Sat, Jul

Rush Hour Traffic, And Not the Impeachment


GELFAND’S WORLD - I don't want to write about the Republican threat to open an impeachment inquiry. It seems to be based on the idea that if they look hard enough, they may find some dirt on Hunter Biden that would embarrass the Joe Biden brand.

Today's announcement of Hunter's indictment for lying on a firearms application has the feel of irony, considering how pro-gun the Republicans claim to be. There is, in addition, the consideration that the law under which the indictment was filed is of dubious legality, at least according to one judge. 

I will mention one thing, which is that Trump has been lobbying the House Republicans to impeach Joe Biden. There is a damning story about the Republican machinations in The Hill, including a quote from Marjorie Taylor Greene that shows just how venal she is. You can read it.

One thought. Is this one more count of Obstruction of Justice to be lodged against Trump? Just asking. It certainly is an attempt at Election Interference, to use Trump's favorite words.

Radical thoughts on driving in the 21st Century

I am, however, reminded of a conversation I had with a colleague a couple of days ago. It went something like this: "There are things that the candidates should be talking about. Like how are we going to travel around in a few years, with gasoline through the roof and traffic always getting worse? What can we realistically do about global warming? And have you seen the prices in the grocery stores lately?"

That's a lot of real life topicality, and it just starts to touch the serious issues. So let me reminisce, going back to my first ever City Watch column, invited by Ken Draper sometime in that decade we call "the aughts." Must have been sometime around 2006 or so.

City Watch had invited a few people to do a year-end column. For some reason, I was thinking about commuter traffic at the time. I was not (then) obsessed with cars as machines of global warming. They are only part of the problem, and perhaps the easiest part to fix. I was more concerned about the horrible traffic, and the difficulty of getting across town. People commute 10 miles from the west side to downtown and vice versa. They commute a little longer between the valley and downtown. What none of them do is enjoy a quick, easy ride without a lot of miserable bumper to bumper.


So I thought about the problem, which is that we cannot generate enough lanes to carry all the traffic we would like. I remembered one traffic expert who explained, "We ran out of dirt," meaning that we couldn't widen the freeways because there isn't any more room.

It occurred to me that for the commute from Westwood to Downtown, there is, on the average, one person per car. It's the way that people have chosen to live their lives. But perhaps, even so, there would be a way to generate more lanes.

So I thought a little more, and remembered a car that I had seen in the Children's Museum in Indianapolis. It was an old Indianapolis racing car. It was narrow and not terribly long. It was obviously very light. It was the model for what a next generation of commuter cars could look like.

It would be narrow, low to the ground, and not very long. The only changes would involve inserting a small engine, while engineering the steering and braking systems to be designed for operating at 40 or 50 miles per hour.

If you build a car that is little more than a yard wide and three or four yards in length, then you can put it in a narrow lane. We could repaint the freeway to hold two or three times as many lanes. Since the cars would be designed to go 45 mph, they could bunch up more closely, but there would be enough road that we wouldn't have to endure that bumper to bumper stuff.

Since the cars are to be light weight, we don't need as much power.

Perhaps these would be the practical electrical commuter cars that would allow for an enduring, non-global-warming future. And people would be less stressed because they could get in the car and go nonstop to the office.

There are, of course, difficulties to moving our civilization in this direction. But these difficulties depend radically on how we view our future cities -- what is the vision we are attempting to achieve? See, if it's the ability to commute across town and the whole economy and civilization would strangle otherwise, then these little cars would be the solution. And if you want to build some of them so that they can hold two people or carry baggage, you just build a second seat behind the first, sort of like they do for fighter jets. Or you create a nook large enough for a briefcase.

The other problem is that these toy cars (and their drivers) won't survive when mixed with the giant vehicles we use today. A 4000 pound SUV is going to turn the little balsa-mobile (that's what I originally called it, those 15 or so years ago) into wood chips in a collision.

So we have to reach an agreement that our cross town thoroughfares (freeways) are limited to small, fuel efficient, narrow vehicles. Or we could do a little redesign work and make Wilshire or Olympic into controlled access roads for the little cars.

My rough guess is that the days of $2 gasoline are gone, at least in this part of the world. It wouldn't be impossible to bring it back given the right geopolitical conditions, but global warming is real, and it's going to be accepted as real by most people within a few years.

So let's look at all the parts briefly, and see where the logic goes:

1) The population is going up, not down, and people like to move around and commute.

2) Fuel costs are increasing except for electricity, and if you factor in the costs for batteries and development of full sized electric cars, they are awfully expensive.

3) Traffic in Los Angeles is awful.

4) If gasoline continues on its upward pricing trajectory, a lot of us will be priced out of the driving market in not too long.

5) People would rather travel in their own vehicles than on the bus.

6) The gradual development of the subway system (including the above street Metro) will gradually reduce some of the need for roads to serve cars. But it will be a while, because the current system is limited as to where you can go (or get back from).

Further thoughts

The balsa-mobile™ should be inexpensive to build, because when you make it lighter, every part is cheaper, including the brakes, the power source, and the motor. If it's an electric motor, than you save a lot on all the other parts that run up the tab in the standard internal combustion automobile.

So that's the 2023 version of what I wrote about in my first City Watch column -- a solution to morning traffic, a contribution to the global warming quandary, and a new industry for southern California to pioneer. The only thing standing in the way is that current driving surfaces are built and managed for wide, heavy, powerful cars that really hurt when they run into you.

I can imagine an experiment where we set aside certain road surfaces for reduced size cars and, in addition, define parking lot spaces for the new breed. We could also do an experiment in which the state and federal governments pass legislation allowing such cars to travel on existing roads.

One warning. If Honda decides they want to compete, they could have their own version on the ship inside of a year. Perhaps we ought to engage in a little market protection in advance, and only allow imported versions if there is a heavy tariff.

One other goal. The small commuter car should cost no more than the competing brands of electrically boosted bicycles and scooters. Maybe we could consider a 50 percent boost, but the goal is to hold the price of that car down to $2000. Maybe $4K for the luxury model. And they can't have boom box sound systems, because they are too close to everybody else.

Also, the commuter version won't work as an off road vehicle. Forget Titus Canyon in this one. But it is possible to imagine a long range, off road version given a light enough frame and a big enough battery, or a gasoline powered version as long as it isn't a menace to other small vehicles.

Note that the updated commuter car and road might allow for coexistence with electrically boosted bicycles and motorized scooters. As long as they are small and quiet, they can join the transportation system of the 21st century.

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)