LA Transportation Leaders Envision the Road Ahead

Public and private leaders envision and a more connected and more inclusive city

As a region home to over 10 million people with a rich history of automobile culture and industry, Los Angeles has some of the nation's worst traffic. Texas A&M found that in 2012, commuters in Los Angeles and Orange counties spent an average of 61 hours stuck in traffic during the year.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Or that's the hope, at least.

On Monday, government and business leaders who can influence LA's transportation future met at the Los Angeles Central Library for a so-called "California Conversation" hosted by the Los Angeles Times. Panelists from both the public and private sectors spoke with Times reporters.

Representing governmental interests were Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, Metro CEO Phil Washington, and Los Angeles Department of Transportation GM Seleta Reynolds.

From private interests came Google Self-Driving Car Program Technical Lead Chris Urmson, Hyperloop Technologies CEO Rob Lloyd, and Lyft VP of Government Relations Joseph Okpaku.

The overall emphasis of the event was that improving transportation in the LA region will take cooperation and coordination. The mixture of new Metro services and lines, expanded use of ride-hailing services like Lyft and Uber, and new technological advancements like those found in Hyperloop will serve to revolutionize transportation in the area.

But that can only be the case if the transportation network is designed smartly.

The Mayor’s Path

LA Times columnist Patt Morrison interviewed Garcetti about what the City of Los Angeles can accomplish, and he was optimistic for the future.

Garcetti argued that LA is at a crossroads, saying, "This is a decade of incredible reimagining for our city."

With the help of up to $120 billion in funding from a not-yet-officially proposed sales tax increase, the city could create forward-looking transportation services and infrastructure over the next 40 years. The Times reported that the ballot proposal would "seek to raise the countywide sales tax by a half-cent and extend an existing tax for almost two more decades."

The mayor envisions the extension of light rail and bus rapid transit services around the region's airports, beaches, and the San Fernando Valley, creating hubs and uniting regions currently underserved.

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This heightened connectivity would involve not just the "macro-network" backbone but additional improvements at the neighborhood and community level as well. Without local transportation options, he said, the regional network becomes useless. There's also an effort within the city to create more self-contained neighborhoods so that travel over longer distances will become less necessary.

Garcetti also promoted the city's new mobile application, Go LA, which currently compares various options of transit so travelers can pick the best option based on speed, cost, or carbon emissions. In the future, Garcetti hopes that it will be possible to pay for entire trips through the app regardless of which or how many modes of transportation are involved.

Despite all the foreseen improvements in public transportation, roads will remain vitally important, Garcetti said. Freight travel, ride-hailing services and future autonomous vehicles will all depend on road infrastructure. The emphasis is on a better mix of public and private transportation rather than on replacing one with the other.

All of this, though, depends heavily on funding. Garcetti mentioned extra transportation funding from Prop 30 expiring in the near future, and the projects that Metro will undertake beyond those currently underway will almost surely need funds from the sales tax ballot measure Garcetti and Metro plan to put forth in November.

A National Perspective

Secretary Foxx, who joined the Obama administration after a stint as mayor in Charlotte, North Carolina, emphasized the need for transportation infrastructure to be inclusive rather than divisive and to respond to the needs of communities.

"It's cool to see the impact of transportation actually creating more opportunity and not falling into this trap of being divisive," Foxx said. "If we were to put more federal resources in play for regions […] or cities, then we would actually see a much more responsive transportation system."

Foxx heralded Metro's Crenshaw/LAX line, which, upon completion, will run through South LA neighborhoods and connect the light rail system to Los Angeles International Airport for the first time, as an example of inclusive infrastructure. Including communities in the planning process for future projects will be key, he said.

READ MORE: Construction Churns On with Full Street Closures Along Crenshaw/LAX Line

Despite the progress made with Congress passing a five-year infrastructure funding bill, there's still an uphill battle in store for transportation funding.

"We're still under-investing in infrastructure," Foxx said. "[The infrastructure bill] is just a fraction of what we need."

Explosive population growth will create new challenges not just in Los Angeles but across the country. Foxx said that the LA area should expect a 61 percent population increase in the coming decades paired with an 80 percent increase in freight traffic. With the restrictions on how infrastructure is funding right now, Foxx said, it will be hard to meet those increased needs in a responsible way.

More on those restrictions: Foxx said that 18.4 cents from every gallon of gas sold in the United States goes to the Highway Trust Fund, and then 80 percent of that funding is used for roads. For regions like Los Angeles that want to emphasize public transportation, that provision could severely limit available funding.

"What's exciting about this area is that […] when I was growing up, LA was the poster child for smog and for congestion and for long travel times," Foxx said. "And what I see now is a community that is really trying to cut through that reputation and to solve some of these challenges."

Hands Off the Wheel

Having driven millions of miles without incident (until January), Google's self-driving cars are perhaps the most advanced in the nascent industry.

Urmson, the head of the self-driving vehicle project, has been with Google since the project began seven years ago and argued that the primary benefit of self-driving vehicles is increased safety.

"The amount of people who will die on the road this year is the equivalent of a [Boeing] 737 falling out of the sky five days a week," Urmson said. He also added that 94 percent of traffic fatalities are due to human error.

According to Urmson, designing a car that could drive on its own on a freeway was relatively simple. But improving the car to the point that it's safe to use in dense urban areas and complex streets is much harder.

Unlike later speaker Rob Lloyd, Urmson argued that the United States' regulatory system is "actually pretty open."

"There's a lot made of this question of liability. It turns out the American legal system is incredibly robust, and so there's this whole area of product liability. If you make something and it doesn't do what you say it should do, then you're going to be held accountable for that," Urmson said.

The future as Google sees it involves fleets of self-driving cars picking up and dropping off passengers as requested, reducing the number of vehicles on the road and never sitting idle in parking lots.

But the company itself does not plan to produce vehicles, Urmson said.

"The technology we're developing here will contribute to the automotive industry and be a part of that," Urmson said. "No one's going to replace Detroit."

Google, for the time being, seems to be the face of the self-driving car. With redundant power, steering and braking systems, sensors with overlapping fields of view and a prominent red "stop" button, the prototype car Google has designed is meant to quell any fears. But one audience member expressed concern about the "leap of faith" required to trust an automated vehicle.

Urmson emphasized that the transition to self-driving cars doesn't have to be sudden and total.

"Having one of them makes the person in that vehicle a bit safer," he said, "and it makes the people around them a bit safer."

Hyperloop Hype

The privately-funded, all-electric, nearly-silent Hyperloop being developed in Los Angeles is a plane, a train, a car, and an autonomous vehicle all in one, according to Lloyd.

Proposed by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the Hyperloop concept consists of a tube from which all the air has been evacuated. Passengers and cargo would travel in pods within the tube at speeds reaching 760 miles per hour.

But, Lloyd lamented, the regulatory hurdles of bringing such an idea into being will be extensive.

Despite the issues with regulation, Lloyd argued that with very narrow right-of-way required and no need for "new science," a Hyperloop project could begin construction in 2017.

Though it's hard to know if these figures are reliable since Hyperloop Technologies has been rather secretive about its developments, Lloyd claimed that long-distance Hyperloop infrastructure could be built at 60 percent of the cost of high-speed rail and travel three times as quickly.

The first area of exploration for the new technology, though, would not be long-distance travel, but instead short trips and conveying freight.

Lloyd, along with Mayor Garcetti, envisioned a Hyperloop system moving freight rapidly away from the Port of Los Angeles toward businesses and industrial areas.

And since freight companies typically invest in freight transport, Lloyd expects that "the efficiency we can generate with a Hyperloop for freight would be entirely funded because the economics would make a lot of sense. What we really need from government isn't so much the money — what we need is the support."

By support, Lloyd meant rapid and generous regulatory shifts.

"We totally believe in regulation. Regulations keep us safe," Lloyd said. "[But] the speeds with which those regulations change can happen faster when people say 'let's do this' and get behind an idea. It's [about] getting people to think differently about how regulations could be purposeful and could be modified."

Tying It All Together

The final panel included two government officials, an executive from a private business and the head of a community organization. If anything from the conference illustrated the idea of varied and "multi-modal" transportation being the future, this was it.

"Having a multi-modal approach is key," Lyft VP Okpaku said. "One that takes advantage of rideshare, bikeshare, existing infrastructure. There's not necessarily a competition here. These different forms can interact and be symbiotic with each other."

LADOT General Manager Seleta Reynolds emphasized the need for a shift towards multi-modal and mixed transportation strategies.

"The city is going to continue to grow, no matter what happens. If we continue to invest in the transportation strategies that we have been, we know what the outcomes will be," Reynolds said. "We have to live within our means and manage what we have differently."

Reynolds said that Los Angeles's transportation strategy moving forward emphasizes safety and accessibility over speed. Laura Lake, a member of the Westwood Community Council who spoke during the event, is part of a lawsuit against the city, who she claims is intentionally reducing road speeds and thereby endangering the public by increasing the response times of emergency services.

Phil Washington, CEO of LA Metro, emphasized the ability of increased public transportation options to take cars off the road and ease congestion.

"I think we are at a crossroads not just here in LA County, but the country, in terms of what to do about congestion and all those things, and what to do about decaying infrastructure in this country," Washington said. "Do we not invest in those things that we believe will ease congestion? Or do we just say, 'hey listen, we'll see how we end up.'?"

Lake argued that the city's and county's transportation plans have not been responsive to the needs of communities and are instead "top-down." Washington acknowledged this and said that Metro is working hard to solicit more community input.

Reynolds said LADOT is also working on programs to improve outreach, such as community grants for project ideas that come from individual communities.

Regarding access and equity of transportation projects, Washington said that Metro tries to improve transit as much as it can for the most people with the money it has. He acknowledged that there are political forces at play that may force those outcomes to be inequitable.

"From a staff perspective […] what I must do is present the projects that represent the greatest benefit. And we'll let the politics fall where they may," Washington said.

This all hearkens back to Garcetti's vision of "reimagining our city."

Most of the panelists agreed that the future of transportation in LA will require a mix of a variety of services and that it should link currently underserved communities.

But much of this hinges on funding, smooth legislative processes and continued cooperation and innovation.

Without those, the future of transportation in LA may be just more congestion.

Reach News Editor James Tyner here or follow him on Twitter.