How much better could travel be in LA?
Last week, I presented at the UCLA Complete Streets conference and attempted to answer the question: how much better could travel be in LA if we really set our minds to it? Here’s my estimation of what’s possible.
What does travel in LA County look like now?
“Complete Streets” means creating streets that welcome all different forms of mobility, promoting vibrant, healthy and active communities. As I told the audience, some may be surprised to learn that nearly one-quarter of trips in LA County are already by walking, biking and transit.
Perhaps more astoundingly, half of them are quite short: 3 miles or less! That is a very bike-able distance. But the bad news is that 60 percent of those short trips (including journeys under one mile) are by car. That means that if you live in LA County and need to get somewhere less than three miles away, most likely you will get in a car. Steve Martin’s parody in L.A. Story where he gets in his car to drive to see his next-door neighbor still hits close to home!
The chart below shows all LA County trips by mode of transportation and distance. Modes are labeled with symbols across the X-axis and distance goes up the Y-axis, with the longer trips at the top of the chart and shorter at the bottom. You can see a heavy concentration of driving for longer trips (more than three miles) in the top right corner of the chart (orange and red), and a large concentration of walking for short trips (less than one mile) in the lower left part of the chart (green).
How could we begin to change this mix away from the cost, waste and pollution involved in using 2-ton combustion engine cars to move a single person a few miles, toward healthier and more community friendly alternatives?
Add “Near Cars” aka NEVs
The first thing is to add small, light, all-electric vehicles called Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs). These are sometimes called “near cars” to distinguish them from the “far cars” that are our default option but are designed for the edge case of carrying five people 300 miles on a sinlge tank of gas. Unlike full-size electric or plug-in vehicles (like the Leaf and the Volt) meant to replace these "far cars," NEVs aka "near cars" are cheaper to buy and insure, and can be plugged into any outlet, without need for a charger. Here in LA County, South Bay Cities Council of Governments has been testing NEVs and found residents are very happy to have a more appropriately sized way to make their many short trips. NEVs don’t have the same health benefits of “active transportation” modes like walking and biking, but they make streets friendlier to walkers and bikers because they are smaller (thus giving more space to other users of the street), slower (thus creating less stress for bicyclists and pedestrians), and they don’t spew pollution from their tailpipes (making the street a more pleasant and healthier environment).
Shift 20% of Long Trips to Shorter Trips
Some of those longer trips (over three miles) could be transformed into shorter trips in two ways:
- Employees could work from a local telecommuting center once or twice weekly. Businesses could team up to put flexible work spaces with a desk, a phone line, and a high-speed internet connection in residential areas so residents could save the time and pollution of their commute once or twice a week. This would lead to a 20%-40% reduction in driving trips for those workers.
- Some trips over three miles involve getting to school, the grocery store or to entertainment. Neighborhood Oriented Development (NOD) would ensure that every neighborhood has a good grocery store, school, restaurant, barbershop, and other services within a three-mile radius, thus shortening some trips.
Shift 60% of the remaining long trips to shared rides, transit, and NEVs
Some longer trips, particularly the commute, are still going to be long. You live where you live and you work where you work, and it is not always easy for the twain to meet (especially with more than one worker in a household, as most have). But that doesn’t mean you have to drive alone.
- Better information technology is making it easier for people to connect with neighbors to share rides.
- By building out more Bus Rapid Transit like the Orange Line, LA can offer more options for completing longer trips on transit. Putting bike share or NEV car share at transit stations so people can easily complete that “last mile” to their destination will also make it easier to ride.
- Some of “longer” trips are still not all that long: three, four, or five miles. These could be done in a NEV.
Shift 75% of short trips from cars to NEVs, biking, and walking
Now we get to all those 1- or 2-mile trips in a car. The elderly or disabled may not be able to walk or bike, and sometimes people need to buy things that are impossible to carry on foot. That’s where NEVs are a good option. But for able-bodied people, well, we can hardly blame the weather in LA! Usually the major barrier is safety and the general unpleasantness of being on LA streets and not in a car. This is where Complete Streets policies come in.
After all these shifts, LA County transportation modes would look like this:
- more than half of trips would be by walking, biking, NEV, or transit, and
- more than a quarter would be shared rides
- leaving only 13% driving alone in a combustion engine car.
LA metropolitan area residents spend almost one-quarter of their income, or an average of about $14,000 annually, on transportation. Most of that is on purchasing, insuring, fuel, and repairing their cars. Providing options for getting around without a car could save them a lot of money.
Fewer cars on the road also mean less pollution: both local air pollution and the greenhouse gas pollution bringing more hot days to LA.
Finally, what kind of neighborhood would you rather live in: one where everyone has to get in a mostly empty 2-ton vehicle to drive to the grocery store, or one filled with people walking, biking, and driving small pollution-free cars?