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How tech giants like Elon Musk can actually fix LA's transportation problems

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Tech innovators say they want to ease LA’s gridlock, but their solutions are often making it worse

Report Places Los Angeles At Top Of List For City With Worst Traffic And Smog Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

“What if, instead of working together to outsmart traffic, we found a way to just get rid of it?” claims the website of Waze Carpool, a new service that just launched in Los Angeles with the goal of “ending traffic.”

Tech companies keep coming up with old ideas for solving LA transportation problems. It’s not just Waze that’s to blame. Elon Musk is reinventing the subway beneath our feet. There’s Lyft’s new Shuttle, which, as many people have noticed, is literally a bus. And a “moving hotel” taking passengers from LA to San Francisco, which is also literally a bus.

Transit advocates get frustrated every time they hear an announcement like this, and for good reason. Tech companies tout their “solutions” as better than the city’s, and they often are more convenient—so convenient that they might have already lured riders and fares away that would have helped improve the public transit options. Ridership is down in most major cities in the U.S., including LA, leaving gaps in service and holes in budgets. Routes have been cut in many neighborhoods and maintenance problems are plaguing systems due to the financial shortfall.

Tech companies have made Angelenos believe that with the right app, the right discount code, or a smarter vehicle, we can cheat the system when it comes to transportation.

None of these solutions will work—including the shiny promise of hyper-efficient autonomous vehicles—until we get a lot more cars off LA’s roads.

Elon Musk launched his Boring Company after getting fed up with traffic on the 405, pledging to dig a high-speed car tunnel from his Bel-Air home to SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne. He has apparently talked to Mayor Eric Garcetti about his plan, which is already underway.
The Boring Company

World-famous transit planner Jarrett Walker (no relation to me) explains it best. In his article “Does Elon Musk understand urban geometry?” he explains why tech solutions don’t properly address the real reason traffic is getting worse: The number of miles traveled by cars each year reached an all-time high in 2016 (and likely contributed to LA's spike in traffic deaths). There is simply not enough space for all the cars.

But aren’t Waze Carpool or Lyft Shuttle getting cars off the road? Perhaps they will, but it's not enough. Waze says 1.7 million drivers actively use the app in the LA area, about 10 percent of the population. Only 15 percent of American adults have ever used a ride-hailing app, with 3 percent using them daily or weekly. That's why Walker argues that the more affordable, accessible car-subtracting solution—public, high-capacity vehicles—will have greater impact.

Walker provides “simple and well-proven math” for how cities can reduce the number of vehicle trips and boost high transit ridership—which includes making routes widely useful for a huge demographic cross-section of the city.

“Dense cities that want to live in the real world of space and time, and that do not want to become dystopias that are functional only for the rich, need to use urban space efficiently,” he says. If you’re in the wealthiest bracket of city-dwellers who can afford to use Lyft Shuttle, or Musk’s forthcoming car tunnel, “your most urgent task is to remember that most people aren’t like you, and that cities are impossible if everyone lives according to your personal tastes.”

But that's exactly the part that technology companies don’t want to acknowledge. They want to sell the shortcut.

As Tom Vanderbilt, author of the book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What it Says About Us), recently explained in a Verge story about how tech is solving the wrong transportation problems: “There's a certain aspect of Silicon Valley culture that is certainly about optimizing one's own individual life—paying someone to wait in line for your burrito for you—without considering larger system effects.”

That individually optimized, take-the-shortcut mentality seems to be pervading a particularly nasty battle unfolding right now in Playa del Rey.

As part of LA’s plan to address its traffic death epidemic, the city redesigned a number of streets in the beach community due to five deaths that had occurred there since 2010, including a 16-year-old girl whose family was recently awarded $9.5 million in a wrongful death settlement by the city. The city attorney ordered the changes to be fast-tracked to avoid future lawsuits (another lawsuit from a 2016 death is pending now).

Residents have coalesced in an attempt to reverse the safety improvements, claiming that they have lengthened their commutes, even though studies have shown that these types of road configurations do not demonstrably increase travel times. And then, of course, there’s the other, potentially more important benefit of the redesign: more lives are saved.

A free shuttle circulates around Playa Vista’s tech campuses and coordinates with local bus service, but it doesn’t connect to nearby rail lines. Rampant development without a comprehensive transit plan for the area means more Silicon Beach employees are driving to work.
Playa Vista

A group now known as Open Streets PDR is being promoted by several prominent members of the tech community who want to eliminate the changes, many of whom are passing through Playa del Rey from their homes in Manhattan Beach to jobs in Playa Vista, Venice, and Santa Monica. The supporters are proposing plenty of tech-based solutions—streaming cameras, social media campaigns, data studies—but not to make streets safer, to help them move more quickly through them.

A high-profile crowdfunding effort for Open Streets PDR that has been shared by many tech leaders on social media has now raised over $18,000 to “fight LA gridlock.”

But until the people sitting alone in their cars tapping away at their apps realize that they are the gridlock, nothing will change.

Because the only way these tech leaders could truly solve LA’s traffic problems—including reducing LA’s traffic deaths, and tackling climate change—is by helping as many people as possible take public transit. Or feel safer riding bikes. Or, on a larger scale, live closer to work.

The Silicon Valley-based tech companies like Google and Facebook that have offices in Silicon Beach already know how well traditional public transit works. It’s the most efficient and effective form of moving large numbers of people through cities—that’s why they started their own bus systems for their own employees. They run massive private shuttle networks throughout the Bay Area (and in many other cities as well, including some in LA). They know how to get tens of thousands of people to work on time in one of the most congested regions in the country, and they know how to do it really well.

Tech companies have mastered the art of designing transportation choices that serve a self-selecting handful of people. Imagine if they focused that energy on solutions that served LA’s greatest public interest? It’s been a battle just to get Uber and Lyft to share their data with the city. Now there’s talk about adding a citywide surcharge to ride-hailing trips that could help subsidize transit options.

These powerful corporations should also be better neighbors. When transit isn’t accessible, these huge companies become massive gridlock-generators, especially when cities refuse to add new housing for employees. Besides financially rewarding employees who don’t drive with incentives, tech companies should be required to fund new transit solutions that benefit the neighborhoods they occupy. The city of Commerce taxes its two biggest property owners in order to fund a free transit system that connects to local rail lines, for example.

Tech companies have also invented one of the best tools for getting around cities: The smartphone. We are in a golden age of trip planners, mapping services, and real-time data sharing, all of which have made it easier than ever to ride buses and trains. Any app that claims to “end traffic” should include showing users how to take transit instead of driving. It’s been proven: If you give people good data and good tools to help them ride, more people will make the switch to transit, even if service isn’t dramatically improved.

Facebook is among the new tenants of the 200,000 square-foot Playa Jefferson campus in Playa Vista.
Facebook is among the new tenants of the 200,000 square-foot Playa Jefferson campus in Playa Vista, which is located in a public transit desert. Google is also relocating some of its operations to Playa Vista from Santa Monica, where transit options are plentiful but office space (and housing) is becoming scarce.
Playa Jefferson

LA actually has quite a few tech companies working hard on improving the city’s public transit experience. There’s the Go LA trip-planning app developed by Conduent (formerly Xerox) that allows riders to compare their transit options by cost, time, and environmental impact. Electric bus startup Proterra is opening a factory in the City of Industry. There are 300 smart bus shelters with real-time information by Syncromatics set to roll out this year and Wi-Fi is being added to buses. There are even other types of transportation options funded by the city, including Blue LA, the new car-sharing program that recently launched in Westlake, and a dozen successful bike share systems throughout the county backed by startups like Social Bicycles and B-Cycle.

All the data being collected and shared by those companies can help LA plan future transit expansions, especially with the funding boost expected from Measure M—but only if people actually use the public transportation options we have now.

In Seattle last month, the bus drivers suddenly started to notice hundreds of new passengers on their routes, all with identical backpacks, heading to work at the same time each morning and leaving at around the same time every night. It was the first week of Amazon’s summer internship program, and the new riders were the company’s interns. There were so many of them taking transit that Seattle had to change the bus schedules to accommodate them. If a single tech company can do this in Seattle, our local tech industry could come together to do the same thing here in LA.

Instead of mocking LA’s public transportation while claiming the threat of long commutes will somehow drive away future startups, tech leaders need to leverage the power of their own industry to get behind the city’s proven solution for tackling traffic. It’s not Waze Carpool, it’s not a Lyft Shuttle, it’s not whatever Elon is digging up next—it’s championing our own public transit systems.