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A Word from Richard Risemberg for April, 2011

Start Making Sense: Beyond Freeways

As Lewis Mumford, famed architecture critic of the New York Times for thirty years, put it: "Adding highway lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity."

And, as quoted in the Basic Text of Narcotics Anonymous, "Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results."

Both apply to the perception of how to cure transport ills in this country, and in Los Angeles specifically.

We started small, with the Pasadena Freeway and its early brethren, four-lane speedways between far-flung destinations. We had not, to be sure, heard of "induced demand" six decades back, but it was there. The freeways filled, and the solution was obvious: add more lanes or build new, bigger freeways. So we did, and widened surface roads where we could, gradually pushing the actual elements of our lives--housing, workplaces, service centers, school, and parks--farther and farther apart, initiating a spiral of sprawl that required more driving, and hence...more lanes.

So we built them. And they filled up.

We even demolished practical alternatives that had existed, such as the Pacific Electric Railway and LA's early bike routes, effectively coercing everyone to drive. Further to incentivize driving, we not only hid the public burden of paying for road space, we actively subsidized the car: since 1947, the cost of building and maintaining roads and "free" ways nationwide has exceeded the sum total of gas and car taxes, registration fees, and tolls by $600 billion dollars.

We socialized driving, which meant raising taxes on everything else--homes, businesses, sales, income, everything, regardless of whether those paying the taxes drove--or even wanted to drive--or not.

While some modest changes have taken place, for the most part, sixty years on, we are still repeating the same mistakes. We want to widen the 710 freeway at one end, and replicate Boston's Big Dig debacle at the other. We bemoan pennies spent on bike lanes and racks and half dollars "wasted" on transit while thinking nothing of turning 70% of LA's land area into asphalt playgrounds for hapless drivers. Who crowd onto the roads and demand yet more from the public purse.

But who can blame them, when we've blocked off any other choice?

It's time for something old, something new, something borrowed,

The build-out of LA's Metro Rail system began under Mayor Bradley's administration and has continued under both Democratic and Republican mayors since then, followed more recently by the Rapid Buses--and the Rapids now carry more passengers down Wilshire Boulevard at rush hour than do all private vehicles combined (29,000 on average, as opposed to 24,000 for cars, according to city engineer Kang Hu.)

The city has adopted a new bike plan which, while laughable by Northern European standards, reinstates the mature (and extremely cost-effective) technology of cycling to its rightful place in the transit mix; the county is following suit. With 60% of all car journeys being less than five miles, and 40% less than two miles, provision of bike lanes and bike parking will go a long way to reducing unnecessary car traffic while improving public health and reducing the financial burden and Street Services. And the fact that twelve bikes can park in the space of one car bodes well for businesses--residents who don't have to dance the parking lot shuffle to buy clothes or food will be more liberal customers.

But there's still pressure to widen freeways--yet all that will do is crowd feeder streets with still more traffic, and eventually jam all those expensive new lanes with cars and trucks.

But there is an alternative to the freeway frenzy.

Los Angeles native Dave Alba, a former manager for container operations at a major Port of Long Beach marine terminal, has devised an innovative project that combines an electrified rail freight shuttle to LA County's "inland ports" with a highly-efficient modular ship-to-rail transfer system, and a light rail passenger line with river recovery, transit-oriented development, and bicycle transportation modules that could not only render the plans to widen the 710 obsolete, but could actually make the entire freeway redundant, thus freeing up huge swathes of previously-blighted land for residential, commercial, and recreational development.

This plan would entail putting the freight shuttle, light rail line, and utility runs (high-tension powerlines and water and sewage supply) into dedicated pipelines running under the present banks of the San Gabriel, Los Angeles, or Rio Hondo rivers, or combinations of the three.

All of a sudden, the thousands of containers that move from the ports to inland rail yards would be running quietly--and cleanly--underground. Passengers also, instead of being condemned to drive the route, could be sitting in comfortable trains, also underground, along a route that would network with Amtrak, Metrolink, Metro Rail, and Metro bus lines.

The long reaches of riverbank now given over to powerlines and huge freeway rights-of-way could be used to build riverside greenways linking state-of-the-art eco-friendly mixed-use developments--an extended park with local and long-distance bike paths, efficient apartments and homes, and retail, commercial, possibly even industrial businesses, as well as schools, libraries, and other civic functions.

All this on land now covered with concrete and battered by noise and pollution from a nightmare highway that threatens to grow even more obese and ravenous if present plans go forward.

What is odd is that Los Angeles, a city and county that remade itself nearly a hundred years ago into a land where dreams were made real--aerospace and the movies have been mainstays of the economy for that long, and Internet companies proliferate here today!--it's odd that LA, of all places should be so hidebound in its transportation policies.

But that is changing. The expansion of Metro Rail and the advent of the new bicycle master plan show some vision. We like what we've been seeing in Los Angeles lately--and we like what we see in Alba's GRID vision.

Let's hope that Los Angeles can start making sense, ands top repeating the mistakes of its brash, misguided youth.

We've written up the GRID vision previously, here, and you can see for yourself what is envisioned in this PDF.

Text and photos by Richard Risemberg