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The Traffic Whisperer

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By Brad A. Greenberg '04, Photos by Tamar Levine

Published Jan 1, 2010 9:15 AM


Eric Morris M.A. '06 was a child actor and a TV screenwriter (JAG, Star Trek: Voyager and Xena: Warrior Princess). But he left the roar of the crowd for the screech on the streets and a career as an urban scholar. That led this innovative — and funny — thinker, now a doctoral candidate at UCLA, to a recurring role on The New York Times' Freakonomics blog.

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Q: Does transportation study feel more like a hobby to you than a second career?

A: No. My first career was a hobby. This is much more of a calling. It's way more in my wheelhouse — whereas the first career was done for the fun of it and sort of on a lark. I'm really lucky that I've found a calling, and that I did the two careers in the correct order.

Q: You're also lucky that on a lark you were able to have a successful career in show business at all.

A: I was just successful enough that I could come away feeling like I'd done well, but if I had done better I would still be stuck doing it now. The problem for me is that television writing would be the best career in the world except for two things: The television and the writing.

Q: And the guilt? You've said that you left TV wanting to do penance for wasting people's time.

A: Entertainment is a good thing; it makes people happy. But it does sort of sap their life away. What I wanted to do was give people more time in order to live their lives in the way they want. I am a big fan of freedom, and I love the fact that by saving people time you enable them to live their lives the way they want to. Giving people their lives back — time that is currently robbed by congestion — is going to have incredible effects throughout our society.

Drive In

Learn more about Eric Morris' provocative views on traffic congestion, including all of his Freakonomics posts, or visit his website at www.ericandrewmorris.com

Q: How so?

A: Some people will use that freedom for wonderful things: Cancer researchers will use the extra time to cure cancer; single mothers will use the extra time to spend more time with their kids; people will use it to work out, to be more fit, to travel. All these wonderful things in life can be promoted by giving people time back.

Q: Why did you feel a calling to urban planning specifically?

A: A lot of people bag on Los Angeles. I think it's a great city; really, traffic is the biggest problem. Transportation stuck out because it was a way to deal with an urban problem that is immediate to me here and was an L.A. type of thing to study. I'd heard that UCLA had the top-notch transportation program, and that made it easy because they were here in my backyard. I felt like I could help contribute to solving a problem that vexes a city that I really care about. I've done entertainment and transportation and the third [iconic aspect] about L.A. — surfing — I don't think I'm going to take up for a career.

Q: The car is such a part of L.A.'s identity. Do you want to break that?

A: The cat is out of the bag in American society. Our cities are very much designed around the automobile, love it or hate it. We have the urban environment that we are going to have. It's a little late to try to rebuild Los Angeles to make it transit-oriented. There are some things we can do. The Wilshire subway line could be a good investment, but even if we build that, I don't think it is going to revolutionize Angelenos' dependence on the automobile.

Q: So are we doomed to the five-mile, one-hour commute?

A: Well, there is one way to deal with congestion and within 10 years we could do away with the five-mile, one-hour commute. But people hate the solution even more than they hate the problem. The solution is to put tolls on the freeways, hefty tolls that spread the traffic out and prevent everyone from cramming onto the freeway at the same time. Use tolls that vary up and down, depending on the time of day and the congestion levels.

Q: That sure seems to work in Orange County.

A: I've done a lot of study on the SR-91 [State Route 91, an east-west route that runs from Gardena to Riverside and gives drivers the option of using the 91 Express Lanes, the first fully automated, RFID-activated tollway in the world]. It has been very successful. The people who drive in that corridor like the tolling plan because it gives them an option. Some days they might be in a hurry and it's worth it to pay the toll. Other days it might not be worth the toll and they'd rather sit in traffic. Moving toward that sort of system makes a tremendous amount of sense and, eventually, that is what we'll see everywhere.

Q: Why do L.A. traffic stereotypes have such staying power?

A: Los Angeles gets its rap as being a sprawling, suburban, autocentric city in comparison to New York because that is the other opinion capital, and the same class of opinion makers shuttles back and forth between those two cities. L.A. is held up as this traffic dystopia where we have too many freeways with too many cars and too low density. This is the standard story. If you accept the standard story, you will come up with policy prescriptions for more density, more transit, etc. But understanding that L.A. really doesn't have those issues by the standard of American cities forces you to be more thoughtful and think more deeply about the remedies.

Q: How has living in Sherman Oaks, on the crust of the suburb that spawned car culture, shaped your perspective?

A: Ironically, I drive very little. I've had my car 12 years and have 48,000 miles on it. I live in an extremely walkable neighborhood. I personally love leading as car-free a life as possible. I'm also evidence it is possible to live in Los Angeles and drive very little.

Q: Even in the San Fernando Valley.

A: Even in the Valley. There is tremendous walkability here. The dirty little secret is L.A. has lots of neighborhoods like this. But it's my job to enable people to live the way they want. And there is some evidence that suburban lifestyles are artificially promoted by public policies like zoning. But the simplest and most persuasive explanation for why so many Americans lead autocentric lives in suburban communities is that they prefer it that way. So my mission is, what can we do about traffic, what can we do about pollution that will fit with the lifestyle choices that the American public seems to have made?

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