The Roads Scholars

By Merrill Balassone

As Los Angeles builds public transit at a furious pace, USC’s best policy and engineering minds look around the curve and invent better ways to commute.

Illustration by Josh CochranSlideshow IconIllustration by Josh Cochran
Thousands of Angelenos take to the LA streets by bike and on foot in a carnival-like celebration several times a year. Illustration by Josh Cochran A professor in the USC Price School of Public Policy, Marlon Boarnet believes Los Angeles can lead the world out of a car-driven age in transportation. “If all we do is talk about traditional public transit versus car, we’re really missing what’s happening out there.” —Genevieve Guiliano, USC Price School

Los Angeles has long been known as a car-obsessed city, a place where residents’ love affair with the automobile is matched only by their deep hatred of traffic.

So what a sight it was on an April morning to see city streets teeming with bicyclists, rollerbladers, skateboarders and pedestrians—with not a car in sight—on a 15-mile stretch from downtown Los Angeles to Venice Beach.

Called CicLAvia, a celebration of life without the car, “it would have seemed flat-out crazy 30 years ago,” says USC Price School of Public Policy Professor Marlon Boarnet. A nonprofit partnership now stages the daylong celebrations several times a year.

“If I had walked around this city, or any other city, 30 years ago and said, ‘Hey, there’s going to be a day and 200,000 people are going to take over the streets of LA and ride their bicycles everywhere!’ someone would have said, ‘Marlon, there’s some medication that can help you.’ ”

CicLAvia may be the most visible example of LA pushing back against gridlock, but the city also is in the midst of perhaps the most ambitious rail-building program in North America. The city’s newest rail line—the Expo Line—opened a year ago, connecting USC’s University Park campus north to downtown and west to Culver City. The Expo Line eventually will extend to Santa Monica.

The most recent push for rail expansion began in 2008, when Angelenos voted for a sales tax increase to raise $40 billion for public transit upgrades over the next 30 years, including the “Subway to the Sea,” which officials say will carry travelers from downtown to Westwood in 25 minutes. Currently, that trip can take drivers 45 minutes in heavy traffic. By 2020, Los Angeles is expected to have more miles in rail lines than Washington, D.C., does today, an achievement both substantive and symbolic for a city that rivals Detroit for its car culture.

“Los Angeles was the first prototypical automobile city in the world. It’s now leading the world out of the automobile era,” says Boarnet, who is among USC’s most optimistic minds on the subject of LA’s rail construction push. “This is the decade when public transit in Los Angeles will become a very meaningful thing for a lot of people.”

CHASING THE DREAM

While Los Angeles County spans more than 500 square miles, it’s not low-density sprawl connected by endless freeways, as conventional wisdom would suggest.

The greater Los Angeles area is, on average, the most densely populated area in the country, with one-third more residents per square mile than greater New York City.

This density presents a unique challenge for LA. It’s too compact for cars to move quickly, but overall, isn’t dense enough for public transit to work at its best. Add to that the pattern of where jobs are located: Some are in busy places like downtown LA or Santa Monica, but most are spread throughout the region. This combination of factors makes the Southland one of the most difficult transportation puzzles to solve.

“If you talk to politicians who drive the transit program, many have been influenced by the pleasure they’ve gotten by going to Paris or New York, getting places easily by public transit and enjoying those cities,” says Randolph Hall, USC’s vice president of research. “They have this dream they’ll come home to LA, and if we invest in a rail system, it will suddenly become like Paris or London. But it’s not easily translated.”

Yet Hall, who has lent his expertise to creating public transit scheduling algorithms with colleagues in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, says LA’s public transit already may be more effective than people give it credit for.

He found a natural experiment in the 2003 transit strike, when thousands of bus drivers, railway operators and mechanics walked off the job for more than a month. During that time, Hall monitored several major freeway arteries and found that average speeds plunged and rush hours grew much longer.

Most notably, average driving speeds on the 101 Freeway, a major commuter artery, dropped from 54 to 44 miles per hour. And on Interstate 5, the length of the normal evening traffic crush increased from about an hour and 45 minutes to more than five hours.

THE BREAKUP

Los Angeles is among the most traffic-clogged cities in the country, according to sobering statistics released yearly by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Second only to drivers in the nation’s capital, the average Angeleno wastes more than two and a half days each year stuck in traffic.

But the automobile may be occupying a less vaunted place in the lives of younger Americans. Teenagers are waiting longer to obtain the traditional ticket to freedom: the driver’s license. And for the first time in decades, the amount of time Americans spend behind the wheel has declined, most notably so for Millennials. Driven by Internet-savvy consumers, companies like Uber and Lyft, which allow users to book rides through mobile apps, have flourished. The recent economic crunch has likely kept some drivers off
the roads, but experts also suspect that car ownership is becoming less important for young adults.

“It’s a revolution going on that no one’s paying attention to,” says Genevieve Giuliano, a USC Price School professor who has published extensively about public transit for more than three decades. She ticks of a list of new ridesharing, bike-sharing and private bus companies that have sprung up in recent years.

“If all we do is talk about traditional public transit versus car, we’re really missing what’s happening out there,” Giuliano says.

Take Washington, D.C., for example. There, gridlock spawned a practice called “slugging,” where drivers cruise by designated spots and pick up total strangers who need a free ride. The passengers enable drivers to gain access to coveted carpool lanes. This practice inspired USC engineering professor Maged Dessouky to create what he calls the “eBay of transportation,” where drivers can put their empty seats up for bid and turn their cars into taxis.

Dessouky, director of the Daniel J. Epstein Institute at the USC Viterbi School, and his colleagues hope to bring this real-time, dynamic ridesharing system to the marketplace within the next five years.

“The goal isn’t just getting people to take trains or buses. It’s getting people to stop riding in cars by themselves,” Dessouky says.

IF WE BUILD IT ...

Yet some transportation experts disagree with LA’s public transit plans, notably rail.

In 1976, USC economist Peter Gordon wrote that rail was “probably the worst step Los Angeles could take to improve transportation,” and he hasn’t changed his mind.

Only in recent years has overall public transit ridership approached levels seen in 1985, when LA had no rail service at all.

Critics say investment in rail in LA in the 1990s came at the expense of the heavily used bus service, both then and now the second-largest system in the country. On an average weekday, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, known as Metro and led by USC alum Art Leahy MPA ’82, counts 1.1 million boardings by bus and 350,000 boardings via rail.

Rail costs far more to build and operate than bus service. Expanding rail has forced Metro to shrink bus service, forcing more riders of buses than appear on trains, says James Moore, director of the USC Transportation Engineering Program. He argues that bus service is not only cheaper, but routes also are more flexible and can be adjusted to meet need.

“Rail will be a white elephant forever,” Moore says.

A recent USC Price School of Public Policy/Los Angeles Times poll seemed to show this disconnect: huge public support for spending on public transit upgrades but little evidence that people were changing their own travel practices.

The poll showed a stunning 49 percent of Angelenos favored funneling money to public transit upgrades versus 35 percent who wanted money spent fixing freeways and streets.

But two out of every three people surveyed hadn’t used the city’s public transit within the last month.

“We sell transit to the voters as an option for the other person,” Moore explains. “Our public agencies come to us with the message ‘tax yourselves ever more intensively and we will build a system your neighbor will want to use, and you can have your freeway back.’ When car owners and users support transit, they are, in their own minds, supporting open roads.”

A NEIGHBORHOOD EFFORT

As Angelenos envision their neighborhoods of the future, their transit discussions differ from one neighborhood to the next.

In Hollywood, newly built apartments cluster around stops on the Red Line, a rail line that stretches to downtown LA. Long Beach is aiming for the title of America’s most bicycle-friendly city by opening 130 miles of bike roadways and lanes where bikes and cars share the road. And residents of South Bay cities including Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and Torrance are leaving their cars in the driveway and experimenting with the use of small electric vehicles to get around town.

Many USC researchers say an idiosyncratic network of transit solutions catering to each neighborhood’s unique needs may be the most effective one.

As LA builds more rail and cities experiment with bicycle sharing and electric cars, USC scholars will be watching to see what works.

Boarnet is studying households in the shadow of the new Expo Line, outfitting residents with GPS monitors to measure whether they are traveling more by rail, walking more or driving less and thus emitting fewer greenhouse gases.

“Fifty years ago our transportation job was to do one thing—build highways to support this new product, the car. Now our task is developing lots of small neighborhood-oriented solutions, and in that world, we need to get really good at evaluating them,” Boarnet says.

“This is what we as a faculty do: We’re looking out beyond the curve and developing ideas that will be important five or 10 years down the road,” Boarnet says. “It’s a central way in which USC helps improve the lives of people.”

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