Transit Wire: Japanese Light Rail Technology Could Be the Solution to Los Angeles' Traffic Virus

Los Angeles, the City of Angels, has a traffic problem.

Isn’t that the understatement of the year? The average American spends approximately 38 hours in traffic annually, according to Texas A&M's 2012 Annual Urban Mobility Report. Meanwhile, in 2013, the average L.A. commuter experienced 64 hours of traffic delay per year per INRIX Driving Intelligence. That’s over two and a half days of sitting bumper to bumper. L.A.’s traffic problem is the butt of jokes for late night comedians, and its clogged freeway has become a part of the city’s culture — an unwanted “to-do activity” for every unsuspecting tourist. And it always figures into any New York City vs. Los Angeles debate. (“L.A. is warm, but what about that traffic?”)

Traffic congestion in L.A. is linked to economic growth. Back in 2006, when gas prices were low and the economy was booming, L.A. commuters spent a whopping 79 hours stuck in traffic per year. Then, as people became unemployed and stayed off the roads, the traffic congestion decreased — in 2012, L.A. commuters waited 61 hours per year in traffic — three hours less than what it was a year later. Everyone wants a resurgent economy, but we don’t want the traffic that goes with it. Clearly, when economic depression is the short-term solution, the system is broken and in need of a lasting fix.

Kinkisharyo International Wants To Be the Solution

The Japanese railroad vehicle manufacturer is slated to build 175 light rail cars for LA.’s growing light rail transit lines. The company, which is responsible for the much heralded “bullet trains” in Japan, has already built light rail cars for several countries, such as the Philippines and Egypt, and has also built light rail car fleets in several U.S. cities, including Jersey City, Phoenix, Seattle and Dallas. Initially, the manufacturing plans were stalled due to a labor dispute between a workers’ union and Kinkisharyo. But now, thanks to a compromise brokered by the mayor of L.A., the project is again underway, and Kinkisharyo will create 150 new American jobs in Southern California to get the work done.

Neither as fast as a traditional metro line nor as slow as a streetcar, light rail electric technology is unusually convenient. It can either have its own dedicated “right of way,” or it can function in “mixed traffic.” L.A. has spent a great deal of money and energy on its light rail lines — a light rail line connecting Crenshaw to LAX is scheduled for completion in 2019, and a light rail connector will unite the existing light rail lines in downtown L.A. by 2020.

Why the Freeways Failed

It’s ironic, because the freeway system was supposed to alleviate traffic congestion. Back in the 1910s, the best transportation in L.A. was the Red Car streetcars. But two things happened during the Roaring Twenties that changed everything. First, the population underwent a dramatic increase, due in large part to the growing film industry. Second, the price of cars became more affordable to the average person, due to the innovation of assembly line production. More people, coupled with more cars on the road, meant that traffic congestion was indecently awful.

In the 1940s, however, city planners had an idea to build a network of freeways that connected all of the major cities in Southern California. Construction began in the 1950s, but stalled in the 1970s due to protests about rising fuel costs and the neighborhoods that would need to be bulldozed to make way for the freeways. As a result, a little over 60 percent of the originally planned freeways were built, and those roads had to shoulder the burden that the missing 40 percent ought to have accounted for.

The Rails of the Future

Now, the light rail lines plan to shoulder much of this traffic. Light rail technology, beyond reducing traffic congestion and fostering economic growth, is environmentally smart. A single light rail train, which can carry scores of people, produces 99 percent fewer harmful emissions than a single, traditional automobile does. A person’s carbon footprint decreases not in ounces, but in pounds, when they decide to take light rail transit rather than drive to work.

Additionally, as light rail lines lead to greater connectivity, the convenience will only increase. L.A. is a significant player in this new era of technology. Hopefully, if L.A. flourishes, more and more cities will consider the positive effects of light rail technology — on their traffic congestion, on their quality of air and on their city’s infrastructure.


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