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Here's the future of LA traffic, according to the people planning to improve it

LA traffic.
LA traffic.
a.saliga/flickr Creative Commons

We all know traffic is bad in Los Angeles and getting worse. We also know that autonomous cars will be a reality in the not-too-distant future. But how do we get from where we are now, which is stuck, to where everyone says we're headed?

"The reality is you can't change a system right away in a large city," said Kian Gohar, executive director of the X Prize Foundation. "Just like any cruise liner or large company, you can't experiment while the ecosystem still has to function every single day and be fully available to the entire community."

Which is why the city is furiously planning and taking preliminary steps, many of which were laid out during Thursday's Future of the Automobile Conference at the Petersen Automotive Museum, presented in partnership with the Los Angeles World Affairs Council.

"The idea is that the department of transportation in the future is more of a mobility manager, so we're thinking about how to manage an ecosystem of services," said Ashley Hand, co-founder of a group called CityFi, and author of the transportation technology strategy for the city. 

She says the city is working on three key ideas.

1. Mobility as a service

"The idea is a platform of all the service options that are available to you so you can really right size mobility in a single platform -- pay for it, reserve it. So the days you need to walk, the days you want to ride a bike, the days you need to lug the kids around with you to soccer games, you have those options through that single platform.

Right now, most of us who can afford it get around with our own personal cars, and the cars we're buying are usually big -- bought for the rare occasions we actually need all the space.

But what the city wants to do is help people choose the right tool for the job whether it's a train, bus, bike, electric scooter or car share.  And then make the purchase of those different options seamless. A preliminary example of this is the city's GO LA app.

2. Data as a service

In other words, real-time data sharing so that connected and autonomous cars can communicate with infrastructure, like traffic lights. So if an area is particularly congested, the signal could react in real time and get the traffic to flow more easily. Another way that could manifest is with high-occupancy lanes on city streets, kind of like we already have on the freeway, only it would be with a bus in a priority lane on a street like Wilshire Blvd., which would get every green light.

3. Infrastructure as a service

The idea is that people will pay for infrastructure as they use it, much like the state's recent Road Charge pilot program, which investigated charging drivers by the mile instead of through a gas tax. It's "to flip the value proposition of how we pay for our infrastructure," Hand said.

To that end, the city plans to incentivize the behaviors it wants to see, like using public transit or carpooling or traveling at off hours, and disincentivize the things it wants to discourage, like taking every single trip in a car.

On the incentive side, it could be that drivers are rewarded for taking the carpool version of Lyft or Uber with something like a Starbucks gift card, which is being done with a pilot program in Miami.

Disincentives would be things like congestion pricing -- charging people when they travel in their personal cars at peak times, or charging Lyft and Uber for using the curb.

Underground tunnels

"When you think about dense metropolitan areas, it's pretty hard to acquire new right of way. That brings with it a lot of planning, a lot of potential relocation of existing businesses," said David DeRosa, a transportation planner with the Los Angeles company AECOM, which is working with the city of Los Angeles. "That constraint is alleviated when you go underground."

De Rosa said there are two main applications for underground tunnels — commuting, but also freight.

A lot of traffic is due to moving freight because we're so close to the ports. Moving freight to a tunnel undergound would help reduce traffic above ground and also improve air quality In addition to working with the city of L.A., De Rosa's company did a feasibility analysis with Virgin Hyperloop One in LA that was focused on the ports.

Air taxis and drones

De Rosa said building developers are beginning to factor air taxis into their designs, so — skeptical as a lot of people might be about flying ride hail services — this seems to indicate that a lot of people think it's going to be real. Drones also have the potential to help reduce traffic by taking delivery trucks off the road.

Traffic will still get worse

In L.A., there will be "more and more traffic. Always," Gohar said. "We know it's a problem for all of us, and there's got to be a lot of different players and community people involved to address this major problem. It's not just the city. It's not just car designers. It's really all hands on deck in creating these public and private partnerships to try to figure out what are some solutions to solving traffic in the city."

If you think traffic is bad now. It will only get worse. Right now, 50% of the world's population lives in cities, but by 2050, that will be 75%, Gohar said.

So imagine L.A. with 50% more people than it has now.  To prevent everyone who moves here from getting around with a personally owned car, Los Angeles is actively working to provide options.