By Noel T. Braymer
For over 100 years the United States has tried to build more roads and highways to eliminate traffic congestion. In the 1950’s and 60’s freeways were built in the hopes that they would relieve traffic congestion in the cities. The simple fact is congestion is worse now than ever. Why is that? What traffic engineers have found is the more roads we build, the more people drive. A recent example of this was in Los Angeles with the recent construction of car pool lanes in the 405 freeway between Westwood and the San Fernando Valley which took several years to build. Since this project has been completed, traffic congestion in this section of the 405 is back to the same levels of congestion as before the car pool lanes were built. This doesn’t include the increased congestion caused by construction during the time the car pool lanes were being built.
The question for California is how and why should it try to reduce traffic congestion? One reason is to meet the State’s goals to make major reductions in Greenhouse Gas Emissions. The other is to create economic growth in the State of California. Housing and Transportation costs are very high and the largest expenses residents face living in the State. For economic growth the State needs housing people can afford as well as economic transportation to jobs and services. As it is now we are having trouble building more roads at the same time we are not repairing roads fast enough to keep them from falling apart.
How was traffic handled in the past? Before 1960 cities often had decent public transportation, the ridership of which often fell as people and businesses moved out to the new suburbs with the construction of freeways. Population density was generally higher in most cities before 1960 than today. The advantage of greater density is it leaves more open space outside of the city and reduces the distance needed to travel since places are closer together and less spread out. It also saves money since people don’t have to drive as much and less money is spent for parking. Dense housing is also cheaper in an urban area because it uses less land per residence, which is expensive in urban areas. Dense development makes it faster and easier to get around by walking, biking or by pubic transit than by car. How much difference can public transit make compared with driving which most cars have only one person? A double tracked subway can easily carry many more people per hour than a typical 5 lanes freeway in both directions. With people on bicycles and walking on sidewalks, streets can carry more persons than it can with cars. Today in California commuter trains carry as many people in the same time as cars on one lane of freeway traffic. It is noticeable that the area with the greatest traffic congestion are not the older parts of town but in the post World War II suburbs. Some of the worst traffic jams are at suburban public schools from parents picking or dropping off their children.There was a time when I was growing up when kids walked or rode their bikes to schools.
One thing that would reduce congestion and get more people onto transit is to give light rail and buses priority at traffic lights. Today in downtown Los Angeles the Blue and Expo Lines travel on Flower Street with the Blue line also running on Washington Blvd. A typical 3 car train can easily carry well over a hundred people. That’s instead of hundreds of more cars on the street. But these trains must stop at traffic lights to let a dozen or so cars and trucks go first. More people can and will ride light rail and buses if they go faster in traffic. It also means fewer people driving which means less traffic.To make this happen will require new development centered around rail service and changes in the way we use roads. Much of this is already underway. Another issue is how parking is subsidized which encourages driving and reduces space for housing and commercial use. An example of what can be done is London which started charging tolls for cars and trucks to enter the central city in 2003. At first this reduced traffic dramatically. Today traffic is congested again, but now most of the traffic is from cabs and delivery trucks not private cars. Since 2003 the population in London has grown and more people are using transit, riding bikes on new bike lane, walking more and driving less. Also since 2003 some roads in London have been closed to vehicle traffic for use by bikes and pedestrians.
One example of what could be done in Los Angeles is from an opinion piece published in the Los Angles Times on November 3rd 2016 by Thom Mayne, a Professor of Architecture at UCLA. He proposes building new hi-rise housing for a million people along the Purple Line in the Wilshire Blvd Corridor which is already one of the most densely populated areas of Los Angeles County. This would triple the population in the Wilshire Blvd Corridor. But this would significantly increase housing in Los Angeles County without using undeveloped land. Dr. Mayne points out even at these levels of populations density, it would be lower than the population density of most major cities in the world. As part of this project he proposes extending the Purple Line to Santa Monica. While this is only a proposal, we will see development with high density and mixed-use along many areas with rail service in California. In fact in downtown San Diego we already see many hi-rise condos lining the Trolley lines and by the Santa Fe Depot, the downtown train station.
A good example of this is already happening in downtown Vista, California. Vista is a city of over 93,000 in northern San Diego County between Oceanside and Escondido. It has Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) light rail service every half hour on the 22 miles between Oceanside and Escondido with the Sprinter trains. At Oceanside there are connections to Amtrak, Coaster and Metrolink services and at Escondido connections to Rapid Bus service to northern and downtown San Diego. At the Vista Transit Center which is the downtown Vista Sprinter Station there is also local bus service with several lines. The city of Vista has been busy redeveloping downtown near the Transit Center. This includes a modern Vista Village shopping center including a movie theater complex and water park. There is also new high density housing that has been built near the Transit Center with more in the works. There have also been major changes in the roads in downtown Vista which aim to calm traffic. The aim of the city of Vista was to transform its old and tired downtown commercial district along Santa Fe Ave into “a mixed-use, destination oriented, and pedestrian friendly district connected to mass transit.”
Here are some photos with examples of this.