King of the Road

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Here's a quiz: Which American city is particularly notorious for its traffic? Chances are, you immediately thought of Los Angeles, a metropolis where freeways built for fewer than three million now buckle under a countywide population more than three times that size. 

John Fisher oversees transportation engineering at the L.A. Department of Transportation. In a city marred by stereotypes of sprawl and smog, he manages the roads and helps give new direction to the growing transportation system. He spoke with The Atlantic about the challenges and rewards of his job.


What causes traffic congestion in the first place?

It happens when the land use doesn't the match the transportation network. The city of L.A. had a population of roughly 2.5 million in the 1960s. And that's when most of our freeway network was built. It was evident that this was going to be a growing area, but with the environmental movement in the 1970s, many of the freeways on the master plan were scrapped. People said, "It will ruin communities and we can't do this."

But development continued and continued, and there was no transportation alternative being pursued. It was until the 1990s that we started building the light rail system. So we have intensified land development in many centers of the city but we didn't' have the infrastructure to match it. And as a result our streets became oversaturated. Many of our boulevards were intended to carry 30 thousand, maybe up to 40 thousand vehicles a day, but some are now carrying up to 70 thousand vehicles a day. And our freeways, which were designed to carry maybe 150 to 200 thousand cars per day, are carrying an excess of 300 thousand cars a day.

So what exactly does a transportation engineer do?

Here in L.A., we manage the city's surface street system. We often get a number of requests from neighborhood groups saying, "What can you do to slow traffic down or get cars off my street?" We look at a whole toolbox full of measures, like putting in speed bumps, or putting in a checkerboard stop sign pattern, or in extreme cases, limiting turns into the local street system to discourage the through traffic from using it.

It's an issue of trying to keep things safe and flowing: trying to keep neighborhood streets from being bombarded by through traffic when the arterial streets get too crowded. But also, part of what we do is look ahead and put in more modes for alternative travel.

How have L.A.'s roads and transportation system in general changed in the last 10 years and how do you expect they'll change in the next 10?

The streets themselves have not changed a whole lot in the past 10 years. The street system we have was largely developed in the 1920s through the 1940s. We use traffic control devices, signs, pavement markings, traffic signals, curb zones that make it work just a little bit better to meet the needs of today rather than what it was like 60, 70 years ago.

But the freeway system is being transformed. We have the largest carpooling network in the nation, approximately 500 miles. L.A. has been a leader in that. We're now taking it one step further. Carpools will still be able to use dedicated lanes on the freeway. But for those who aren't in a carpool and want to opt in, they can pay a price to enter the lane and be assured that they'll get 45 mph travel on the freeway. And we've got a major USDOT grant to change a couple of our freeways to demonstrate that these express lanes can work.

So we're starting to change our freeways, but we're also really changing our transit system. Twenty years ago, we had no light rail. Today we have about six different light rail systems that traverse the city and the surrounding areas. And there's going to be a major effort over the next 10 years to do many, many more. That will include light rail systems and a subway system and a major retrofit of several freeways. The reason why that's going to transform so much in the next 10 years is that a year and a half ago, the county approved Measure R, which provides about $40 billion in funding to improve the transportation system in Los Angeles County.

Today if you travel in the nation's most congested area, you're pretty much stuck on the slow freeway. New alternatives won't eliminate all congestion, but they will be available as options.

L.A. is a big, sprawling megacity. Which parts specifically are under your jurisdiction?

The parts within the city limits themselves. There are about 270 square miles in the city of L.A. and a population of about 4 million. But there are 88 cities within Los Angeles County with a population of about 10 million. So we're less than half of the county's population, but certainly we're the nucleus and there are many cities closely surrounding us. When you consider all of Los Angeles County and neighboring Orange County, it is one continuous developed area. It's sometimes difficult to tell when you've left the city of L.A. and entered an adjacent city. That's quite unlike many other cities, where once you're out of the city core, it's fairly obvious that you're out of the city.

Are there any ways that new technologies like GPS can be used to help with congestion?

We've been building a traffic management system throughout the city that can manage all of our streets and traffic signals. We have about three more years to go before we complete it, but we now have online congestion information for 80 percent of the city where we can see in real time what the congestion levels are. And we don't just observe them--we have a computerized system that will automatically revise the signal timing in response to congestion.

We're using about 100 miles of fiber optic cable that eventually feeds to all the intersections. It includes 17,000 roadway detectors that tell us the congestion levels. We have about 400 video cameras where we can observe our intersections and streets in real time. And we have 25 changeable message signs where we can give information to motorists to advise them of congestion or a road closed ahead.

Now we're trying to send some of that information back to the public. They can go to a website and actually see what the congestion levels are on the streets. They can then decide, "Gee, do I want to take the freeway or do I want to take a parallel route to get to my destination?"

There's been a lot of talk about reinventing automobiles, especially in terms of energy efficiency. I'm wondering how our roads and cities are changing to accommodate smarter cars?

Cars are still going to travel on the roadways. But I imagine there will be more facilities to allow electric vehicles to be charged. That's maybe five to 10 years ahead. We don't see the roadway changing simply because the power source is changing.

But what we do see is that some of the newer vehicles will be equipped with radios that can communicate with something on the roadside. In time, maybe we'll be able to talk with the vehicle. Let's say we have a construction zone. And we'll put up the orange sign saying "Road construction ahead." Motorists will look at it and sometimes ignore it, not really believing that there's actual construction going on. What if we had a device on the roadside that could communicate with the car, equipped with a special radio, and give the car an audible message? "Construction ahead, slow down to 25 mph." There are prototypes out there that do this. And maybe that would be a more effective way to communicate with the motorist.

I bike to work every day and I find myself constantly wishing that all the cars on the road would disappear. What do transportation engineers take into account when considering bikers and pedestrians?

In the last few years, there's been a real emphasis on improving the environment for other modes of travel, for bicyclists, for pedestrians, and for the handicapped. We try to make our streets safer for pedestrians. We have a major program to put in flashing lights and a warning sign that will flash only when a pedestrian is crossing, called a smart crosswalk or smart activated pedestrian warning. We're trying to become credible with the motorists--when these lights are flashing, there really is a pedestrian, so yield to the pedestrian.

We've looked at some of our streets and determined that some are mainly for through travel but others are for retail and pedestrian friendliness. We've looked at how to make the sidewalks wider, how we can provide more streetscape features such as decorative lighting, trees, and crosswalks.

With bicyclists, there are activists in many of the major cities demanding more facilities for bicycles, so we're looking at how we can restripe our streets to accommodate bicycle lanes. I think in time there will be some streets where we'll deemphasize the streets for vehicular travel and make them available for bicycle travel.

Tom Vanderbilt's bestseller Traffic makes the point that even with new technologies, traffic ultimately comes down to human psychology. What role does this play in road design?

The challenge is that we're dealing with people. It is people who use the system, whether its pedestrians or bicyclists or transit users or the motorists. You simply cannot put up a sign that says, "Do this, do that" and just expect that they'll follow.

One example is that we've had neighborhood areas where we've tried to reduce the amount of cut-through traffic or commuter traffic on the streets. We've put in speed humps, checkerboard stop sign patterns, turn restrictions, so that it'll be difficult to use those streets and we think that will solve the problem, that traffic will just go back to surrounding arterial system. We've been partially successful but not entirely successful because some motorists will find another route through the neighborhood that we hadn't conceived of, that they're now taking because we restricted the original route. It is really hard to fool the motorist. We've got to provide a good alternative. We have to put in features to make the arterial streets more appealing.

And transportation engineering can't do it all; we really depend on enforcement and education. For example, we try to make pedestrian experiences as safe as possible, but if pedestrians are listening to an iPod or answering e-mail, they're not looking at traffic. That's not something we can solve with engineering. If motorists are inattentive because they're texting while driving, it's the same. It all comes down to people, and people have individual minds. They don't behave necessarily like you would want them to. 

Image credit: marc.flores/Flickr

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