“Worst Practices”. Los Angeles on the rocks

It’s a fine thing of course to know about “best practices” in our troubled sector, and there are quite a number of programs and sources in various corners of the world that are busy assembling these and making them available in various databases. That is excellent. But we decided that World Streets can make a useful contribution if we take all this from the other end — and launch a series of collaborative “worst practice” (or possibly just “bad practice”) profiles, illustrating different ways to get it very wrong.

This is not necessarily a comfortable thing to do, even for us, but it is very definitely an important one because we have had over the last two decades (at a time when we rally should have known better) so many inappropriate, badly chosen, poorly implemented and unnecessarily costly projects funded with hard-earned taxpayer dollars, which have in many cases not only done little or nothing but whose net impact turns out to be that create a situation that was worse than simple non-action would have brought about. (Note: Doing nothing is a policy, and it is very often not the worst one.)

So with a tip of the sombrero to George Santayana who almost wrote: “Those who fail to learn history (no matter how painful) are doomed to repeat it”, here is fine example of what can only be called a “worst practice” scenario that appeared on Friday in the pages of Mother Jones on the topic . . .

Carmageddon: LA’s Billion-Dollar Car-Pool Lane

— By Kevin Drum, Mother Jones. Original article here.

Midnight tonight marks the beginning of Carmageddon in Los Angeles: For two days and five hours, Interstate 405 between I-10 and US 101 will be completely shut down. Since the 405—and yes, we always use “the” in front of our freeway numbers in Southern California—is the main artery between Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, everyone expects total chaos as drivers jam up every available alternate route into the city (and into LAX, which is, inconveniently, located right on the 405). City and transit officials are treating this about the same way they’d treat a tsunami warning, telling residents in increasingly apocalyptic tones to either leave town or else just stay inside for the duration. Their message, broadcast across every medium known to science for the past two months, is pretty simple: Don’t even think about taking your car anywhere if you live within a 30-mile radius of the construction.

So what’s the reason for this mind-boggling closure? Answer: Caltrans is adding a 10-mile northbound car-pool lane to the freeway. The Los Angeles Times‘ architecture critic, Christopher Hawthorne, has some questions about this:

To begin with: Is widening the 405 (to add one solitary carpool lane on the freeway’s northbound side) really something that we should be spending $1 billion on? Will it actually make traffic through the pass better? And if so, for how long?

After all, study after study has shown the ineffectiveness of this approach. As soon as you open up new lanes, drivers adjust: A few more decide to take the newly widened route each day, and before long the congestion is just as bad as before.

In this case, because an HOV lane is being added, some of the change in behavior will be virtuous, turning drivers into passengers. It’s still tough to think of a less cost-efficient way to spend a billion dollars of public money.

Actually, it might be even worse than Hawthorne thinks. For the past two decades Los Angeles has gone on a binge of increasingly expensive car-pool construction, but the benefits of these new lanes are surprisingly equivocal. The lanes are always additions to freeways (no previously existing lane has been converted for car-pool use since the Santa Monica diamond lane debacle of 1976, which set back car-pool lanes by a decade), so they always ease traffic for a while. But as Hawthorne points out, the phenomenon of “traffic generation” has been known for decades. More lanes just attract more drivers and more congestion.

What’s more, although it’s true that car-pool lanes carry more passengers than general purpose lanes, this is a meaningless statistic. If all of a freeway’s existing car-pools move into a newly constructed HOV lane, all you’ve done is juggle the traffic around. In fact, since HOV lanes generally have lower capacities than multiuse lanes (thanks to the “snail” effect, which is exactly what it sounds like), you actually lose some overall traffic capacity.

But here’s the worst news. What we really want to know is how many drivers are motivated by HOV lanes to form new car pools. Surprisingly, though, considering the thousands of miles of HOV lanes constructed in the United States over the past two decades, this is a hard number to get a handle on. There have been a few studies of new car-pool formation, however, and here’s one of them from Caltrans showing the number of car pools on LA freeways over the past 20 years:

The good news is that HOV lane construction during the ’90s appears to have genuinely spurred more carpooling. True, adding 25,000 new car pools doesn’t seem like much for a region the size of the LA basin with hundreds of miles of freeways, but at least it’s measurable progress. The bad news is that despite the billions of dollars spent since then, new car-pool formation during the past decade has been…zero. All that money seems to have had no effect on car-pool behavior at all. Nor is this limited just to Los Angeles. Pravin Varaiya of the University of California’s PATH program came to the same conclusion for the Bay Area’s HOV lanes in a 2007 study. Over both the near and long term, the shorter commute times of HOV lanes apparently has almost no effect on the willingness of drivers to form car pools. What’s more, census data suggests this is a nationwide phenomenon. “Over time the attraction of HOV travel appears to be weakening,” Varaiya concludes.

None of this should be taken as a definitive takedown of car-pool lanes. The data on their effectiveness is murky, to say the least, and a lot depends on where the lanes are built and how well they support bus traffic. But that murkiness is surprising all by itself considering the HOV spree the country has been on over the past two decades. Even after 20 years of nonstop construction, we still don’t really know how effective HOV lanes are at promoting car pools.

For Angelenos, however, the news is almost certainly bad. For starters, the I-405 shutdown is going to produce two rounds of chaos (the second one coming at the end of the project). And the project is sucking up a billion dollars that could almost certainly be used more efficiently on other transit projects. But that’s the least of it. If Caltrans’ own chart is to be believed, LA’s willingness to carpool was saturated over a decade ago. Adding another billion dollars in new HOV lanes won’t produce even a single new car pool. Now that’s Carmageddon.

- Click here for  Mother Jones video.

# # #

About the author:

The inventor of Friday catblogging, Kevin Drum was a blogosphere pioneer when, after a stint in marketing, he went online as Calpundit in 2003. Prior to joining MoJo, he blogged at the Washington Monthly‘s Political Animal. He lives with his wife and two cats in Irvine. You can follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/#!/kdrum
Editor’s note:

In this new and we think important Worst Practices series reporting on a selection of projects and government initiatives which in our view truly deserve close attention, it is my guess that we shall on more than one occasion be reproducing articles which are the result of the work of a new generation of careful and qualified investigative reporters working for the most part in the print media.  This is a very happy situation which has resulted from decisions in recent years on the part of a growing number of journals and media to exercise a more aggressive, independent public interest investigative function.  This is great news for democracy.

In all cases the sources of each of these articles will be meticulously reported and direct one-click links will be made available to our readers so that they can go to the original.  In any event our position on Fair Use has from the very beginning of the publication been spelled out for readers at http://worldstreets.wordpress.com/editorial-team/fair-use/.


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5 responses to ““Worst Practices”. Los Angeles on the rocks

  1. Broadcasting bad examples is fine just as long as people are offered a solution to the same problem. It would be perfect to have a print or electronic publication with e.g. facing pages: on the left “What not to do” and on the right “What to do” or “Consider this instead!!”.

    A colleague and I joke about the “Everything is Good Committee!” which – at least publicly – never criticizes a project or always overstates/oversells the benefits of something. This Committee needs to be disbanded.

    More specifically, in Berlin (and many, many other cities) a lot of pedestrian space has become ped/bike space. Actually on my street the gardens became walking space, the walking space became bike space and the bike space cannot be salted in the winter, in order to protect the trees next to them which they drain into. This is nice for trees but not for cycling; the problem is that the bike space is in the wrong place. But the right place is the car space below the trees, but the automobile lobby does not want to lose face.

  2. Randall Ghent

    Good article, but it assumes that Caltrans cares whether the project is effective in reducing congestion, or whether it’s cost-effective for that matter. So in a way it gives Caltrans too much credit. I suspect they just want to spend as much money as possible on construction, to justify their own existence.

  3. It could be that the failure of HOV lanes to increase carpooling is due to a failure to offer simpler systems for forming carpools. The example of the Casual Carpooling in San Francisco shows that significant benefits can be had. We calculated the benefits at http://www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/4/1/126/. The casual carpools produce several thousand THREE person carpools every morning. In recent times these have even involved riders paying a contribution to the cost of the tolls incurred driving over the Bay Bridge.

  4. I received a fair number of communications both on and off-line and I find them interesting, challenging, and generally very encouraging. But at the same time I am made aware of the fact that I have most probably not communicated the basic goal behind this project, so let me see if I can now clarify a bit.

    For starters, this is not a witch hunt. It is not my interest to castigate or humiliate any project or group behind it. Life is complex and filled with all kinds of internal contradictions, and moreover the kinds of projects and policies that concern us here tend to be in process, in constant evolution and adaptation, until that is the day comes in which they close down forever. That of course is the time to do a postmortem. But in our particular case here is my guess that we will be sharing information on projects in process, so let us make sure that we (that I) do not give up on possible adaptations and improvements that may well be in process, hopefully.

    And if the usual ambitious goal of Best Practices surveys and inventories is to get out there and capture quite a large number of attractive and instructive projects, it is not at all the case in our own modest Worst Practices mini project. What I am looking for is one or two handfuls of outstanding from examples which we can learn. Yesterday’s article in World Streets on the Los Angeles Interstate 405 road widening project is a good case in point. Let us take a minute to have a look at it together:

    Exemplary Strong points: (Always a good place to start since our goal is to see if we can have a balanced understanding of what is going on and what may have gone wrong.)

    • Caltrans and the other players involved in this project are extremely good at what they do.
    • Not only are they world level performers when it comes to creating the planning and engineering standards to make a project like this work, but they also, in partnership with other players, consistently manage to do a fine job of bringing their projects in to standard and on time.
    • For those of us familiar with driving in LA, we can testify on an almost daily basis the manner in which the road crews get their job done, often within minutes of the plan and clean up the mess so that the traffic can start to roll. (“The cones are up.”)

    Exemplary weak points and commentary:

    1. Oh dear. It is after all 2011 and if we have learned one thing about sustainable and on sustainable transportation over the last decades, it is that any project which extends the capacity of the infrastructure to carry yet more moving motor vehicles in or around cities is a definite Worst Practice strategy.

    2. The concept of creating HOV lanes in the place of what went before is in theory an excellent one, but in practice is often watered down and abused in a number of ways. (Maybe somebody can explain to me in a convincing manner why electric vehicles or hybrid vehicles should be allowed with a single passenger on to HOV, and while I am ready to listen and whether you can pull a rabbit out of a hat that I have ever seen, I most doubtful that you will convince me or any other experienced independent observer.)

    3. The articles’ authors commentary concerning the limitations of carpooling as presently practiced in the region is, according to my best information, right on target. Does this mean, however, that HOV lanes are not part of the solution? Not at all! But what it does mean is that the old ideas about how to do this need to be brought up to date. So, if we were to think about it from this perspective, here we have a situation in which there is what looks like a potentially excellent hardware solution (i.e., converting portions of the existing road infrastructure to HOV lanes) needs to have better complementarity in terms of software and operations.

    4. So, to summarize, they failed to do the whole job. We have at the base of this project a good idea, well executed on the hardware side — other than the fact that the project team made the old and now well known error of actually increasing infrastructure capacity for cars — while for the rest they simply fail to give attention to the most important part of all — i.e., how to get more people into fewer cars with improved mobility and improved quality of life. Basically they were taking an old mobility approach to a problem/opportunity that required new mobility strategic thinking.

    That is my take on this as an example of the sort of thing that I would like to see in our modest shared Worst Practices inventory and commentary. I am sure that a number of you will come in and do more and better, at least I hope so. But my reason for sharing this with you this morning is that I wish to offer this is an example of the kind of project analysis and commentary that I believe can help us to better organize our ideas and be better prepared for future initiatives and opportunities.

    I look forward to hearing from you either personally or here with your views, objections, and eventually your ideas and suggestions on the basic concept here namely , that of setting out to create a collaborative, open, independent Worst Practices inventory and commentary.

    Kind regards/Eric Britton

  5. Ann Hackett

    Hi Eric,

    Regulations that prohibit shared taxis are an example of worst practices.

    Ann

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