first hand. I’m thinking of an ongoing weekend Mobility Expo in a giant parking lot. Dodger Stadium seems like a great place for this (when there are no games).

Lastly, we might follow President Kennedy‘s lead when he proposed the Peace Corps? It would be great to launch the Mobility Corps for area K-12 students to become mobility minds – then teach their parents, or neighbors how to ride the light rail, bus, or other new mobility option? LA Metro is already starting down this road with their cool Transportation School.

Getting Going

There is much to do, and a lot to figure out. I have a pretty good idea of what this moonshot should be called. I’ve created a list of the five key and 20 supporting professionals I see as needed to get thing going. We could start with a variety of available services, and in various areas of LA County. We could start with 10 zone-2-zone group vans or 5000? It’s just a matter of the financial resources needed to support this?

Can we do it? I find it helpful to think about what a transportation engineer once told me: “You actually don’t have to take that many cars off the freeway to greatly improve freeway speed. By removing just 5% of the cars, speeds can increase up to 50% faster.

Is there anybody out there that would like to work on this moonshot project with me?