Sunday, September 22, 2013

Evidence of Vast Improvement in Los Angeles Mass Transit

I have recently been shown evidence that we are on the verge of a vast change in the way we do mass transit in this country. Well maybe that is a little bold and overreaching.   The evidence relates to Los Angeles specifically, not very well known for being progressive in this area.

In order to understand this evidence we first have to discuss certain techniques used to predict the future and also certain aspects of the history of the topic as it relates to the evidence. But don't worry we will get there.

It is a theme of this blog that predicting the future is sometimes easy and sometimes very hard if not completely impossible, but that it is always entertaining. One complicating factor in predicting the future of course is predicting when it will happen. Predicting what will happen is not enough. When is just as important as what.

One technique used is a concept known as the "indicator". The indicator, stolen from the fields of National Security and Economics, is nothing more than a carefully chosen event or trend that is used as a signal that something of greater scope is happening. The price of corn, the temperature of sea water, and whether a nation's troops are mobilized are all examples of indicators.

Recently I have come across solid evidence that we may be on the verge of a genuine revolution in how we do mass transit in urban areas. I suspect that this might be autonomous vehicles, which I discuss briefly below, but it might be something else. The evidence is not too specific although it is clear that something is coming.

Autonomous Taxicab, the JohnnyCab, from the original Total Recall.  If its good enough for Arnold, it should be good enough for us.

I am a firm believer that autonomous vehicles are in our future and that this is a good thing. I think that they have the potential of changing many things about how we deal with transit in an urban and non-urban environment and that many of these changes will be somewhat unexpected. Maybe we will not own cars, maybe we will just call one up from a pool when we need one. People may never have to worry about parking again and a host of other possible changes.

But being certain when this change will happen is less clear. There have been a lot of promising technologies in the past that have never been deployed in real life: people movers, monorails, levitating trains, not to mention personal airplanes and jet packs. And there are many obstacles in the way of deploying autonomous vehicles beyond the merely technical ones. I will mention just two which are daunting: the greed of the insurance industry and the stupidity of local city governments. Just navigating those two barriers will require more skill and probably more money than solving the technological issues.

Consider the following evidence of imminent change.

Slowly, and without a lot of fanfare, Los Angeles is in the process of building two mass transit systems that will reach the west side of Los Angeles. One is light rail, the Exposition Line, and it is well along and already reaches Robertson near Culver City. The other is a subway down Wilshire and it is in the early stages of construction. The estimated completion of all this work is a date well beyond 20 years from now. But there will be incremental deliverables and parts of the system will be in production sooner than other parts.

The Expo Line actually runs to Culver City.  Its like a Miracle from God that they built this thing.  

To understand why this matters you have to realize that mass transit in Los Angeles is different from other places. In other places, mass transit may be controversial, it may be a compromise, it may be expensive, it may be bankrupt, but it proceeds. But in Los Angeles, you literally have world class crime, political malfeasance, and fraud not to mention racism and major lawsuits. Volumes have been written about the stupidity, short-sightedness and corruption (e.g. bribery).  But most of all, this is an area where the politicians and the civic community failed together to find a solution to a problem that was clearly going to get worse.  In other words, they "kicked the can down the road" and hoped that others would solve it.

The problem is that in this area, as in others as well but this is an excellent test case, solving the problems require capital investment, tremendous political will, short-term grief, and a lot of time to execute.   It is an excellent example where naive, one might say, stupid, reliance on "free market solutions" is obviously a failure.   The benefits of mass transit take many forms, but several of them require the system to be planned and executed and in place for a period of time so that things can be built around it and make it all the more useful.   In other words, the transit system may have to be there for 20 years before all the benefits accrue to the investment (through the placement of hotels, universities, theatres, etc).

To ask politicians and citizens in LA to face a problem 20 years in the future and a benefit also 20 years or so in the future is so far beyond their limited intelligence and wisdom as to be beyond funny into farce.   Los Angeles was built for a reason, and that reason resounds in every decision that the civic body makes.  Los Angeles is built on a desire to steal money and fuck people right now, not on stealing money and fucking people in some future day.   This is obvious in the cheap architecture, the lack of zoning to control cheap real estate development, the dumping of wastes into the water system, the failure to control pollution generated by container ships at the Port of LA that causes a substantial percentage of the air pollution in the LA basin (is it 30% ? 40% ? No one knows).

The point is this:  it isn't possible or plausible that LA would just get around to fixing this problem, or at least some of this problem, by building a transit system, eventually.  I don't buy it.  If something like this is happening, it is an indicator, as previously described, of a larger process that is taking place behind the scenes, even if the people executing this idea are not aware of it.  I think that the will of the people and the force of shame and the collapse of the transit system in Los Angeles over the last 15 years or so has finally caused the City of LA and related areas to finally move in an area that should have been addressed 50 years ago and therefore there is no possibility of this being a wise move.  By the time it is done, something will have happened to expose why this was at best a very late decision for LA to make.

Therefore I am very optimistic that we will see a sea-change in urban transit technology in the near future, as these things are measured.  Its about time.

In a later post I will discuss why I am holding back my real feelings here about Los Angeles and their failure to deal with fundamental issues.

I grew up here.  I know where some of the bodies are buried.

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