Sat, May

A Marriage that Makes Sense: The Feds Say “I Do” to Google Cars, Lyft and the Hyperloop for LA


GUEST WORDS-Recently I spent two hours in my car and on the subway to travel 40 miles from Agoura Hills to Downtown to attend a transportation conference sponsored by the LA Times at the Los Angeles Central Library. My return trip (not at rush hour) took me one and a half hours. The irony that this journey once took 45 minutes each way did not escape me while I sat listening to numerous heavy hitters on transportation policy talk about the challenges our city will face over the next 10 years. 

It’s clear to me that, without significant changes to our transportation methods, we will find ourselves even more Balkanized, locked into spread-out villages from Woodland Hills to Echo Park to Boyle Heights to San Pedro because it will be too difficult to travel anywhere in this vast city.

This conference brought together an unusual alliance of government and cutting edge technology experts to discuss the big changes that are sure to occur here over the next decade – and to address the need for more efficient transportation management methods, finding ways to cut through red tape to ensure quicker progress, and how to best allocate transportation funding. 

During the meeting, moderated by LA Times staff writers, we got to listen to Mayor Eric Garcetti, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Google Self Driving Project CEO Chris Urmson, and Hyperloop Technologies CEO Rob Lloyd. They joined in a panel discussion with a host of LA transportation representatives that included Metro CEO Phil Washington, LADOT General Manager Seleta Reynolds, Lyft VP of Government Relations Joseph Okpaku and Community activist Laura Lake. 

Mayor Eric Garcetti focused on reorganizing current driving patterns such as moving all LAX shuttle services to a single boarding location away from the airport. An airport shuttle would pick up all passengers and deliver them to the shuttle lot where they could find their particular hotel or Primetime type of transport service. The Mayor stated that this simple move would remove 40% of the traffic at the airport. 

Garcetti spoke about future changes for Los Angeles that will require technological, behavioral, and infrastructure alterations by 2035. He noted that technology will bring us driverless cars and how this innovation will be welcomed by millennials who are already using “on demand” transportation like Uber and Lyft. A behavioral change might be required of some baby boomers and the elderly for whom the prospect of “no steering wheel” is frightening. He talked about their view could change when they realize that, if their kids or doctors ask for the car keys, autonomy would still be available through a Transport app at the touch of the finger. 

Driverless autos are also a great answer to the need to have a seamless feeder system for the first mile/last mile issue. Metro light rail and rapid bus systems are great -- but how do you get to the stations from your home or back to the station from work if there is lengthy gap? Waiting for a bus often wastes time. With rail, there’s the problem of finding parking for private vehicles in the lots outside the stations. If we want to solve congestion issues, driving and parking a personal auto to board public transportation is not the best we can or should do. 

U.S Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx focused on planning transportation stations so they will offer equal and easy access for all citizens. In the past, transportation planning used divisive methods to keep the poor and people of color in their place by fixing transportation stations far from their homes. Secretary Foxx emphasized that, during the building of Metro stations, it is important to include the needs of all populations. He pointed out that 40 million more people will be living in this region by 2045. 

Growth will also occur in the amount of freight coming into and out from our ports, creating a need for efficient transportation methods to move all the containers arriving on high capacity super freighters. When LA Times moderator Patt Morrison asked about solutions, Secretary Foxx replied that technological solutions are in development and that it’s important that Government work with Industry. He affirmed that driverless cars are coming, stating that they will reduce accidents by 80%. (The remaining 20% of accidents will result from humans still behind the wheel.) The Secretary stated that the job of government should be to simplify regulation requirements for Industry and give more autonomy to the states and mega-regions to decide what best suit their needs in relation to solving and regulating upcoming transportation challenges. 

My take away from Secretary Foxx is that the mission of the Federal Government should be to create a Centralized Transportation division to maintain safety, efficiency, and mutual support between Industry and Government. This means that teams and individuals could work closely using the Silicon Valley model in which the goal is to get the project done to the best level possible. Foxx said that it is important for Los Angeles to achieve good results since we will be leading the way for the rest of the country – other states and regions that will soon experience transportation challenges similar to ours. 

Google, whose goal is “safety and transportation access for all,” is becoming a huge player in solving our congestion issues. Chris Urmson, head of their driverless program, spoke about how the company has “trained” the software in their cars. The Google car has been driven over 100,000 miles and they expect our roads will be deeply integrated with manual and self-driven autos within five years. 

Google is not interested in making cars; they will leave that to Detroit. Their primary interests are selling the driverless systems to the automakers, creating egalitarian access, and providing safety. Thirty-three thousand people are killed in auto accidents each year but with the driverless car, that figure can be brought down to almost zero. The driverless car can ease congestion since computers will be communicating with other computers for every move. This will allow vehicles to travel close together, creating an estimated 80% more space on the roads. The cars are also smaller in size and are constantly moving so they will not require parking lots (where most of our vehicles reside 95% of the time.) People who are blind or otherwise physically impaired will have access to transportation along with aging baby boomers. 

Google is still working on solving unexpected problems like trouble caused by aggressive drivers or anomalies such as ducks walking across the road. Chris Urmson pointed out that using driverless cars could save drivers at least $2000 per year. The only cost is mileage -- no auto insurance, fuel, maintenance, or repairs. Many households may opt to have a private vehicle but one might be enough. Not everyone in a family would need a car and many teenagers don’t really want to drive anymore, so the parents’ job of being a taxi driver or driving instructor would also disappear -- not to mention the heart-stopping fear of imagining your inexperienced child out there on the road. 

There could be incentives to encourage fewer cars on the road during high volume usage. Discounts could be given if transport needs are arranged around lower usage times or shared rides, adding only a couple more minutes to a commute. For the people worried that they will have their old cars taken away, Google assures you that there will be no “mandate” ordering citizens to turn in their cars! 

Hyperloop is the brainchild of Elon Musk. The best way to visualize this is as a cross between the pneumonic tubes used at the drive-in bank and a monorail. Currently, two Hyperloop companies are developing the Hyperloop in Los Angeles because Elon Musk open-sourced his idea. He wanted to produce what is known as the “5th mode of transportation” but he didn’t have the time available to develop it since he is building rockets and great electric cars. 

Hyperloop has been called the “Broadband of People and Things,” traveling at almost 800 miles per hour. The first leg will be built between LA and San Francisco; it will only take 33 minutes to complete the trip – at an estimated fare of $20 each way. If you want to bring your car, that will cost an additional $25 each way. The projected completion time from beginning to end for this innovation is three years – a quick turn-around time based on the fact that the travel route to be followed is an already established right-of-way along the 5 freeway. 

The Hyperloop doesn’t require the amount of space that a train does since it is elevated on pillars. It runs on solar power and does not pollute the environment with loud sounds or emissions. The $6.8 billion price tag will be privately funded at no cost to taxpayers. Now, compare that to the High Speed Rail boondoggle that is currently being pushed on California. 

Hyperloop Technologies CEO Rob Lloyd said his company’s first focus will be a route from the Los Angeles Ports to transport freight containers to a dry dock area – perhaps in Palmdale or Lancaster. His company is ready to start building in 2017. Lloyd said they have had many offers from foreign countries to build the Hyperloop there but he would prefer to it built where it was invented – in California. 

The final speakers at the conference asked this question: “What does a good transportation system look like to you?” There were many responses, including: 

  • A system using all of the transportation methods discussed.
  • Refining the needs of riders through closer examination using data provided by Lyft.
  • Creating accessibility to different modes of transport through streamlined feeder systems.
  • Encouraging co-operation between Metro and its city partners. (Metro is seeking regulations easements in order to meet challenges in a more timely way.) 

The day closed with the panel discussing the importance for Los Angeles to streamline its transportation system – to turn its current hodge podge patchwork mess into a new, smooth and efficient system that serves all of the people.


(Louisa W. Shattuck is a native Southern Californian who has a special interest in how technologies can solve pressing climate and transportation issues.) Photo: Getty Images. Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

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