Op-Ed: How Los Angeles is Adapting Urban Mobility for our Digital Age
Los Angeles rose with the age of the automobile, and the city embraced it. We designed our entire urban landscape with it in mind and little appreciation of the consequences in terms of congestion, sprawl, and emissions. After nearly one hundred years of increasing strain, Los Angeles has entered the alpha stage of building a new transportation network.
Given its position as the largest, densest metropolitan region in the US, the City of Los Angeles stands to reap the most benefits or possibly suffer the greatest negative effects of the arrival of disruptive transportation technologies and new business models that rest on the acceleration of shared mobility, machine learning, clean energy, and big data. Urban Mobility in a Digital Age established LADOT’s vision for mobility in Los Angeles, anchored on the foundation of actively managed electric, shared, autonomous mobility that tackles congestion, enables economic mobility, enables equitable outcomes, and saves lives.
No single sector: public, private, non-profit, academic, can solve urban transportation’s challenges alone. We require new approaches and a radical re-envisioning of our roles to be successful. In Los Angeles, we want to broker a new definition of public transit, iterate towards the street of the future, and nudge the market towards our vision.
Equity and New Mobility
Los Angeles is among the least affordable cities in the country when comparing wages and housing costs. We know that Angelenos can reach upwards of 12 times as many jobs in an hour by car as they can in an hour on public transit. Owning a car has become essential to economic mobility, but given car ownership’s significant costs, it is out of reach for many residents. Further, we will struggle to reach our goals for public health, sustainability, and safety if individual car ownership continues to boom.
Los Angeles established its first Promise Zone to capture neighborhood with high numbers of Angelenos living in poverty and experiencing disproportionate rates of negative public health outcomes, including severe and fatal traffic crashes with people walking. The Promise Zone has the right ingredients for programs like carsharing to be successful. However, these programs have not emerged in this neighborhood on their own. Bringing mobility hubs, EV carsharing, and new technologies intergrated with transit and surfece transportation infrastructure helps to spur change.
Los Angeles has lost 20 percent of its transit riders over the last five years, and although new rail lines like the Expo Line connecting downtown to Santa Monica have proven successful, transit riders continue to opt for modes other than surface transit (mostly cars) when they have the means. In order to reverse this trend, LADOT aims to revise our approach to what we measure and how we think about the system we deliver. Plainly, one of the keys to the rise of ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft is their focus on an intuitive, reliable, affordable service. To mimic this approach and pivot from thinking about the service and instead focusing on user experience, we created a term we call transportation happiness.
We are currently drafting a Mobility Bill of Rights to identify core principles like reliability, safety, comfort, equity, transparency, and community that should be the foundation of services we provide or allow to serve Los Angeles. Each of these principles has a set of key performance indicators that we will baseline with Angelenos in order to guide improvements to existing service, like taxis and transit, and help us to regulate new services as they come into the city.
Transportation happiness has an architectural element as well. Over the next few years, the city expects to build a dozen mobility hubs across the city. We envision mobility hubs as places near light rail stations where people can access a variety of choices from EV carsharing to bikesharing to buses. To refocus this project on people, we worked to understand needs that go well beyond transportation – a shady place to sit, games for kids to play while they wait, USB ports, real-time arrival information, a spot to get a cold drink. Mobility hubs offer us the opportunity to do placemaking; to be neighborhood hubs; to elevate form and function.
The Moveable Street
Much of the forecasting around the arrival of new mobility entails either a heaven scenario, where the electric fleet of shared autonomous vehicles can serve people and goods more efficiently or a hell scenario, where the proliferation of access to cheap single occupant trips in AVs portends an explosion in vehicle miles traveled, congestion, and suburban sprawl. We are considering a future that is less black and white. Instead, assume that a street can now be endlessly flexible over the course of a day. In the morning, a street can serve mobility needs while in the afternoon, it converts to a park and in the evening, a plaza. The largest cost of closing a street is the work to manually put up barricades and detours. If in the future, these tasks are increasingly automated, this cost decreases, and communities can be empowered to reclaim under-used streets for other neighborhood needs. A few elements are necessary to bring this to life: changeable infrastructure that can easily convert a street; the technology to communicate to drivers and vehicles that the street is closed; and algorithms to create dynamic detours.
We are also building partnerships with apps like Waze. Waze is in one in four cars in Los Angeles by some estimates. While it brings some challenges as it redistributes traffic to streets that are not always able to accommodate it, Waze also offers an unparalleled opportunity to communicate with a large number of drivers. LA’s data sharing agreement allows LADOT to push citywide street closures in real time to everyone using Waze in the city. In the future, these partnerships will be essential to enabling quick temporary street closures regularly.
LADOT’s initial playbook for preparing the city for an autonomous future has been a vital tool to guide investment, program development, and new models for operations. As we look towards the 2028 games, we know that we must rethink the system that we manage and operate. The city is our new platform for product development; code is our new concrete; but our values and vision remain fixed firmly on a city for people. New mobility’s value will not be measured by its disruption but its power as a catalyst for a strong, equitable city that continues to welcome everyone and connect them to a better life.