Fighting smog not by reducing driving but by insisting on more efficient cars

Smog and air pollution due to vehicles is a familiar sight in many large cities. Yet, Crabgrass Crucible suggests the fight against smog in Los Angeles did not target driving itself but rather automakers:

The ban on fuel oil easily found favor among antismog activists. After all, like the steps with which smog control had begun, it mostly targeted the basin’s industrial zones. Harder to swallow in Los Angeles’s “citizen consumer” politics of this era, even for antismog activists, were solutions that might curtail the mobility associated with cars. Consonant with national trends noted by automobile historian Thomas McCarthy, there was a widespread reluctance to question orthodoxies of road building and suburban development. Even the “militant” activists at the 1954 Pasadena Assembly only went so far as a call to “electrify busses.” By the 1960s, as motor vehicles were estimated to cause nearly 55 percent of smog, there were suggestions for the development of an electric car. Yet Los Angeles smog battlers of all stripes raised surprisingly few questions about freeway building. For many years, Haagen-Smit himself argued that because fast and steady-running traffic burned gasoline more efficiently, freeways were smog remedies. So powerful and prevalent were the presumed rights of Angelenos to drive anywhere, to be propelled, lit, heated, and otherwise convenienced by fossil fuels, that public mass transit or other alternatives hardly seemed worth mentioning.

Once pollution controllers turned their sights to cars, they aimed not so much at Los Angeles roads or driving habits or developers as at the distant plants where automobiles were made. Probing back up the chain of production for smog’s roots, local regulators and politicians established a new way of acting on behalf of citizen consumers. Rather than pitting the residential suburbs of the basin against their industrial counterparts, in an inspired switch, they opened season on a far-flung industrial foe: the “motor city” of Detroit. The APCD’s confrontations with Detroit car makers had begun during the Larson era, but quietly, through exchanges of letters and visits that went little publicized. In 1958, after the nation’s chief auto makers had repeatedly shrugged off Angeleno officials’ insistence on cleaner-burning engines, the Los Angeles City Council went public with its frustration. It threw down the gauntlet: within three years, all automobiles sold within the city limits had to meet tough smog-reducing exhaust standards. Because its deadline had passed, a 1960 burst of antismog activism converged on Sacramento to push through the California Motor Vehicle Control Act. The battle was hard-fought and intense, but the state of California thereby wound up setting pollution-fighting terms for its vast car market. (232-233)

This helps put us where we are today: when the Trump administration signals interest in eliminating national MPG standards for automakers, California leads the way in fighting back.

Ultimately, this is an interesting accommodation in the environmentalist movement. Cars are significant generators of air pollution. Additionally, cars do not just produce air pollution; they require an entire infrastructure that uses a lot of resources in its own right (building and maintaining roads, trucking, using more land for development). Yet, this passage suggests that because cars and the lifestyle that goes with them are so sacred, particularly in a region heavily dependent on mobility by individual cars, the best solution is to look for a car that pollutes less. This leaves many communities and regions in the United States waiting for a more efficient car rather than expending energy and resources toward reducing car use overall. And the problem may just keep going if self-driving cars actually lengthen commutes.

Explaining why traffic deaths are up 46% since 2009

In 2016, 5,987 American pedestrians were killed. Why so many?

Distraction behind the wheel, texting while walking and even marijuana legalization have all been tagged as potential culprits in past research.

In addition, a new study released Tuesday by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows an 81% increase in single-vehicle pedestrian fatalities involving SUVs between 2009 and 2016, based on federal records…

The USA Today Network is investigating the phenomenon of rising pedestrian fatalities, an urban problem primarily plaguing either cities with high poverty rates or warm-weather spots such as Florida and Arizona. Our analysis so far has found that African Americans are killed at a disproportionate rate compared with their population nationwide.

Nationally, more pedestrians die in collisions when they are jaywalking along busy arterial roads. More of those fatalities also occur at night and involve males. Many of these crashes also involve alcohol, though federal safety researchers say that does not explain the increase. In 2016, pedestrians accounted for 16% of traffic deaths; in 2007, that figure was just 11%, according to NHTSA.

I am a little surprised to see that increased driving is not cited here. While driving dipped during the economic crisis, it is up to record levels in recent years.

While the emphasis here is on the upward trend in recent years, the numbers overall are a reminder of the consequences of such a strong emphasis on driving in American society. Roadways are built primarily for cars. Even when there is infrastructure for pedestrians and other non motor vehicles, it can be daunting to not be a car. Countering this could require extensive marketing campaigns; this article discusses efforts in several large cities. But, a significant change in favor of non-vehicles would truly require not just publicity but redesign and the reshaping of lifestyles.

 

When sidewalks and paths are in bad shape

I was reminded by seeing Blair Kamin’s complaints about a path at Northerly Island in Chicago that the condition of sidewalks and paths can matter a lot for those who want to use them. A few thoughts about my experiences with local sidewalks and paths:

  1. On one hand, I grew up near and am still located near a tremendous bike path system: the Prairie Path. Originally an electric interurban line that closed for good in the late 1950s, local residents and officials started converting it into a recreational asset in the 1960s. The path is generally wide, covers dozens of miles with connections of other trails, and offers access to a number of communities and parks. On the other hand, riding a bike on the path can be frustrating at times, particularly in sections with more roads and tracks that need to be crossed (and there are other parts where one can ride much longer without interruption) as well as more pedestrians who are less speedy and often take up more of the path. Additionally, the path offers access between communities but one can often be stuck with limited options with roadways and sidewalks as soon as they leave the path.
  2. Nearly all suburban roads are built for cars. People like to drive fast. Not all roads, particularly in older parts of town, offer adequate space for pedestrians or bikes. Many drivers do not look for bikes or pedestrians.
  3. Sidewalks are sometimes present and sometimes not. I know this is often dependent on the regulations when the road was built but it can be confusing how sidewalks suddenly appear and disappear.
  4. Sidewalks that do exist are often in various states of repair. Some are really narrow. Cracks are common as are different angles and difficult ramps on and off streets. This may be something I am more aware of because I have a road bike that can be harmed by these imperfections as well as young children who can more easily trip on uneven surfaces. Hence, I would almost always rather ride in the road because the condition of the street is usually much better than the sidewalk.

In other words, life for non-vehicles in the suburbs can be difficult, particularly when the infrastructure provided for them is less than ideal. I get it; the suburbs are about cars. At the same time, without adequate opportunities for walking and biking, people will likely simply not try them as much. And this likely continues to fuel a car-driving, suburban society.

(If one wanted to go further, the New Urbanists place a lot of emphasis on street life and allowing residents to get to important places within a reasonable walk. They are usually referring to mixed-use neighborhoods where people are consistently on the sidewalks. Some newer subdivisions are full of walking and bike paths, though these may have few connections to anything outside the neighborhood. In other words, there are some people arguing sidewalks and paths are important – particularly those interested in vibrant street life or interested in boosting property values – but this has not trickled down to all suburban places.)

Supercommuters up 15.4%, or 0.4 million, between 2005 and 2016

A small and rising number of Americans commute more than ninety minutes a day:

While super commuters still represent a small share of the overall workforce, their long commutes have become increasingly common over the past decade. In 2005, there were about 3.1 million super commuters, roughly 2.4 percent of all commuters. By 2016, that share had increased by 15.9 percent to 2.8 percent of all commuters, or about 4 million workers. In some parts of the country the problem is much worse; in Stockton, where James lives, 10 percent of commuters travel more than 90 minutes to work each day.

The rising number of super commuters underscores a general trend towards longer commutes. The share of commuters traveling 24 minutes or less to work each day has decreased to 55 percent of all commuters in 2016 from 59 percent in 2005. Meanwhile, the share of commuters traveling 25 minutes or more has increased to 45 percent in 2016, compared to 41 percent in 2005. The share of commuters traveling an hour or more to work each day increased 16.1 percent to 9.2 percent in 2016 from 7.9 percent in 2005.

I understand that this article is geared around showing differences in commuting over time. And the data can back that up: supercommuting is up and more Americans have longer commutes.

At the same time, this may be overselling the data:

  1. The changes over 11 years are relatively small. The article talks about percentage changes but the absolute numbers are small. This is the difference between supercommuting is up 15% versus saying it is up 0.4 million.
  2. Given that this data is based on samples of the US population, is a 4% change statistically significant? Is an increase from 2.4 million supercommuters to 2.8 supercommuters substantively significant?
  3. What are the trends between 2005 and 2016? Both of these measurement points are with a more robust economy. Driving was down after the housing bubble burst – was supercommuting affected by this? Is the trend line steady in an upward direction over the last 11 years or is it up and down?

From a broader view, this is not that much change. (There may still be shock value in reminding the public that 2.8% of all commuters are really willing to go far each day.)

Pneumatic road tubes to count traffic, check speed

Here are the secrets of “those weird black tubes in the road”:

Here’s a good description of the actual operation of the tube setup from the U.S. Department of Transportation:

“Pneumatic road tube sensors send a burst of air pressure along a rubber tube when a vehicle’s tires pass over the tube. The pressure pulse closes an air switch, producing an electrical signal that is transmitted to a counter or analysis software. The pneumatic road tube sensor is portable, using lead-acid, gel, or other rechargeable batteries as a power source.”…

A single pneumatic road tube is most commonly used to simply count the number of cars on the road, as well as time the gaps between individual vehicles.

If two pneumatic road tubes are set up spaced slightly apart, the counter can track the number of axles a vehicle has to better determine each individual vehicle’s class, the direction of traffic and the speed at which vehicles are moving.

A relatively simple device to figure out how many vehicles are on the road. These traffic counts are then very helpful for additional decisions like traffic control, widening or adding to roads, and even thinking about new roadways.

What routes would Waze recommend that drivers would turn down?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by a 32% grade Los Angeles street to which Waze routes drivers:

But residents along Baxter Street in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood—reportedly one of the steepest streets in America (comprising two major hills)—are now banding together to try to change local traffic patterns. Neighbors have contacted city officials and Waze’s parent company, Google, to try to mitigate the problem…

The street, which dates back to 1872, has a 32-percent grade—more than double what current city law allows for today.

In 2003, the Times described the street this way: “Unsuspecting motorists gasp when they reach the crest and discover the roadway in front of them has dropped out of sight and there is nothing but empty space in front of their car’s hood.”

A decade later, Los Angeles magazine noted:

Baxter later became a proving ground for automobiles, as manufacturers staged elaborate stunts to demonstrate their vehicles’ power. In one such event in 1916, a four-wheel-drive truck loaded with 4,300 pounds of baled hay groaned its way up the grade, pausing twice for newspaper cameras. Nearly 100 years later, Baxter Street continues to bewilder uncertain drivers and confound elongated vehicles.

The appeal of apps like Waze is that drivers can avoid traffic by taking lesser-known routes. While residents may not like this, the more interesting question is how far drivers would let Waze take them. The apocryphal stories of drivers turning into lakes may make more sense when the story begins with a driver frustrated with the ridiculous or unpredictable traffic in many major American metropolitan areas. Would they drive through standing water? (The regular stories of drivers getting stuck on flooded roads suggest yes.) Would they be willing to go off pavement? Would they navigate through extremely tight places? Take a road with a severe and unblocked drop-off? Are there as willing to go through higher-crime areas? Apparently, a 32% grade is not enough so perhaps 40% would be too much?

I know this would not help Waze’s cause but I could imagine the company issuing some sort of award or recognition to users who are most willing to do something unusual to get around traffic.

Forget smart cars; we should at least have smart traffic lights everywhere

Getting to the point where most or all American drivers have safe and reliable driverless cars will take time. In the meantime, why don’t we have smart traffic lights or at least every traffic light operating with sensors?

There are several intersections near my house and work that clearly do not have sensors. You pull up in your vehicle and regardless of time of day or how many others want to go the same way as you do, you will wait a full light cycle. Some of these lights are one to one and a half minutes long. Sometimes this makes sense: one road clearly has more cars. Yet, often this full period passes with few to no cars going through the light.

But, let’s go further. I’ve also run into situations where the sensors might just be too sensitive. This occurs particularly between 9 PM and 5 AM when traffic is light on major roads. A single vehicle wanting to turn onto the major road can stop traffic. If you have a few of these on a single trip, this can be frustrating. Why not have coordinated light signals along major corridors? Cities and suburbs do not necessarily have to go to full-blown smart systems that hope to coordinate all traffic; even just doing this on a few main roads with significant amounts of traffic could help ease congestion.

Perhaps one issue is cost: what municipalities or other governments (depending on who has jurisdiction over the road) want to spend money on sensors and devices? One of the supposed benefits of driverless cars is that they will allow for more flowing traffic through coordination across vehicles. However, in that scenario the cost of less congestion is pushed to the car owners who have to purchase such a vehicle. Sensors at major intersections or at all intersections would not require anything or much from drivers. Yet, I bet you could make an argument that putting money into better intersections will be a cost savings in the long run with less time spent in traffic.