For Southern California, the automobile defined a culture and a lifestyle that exemplified a distinctly American way of living. Cars gave us freedom, style and adventure, using cheap energy and vast roadway networks.
Today, many see the American automobile as a symbol of Jurassic technology: antiquated, polluting and inefficient. As increasingly maddening traffic traps lumbering commuters, energy costs and pollution concerns have motivated policymakers to look for alternatives. Unfortunately, real solutions to this complex problem require shifts in thinking and behavior from all of us.
The Business Journal recently became a forum for this topic when Carl Olson commented on a Business Journal account of a Rand Corp. study of potential traffic solutions. Olson lamented that Rand's study ignores any expansion of freeways as a solution. The study favors curbside parking restrictions, bus-only lanes, ride-sharing, and expanded bicycle lanes and traffic light synchronization plans. Olson wrote that it is "tragic that the motoring public, which pays nearly all of the taxes for transportation funding, gets next to no significant benefits." Clearly, Olson loves his car, so much so that he is willing to deepen our commitment to traffic instead of solving it.
Enlarging our freeways is a short-term, expensive solution and does not consider the causes of traffic in the city and on freeways. Adding more lanes merely exacerbates our traffic problems when the sixth, eighth or 10th lane eventually becomes clogged. It has been proved that capacity will simply influence more people to drive. It is analogous to opening a single bronchial tube in a cancerous lung as the patient simultaneously smokes four cigarettes on the operating table. When will we stop?
More intelligent solutions that have long-term sustainability built in address both regional and local traffic. The problem of traffic is less about the number of lanes, and really is more about a series of problems of urban sprawl, wasteful energy attitudes, poor access to community amenities and our attitudes about cars. Any solution to traffic must therefore be a cocktail of remedies that begin to transform our attitudes as well as our city's infrastructure.
That's why thinking such as that displayed in the Southern California Institute of Architecture's recent competition, A New Infrastructure, should be taken seriously. The competition was inspired by the passage of Measure R, which will raise $40 billion for transportation initiatives. Issues of flexibility, infrastructure, convenience and lifestyle informed solutions from more than 70 entries from architects, urban planners and students from as far as France, the United Kingdom and Estonia. The ideas presented show us that we need not only change how we drive, but how we think about driving.
Consider that one lane of traffic traveling at 25 miles an hour moves about 23 people a minute in traditional cars. In that same lane, a standard capacity city bus can move almost 1,200 people a minute. Looking at numbers like this, I imagine a way out of the one-passenger, one-car daily traffic jam. Many of the competition entries proposed technology-enabled, information-driven bus/rail projects with transfer stations that network regional and local systems. Combine these with electric car service or bicycle lockers at the transfer stations and we begin to see the possibilities for getting people out of traffic.
There is precedent for such ideas. In Curitiba, Brazil, a system of bus-only lanes serves 85 percent of commuters. The city estimates the system eliminates 27 million car trips annually and transformed the city by integrating transportation with the city's various sectors cultural, social and economic. South Africa, host of the 2010 World Cup, plans a fleet of networked buses that will receive instructions from a central server and change routes depending on demand. Buses will go where they are needed and squeeze out capacity without increasing the footprint of roadways.
In his March reaction to the Rand study, Olson complained that without a new freeway "we motorists are certainly not getting much bang for our billions of tax bucks." Just these two examples show that maybe we can maximize efficiency and reduce the number of cars on our roads rather than build more roads to accommodate more cars. Surely funding a long-term solution is money well spent.
We should address the values that we wish to exemplify in our city before jumping to a solution which may only take us deeper into the problem. Values such as clean air, walkable communities and fewer cars might lead to a cleaner, more efficient Southern California lifestyle. Come join the discussion at AIA Mobius/Dwell on Design Conference at Los Angeles Convention Center. The discussion "Architects and Transit in Los Angeles" is scheduled for 1:45 p.m. on June 26.
Terence Young is a senior associate and design director at Gensler in the firm's Santa Monica office.
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