Why LA Should Embrace On-Demand Autonomous Electric Vehicles as a Transit Solution

The history of Los Angeles as a metropolis is based on the development of two concurrent phenomena: mobility systems and real estate speculation. These two forces have conspired to create a regional metropolis that has more in common with network science than with traditional urban planning.  More traditional cities, for example, revolved their centuries of development around commercial trade, such as a port. The genealogy of Los Angeles urban planning is important to understand so that we can forecast the best solutions for its future.

“Whatever glass and steel monuments may be built downtown, the essence of Los Angeles, its true identifying characteristic, is mobility. Freedom of movement has long given life a special flavour there, liberated the individual to enjoy the sun and space that his environment so abundantly offered, put the manifold advantages of a great metropolitan area within his grasp.” – Richard Austin Smith: Fortune, March 1965

But, before the article proceeds, I want to reference what I mean by “on demand autonomous vehicles.” I see implementation of mobility systems broadly, with varying degrees of car-to-car communication, sharing, infrastructure communication, traffic algorithms, mobile apps, etc. Those are a few of the many problems the industry will figure out. There are also dozens of benefits to using autonomous vehicles which could be considered in another article, such as increases in safety, accessibility, parking reductions, etc. My research focuses on communities and best practices on the local level. For this research, I have come up with the following implementation levels/stages for all autonomous vehicles:

(stage 1) Privately Owned – no sharing

(stage 2) Privately Owned and Shared – Shared only when the owner elects

(stage 3) Corporate Owned – Multi-Corporate decentralized systems, aka Mobility Providers (Uber, GM)

(stage 4) Government Owned – Shared for all to use, similar to PRT “Personal Rapid Transit” (with no track necessary)

LA CITY PLANNING ORIGINS

I recently read Reyner Banham’s 1971 book, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, to further understand the underlying architectural theories of LA as a metropolitan area. Banham makes it clear that it’s a misappropriation to say that LA grew into a metropolis only in response to the private vehicle.

(1) The city began in the late 18th Century as a central node, the Pueblo, but never developed outwardly from there. Banham says, “In spite of the chronological priority of the pueblo, other areas in the plains, foothills and coast had begun to develop before the pueblo could mutate convincingly into an authoritative downtown.” (2) As soon as the city became a national destination in the 1870s, it was immediately linked via rail lines to places west (Santa Monica), south (Long Beach), southeast (Anaheim), east (San Bernardino), and north (San Fernando). (3) This network then facilitated the Pacific Electric streetcar system (redcar) that perpetuated the distributed sprawl until the 1950s.

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The demise of the streetcar system was similar in Los Angeles as in other cities. Accidents involving the redcars with pedestrians and cars at intersections became frequent as the density of automobiles and people continued to increase. Moreover, Angelenos now had the option to travel in the privacy of their own vehicle. (4) Los Angeles then acquired its fixation with the automobile. The city continued to grow in a distributed simultaneous manner, as evidenced by the freeway system which has become an icon even though there is nothing particularly original about its implementation in LA.

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NETWORK CITY

Solutions for an urban metropolis founded on distributed development are more likely to come from improvements to the existing status quo, not in trying to mimic the solutions of more traditional centralized cities. LA needs more train lines, I believe that is almost universally accepted. But, I differ from most urban planning professionals, however, because I do not believe that mass transit will ever be a complete solution for our network city; it is too costly, and LA does not have the consistent density to make it worthwhile. There are miles of tracks that would inevitably traverse single-family residential areas, neighborhoods which seem to be haphazardly mixed within our urban fabric.

At it’s core, mass transit is a “linear” element, involving a track. Whether underground, at grade, or even hung from elevated channels, single track transit systems will probably never be ubiquitous enough to connect our network city. Such a confining mode of operation is a limiting factor for internal growth when you compare it to more distributed resilient infrastructures. Our network city has an observable (accepted) imbalance between the density and locations of housing and jobs. One of the issues with solving these problems via mass transit is the lack of room for changes over time. What if the citizens of West LA choose the logical conclusion that what is needed is more housing to complement the surplus of jobs in their areas? What if the people who choose to live there decide to commute to locations inaccessible or inconvenient by rail? What if we build tons of new housing on the Westside, only to discover those people are commuting to an invigorated Inglewood? The genius of a robust autonomous vehicle system is its resiliency for relocation and incremental modification, for comparably low or private costs. Moreover, even if West LA doesn’t add much more housing, which is likely, investing in a distributed resilient system of autonomous vehicles would still be beneficial. The alternative is something like New York City’s subway system, where that city’s centralized core in Manhattan creates disconnection issues between the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn.

 

MASS TRANSIT COMPLEMENT

There has been much research in how far ordinary people are willing to walk to get to a mass transit station. Generally, the experts agree the maximum distance is somewhere around 1,300 feet (¼ mile). The stations planned for the new Wilshire line are approximately a mile apart, even they are twice as far apart as advisable. So how do we extend the aggregate reach of a mass transit station?

This perennial search for an effective “first and last mile” to connect beyond the initial pedestrian radius of a mass transit stop origin and destination is a difficult dilemma for LA. We have a culture accustomed to the luxury of private door-to-door transportation. In place of a feeder bus or jitney system for mass transit stations, a robust on demand autonomous vehicle system could be a winning complement to any ridership goals, though those mobility models are yet to economically present themselves.

 

PRIVATE CITY

The future of LA, as much as it may involve mass transit, will assuredly also involve communities without access to it and travelers averse to using it (and willing to pay for that privilege). Private vehicle use – even with our current state of congestion – offers freedom and privacy of mobility for an equivalent, or often improved, transit time. Even in LA’s worst moments of traffic, let’s say an hour from downtown to Santa Monica, a mass transit solution will offer a similar usage of time, about an hour. Worse, if it is not during rush hour, the ride by car can be as little as 20 minutes. So how do you entice a person of modest means to give up a private vehicle? Especially when technology can provide them with an alternate choice for freeing their time, the autonomous electric vehicle is an obvious solution.

Banham says (notably, in 1971): Angelenos “are acting out one of the most spectacular paradoxes in the great debate between private freedom and public discipline that pervades every affluent, mechanized urban society. The private car and the public freeway together provide an ideal – not to say idealized – version of democratic urban transportation: door-to-door movement on demand at high average speeds over a very large area. The degree of freedom and convenience thus offered to. . . the population is such that no Angeleno will be in a hurry to sacrifice it for the higher efficiency but drastically lowered convenience and freedom of choice of any high-density public rapid-transit system. Yet what seems to be hardly noticed or commented on is that the price of rapid door-to-door transport on demand is the almost total surrender of personal freedom for most of the journey.” And, profoundly, that is what on demand autonomous electric vehicles will solve.

 

COSTS

The costs for a traditionally robust mass transit system are not only cost prohibitive, they may be unnecessary. A robust autonomous vehicle fleet could be cheaper, take vehicles off the road, be implemented in a matter of years instead of decades, and save consumers money because it utilizes existing infrastructure.

By averaging the cost between the new Crenshaw and Wilshire lines, I came up with a modest average of $300 million per mile for a robust rail system wherever we need it. According to Metro, the current system operates at 10,000 riders per built mile of rail. Citizens should rightfully ask what else can we do with $300 million? Could we buy 15,000 Electric Vehicles? Or, could we just incentivize the private sector and not spend any government money? It could be likely that the entirety of an autonomous network would be burdened by private corporate costs. A topic for another essay will consider how municipalities could utilize economic levers, allowing governments to ensure an even distribution across different neighborhoods and socio-economic areas.

 

THE BONES

In the U.S., cars are used only 5% of the time, the other 95% of the time they are parked. Los Angeles is an apt metropolis to implement a full fleet of autonomous vehicles because of existing facilities scattered throughout the county. We have more than enough space for parking autonomous vehicles (my estimates would put parking square footage demand at roughly ¼ existing space). Bill Rosen, president of the Los Angeles city planning commission refers to the “complete streets” agenda by saying, “In L.A., 60 percent of our land area is devoted to streets and parking lots. So the real hope here is that we can take that and transform it into something really different than just spaces for cars.” That’s a lot of space we can reuse, and its space that denser centralized cities do not have in their downtowns. We can gain street space for bike lanes or parks, turn parking garages into offices or retail space, and add housing where there are now resident parking spaces. While there may not be a reduction in the quantity of cars driving at any given time, we can more easily incentivize off-peak time usage and pack the smaller cars in less space (perhaps half).

On the opposite side, there are dozens of mid-sized american cities that don’t suffer the type of congestion we have in LA. The economic forces to implement an on demand autonomous strategy may not be present within those communities for some time.

 

ON DEMAND CULTURE

Most cities are content to solve their congestion issues with a gauge towards rush hour commutes: but, those metropolises have a center. It would be shortsighted to solve the Santa Monica problem in isolation, say, with a transit line. The ebb and flow of both residential and employee migration shows no obvious correlations over the span of decades.  Considering the 40 separate municipalities within Los Angeles County, and their competing and differing interests, who knows to where people will travel in the future? Autonomous vehicles respond to patterns of human use rather than dictate them.

Philosophically, on-demand culture is an efficient use of resources, and it is descending upon our nation and our network city. There would seem to be some advantage to allowing a fluidity of travel to match the fluidity of residence and employment. Contemporary society integrates shared office spaces, the “gig” economy, telecommuting, and airbnb, which collectively foretells some sort of hybrid future. We shouldn’t solve a hybrid future with linear solutions, but ones that also incorporate on-demand and resilient systems. Top down, linear, engineering is no longer advantageous. Luckily, LA is a network city poised to be able to take advantage of this new cultural phenomenon.

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