Sunday, June 9, 2013

LA Traffic Signals Are Causing More Harm Than Good!

The City of Los Angeles recently reached a major mobility milestone: synchronizing its 4,500 traffic signals. That is quite the accomplishment given the level of complexity, but are they sure they thought this through? The primary goal of this endeavor was to reduce traffic congestion. LA is infamous for high levels of congestion on both its freeways and local roads, so attempting to reduce traffic delay will produce exponential results. Nevertheless, the high-profile nature of a system improvement like this can really improve the City’s reputation by trying to improve a ubiquitous issue. The synchronization is expected to reduced automobile travel times, making driving even more convenient that it already is. So why is LA focused on ensuring that driving is more competitive than other modes of travel? While others are trying to push and pull drivers out of their cars, LA seems to be working backwards. Rather than improving travel conditions for personal auto use, why not make it more difficult to drive? Making driving more onerous by slowing the speeds is the first step to long-term sustainability, both for mobility and environmental purposes.

This endeavor is many years in the making. If fact, it began nearly 30 years ago. At that time, traffic congestion was becoming an issue throughout the City, and engineers and policy makes thought it would be a good idea to spend three decades of valuable staff time and nearly $400 million to improve driving conditions. The synchronization is expected to reduce average travel time in the City by nearly 16 percent. I hate to be redundant, but reducing travel times only makes driving more convenient and therefore more utilized. Mayor Villaraigosa claims that this project will allow travelers to “spend a day less waiting and reduce pollution by nearly a metric ton of carbon each year.” Many residents aren’t even noticing the benefits of such a high-profile and expensive project.

The City has undoubtedly received uncountable amounts of complaints from its citizens regarding traffic delay caused by street congestions. Was this program to synchronize all the signals simply a reactive measure to respond to and reduce the complaints all the while making a political statement for its policy makers? Well Mayor Villaraigosa sure is using its successful completion as a way to brag about his accomplishments. The programs is also tying in how these improvements will benefit bike riders and transit users, although the fact that the majority of LA travelers drive alone tells you that this program was most likely set up to with the primary goal of improving automobile travel.

LA is not the only City doing this. American cities like Pittsburg, Miami, and Washington, D.C. are also trying to make driving more convenient. I thought we as a Country were headed towards a more progressive solution to reduce the amount of driving, not encourage it!

Let’s think about the long-term impacts in synchronizing traffic signals and reducing travel time. For purposes of this discussion, let’s assume that travel time is equivalent to some sort of fee. The more travel time, the more expensive; the less, the cheaper. So reducing the time to travel in an automobile makes it that much cheaper, thereby increasing its demand. Taylor suggests that “proper pricing of automobile use would both reduce congestion and increase the attractiveness of other modes, such as public transit, biking, and walking.” [1] Furthermore, increasing the time (or making it more “expensive”) to travel via a personal automobile should result in increased transit ridership. [2] In this case, it would make much more sense to slow auto travel speeds down as a means to control the demand for driving. As soon as it becomes much more difficult and slow to drive, people will start using other modes! Taylor points out that the best way to make people walk and ride transit more often is to make driving slow, inconvenient, and expensive. [1]

Slowing speeds also enhances safety and minimizes occurrences of fatal accidents [3]. 

So why did LA spend so much time and energy finishing this project? Like I mentioned before, it may have been largely political, and while I understand how difficult it would be to do something like this, I just can’t believe Los Angeles doesn’t realize what they are doing! There is an absurd amount of high quality transit service throughout the City and plenty of biking and walking infrastructure in place. LA needs to start thinking about optimizing person throughput rather than vehicle throughput. Perhaps they simply need to revert back to old ways and operate the signals without the slightest bit of synchronization, making driving more inconvenient. But it might be too late. It’s harder to return to old ways after spreading the news that LA accomplished something great! 

This system improvement won’t necessarily reduce existing levels of congestion; it is expected to just reduce the rate of increases in congestion in the future. That is a huge accomplishment but only in the eyes of the car-dependent culture that LA was built upon. Since congestion pricing appears to be unpopular and politically difficult [2], why not use difficult driving conditions as a way to “price” people out of their cars. Make driving slower, more inconvenient, and more expensive. Get more people to take transit, walk, or bike.


[1] Taylor, Brian D., “Rethinking Traffic Congestion.” Access 21 (Fall 2002): 8-16. Web. 21 - 03 - Rethinking Congestion.pdf.

[2] Small, Kenneth A., “Road Pricing and Public Transit.” Access 5 (2005): 10-15. 

[3] Dumbaugh, E., & Rae, R. “Safe Urban Form: Revisiting the Relationship Between Community Design and Traffic Safety.” Journal of the American Planning Association 75.3 (2009): 319-322.

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