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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Emptying the Freeways of LA

We've been out visiting our daughter in LA for the weekend.  LA's traffic problem is notorious but I still couldn't get over the sea of cars that were clogging the freeways, even when it wasn't rush-hour.  There are simply too many cars and not enough space.  Every one of these vehicles is consuming fossil fuel and emitting gases to the atmosphere.  The thing about LA is the sheer number of cars that are on the road. There has to be a better way.

I am doubtful that I will live long enough to see people voluntarily give up their automobiles.  But that doesn't mean that solutions to the fuel and emission problems aren't possible.  The new government-mandated fuel economy standards will help.  So will the expansion of hybrids and the introduction of plug-in hybrids.  But something more will still need to be done.

I was envisioning a transit system for cities like LA that would be the equivalent of light-rail for cars.  Small, all-electric commuting vehicles would be quickly driven onto commuter trains that would carry the cars 30 to 50 miles across a major metro area like LA.  The commuter vehicles would then be driven off and be used for local driving within, say, a 30 mile radius of the station.  If a rail-car system was specifically designed for this kind of commuter network, it might be possible to get a large number of cars off the freeways for longer commutes. In Switzerland, car-trains routinely take people through long tunnels under the Alps while the passengers remain in their cars. Why not across town?

While local governments might make some headway in encouraging people to carpool or take the bus, most people are highly resistant to giving up the freedom that comes from a personal vehicle.   Something like a car-train might just overcome some of the resistance.  Given that California is broke, this might also be an opportunity for a private company to create such a system.  Perhaps one of the auto companies might want to rethink its strategy and go beyond simply developing hybrids and expand into a different kind of transportation business.  The idea of private enterprise developing the networks is not so far-fetched.  Virtually all of the railroads that were built in the nineteenth century (with the exception of the transcontinental lines) were built by private investment.  And at one point, railroads carried 98 percent of all inter-city traffic, so the effect of private transportation networks was huge.  It's at least something to think about. It is certain we can't keep going the way we have in the last fifty years.  How about a little innovation (or maybe a lot of innovation)?

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