California, Yes California, Leading the Way Out of Congestion

Probably because they have to.

If you think we have congestion locally, I suggest you try to take a spin on the 10 from LA to Santa Monica sometime.  I still have nightmares of the last time I did that.  Perhaps my biggest phobia is being trapped.  The cask of Amontillado has nothing on being in the middle of standstill traffic on limited access highways.  Limited access is one of the fatal flaws of inner-city highways, that along with the very nature of highways catering to the long trip is what causes congestion despite the superficial goal of ‘solving it.’

In other words, much of California (at least along the coastal cities) have severe congestion because they combine density with car-dependence due in large part to inadequate transit options.

While LA is doing a lot of interesting things with investments in an expanded subway system and bus system improvements, the state of California is also leading the way towards substantive systemic changes to the underlying DNA of how we measure, prioritize, invest in, and design transportation systems.

California is proposing to shift transportation protocols from prioritizing level of service (ie free flow of traffic equals level of service A = good) to something else.  Free flow of traffic sounds good on its surface, but like many things, it doesn’t work out so rosy in practice.  There are severe unintended consequences, like there often are, when the intended outcomes aren’t adequately prioritized, ie is free-flow of traffic really the most important thing in our life?

Our transportation planning is stuck in a limbo between two dumb sides (much like national politics amirite?).  On one side is the intention to have free flow of traffic, which means less cars on the road.  However, that often means streets that are dead from an economic standpoint and often leads to speeding and unsafe conditions.

On the other hand, by making it as easy as possible to drive, this tension between two opposing forces is bifurcated with opposite effects on various streets.  Certain streets become invaded, while others are abandoned.  We end up with a system of very busy streets (usually the highways and main arterials) and the rest of the grid becomes under-utilized (typically because the nature of street hierarchies severs the grid in key places reducing the functionality and utility of the grid).

What is often misunderstood is that abandoned streets are often worse in their overall impact than congested streets.  Congestion means there is still economic activity happening.  That’s at least a workable problem.  When streets become abandoned, it is much more difficult to jumpstart life into them than manage traffic.

To truly solve the problem, we need to define the problem.  Congestion is the convergence of mode (cars), space (certain invaded corridors), and time (rush hour).  To solve congestion, we have to undo these convergences via varied approaches.  We need balance.  We need to spread congestion around the grid, which requires a more connected grid.

We need increased densities to allow for alternative modes to be viable, which coincidentally densities respond to increased interconnectivity in a virtuous symbiotic circle.  Such is the problem with LA’s congestion on a macro scale, severed grids + high density.  It’s the same issue I am concerned about on a local micro-scale in West Dallas.  The plan does not adequately regulate block size, meaning the result will be density in a poorly interconnected context, thus a reduction in long-term value and desirability.

The issue of time can be the most challenging one.  More congested places approach rush hours with carrots and sticks such as reduced tolls or transit fares in light periods and increased tolls during congested periods.  Sorry, but if you want to solve congestion, you either go the way of Detroit or you put a price on it.

But we also need the right priorities and protocols underlying these outcomes, the right formulas for success, which starts with, “what are we measuring?”  California looks to be moving towards reduced VMT (vehicle miles traveled) and reduced vehicular trip generation.  They are spot on in this effort because what we want is trips.  Trips = economic activity.  However, when those trips are disproportionately in cars, there is inefficiency in the system: extra cost on the public and private sector, extra time delay, and it is disproportionately punitive upon the poor.

It’s about street networks that maximize connectivity, that balance the various needs of people, and individual streets that understand their role as places of economic activity, places to spend time not just save time, designed in a way for development to directly interface with them rather than having to shield themselves from ugly, dangerous streets with equally ugly parking lots in front, all of which systematically atomizing the organism of the city into a dysfunctional, body-less goo of sprawling car-dependence.


  • Montemalone

    Start by banning walled subdivisions.