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Street Smart

By Nate Berg

Published Jul 1, 2017 8:00 AM

For almost 100 years, UCLA has been a leader in solving complex transportation problems, applying multidisciplinary excellence in the heart of a congested city.

Illustration by Travis Coburn.

There may be no American city more defined by its transportation than Los Angeles. It’s the epicenter of freeway-urbanism, the postwar urban planning playbook many cities across the country and around the world used to try to accommodate the automobile. L.A.’s sheer geographic spread makes it less a city than a conglomeration, a multinuclear, connect-the-dots of mobility patterns where interminable rush hours beg new terms to subdivide the day.

But amid this often dystopian carscape of traffic jams and asphalt horizons, new pockets of density and growing numbers of people are calling for alternatives to the car. With more pedestrians and cyclists on the roads, two voter-approved, multibillion-dollar investments in public transit, and emerging technologies that enable new ways of getting around, the future of L.A. is looking less like an unbreakable gridlock.

All of which makes it the ideal city for transportation researchers.

“I think we’re lucky to be doing research in Los Angeles, because the problems face you every day,” says Donald Shoup, distinguished research professor of urban planning at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. “There are a number of other good transportation schools, but they don’t have all the problems evident all the time right in front of them.”

These conditions, Shoup argues, are partly why UCLA has become a preeminent academic center for the study of transportation. He and other planning professors have developed this expertise over decades, looking at how transportation affects cities through the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS), based in the Luskin School. Brian Taylor ’83, Ph.D. ’92, professor of urban planning and director of ITS, says this transportation-focused work has been a strong suit of UCLA’s dating back to the earliest days of the university. But now, interest in transportation issues is spreading beyond the realm of public policy. “I’ve been a professor here since 1994, and the number of people working on transportation has probably gone from six to 40 over that time,” Taylor says. From engineering and computer science to urban design and architecture, experts across UCLA are delving into the biggest transportation challenges of the 21st century. Building on a long history of innovations, these researchers are developing the designs, policies and technologies that will guide the future of transportation in L.A. and beyond.

Tackling Traffic

“The alarming increase in street accidents and street congestion during the past few years has rendered the correction of traffic conditions one of the most important municipal problems of the ... day,” wrote Professor Miller McClintock, head of the university’s Bureau for Street Traffic Research. The year: 1925.

McClintock’s seemingly evergreen concern comes from the preface of his book Street Traffic Control, one of the early pieces of transportation scholarship to come out of UCLA. At the time, cities across the country were grappling with the dramatic rise of cars. In the 10 years leading up to the publication of McClintock’s book, the number of vehicles on American roads had increased nearly tenfold, to more than 20 million. It was a technology for which no city was fully prepared.

UCLA researchers dove in. “Some of the very earliest work in traffic engineering, in designing streets to accommodate the newfangled automobile, actually took place at UCLA when it was located on Vermont Avenue, before the Westwood campus was even established,” says Martin Wachs, distinguished professor emeritus of urban planning at the Luskin School. These early infrastructural concerns eventually led to a focus on the more human factors of automobile transportation, particularly human safety and the often grisly deaths that resulted from cars crashing into objects or each other. “When you see ancient film of cars crashing into barriers with dummies moving forward on impact, some of that was actually done at UCLA in Boelter Hall, in the school of engineering,” Wachs says.

Transportation's Toll

Crash test dummies were instrumental in improving the safety of automobiles. But researchers knew that even without deadly crashes, cars and an increasingly transportation-reliant economy were profoundly impacting the world. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, UCLA researchers explored more deeply the human side of these impacts, looking at how transportation affects cities, the environment and, most importantly, people’s lives.

“UCLA has made its intellectual mark thinking about the social and economic aspects of transportation and transportation systems,” says Taylor. “How travel affects the ability of people to get to work, to school or to medical care, what happens when people are transportation-disadvantaged, what sort of policies can be put in place to help people to have the sort of mobility they need.”

Can Transit Work Here?

Answering those questions is difficult, particularly in an era of growing income inequality and political division. A project Taylor is currently working on examines why transit ridership is falling in California, and Southern California in particular, despite huge investments in new rail lines. The preliminary findings trace the decline to the slowdown in immigration, combined with an improving economy and increased use of autos, meaning that the new immigrant and low-income communities that have traditionally been the heaviest transit users are using it less.

With tens of billions of dollars for transportation projects being set aside from county sales tax coffers, how best to invest in transit is a big open question going forward. Along with Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Michael Manville M.A. ’03, Ph.D. ’09, Urban Planning Professor Evelyn Blumenberg M.A. ’90, Ph.D. ’95 is working with Taylor on the ridership study, and she says the challenge is in knowing which investments make the most sense for different communities and how those investments can serve the most people.

“Forty-three percent of low-income families live in the suburbs of metropolitan areas,” she says. Transit is hard to do well in such spread-out places: “In those kinds of environments, having an automobile is key to making one’s life work.”

One Approach: Cleaner Cars

In a study intended to improve air quality, Blumenberg and her colleagues are working with the California Air Resources Board to determine how best to incentivize the purchase of newer, cleaner cars. This will also help in communities where the use of transit is impractical. The thinking is that if people in suburban areas have driving as their only option, at least they can drive cars with reduced impact on the environment. “If we can implement incentives that motivate households to drive cleaner vehicles, we’ll be doing a lot for the environment but also motivating the purchase of more reliable vehicles,” she says.

It’s not just about moving people around. Transportation studies increasingly focus on broader questions — equity, the environment, the impact of transportation projects on the communities they’re intended to serve. This interconnectedness is leading many in the field to look for new ways transportation goals can be achieved without causing problems elsewhere.

L.A. as Role Model?

For many years, Los Angeles was seen as a transportation outlier. Compared to older, more established U.S. cities, L.A. made some strange decisions in the middle of the 20th century. It ripped out its well-used citywide streetcar network. It pioneered a car-oriented urbanism based on arterial roads and freeways. It induced driving demand by adding lanes and doling out free parking. Cities back east with walkable downtowns, tight street grids and subway systems scoffed.

But, gradually, L.A.’s quirks started to become common, spreading across the country and even into some of those older, more established cities. In retrospect, mistakes were made, and now U.S. cities are trying to find ways to undo the damage of planning primarily for the movement of cars. UCLA researchers are looking for those solutions, and what they’re finding is that if it works in L.A., it can probably work anywhere.

The Prince of Parking

The most notable impact UCLA has made on this front is in the often overlooked quotidian realm of parking. With the publication of his 2005 book The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup turned parking into an unlikely focus of modern urban transportation policy. Synthesizing decades of his own dogged work looking into parking in Southern California, Shoup clearly shows how free street parking, free parking for office workers, and free residential parking required by zoning codes lead to more people driving, more traffic congestion, and increased fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. Further — and key to his ideas taking off — he’s shown that by putting an appropriate price on parking, cities can reduce all those negative impacts and generate revenue for the community at the same time.

“Some people agreed with me at the beginning,” he says, “but now it’s become just a flood of cities that are reducing or removing off-street parking requirements.”

Some of Shoup’s policy recommendations have become state law in California and have made their way into the federal tax code. They’re being implemented in cities across the country — a string of successes Shoup and others will be profiling in a new book coming out later this year. “There’s no person who has influenced recent policy more than Donald Shoup,” says Wachs. This rock star of parking policy even has a nickname inspired by a hip-hop legend: Shoup Dogg.

Take Two Wheels

L.A. is also learning from others. Starting in 2010, the city began a semiregular “open streets” event called CicLAvia. Modeled after similar events in Latin American cities, CicLAvia takes place a few Sundays a year and blocks automobile traffic from large stretches of L.A. streets, opening them up to a parade of cyclists, skaters and pedestrians. Now being held multiple times a year on a growing variety of routes across the city, CicLAvia shows that the infrastructure of the car-oriented city can do more than just serve the car.

Institute of Transportation Studies associate director Madeline Brozen M.A. ’11 has studied CicLAvia events for the past three years, along with colleagues from the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. In surveys of thousands of participants along the routes, they have found people willing to use transit to arrive at events.

“Not only are people coming out to CicLAvias in these vast numbers, but they also behave totally differently during that day,” particularly in terms of how they get around the city, Brozen says. “And I think that shows a big latent demand for bicycle infrastructure physically separated from cars. We just have to figure out how to make this next big leap in determining how to make people safe when there are cars around.”

Students at the Luskin School of Public Affairs helped create parklets in downtown Los Angeles — small spaces equipped with exercise equipment and seating areas. Photo by Sam Comen.

Surveys of business owners along the CicLAvia routes are also showing modest increases in revenues, Brozen says. That’s helping to convince skeptical businesspeople that closing the street — essentially making it impossible for customers to drive to their businesses — doesn’t have to be bad for business. This has fed into explorations of “parklets,” the mini-park spaces — sometimes just a car length or two long — that cities have begun to build in place of street parking. Brozen has studied existing parklets in downtown L.A. and proposed parklets in Santa Monica. She says it’s been a struggle to convince some businesses that removing street parking won’t be bad. But her studies have shown that parklets in commercial areas have commonly attracted local residents, who predominantly come by foot instead of car. “We’re finally putting more data behind it to show how much people really appreciate their neighborhoods, and that if we give people nice things to walk to, shockingly, they’ll do it!” she says.

All of the Above

Of course, not everybody can trade their car keys for a pair of sneakers, but researchers are looking at ways to offer more transportation options. Juan Matute M.A./M.B.A. ’09, another associate director at ITS, is studying how employers can incentivize employees to find alternatives to driving. But L.A.’s spread-out, far-flung nature — what Matute calls “polycentric” — makes substitutes like vanpools or employer-run buses far more difficult than in more compact cities. “We have employment clustered in about 30 or so subcenters throughout the region, but no one subcenter makes up more than 4 percent of employment, including downtown L.A.,” says Matute. “Chances are if there are 15 people in Silver Lake working white-collar jobs, they’re working in 12 different locations. So it’s hard to aggregate those trips.”

But by pairing public transit with on-demand car services like Lyft, Matute suggests employers or even transit systems can greatly reduce the number of people driving to offices. He says a handful of Lyft cars could serve a given radius, picking up employees at home and dropping them at transit stations that connect near their offices. Integrating traditional public transit with these new forms of transportation could reduce the number of cars on the road, reduce the need for parking, and increase the use of public transit.

These new ideas and technologies have paradigm-shifting potential. And more are on the way.

Futuristic Technologies

Almost as soon as tech businessman Elon Musk released his proposal for a depressurized, tubular, long-distance transportation concept called the Hyperloop in 2013, architect and UCLA Architecture and Urban Design Professor Craig Hodgetts began contemplating its architectural implications. In the fall of 2014, he began a yearlong investigation of the architectural and urban possibilities of the Hyperloop. His students, diving deeper than the typical quarter-long course, imagined what sort of built environment such a transportation system would need. Building on well-established ideas for train station and airport design, they envisioned a new type of transportation depot in a Hyperlooped world.

Almost as soon as Elon Musk proposed the Hyperloop, UCLA Professor Craig Hodgetts and his students began considering the architectural implications. Illustration courtesy of UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture.

“We devised a system whereby passengers could be discharged and new passengers picked up in a cycle of capsules,” Hodgetts says. “With a two-minute departure time, you would no longer need lobbies, you would no longer need places for people to wait for the next departure. It would be a continuous-service type of activity.” And a novel building that architects may one day need to design.

For now, the Hyperloop is a distant, or perhaps impossible, dream. But emerging technologies — autonomy in vehicles, for example — are expected to have massive and imminent implications on how we move around and how our built world accommodates that movement. Hodgetts says urban planners, designers and architects will need to think differently.

Let the Car Drive

“The breakthrough point is the concept of the autonomous vehicle, because suddenly all these things like parking lots and the widths of highways change dramatically given an autonomous vehicle,” says Hodgetts. “So this is why there’s such a sense of urgency on the part of the auto companies and so much receptivity on the part of communities. To any planner it becomes very, very obvious that this is a way to reduce risk, land use, [and] congestion, with the introduction of the autonomous car.”

A growing number of UCLA engineers are examining how the autonomous vehicle will begin to blend into cities and transportation networks. Sam Coogan, an electrical engineering assistant professor, has worked with Caltrans to explore traffic-sensing devices to predict traffic patterns and control congestion through intersection signal timing. Based on these predictions, Coogan says the controllers at intersections can be algorithmically adjusted to reduce delays by upward of 10 percent. Throw in some autonomous vehicles able to communicate with each other and with the road’s embedded infrastructure, and improvements to urban mobility could be even more dramatic.

But “as more of these types of technologies enter the transportation infrastructure and get on our roads, how will they affect traffic flow patterns, how will they affect traffic behavior and, importantly, how can we influence how they affect traffic behavior?” Coogan says.

“We’re especially interested in understanding how we can do this not when there’s 100 percent autonomy on the road, but really when there’s 10 percent, 20 percent, 40 percent autonomy. That’s a difficult question,” he says. “If only every other car has autonomous capabilities, can we still come up with algorithms and ideas that will improve mobility while keeping the entire system safe?”

These are questions many engineers are asking. Ankur Mehta, an assistant professor of electrical engineering, has been modeling the potential impact of mixed autonomy in urban settings. In a forthcoming paper, Mehta and colleagues show that the addition of even a single autonomous vehicle into a string of 16 or more human-driven cars can stabilize the flow to break up or even prevent a traffic jam.

As more autonomous vehicles integrate into city traffic, their potential uses will increase. Mehta says we should start thinking about how best to take advantage of them, suggesting that Los Angeles could have a fleet of autonomous vehicles that could be deployed around the city to break up congestion or regulate traffic at dangerous intersections. “The current work established that it is possible for a small number of cars to have an effect,” Mehta says. “The next step is to create a process by which you can specify the effect you want and generate an appropriate controller.”

A Timely Topic

The appropriate controller for transportation — be it an algorithm, a transit line or a city policy — is the pursuit of all this work across the university. And UCLA aims to remain at the forefront. In December, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a $12.5-million grant to establish the Pacific Southwest Region University Transportation Center, pairing UCLA with seven other research institutions in the West, including USC, California State University, Long Beach, and UC Irvine. The funding will help support even more graduate and postgraduate transportation work at UCLA that can help answer some of the most pressing questions about urban mobility in the 21st century and translate those answers into policy — for L.A. and cities around the world.

“A hallmark of transportation work at UCLA over the decades, including going back to the ’40s and ’50s, is work that has practical application,” says Wachs. “For somebody who’s been working in transportation almost 50 years, this is one of the most exciting times to be in the field, and I think it will continue to be.”