By Bob Gelfand, October 3, 2014
GELFAND’S WORLD-There was a panel discussion the other night which included the CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (the MTA), a college professor, and the head of a nonprofit organization dedicated to making our transportation lives better.
When you look at the video or read the accompanying report by Sarah Rothbard, it all seems sort of reasonable and even civil.
But speaking as someone who came to hear something useful rather than just the same old glibness, I have to say that I've never seen a more patronizing, elitist group of folks in my life. The level of illogic was monumental, and the disdain for people who don't want to pay tolls on our freeways was palpable.
You can find the whole performance on the first link I've provided, above. Ordinarily, Zocalo presentations are pretty good, but this one, not so much. One hint: The panel seemed to love the new toll pricing on the 110, a system that is largely hated in the harbor area. They seemed oblivious to the idea that the policy involves renting out the public property that is our freeway system to the people who are rich enough to be able to buy its exclusive use. They seemed content with the idea that the rest of us get to sit in bumper to bumper traffic, while the Lexus owners in the Express Lanes whiz by at 65. That's why numerous pundits have nicknamed the Express Lanes the Lexus Lanes.
But their contempt for the suffering drivers of Los Angeles was actually not the worst element of this performance. Much worse was their seeming acceptance of the status quo. In a word, these people were so far inside the box, they should be made to wear gift wrapping. Hardly a word was spoken about the miserable, rotten, gut challenging commute on the 405. Not a peep was peeped about the fact that the 101 and the 110 are jammed many hours of the day.
What was their solution to our current traffic problems, and what view of reality was it based on?
Brian Taylor, the professor from UCLA, was actually kind of interesting, as he suggested ever so subtly that LA doesn't really have it that bad, that commuting is only a small fraction of our total driving, and that some neighborhoods benefit from having a lot of congestion. That sounds harsh, but I think there is a certain amount of merit in the argument. Places that are popular destinations will draw a lot of people, which means that they draw a lot of cars and use up their available parking. I think we can understand that part of the argument.
What I don't want to accept, and what the panel ignored entirely, is the increasing mess on the north-south routes. Creeping from Inglewood to Van Nuys at 11 miles per hour has nothing to do with the enjoyment of walking through Westwood or meeting for lunch at Barney's.
Art Leahy, the CEO of Metro, was pleasant, almost cute, but entirely stuck in the moment, which is to say, he wants to play with the bus routes and build out the train routes. I've got nothing against these ideas. In fact, I strongly support building out the commuter rail lines as quickly as we can, and I've written long screeds about creating the systems to get people from their homes to rapid transit lines.
What was missing was any imagination about future technologies. A long time ago, I heard a transportation professional explain to a quizzical radio host why we aren't building newer and better freeways. "We ran out of dirt."
It's a pretty simple idea. As I've written previously, that leaves us two choices. We either dig down below the surface or we go up above the surface. The choice I make is to do both, when necessary, but the smart money has to be on developing much cheaper systems that go up above the roadway.
The technology that my colleagues and I have been supporting is called personal rapid transit (PRT). It sounds futuristic at first, but the next generation is being developed in New Jersey and there is a demonstration project currently under way in Tel Aviv. We don't know for sure what these technologies will cost, but a not-unreasonable estimate is something in the range of 20 million dollars per mile. And that's if the systems go 50% over budget. Meanwhile, the Metro CEO had the courage to mention the idea of drilling rail tunnels through the Sepulveda Pass, and not crack a smile while doing so. Every cost estimate for this proposed boondoggle begins at $20 billion. It's right around a hundred times the estimate for building a PRT line over the same ground.
Let's be clear. PRT has to prove itself in demonstration projects and testing, and it has to show that it can carry large numbers of passengers in a quick and safe way. But there is nothing unreasonable about the science or about the engineering projections. Within 18 months or so, we will see whether the Tel Aviv project lives up to expectations. If it is half as good as we think it will be, it will provide an adjunct to the light rail systems we are building (at one-tenth the price per mile), and it won't clog up our city streets.
Did we hear one word about newer technologies? Not hardly. Only in private discussions after the panel presentation was there a chance to discuss the topic with any of the panelists. Mr Leahy of the Metro, when asked whether he had heard of PRT, answered that yes he had, and "There is a coven of PRT supporters who come to our meetings." I told him that I guessed I was a member of the coven (although I haven't been to an MTA meeting), and that the word sounded a little insulting. Leahy made clear that it was intended to be insulting.
I'll give Art Leahy credit for having a sense of humor (I've never been compared to a witch before), but he is totally locked into the box of 2014 technology, which is to say, 1914 technology.
A word about the topic of toll roads on what used to be freeways, with the accent on the word free.
Every panelist was jumping for joy over the introduction of toll roads, not only in the Orange County area, but on the Harbor Freeway (there I go, using that word free again). Hillary Norton is the executive director of something called Fixing Angelenos Stuck in Traffic. When I spoke to her after the panel, pointing out that the toll roads give the advantage of the road to those rich enough to take it, she smilingly and sweetly disagreed. Mind you, she had no logical defense for her position, but apparently this is the era when everyone has a right to an opinion, and unfortunately, some people take the idea a little too seriously. If you look at her website (linked above), you can see that it is the same old same old, encouraging us to get out of our cars and ride the city's wonderful bus system.
As I said above, I've never run into such a patronizing, opinionated group of people in my life, and not a one of them was willing to hazard a thought about the introduction of newer technologies or the effect of rising gas prices on automobile usage.
A colleague who attended with me corrected me on one point. Where I heard a lot of complacency from the panel, he pointed out that what they really told us was that we are progressing in the way that is intended. Apparently the idea of spending 10 more years to build out the trains (it was originally going to take a lot longer), or to spend 20 years planning, funding, and blasting a rail tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass, are proceeding according to the timeline, and are therefore reasonable. If you add a mere 50% overage to these numbers, you're looking at close to 2 decades for the trains, and a third of a century for the Sepulveda Tunnel.
It's important that city and county planners begin to draw the possibility of PRT systems or other futuristic technologies into their maps, because there is a good solid fighting chance that we will have a working PRT system ready to look at in a year and a half.
I'd like to set forth a modest challenge here. After the presentation, I was talking to 3 students (or recent graduates) about the introduction of toll roads on the 110. I was told that there have been studies and computer modeling that show that the introduction of a few toll lanes on an already existing freeway can actually increase overall traffic flow.
This is supposed to be the consequence of nonlinearities in traffic flow.
That last term actually means something that is mostly understandable. Think of it like this: You've got 1000 cars on a particular stretch of road, and they are all doing 65 miles per hour. You also know that this number of 1000 cars is the magic number, because if you add any more cars, traffic will have to slow down. So nonlinearity just says that if you push the number of cars up to 2000, you won't see traffic slow by half, to 30 mph. Instead, traffic will grind to a halt. You will be in a bumper to bumper traffic jam.
There is a point (think about putting enough cars onto the road that they are closer than a car length apart) where adding a few more cars will slow things down substantially. Maybe going from 1000 to 1100 cars will put you into that irritating experience where you cycle between 22 miles per hour and standing still.
The students told me (and who can sound more patronizing than students who have just completed a course of study) that models for traffic flow exist. I was asked whether seeing such a model would convince me.
My answer: Why haven't I seen that kind of demonstration at any of the meetings I've attended? Their answer was that meetings that allow the public to participate are the worst kind of meetings to hear technical details.
So if anybody would like to contact me at the email address below and direct me to a computerized model for traffic flow, preferably one with animated graphics, I will look with an open mind. But remember, the question is not whether the congestion pricing lanes do better for those who pay (we know they do), or that they add to the total traffic flow (a possibility), but that the people in the free lanes also do better. That, as the bard said, is the rub.
One technical point that the panelists did not answer, either in the presentation or in personal discussion: Considering that traffic flow has this characteristic of nonlinearity, doesn't it also follow that when the non-toll lanes begin to build up traffic, that they will hit that nonlinearity earlier, and all because the additional road space in the toll lanes is denied to them? This model fits the observed situation where I am in a traffic jam in the free lanes, while the toll lanes are fairly empty and their traffic is going at full speed. As the Fixing Angelenos Stuck in Traffic website points out, the addition of a few percent more cars can have a serious effect on traffic flow.