clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Arman Thanvir

LA's big plan to change the way we move

The city is the first in the nation to reveal how it will make shared, self-driving vehicles a key part of our public transit future.

It's 2021, and you're making your way home from work. You jump off the Expo line (which now travels from Santa Monica to Downtown in 20 minutes flat), and your smartwatch presents you with options for the final two miles to your apartment. You could hop on Metro's bike share, but you decide on a tiny, self-driving bus that's waiting nearby. As you board, it calculates a custom route for you and the handful of other passengers, then drops you off at your doorstep in a matter of minutes. You walk through your building's old parking lot—converted into a vegetable garden a few years ago—and walk inside in time to put your daughter to bed.

That’s the vision for Los Angeles painted in Urban Mobility in the Digital Age, a new report that provides a roadmap for the city’s transportation future. The report, which was shared with Curbed LA and has been posted online, addresses the city’s plan to combine self-driving vehicles (buses included) with on-demand sharing services to create a suite of smarter, more efficient transit options.

But it's not just the way that we commute that will change, according to the report. Simply being smarter about how Angelenos move from one place to another brings additional benefits: alleviating vehicular congestion, potentially eliminating traffic deaths, and tackling climate change—where transportation is now the fastest-growing contributor to greenhouse gases. And it will also impact the way the city looks, namely by reclaiming the streets and parking lots devoted to the driving and storing of cars that sit motionless 95 percent of the time.

The report is groundbreaking because it makes LA the first U.S. city to specifically address policies around self-driving cars. Autonomous vehicles have logged millions of miles on U.S. streets, but when it comes to aggressively planning for them, American cities are woefully unprepared. A report from the National League of Cities that surveyed the long-term transit plans of 68 large cities showed that only six percent even mentioned self-driving cars. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation solicited grant proposals from 78 U.S. cities as part of the Smart City Challenge in an effort to get cities thinking about this future.

AP Driverless Car AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File

"While the usual approach has been to focus on fairly ancient technologies of pavement, paint, and colored lights to move cars and trucks around, this report focuses on using today's technologies to deliver services, safety, and convenience," says Peter Marx, the former Chief Technology Officer for Los Angeles, who served as an advisor to LADOT. "This work is a guide for policymakers to reorient not only LA's transit, but all big city transportation systems."

To prove to you that LA is thinking about autonomous vehicles in a different way, consider that this plan was authored by an architect. Ashley Z. Hand was brought on as part of a year-long LADOT fellowship which ended last month (she is currently the co-founder of CityFi, a smart city advisory practice). She says she believes space is the key to solving a lot of LA’s transportation problems.

How your commute would change

Many of the major changes outlined in the plan would be imperceptible to Angelenos, at least at first. Passengers can already use smartphones to get real-time data for local trains, buses, and bike share using trip-planning tools, and book on-demand rides within those apps.

As buses begin to operate autonomously, it will allow them to navigate city streets more efficiently, making those connections even more seamless and serving neighborhoods more reliably.

Eventually, on-demand "micro transit"—small, smart buses that can change their routes on the fly—will fill in the gaps for people who aren't well served by fixed routes, meaning Angelenos won't need their own cars, especially for short trips.

With less room needed for cars, streets would be freed up for bike lanes or public space

Roads could narrow thanks to better vehicular flow, freeing up more space for sidewalks or bike lanes. Crashes and fatalities on streets would become a thing of the past. And all the infrastructure related to storing those cars—street parking, surface parking lots, driveways—could be redeveloped for new uses.

"Transportation and land-use are inextricably linked," she says. "How far things are in your life, like work, home, school, healthcare, shopping, can determine how much time is spent traveling during any given week. With no room to grow, we need to think of cultivating an ecosystem of choices to give more flexibility to Angelenos."

Hand framed her work using three key policy documents that are already shaping the region’s future: the Mobility 2035 transportation plan; the city’s sustainability plan; and Vision Zero, LADOT’s initiative to eliminate traffic deaths. She extrapolated the goals of these plans and looked at ways that transportation specifically can address them—and make connections between them. "We acknowledge that not one technology—shared mobility, smartphones, connected infrastructure, autonomous vehicles—will solve the complexities of an urban transportation system," she says. "So we need to understand how they work together."

The report categorizes recommendations into five major areas, ranging from initiatives that are already underway (display real-time arrival times at bus stops), to urban planning mandates (stop widening roads), to solutions that are six or more years out (launch a fully driverless public transit fleet). Many of them seem impossible to roll out across a city as large and complex as LA.

But Hand says like any LADOT initiatives, the upgrades would target specific neighborhoods first, namely ones experiencing exceptionally high numbers of traffic deaths. Those fatalities, which have been increasing in recent years because Americans are driving more, could be reduced by up to 90 percent with human drivers out of the picture.

One underlying goal is clear across the board: To use emerging technology to make our transportation system so robust and responsive, Angelenos won’t need privately owned, single-occupancy cars—and we won’t need to devote 14 percent of all land in Los Angeles County to parking them.

Even that one small element of the plan—the slightest reduction in the need, and therefore the number and location of parking spaces—could dramatically change the city, much to the delight of urban planners.

"This plan sets a visionary path to using the latest technology, data, and approaches to solve LA's urban mobility challenges, particularly with parking," says Juan Matute, associate director for research and administration for UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies.

"Right now we can use one of dozens of apps to locate and navigate to a nearby coffee shop, but continue to rely on our eyes to locate an open parking space," he said. "Smarter parking management can lead to innovative neighborhood change so that in the future coffee shops are allowed to locate closer to people craving caffeine, reducing the need to drive and park."

That sounds good in theory, but let's be serious: Are enough people in LA ready to trade their BMW for a minibus—even one that comes to their door?

Small, self-driving buses, like these EasyMile buses recently launched in Helsinki, will provide on-demand rides

Preliminary studies say yes. A recent American Public Transportation Association report showed that the people who use on-demand rideshare the most are more likely to ride transit and less likely to own cars. Susan Shaheen, of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, is studying the impacts of (human-driven, for now) on-demand rideshare companies as part of an ongoing study in partnership with the National Resources Defense Council, Uber, and Lyft. The results of the study will not be available until this fall, but, anecdotally, she agrees that Uber and Lyft are being used as a way to complement public transportation, especially in big cities.

That's another encouraging component of LADOT's strategy document—it’s heavily focused on the power of public-private partnerships. This means not only working with companies like Waze and Syncromatics to gather and analyze transportation data, but also partnering directly with on-demand car services. Uber and Lyft have already been working with many cities, including LA, to help get people to and from transit hubs. (It's notable that Hand’s fellowship itself was funded by a partnership with the Goldhirsh Foundation, the nonprofit which also doles out LA 2050 grants, in partnership with the Mayor's Fund of Los Angeles.)

But working with existing networks like Uber and Lyft also raises issues about how a plan like this could reach lower-income Angelenos. Can a system that largely relies on summoning a ride via some kind of device be as equitable as public transit, regardless of what model smartphone you own?

Why Westlake?

Westlake is one of LA's most transit-dependent neighborhoods

As one of several Promise Zones in LA, Westlake gets prioritized for federal funding. The MacArthur Park-adjacent neighborhood also sees an exceptionally high number of pedestrian fatalities. Working in Westlake would allow LADOT to test these solutions which address how technology can serve the most transit-dependent communities.

Infrastructure that delivers transit information, like Metro's real-time bus arrival signage, which will be installed city-wide

Sensor-outfitted crosswalk designs that help reduce pedestrian fatalities

A universal fare system that guarantees all forms of transit are priced affordably, with standardized rates

Sidewalk kiosks that let anyone summon and pay for rides

Autonomous DASH buses (LADOT's neighborhood circulator buses) that could change routes to pick up disabled or elderly passengers

"It’s so exciting to see a plan like this come together, particularly preparing for driverless cars and expanding shared services to low-income neighborhoods, and we love the focus on key corridors to increase safety for people walking," says Jessica Meaney of the transportation policy advocacy group Investing in Place. "But we need to make sure we align the funding with high-needs areas, especially neighborhoods historically neglected by transportation investments. We see this attempt several times throughout this plan, and look forward to how this plan will be implemented and monitored."

That's definitely a concern, and the reason that LADOT wants to launch a pilot program first in the transit-dependent neighborhood of Westlake, says Hand. She also points to the way the plan will measure success: by happiness. "The idea behind transportation happiness is to refocus on the customer," she says. "Providing a higher standard of amenities for public transit, improving the experience, comfort, safety for all Angelenos, regardless of what mode of transportation they choose to traverse our city and region."

Still, this document is only a preliminary framework. There’s no mention of moving freight around the city, which is a huge contributor to emissions and congestion. And what happens to the cars of existing rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft as they move towards autonomy, or people who want to share their Teslas, per Elon Musk's vision?

If and how those privately owned, single-occupancy cars—autonomous or not—will continue to navigate LA has to be addressed now, or the fears about self-driving cars creating more traffic and sprawl will become a reality. Eventually the city will have to introduce some kind of congestion pricing that will make it prohibitively expensive to bring private vehicles into denser neighborhoods—something that will surely not be popular with some car owners.

But that's why it's so important that LADOT has taken a stand on this issue, says Mark Vallianatos, an urban policy advocate and co-founder of Abundant Housing LA.

"Nearly 90 years of planning for driving in LA has led to bad urban design and NIMBY fear of traffic that drives opposition to density and blocks badly needed housing," he says. "It's exciting that the city is planning for a future in which the equation is transformed, freeing up space for more housing of all types, more open space and other positive urban evolutions."

That's potentially the most intriguing proposal put forth by this plan—if LA could start working towards a future where it's easier for everyone to get around, and people didn't have to worry about parking two (or more) vehicles, it would alleviate many of the current concerns about development and growth. This vision is poised to radically reshape the way LA works, giving the city a second chance to serve people, not cars.