Rethinking Los Angeles in a Low Energy Future 5.15.2006

I've been a reader of The Oil Drum for a while now; one hypothesis they advance is that we have reached "peak oil"--that point in time when we're getting the most oil out of the ground possible, and it can only go downhill from here. Of course the graphs they point to show a flattening of oil production over the past few years, just as if we've reached peak oil. They admit that some of this downturn comes from taking Iraqi oil fields offline, problems in Venezuela, and other issues through the world, so it's possible that we haven't quite gotten there yet.

Now it is interesting to note that historically many shortages of goods have had a government component to them. That is, many shortages in the past (such as the Irish Potato Famine) has had a significant regulatory component which prevented people from gradually addressing the problem.

(The Irish Potato Famine started with farmers on crown-owned land who were forced to sell their entire oat or grain crop, or be evicted from their land--and schemes to prevent Ireland's modernization. The only staple that the bulk of Ireland could survive off of was potatoes--and so when a blight on the potato crop occured in the 1840's, the right of the rich few to sell Irish food to the highest bidder rather than take care of their feudal charges was protected--and ironically, for half a decade, Ireland was a net exporter of food while 2 million people starved to death. Had it not been for the legal structure of Ireland combined with social structures which gave the population few choices and little freedom to modernize, there would have been no potato famine.)

In the case of energy production, we are no better than the English Lassie-Faire advocates and the feudal lords who exported food while their workers starved. The United States has a remarkable wealth of coal--more than enough to become energy independent from the rest of the world--yet environmental regulations places much of that coal off limits. The United States has a remarkable wealth of heavy crude oil, more than enough to provide our plastics industries with the stuff they need that cannot be satisfied efficiently from coal--yet environmental regulations place much of that oil off limits. And unfortunately the current rhetoric means that those oil reserves will forever remain off limits: rather than subject the entire production of coal and oil to cost/benefit analysis (and, with increasing energy costs, there is additional money available for cleaner mining and oil extraction activities), we essentially place the price of harming one tree or uprooting one acre of land at a value greater than the entire GDP of the United States.

It's an insane proposition, one that makes the decisions leading to the Irish Potato Famine look rational by comparason.

So, in such a regulatory environment, we can count on energy costs becoming much greater than they are today. There will be a time in the near future when we look fondly back at $4/gallon gasoline. And when that day hits, we will experience a sort of "energy famine", where the simple act of driving to work will become a major financial issue.

From reading the comments on The Oil Drum, one would think that when this day hits, the only answer is a massive rewriting of our genetic code to shift tens of millions of people into living environments that (optimistically) resemble a huge mixed-use shopping mall, but which realistically will look like the regulatory tinkering the English did which only made the death toll in Ireland far worse than it would otherwise have been.

The government has a role: in my opinion its purpose is to provide a regulatory environment which maximizes the most people's opportunities in a level playing field. The government should not subsidize, but the government should also not stand in the way. And in the areas which we as a society believe represent 'the commons' (such as mass transit and transportation issues), the government should do what it can to aid and assist people, getting the best bang for the buck so it helps the most people, rather than engaging in "social engineering"--which to me, can easily be measured by how inefficiently government spends money in order to engineer a "desired" result. (If the government has to spend 10 times more on one result than on another, its because they are economically "swimming upstream"--that is, government is going against the trend of the current economic winds that are set by the collective spending decisions of the millions of people government supposedly is trying to help.)

With this in mind, given that governmental regulations seem bent upon creating a "low energy" future--even to the point where alternative energy sources such as wind and solar are now being fought by the very environmentalists who fought other sources of energy (think the Nantucket Wind Farm project), what can Los Angeles do that doesn't involve massive shifts in the population and a regulatory environment that is creating a class of wealthy land owners and poor apartment dwellers?

Here are my suggestions. Please add your own.

Sensible mass transit. First, let me note that I'm not a subscriber to the theory that the car companies or the oil companies, in order to sell more cars and gas, destroyed the various rail-based mass transit systems in order to force people into cars. The reality is that busses replaced trolly cars for the simple fact that routing busses is far more flexable than routing a trolly car: one doesn't have to string up new overhead electrical systems and jack hammer streets to install rail lines in order to create a new trolly car route or move one over a few blocks. One only has to issue the bus driver a new map.

However, this flexability has created its own problems: a map of the current subway systems in Los Angeles looks like a nightmare maze. Granted, the biggest transportation problem in Los Angeles is the fact that the core of LA is broken into three geographic regions separated by moutain ranges with few routes between them (the San Fernando Valley, the San Gabriel Valley and the Los Angeles Basin), but even within a geographic region (such as the Los Angeles Basin), there is no regularity in the bus loops. Bus routes are by and large local loops; they do an excellent job in providing routing within a municipality (such as the Glendale Bee Line, which does a good job getting around Glendale), but going from one municipality to another is a nightmare. (It can take up to two hours to go from Pasadena to Glendale--two communities that are practically neighbors.)

Part of the problem is that there is no good regular system of inter-regional expressways. One should be able to catch a bus in Pasadena, take it to a central depot, then hop a regular expressway which can take you directly to another central depot servising another region, such as the Santa Monica area, then a local loop within Santa Monica to your destination.

The biggest problem with mass transit is that ultimately, if we use graph theory, most people's transportation needs are point to point--and generally is structured like a tree fanning in from the start of your journey into a transportation corridor (the trunk of the tree), then, at your destination, it becomes another tree fanning out from the corridor to your destination. With any mass transit system, unless the start or destination of your journey is tightly compacted to the point where you can simply walk (such as central London or Manhattan), you'll either be forced to take a bus at the start or the end of your trip--or both, if you don't use a car and a "park and ride" system.

Which, by the way, is one of the reasons why park and ride is a joke unless you are going into downtown Los Angeles.

Understanding that transportation is like a tree, with the roots fanning out and the leaves fanning out, and everything passing through a central trunk, and you can see that unless you can structure all bus rides as a maximum of three bus trips in Los Angeles, bus service is a mess.

Oh, and as a simple example of the complete mess the Los Angeles area Metrpolitan Transportation Authority has made of the current system of busses and light rail--can someone explain to me why the terminus of the Green Line (the LA light rail project that runs along the 105 freeway) places its Los Angeles Airport terminal almost two miles away from LAX? You'd think that as a transportation hub the MTA would have placed an LAX terminal at LAX and instituted a system of park and ride throughout the Los Angeles area, just as they have at Hethrow in London. And when you land at LAX, there isn't even (last I checked) a clearly marked bus that takes you to the green line. For incoming tourists to LAX, it's as if the MTA light rail/subway system in Los Angeles doesn't even exist.

Sensible Transportation Corridors The biggest problem we have in Los Angeles is the geography of Los Angeles. Most people who live here like to pretend that geography doesn't exist, or is at best a little scenic flavor as they look out their windows of their apartments--but geography is a major problem. And no-one seems willing to even think about geography when talking about Los Angeles.

The problem is this: between the San Fernando Valley's bedroom communities and the working communities on the outskirts of the west side of the Los Angeles Basin is exactly one transportation corridor: the 405 freeway through the Sepulveda Pass. (I'm not counting the four neighborhood streets that people take through the various canyon passes; these may make good shortcuts for those "in the know" who can [ab]use them, but they don't hold a serious amount of traffic.) This corridor currently is used to move more people than the entire population of all but perhaps the 20 most populous cities in the United States--and rather than spend money on this transportation corridor (perhaps by running high speed rail and widening the 405 to handle the traffic snarl that starts at 6 in the morning and lasts until 9 at night), we've spent tens of billions drilling holes under Hollywood and Vine that handles perhaps 10% of the folks going over the 405?

The same thing exists through downtown Los Angeles; one of the reasons why the 101 and 110 freeways are so busy through downtown is because this represents one of the only ways to go between the San Gabriel Valley, the San Fernando Valley and the east side of the Los Angeles basin.

If I were a traffic engineer, I would be concentrating my efforts on three "hot spots"--and it's clear they're hot spots which overload the rest of the system, because as soon as you hear there is a traffic accident causing slowdown on any of these freeways, the rest of the entire system will be completely screwed. Those hotspots are:

(1) The 405 from the 118 (at the north end of the San Fernando Valley) all the way down to the 405/605/22 exchange, but with special emphasis on the segment going over the Sepulveda Pass down to Torrance. (I'd start with the segment from the 405/101 to the 405/10 in Santa Monica, then expand the 405/10 to the 405/105 around LAX, then the 405/105 to the 405/710 segment through Carson.)

(2) The 10 freeway from where it starts in Santa Monica out to the 10/605, with special emphasis on widening and improving the freeway out from downtown Los Angeles.

(3) The 5 freeway from the 5/170 split in North Hollywood all the way down to the 5/91 split in Anaheim. (In fact, I'd say that the 5 is the first "hot spot"--it has been a complete disaster as a transportation corridor for as long as I've lived here, and I moved here 23 years ago.)

Fix those, and you should lesson the burden on other surrounding freeways.

Timing surface streets. Because there clearly isn't enough freeways in Los Angeles, and because there are huge areas where there is absolutely no freeway coverage at all (such as through Beverly Hills, Inglewood, and much of the central part of the San Fernando Valley), people have to resort to surface streets. But local traffic engineers in many municipalities don't like the idea of their surface throughfairs carrying a ton of traffic--so they deliberately time stop lights in order to force drivers to take alternate routes.

The problem is, there are no alternate routes. And so this mis-timing of lights, originally intended to force people to take now overcrowded freeways, only causes endless gridlock for six hours a day during the peak driving times of the morning and afternoon rush hours.

Rather than allowing the local municipalities to set timing policy to discourage local traffic, we need to restructure local light timing so that (a) traffic moving along some major arterial roads (such as Santa Monica boulevard) is kept moving at a constant high-volume flow, and (b) access points to major arterial roads are limited to other major access points. Rather than keeping the "grid" like nature, where major non-freeway arteries are crossed by every piddly little road, smaller access road intersections with major arteries are closed--creating this defacto "tree" graph structure which acknowledges certain roads as a transportation corridor in it's own right, rather than just some neighborhood street that happens to be six lanes wide.

This works very well in places such as Fairfax, Virginia; why can't it work here?

Well, these are my modest suggestions; any others that doesn't involve mass migration of people into mixed-use areas--essentially trapping people into a limited selection of whatever stores they can happen to walk to?

posted by William Woody at 11:47 AM

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A moderate conservative living in the left coast, surrounded by the sureal, wonders if there is a sane life living amongst those who have lost touch with reality.

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