Tesla CEO Elon Musk suggested this week that he may be able to solve the longstanding traffic problems that have plagued Los Angeles for decades. His characteristically ambitious, high-tech solution would involve building a network of tunnels throughout the city that would use “electric sleds” to move cars down tracks at speeds as high as 125 miles per hour. Musk released images and videos outlining the project, which he calls “The Boring Company,” on his Instagram account Friday. He estimated the system could cut a 45-minute commute from Westwood to LAX down to as little as 5 minutes. However, as exciting as it is, Musk’s solution just bypasses the more fundamental problems presented by LA’s traffic problems and vastly ineffective public transportation system.
In the November election, LA voters overwhelmingly backed a ballot measure increasing sales tax slightly to fund a series of mass transit improvements, including a new light rail system to LAX, a tunnel connecting the Westside to the Valley, extended subway lines, and other improvements. The measure, called Measure M, will increase sales tax by only half a cent, but is expected to bring in 120 billion dollars over four decades, specifically for public transport, after it comes into force in July. One campaign ad for Measure M said the measures would reduce time spent in traffic by 15 percent.
The measure could charitably be called overdue, since a surge in LA’s population in recent decades has exacerbated a problem that had already plagued commuters. Researchers have shown that LA residents spent 80 hours in traffic jams in 2014, an increase from 58 hours in 1985. Another 2016 study found that LA’s traffic is the worst in the world, wasting the average resident 104 hours and costing the driver $2,408 a year in productivity and fuel.
How traffic could snarl LA2024
With LA trying hard to land the bid for the 2024 Olympic Games, improving its transport infrastructure has become a matter of national interest. Indeed, gridlocks and inadequate public transportation are probably the city’s biggest hurdle to persuading the International Olympic Committee to award them the Games over Paris – a city whose subway system is among the best in the world.
Which is why the mayor of LA, Eric Garcetti, flew to Washington to ask the Trump administration to fast track the $1.3 billion in funding for the Purple subway line serving the Westwood area where the Olympic Village is supposed to be built. But that has upset some Angelenos, who have borrowed a page from Boston’s abandoned bid for the Olympics and formed a new opposition group called NOlympics LA, aiming at disrupting the bid and redirected the much needed funds elsewhere.
Such protests have become common in the buildup to recent Olympics, with residents of cities such as Rio and Budapest calling for resources to be diverted to solve ongoing problems for the city’s residents, instead of towards temporary measures to attract the prestigious, yet disruptive event. LA’s deep-seated problems with traffic and transport are a perfect example of where these resources need to be directed – but funding a subway line that goes to the very affluent Westwood district is clearly not the way. That move will simply fuel the concerns of protesters that the Olympic bid could divert attention from the city’s most ongoing problems, and from marginalized, vulnerable communities.
Even if Garcetti receives the funding he is hoping for, it won’t be enough to solve LA’s longstanding transit dilemma, in a city whose sprawling, low density layout is fundamentally not conducive to the use of public transport. Though the system has seen some expansion in recent years, actual ridership numbers have dropped. Bus ridership in particular dropped by about 2 million between November of 2015 and the same month of 2016. Solo driving has reached an all-time high. If the recent years of public transit investment have failed to actually take cars off the roads, it calls into question whether Measure M will have the desired effect on traffic.
So far, the city’s heavier investment in trains has apparently drawn more riders from the existing bus system than from those driving their own cars. Surveys have shown the bus system is still seen by commuters as unsafe and inconvenient, an image that the Metro agency is trying to change, adding Wi-Fi and safety measures to the buses. Given the layout of the city, there are few areas where LA county’s 100 rail stations can be accessed without other transportation. On the other hand, the county has 20,000 bus stops. Investing in rail service at the expense of the bus system is unlikely to provide a long-term solution for a sprawling city like LA, until denser development begins to take hold.
For a lasting solution, the city will need to fight political roadblocks and win battles against NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) activists opposing expansions of public transit. Transit authorities will need to embrace, or at least accept, the city’s layout and character, investing more in buses and subsidizing bus fares, or encouraging denser development that might make the rail system more practical. Whether or not the city embraces, or wins, its 2024 Olympic bid, it should make sure the event does not distract from long term priorities for the city’s residents. Most importantly, public transport needs to be seen as a key priority, instead of just another transit option among many. Only then will the current strategies begin to yield a comprehensive, long-lasting solution to the city’s ongoing problems.