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Synthesis/Regeneration 44   (Fall 2007)

Energy Reduction in Los Angeles

by Nikki Ervin

Energy Reduction in Los Angeles by Nikki Ervin

The “if you build it they will come” mentality of Field of Dreams may work for attracting the souls of lost baseball players, but trying to get L.A. residents to leave their cars at home and use new streamlined and comprehensive mass public transit may prove a to be another ball game entirely. Without a radical change in the way citizens of Los Angeles consume transportation energy, current traffic congestion, visible smog, environmental degradation, and resource depletion will only increase.

Although it may seem rash to propose an 80% reduction in energy for the greater Los Angeles area it is a severely needed initiative.

Current estimates show that automobiles and trucks account for about 45% of the anthropogenic VOCs (volatile organic compounds), 50% of the NOx (oxides of nitrogen), and 90% of the CO (carbon monoxide)…in the ozone...by far the largest category of emissions, and recent studies indicate that these estimates could be low for VOCs and CO. [1]

In order to effectively reduce the massive pollution taking place as a result of daily car commutes in the city of L.A. it is necessary to take an integrated approach to not only reduce emissions in the present, but to further create viable and sustainable alternatives to the current nightmare that supplies Los Angeles and surrounding residents with transportation to and from work each day.

It will be necessary to first create and implement policy initiatives that curb auto traffic and highway ridership in general. This must then be followed by an intense focus on government subsidization and building of more extensive light rail systems and bus rapid transit lines. Additionally, it is essential to create incentives for commuters to choose public transit in place of individual auto transport for this system to be practical and sustainable both environmentally and economically.

The greatest challenge is found in passing policy initiatives that will restrict the use of automobiles in the vicinity of downtown Los Angeles, also known as city center or the financial district. This would be the essential equivalent to restricting all automobiles traveling in the city limits of Washington, D.C., closing the city off entirely to cars and forcing individuals to suffice through alternative means of mass transit, walking, and biking. By restricting automobile traffic in the 10 square mile area of downtown L.A., daily traffic congestion will be greatly alleviated.

Downtown Los Angeles is the major focus of daily commutes for residents of the 65 square mile area of greater L.A. city and the 100 square mile area of Los Angeles County. Of all daily commuter traffic it is estimated that 42% ends in the downtown area, and also resumes during peak p.m. rush hour times out of the city center. By restricting all commuter traffic into the city itself there will be a massive reduction in traffic and auto emissions, not to mention the opportunity to remove many inner city freeways currently clogging up the area. The outer lying freeways will remain for thru-traffic traveling North and South through California on the 5 Freeway and the Pacific Costal Highway, also known as PCH 1.

By restricting all commuter traffic into the city itself there will be a massive reduction in traffic and auto emissions …

Los Angeles and Orange County combined currently have only 62 operating metro stops throughout the entirety of the two counties and another 13 stations currently under construction with a projected completion date in late 2009. In the city of Washington D.C., and immediate surrounding area, there are currently 88 metro stations in full operation in addition to over 300 separate busing routes between the D.C. metro area, Prince Georges and Montgomery counties in Maryland, and Fairfax, Arlington, and Alexandria counties, which is further supplemented by an extensive commuter rail line for less accessible areas.

It would be necessary to build an integrated network of light rail systems and rapid bus transit lines connecting the current metro system. Though there will be energy consumption and financial resources needed to build both the light rail and rapid bus systems, the cost of manufacturing in both real terms and environmental costs pales in comparison to the $258 million dollars currently used to build one-mile of underground metro rail. The underground metro rail system currently advocated by a great majority of people has inherent flaws that negate it both in financial practicality and environmental sustainability. Additionally, the true costs associated with metro rail systems are not fully realized due to the level of subsides enjoyed by metro rail in comparison to bus rapid transit and light rail systems.

The L.A. bus system alone has a estimated daily rider ship of 350,000 and the individual subsidy per passenger is approximately $0.33 to $1.17. In contrast the heavy rail system in L.A. has a daily rider ship of 26,000 people and is currently subsidized anywhere from $5.00 to $25.00 per individual rider. Additionally, a further subsidy on security for rail systems is approximately 104% higher than security subsidies per individual bus rider. [2]

For these systems to be functional and beneficial to the millions of Los Angelenos who would have to leave their cars at home, it is imperative that the expanded bus and light rail routes operate highly efficiently. Instead of bus stops every one or two blocks, stops on the rapid bus system will need to be placed at 1-mile intervals. Ultimately, this would place external costs on individual commuters required to walk the additional ½ mile or less to the next bus stop.

The incentives to not only conserve extremely large quantities of fuel, but decrease carbon emission is significant. “The National Transportation Board predicts that delays caused by congestion will increase by 5.6 billion hours in the period between 1995 and 2015, wasting an unnecessary 7.3 billion gallons of fuel.” [3] In terms of relative benefits enjoyed not only by the individual once congestion and pollution have been reduced, but also by all L.A. residents and commuters, the costs of walking the extra distance are far outweighed in real terms by the benefits enjoyed on the whole.

While it is necessary to focus a great deal on public transit within the city limits, it is just as important to create incentives for people to leave their cars at home. It is necessary to not only increase metro stops in the outlying areas of L.A., but also give preference to rapid bus transit and light rail systems operating on or in the same traffic patterns of auto commuters.

By designating at least two of the left hand lanes for buses only, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority can increase the speed at which they can operate bus rapid transit and light rail systems from suburb residences to downtown offices. Though L.A. already has this system operating on its Orange bus line, no further progress has been achieved on similar systems since October of 2005 and in comparative terms this is extremely limited with respect to the size of Los Angeles.

The good news about public transit is dimmed by the fact that, since 1960, the US population has grown more than 50% and urban driving has increased by a whopping 420%. Despite the doubling of US jobs since 1960, the number of commuters riding transit to work fell from 7.8 million in 1960 to 6.1 million in 2000. Further, from 1993 until 2000, growth in automobile and passenger transit on the highways of L.A. grew by 15,153,032 miles. Ridership on public transit systems for passenger travel in L.A. only increased by 352,793 miles from 1993 to 2000. [4]

Many incentives for traveling on L.A. public transit are already built into the current system. However the lack of ridership is attributed not to the inefficiency of the facilities, but rather to the lack of transfer ability for riders. The Orange Line rapid bus system operates in such a way that when a bus approaches a light it turns green and all other traffic stops. This must be used comprehensively and applied to all areas downtown and the greater city of Los Angeles if an effort to block auto users from luxury and create incentives for them to travel via mass transit is plausible.

… when a bus approaches a light it turns green and all other traffic stops.

In the interest of financing, it is necessary that a major lobbying effort aimed at decreasing auto subsidies be instituted if any real change is to be made. The auto industry and the airline industry are two of the most heavily government subsidized industries in the United States. “Highways receive $33 billion a year in federal funds, airports $14 billion, and Amtrak less than $400 million. In historic terms gas is still cheap, reflecting neither the Pentagon expenditures needed to maintain foreign oil supplies nor the health damage it causes.” [5]

Public transit needs to become a priority and government subsidies to mass transportation must outstrip auto subsidies if this program is to be feasible and sustainable over the long term. Currently the cost to an individual driver for each car passenger mile traveled is around 40–50 cents. The true cost is some 17 cents higher, thanks to pollution and congestion, the costs of which are borne by everybody. Without proper subsidization of the mass transit system fares will skyrocket and individuals who are absolutely reliant on public transit will no longer be able to get to and from work.

Though it will take time in order to remove cars entirely from the downtown L.A. area, it may not be as far in the future as some think. Simply by introducing 2,000 new buses to the fleet and immediately initiating building of a light rail connector system throughout the city and surrounding areas, energy used in transportation will decrease drastically. Without a change in the composition of Los Angeles’ transport system, levels of pollution from cars will only continue to increase as commute times consistently rise and the automobile lobby continues to knock down fuel efficiency standards.

By blocking downtown Los Angeles to automobile traffic, integrating the public transit system, adding light rail and rapid bus transit lines, increasing public transit subsidies and lowering speed limits for cars on the highways, the economic and environmental benefits achieved will soon far outweigh the costs. Without an intense focus on L.A., easily the country’s largest auto emissions producer per capita, the environmental crisis facing Los Angeles will continue to escalate, causing illness, environmental degradation, and excessively long commutes, not to mention noise pollution and road rage-induced homicides. Despite the best efforts of the automotive lobby, we’ve got to forget about driving over our problems and apply new solutions.

Nikki Ervin is a master's candidate at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, studying environmental health and infectious disease.


1. http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=1889&page=379

2. Mann, Eric. A New Vision For Urban Transportation. Strategy Center Publications. Los Angeles. 1996.

3. http://www.emagazine.com/view/?534

4. http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=1085

5. http://www.commondreams.org/views01/0731-08.htm

Other Sources

Barnes, Robert. High court faults EPA inaction on emissions. Washingtonpost.com. 4/3/07.

Bus tussle. The Economist. Vol. 359 Issue 8220, 24–25.

Digests of Environmental Impact Statements. EPA #050426, 1, 171.

Down with cars. The Economist. Vol. 325, Issue 7783, 26–27.

Fitz, Don. The real costs of transportation. Synthesis/Regeneration 43. Spring 2007.

Wood, Daniel B. Urban buses host a struggle for equity. Christian Science Monitor. Vol. 89 Issue 164, 4.

Swope, Christopher. It’s not rail light. Planning. May 2006.

Tharp, M. California’s Bus Rush. U.S. New & World Report. Vol. 109 Issue 4, 51.




[2 jan 08]

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