Business analyst Mark Lacter joins KPCC once a week for an in-depth look at economic issues in Southern California.
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Freeways in Los Angeles still the most congested in the nation

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Yesterday may have been a holiday on paper, but if you were navigating LA's major freeways, there was no sign people had the day off.

Steve Julian: Business analyst Mark Lacter, is this more evidence that Southern California traffic getting worse?

Mark Lacter: Steve, L.A. continues to be the most clogged-up city in the U.S. - according to something called the TomTom Traffic Index - with commuters caught up in delays, on average, 35 percent of the time.  Or, to put it another way, L.A. commuters are in congestion up to 40 minutes of each hour they're driving.  The worst time of the week to commute is Thursday night; that's when there's congestion more than 80 percent of the time.  Monday morning commutes are the lightest.

Julian: After L.A., where should you not live if congestion bugs you?

Lacter: The next worst cities in the U.S. are San Francisco, Honolulu, Seattle, and San Jose.  Now, the Census Bureau comes up with its own commuting surveys, and if you compare the most recent numbers with those back in 2000, you'll see that things aren't all that different.  Matter of fact, the percentage of commuters driving alone to work actually increased a little over the last decade to 72 percent, while the percentage of those carpooling has declined.

Julian: What about public transit?

Lacter: Well, the numbers are up slightly from 2000, but only to 7.3 percent of all commuters.  So, even assuming that the number inches up in the next couple of years when the Expo Line extends into Santa Monica, it's still a smallish piece of the pie.  And, since many of the other public transit projects being planned are decades away from being completed, those numbers might not change much.  One other thing, Steve: less than 1 percent of all L.A. commuters bike to work, which would throw cold water on the idea that biking in L.A. is becoming a popular way of getting to the office.

Julian: People just prefer commuting by car…

Lacter: It remains the most convenient way of getting around - despite the congestion.  New car sales are up 14 percent through the first nine months of the year in Southern California.  Add to that are generally affordable gas prices (they've been especially low in the last few weeks).  In other parts of the world, congestion is considered a good thing because it means that the economy is doing well.  Which explains that while L.A. is the most congested city in the U.S., it doesn't rank among the 10 around the world.  On that front, Moscow is tops, followed by Istanbul, and Rio de Janeiro.

Julian: What about driverless cars?

Lacter: Well, these vehicles hold the most promise for reducing accidents, lowering travel times, and improving fuel economy - and you don't have to give up your car.  Actually, a lot of the technology is already in place - that includes stuff like radar-based cruise control, and devices that keep you at a safe distance from the car in front of you.  The trick, of course, is taking these individual capabilities and integrating them into an entirely driverless car.  Several car companies say they could be ready to start selling by 2020, with Google saying that its car could be ready even sooner.

Julian: Is that realistic?

Lacter: Who knows?  But even if the dates can be met - and that's a big if, considering how complex these systems are - legislatures will have to determine, among other things, whether vehicles can be fully autonomous (meaning that you can curl up and take a nap while the computer is driving by itself).  Or, whether they will only be semi-autonomous, which would be like an airline crew using automatic pilot, but always prepared to take over the controls.

Julian: Is that a liability issue?

Lacter: Yes - if something does go wrong, who will get the blame?  The owner of the vehicle?  The carmaker?  The suppliers of the car companies?  These questions might take years to get resolved in the courts - and even then, it could be years before the percentage of these vehicles on the road is large enough to truly have an impact.  But, considering that most commuters aren't willing to give up their cars, this would seem to be the most exciting, most desirable idea.  One day.

Mark Lacter writes for Los Angeles Magazine and pens the business blog at LA