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The Future Los Angeles Is Filled With Self-Driving Minibuses That Arrive At Your Doorstep

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(Photo by Shawn Park via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
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Every 50 years or so, Los Angeles sheds a layer of skin and becomes virtually unrecognizable to those who lived here before. Those (few) people who lived here in the rancho-town of 1850 would not recognize the sprawling, street-car dependent metropolis that appeared by 1900. Those here in 1900 would hardly know what to make of the enormous freeways that were beginning to crisscross the Southland by 1950. As a corollary, the postwar baby boomers who grew up in the sprawling, single-family home suburbs of the mid 20th century have a hard time recognizing the transit dependent, pedestrian friendly version of the city that's becoming increasingly prescient today.

But this new version of L.A. is just getting started. As our friends at Curbed LA report, the Mayor's office has been hard at work drafting up a blueprint for the city's future. The idea follows that, in the coming decades, Los Angeles will, once again, radically reinvent itself into a city where people get around not in personal cars trapped on clogged arterial roadways, but in smoothly flowing, computer controlled vehicles that make both traffic and personal vehicular ownership a thing of the past. Because Angelenos will no longer own personal vehicles, the oodles of land and space we currently devote to parking will be repurposed for more practical needs like, for example, housing and food production.

This vision is provided for us by a report entitled simply "Urban Mobility in a Digital Age." Authored by a woman named Ashley Hand, the plan is the result of a one-year fellowship with the L.A. Department of Transportation. For those of us who hope to one day live in a Los Angeles known for its efficient public transportation and innovative use of urban space, Hand's report is a breath of fresh air.

Instead of clambering into your car (getting on a bus) each morning, driving (riding) an inordinate amount of time through rush-hour traffic to get to work, getting to work in the future will, according to the report, rely on a mix of both mass and "micro" transit. Where mass transit in 2016 relies on large vehicles able to move lots of people at once, micro transit focuses upon moving a smaller number of people much closer to their exact destinations.

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Microtransit, as the report underscores, would work very similarly to how ride-hailing services like Lyft and Uber work today. A few minutes before your departure, you'd input your destination into an app. A few minutes later (you are supplied with an exact ETA), an autonomous minibus capable of carrying 10 passengers arrives at your doorstep. After you board, the minibus picks up a couple more passengers, all headed to same general area as you, before the minibus pilots itself onto the congestion-free freeway. The freeway, filled predominantly with other minibuses, flows much faster than it did during 2016, and your time spent on the road is halved. After exiting, the minibus drops passengers off in the most efficient route, again, without traffic. If you'd rather ride alone, you have the option of paying a higher fare for a single-person vehicle. If one of the many new rail lines passes within a short walk of where you work, you'll be transported from your doorstep right to the train station's entrance.

The enormous question, however, is the development of the physical and legal infrastructure necessary to make such a vision of Los Angeles possible. While everything in the report undoubtedly technically feasible (or will be soon), it's hardly a secret that there is an intensely vocal (and litigious) constituency that is hell-bent on ensuring that Los Angeles remains just the way it is. Ballot initiatives like the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative threaten to, at least for a little while, stall progress toward a denser, less car-oriented Los Angeles.

At the same time, curmudgeonly city, county and state regulation from the past makes the development of new infrastructure intensely challenging. Locally, we're looking at a paradigmatic shift in how cities approach development. Most of the standards (zoning) guiding how we build in Southern California in 2016 were solidified more than 40 years ago, when the predominant style of construction was still single-family homes on the metropolitan area's outskirts (like Sherman Oaks!). L.A. is working on this stuff right now, and actually is in the process of hiring 28 new city planners for just this task. But, of course, this takes time. The story is the same at the state level, where other legislation passed decades ago still governs how we build our cities today.

A lot of this stuff has to be worked out by local governments. While that might not sound encouraging, the people there are actually usually pretty forward facing! Metro's Measure M and Los Angeles Mobility Plan 2035 establish a very real framework for this future to become reality. A 'Yes' vote on Measure M will only make it come faster.