The Subway System: Stopped in its Tracks

By Sean Prophet

I have watched the subway being constructed over the past several years with a mixture of awe and chagrin: Awe that car-crazy L.A. would finally join the ranks of cities worldwide with a "real" public transit system, and chagrin that public officials had once again stopped short of a complete solution. Today the system is too cumbersome and limited to serve the majority of commuting Angelenos. It would be one thing if the current system were phase one of a total transit plan--but it's not.

When announced, future expansions would have put the subway within range of most Southland commuters by 2010. The west San Fernando Valley was to have been connected by 2008, with a station at Topanga Canyon Blvd. (3 miles from my house!) As it stands, these plans have all been cancelled. And for the forseeable future, only a select few commuters travelling between North Hollywood, Hollywood, and downtown can leave their cars behind. Above-ground rail lines connect to Long Beach, but miss the airport. Everyone else has to take buses, which actually result in much longer commutes than simply driving.

1998 Los Angeles Freeway Speeds and current Metro Rail coverage

Freeway speeds are expected to slow to half what they are today by 2025. Yet the MTA's 2001 plan shows nothing on the drawing board to alleviate the problem. There are a few small expansions of the rail system, a few busways, some meager freeway improvements, but nothing on the horizon to address the real issue of millions of Angelenos wasting hours per day in their cars. Transit advocates also steadfastly refuse to consider expanding freeways, except to add HOV (carpool) lanes that must be paid for by all taxpayers and can only be used by a select few.

Everyone who lives here deals with this problem on a daily basis. We have conquered the moon and the human genome, but we can't seem to overcome petty political bickering to actually do something about traffic. It's yet another confirmation of the fact that the most intractable problems do not involve science, but human nature.

In the long range plan, L.A.'s MTA advocates limiting and directing population growth and increasing taxes on cars. Obviously, someone has to pay for road system improvements. Recently, London has announced that it will begin charging cars substantial fees to use heavily trafficked roads during peak hours. Other cities around the world have implemented some kind of traffic-based road-use taxes. This might be part of the solution. But raising taxes for a desired goal always involves trusting politicians who must balance competing interests. Often the taxes are collected and years later the goals remain unmet.

The human issues are twofold:

1) Politics of roads and mass transit take decades to evolve--which means we will not see substantial infrastructure improvements in the near-term.

2) Drivers are not capable of effective decision-making on the road.

Yes, this means all of us. We make poor decisions based on limited information and self-interest. The freeway requires collective pooling of information or "groupthink" to run correctly. Self-interest creates gridlock and road rage. Effectively, without telepathy, we are too stupid to drive.

We are too slow to react--small slowdowns turn freeways into parking lots. Hills and curves confound us. We gawk at minor traffic incidents on the side of the road. We can't figure out how to merge, so interchanges become useless when cars are bumper-to-bumper. This second of the human issues may yet be resolved by science: The millions of small and bad decisions made each day on the freeway average out to place traffic in the realm of stochastic processes. This means traffic can be modeled in the same way as viscous fluid flow or other natural events. If this random element can be removed, there is promise that the carrying capacity of existing freeways could triple or quadruple. And speeds could be back where they belong.

As has been widely reported, researchers have been working on systems to allow cars to drive themselves in smart lanes. Cars would enter the lanes on manual control, and computers in each car and in the road would communicate with each other to form virtual trains of 5-10 cars that could be as close as 10-15 feet from each other at highway speeds. They would speed up and slow down together, and also allow cars to separate out as they needed to get to their destinations. These systems would also presumably collect tolls from participating cars, and route traffic around problem areas.

Scary as it may seem to relinquish control of one's automobile, it may be the price we all will eventually agree to pay to get to work on time. The rewards are so huge in terms of time savings this course of action will be impossible to avoid. And the county wide system of carpool (HOV) lanes is a perfect candidate for a phase one automated road system. Long before our politicians cut their red tape on major new transit projects, it's feasible we'll see the ribbon being cut on smart cars and smart roads.

Let's hope this happens sooner rather than later!


Westside Intermodal Transit Forum Scheduled

Smart Road, Smart Car - The Automated Highway System
Advanced Highway Maintenance and Construction Technology
Scientific American Article