Transport of tomorrow

Fly high or dig deep?

Traffic in Los Angeles is a nightmare during most of the day and many wee hours, too. Following the short breather brought by the pandemic, cars and trucks are once again being held captive in miles of gridlock. More than 150,000 commuters spend upwards of two hours a day behind the wheel. They share the urban highway network with trailer trucks hauling goods from two container ports on the Pacific to inland warehouses and suppliers. Yet there is a reason why Los Angeles is known as the "Dream Factory": visionaries are inventing and trialing future transport scenarios in this West Coast megacity.

It’s shortly before 10 a.m. on an average Thursday on Interstate 405, 30 kilometers south of downtown L.A. Lara coolly weaves her Porsche convertible through six lanes of northbound traffic, passing a yellow school bus on the right, and a Prius and a pickup with a bed full of lawnmowers on the left; changing lanes behind a semi, she cruises for roughly a minute at 60 km/h before she needs to brake again. "Let’s move it, honey! You can go faster than that!" she admonishes a driver who cuts in front of her from the access ramp. Then she switches on her blinker, puts her foot down and glides over to a free slot in the next lane.

"Between 9:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. is the best time to get where you’re heading without going crazy," she explains. She has scheduled her appointment downtown during that window so she won’t need more than an hour for the scant 60 kilometers from her home in Newport Beach. Commuting is a daily grind for Lara. She works as a fit model: her physique is a sewing pattern benchmark for everything from swimsuits to evening gowns. With clientele scattered throughout southern California, some 500 kilometers a week on the roads around L.A. are routine for her. On social media, she’s @thatporschegirl, with more than 40,000 Instagram followers. Every day Lara travels 31 kilometers to one of her regulars. "If I’m lucky, I need 19 minutes. But sometimes it takes nearly an hour," she says. She’s made a game out of beating the estimated arrival time on her GPS. "I’m usually at least a whole minute faster," she says with a laugh.

Even the fastest wheels only make slow progress on Interstate 405. Right: In Los Angeles, dreams come true – and the traffic never seems to end.

It’s a simple equation: demand outweighs supply
Southern California is the most congested region in the entire country. The container ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles handle a full 30% of America’s freight – 875,000 containers in June 2021 alone. Only about one third of the cargo stays in the region. The rest is transported by truck and train to northern California and other states.

LAX, the largest of the five airports in Los Angeles County, handled more than 61,000 passengers in May 2021. That was 47% lower than pre-pandemic levels. The trend is picking up again. For nearly 30 years, Los Angeles headed the league table of major American cities with the most traffic. In 2020 the megacity dropped to fourth place behind New York/Newark, Boston and Houston – as a consequence of the tight Covid-19 restrictions in California. That said, L.A. is on track to regain its title this year. "It’s a simple equation: demand outweighs supply, and that’s why the roads are choked up," says Genevieve Guiliano, a professor at the University of Southern California (USC). "We haven’t seen any major changes in the system for 30 years, during which time the population has grown and average incomes have risen. The wealthier people are, the more often they drive their cars. That’s the case all over the world, not just in the U.S."

"The situation in the U.S. differs from that in other countries, partly because of the consistently car-friendly policies of the federal and state governments," Guiliano explains. In addition to relatively low gas prices, spending on road and parking-lot construction takes priority over investments in public transportation, bicycle paths, pedestrian zones and sidewalks. The increasing popularity of online shopping, coupled with the prospect of having the socks, dog bones and washing machines delivered the very next day, further complicates matters when it comes to traffic analysis. "Delivery vans are blocking more and more streets. It’s not effective to deliver goods quickly to customers rather than to warehouses," notes the USC professor.

High fliers – in two years, cars will be cruising over Los Angeles
Parallel to its car-friendly policies, in recent years Los Angeles has also invested billions in extending its subway network, bicycle paths and bus lanes. Simultaneously, the mayor is banking on a solution that sounds like the title of a Hollywood blockbuster: flying cars. "Los Angeles is where we turn today’s ideas into tomorrow’s reality," Eric Garcetti said in December 2020 when unveiling the Urban Air Mobility Partnership. Here the city is collaborating with private companies to launch a local aviation network. "We will provide a template for operating urban mobility services in the air." In a scant two years’ time, the first electric vehicles are due to be crisscrossing the skies above L.A. In an advertising video, the flying machines look like a combination of drone and helicopter. Passengers board from the tops of skyscrapers and glide tranquilly above endless tailbacks to land directly in front of their modern-day mansions.

Mayor Garcetti has promised that this new form of aerospace travel will not remain the domain of financial high-flyers. The city developed the Principles of the Urban Sky in partnership with the World Economic Forum and 50 stakeholder groups. The plan is to have 23,000 flying cars delivering passengers safely, almost silently, and sustainably to their destinations for a $30 fare – in less than a decade. At a hearing before the House Aviation Subcommittee of the U.S. Congress, Garcetti championed flying vehicles as an antidote to traffic jams and air pollution: "For this technology, the sky is literally the limit. And it has the potential to reduce emissions, to connect communities, and to grow our economies." Moving forward, personal aerospace mobility is to be flanked by airborne freight vehicles.

Professor Genevieve Giuliano is skeptical: "Tens of thousands of aircraft cruising the skies is not exactly a comforting thought," she says. "What's more, if you think about small vehicles carrying two to four people, we will need a lot of take-off and landing sites for a mass transit system." The so-called vertiports, from which the flying cars are due to take off vertically, comprise just one of many challenges. Dozens of companies working on turning this vision into reality are currently analyzing further issues such as weather fluctuation and airspace control. Startups are competing with the likes of Airbus and Boeing for dominance in a market with an estimated worldwide value of up to three billion dollars.

"Thousands of cars flying across the sky? I can’t even imagine all the things that can go wrong!" says Lara-the-Porsche-girl, shaking her head. In the meantime it’s 4 p.m. and she’s back on I-405, this time headed southbound and stuck in a jam. Lara has an appointment in Long Beach. The GPS is showing her ETA as 12 minutes late. The customer will forgive her – a 15-minute delay due to traffic is the norm in L.A. Lara uses the downtime to touch up her mascara and lipstick. Then she slips into the right lane where the cars and trucks are speeding towards the next exit. "This lane leads directly to the next exit. I can travel parallel to the main traffic here," she says and races right past the tailback with a big grin in her face. "I cut off a minute and beat the GPS again!"

Four tiers of asphalt and concrete intersect here – and soon cars might be flying overhead too.

Mit der eigenen Tunnelfirma gegen den Verkehrsfrust
Müde vom ewigen im Stau stehen, hat Lara bereits ernsthaft überlegt, mit öffentlichen Verkehrsmitteln zu ihren Kundïnnen zu kommen, statt mit dem Porsche. Doch das rechnete sich nicht - weder finanziell noch zeitlich. So skeptisch sie gegenüber fliegenden Autos ist - noch weniger begeistert ist sie vom Tunnelbau unter Freeways, wie ihn Tesla-Erfinder Elon Musk vorgeschlagen hat. Sie ist zwar von der Idee, Menschen in einer Metallröhre mit magnetisch angetriebener Transportkapsel bei über 1000 Stundenkilometer auf die Reise zu schicken, fasziniert. „Aber in Kalifornien bitte nicht unterirdisch. Die Vorstellung, bei einem Erdbeben in einer Röhre zu stecken, ist grauenvoll!” Die Idee zum Tunnelbau kam Musk im Dezember 2016 beim Weg zur Arbeit. „Der Verkehr macht mich verrückt. Ich werde eine Tunnelbohrmaschine bauen und anfangen zu graben,” klagte er auf Twitter und gründete The Boring Company.

Im Dezember 2018 rauschten die ersten Autos durch einen 1,8 Kilometer langen Testtunnel in der Nähe von Musks SpaceX-Unternehmen südlich von Los Angeles. Mit einer Höchstgeschwindigkeit von 65 Stundenkilometern war das Experiment allerdings noch weit vom Ziel der 1000 km/h entfernt. Der Bürgermeister zeigte sich dennoch beeindruckt. „Elon Musk sprengt Grenzen, im All, virtuell, über und unter der Erde,” sagte Eric Garcetti. Er gab zu, dass noch niemand wissen könne, ob Tunnel effektiv zur Lösung von Verkehrsproblemen beitragen können. „Aber ich möchte, dass Los Angeles die Stadt ist, in der Ingenieure solche Ideen ausprobieren.”

Entlastung durch Elektrifizierung
Ein weiteres Konzept verbindet die Verlagerung des Verkehrs unter die Erde mit Elektrifizierung. Die Idee des magnetisch angetriebenen Transports von Menschen, Autos und Gütern in engen Röhren wird inzwischen weltweit unter dem Überbegriff Hyperloop entwickelt. Elon Musk war massgeblich auch an der Wiederbelebung dieser Idee beteiligt, die Ende des 18. Jahrhunderts das erste Mal öffentlich erwähnt wurde. Musks Vision vom Tunnelbau für seinen Weg zur Arbeit in Los Angeles hat allerdings noch nicht so recht Fahrt aufgenommen. Er ist derzeit mit mehreren Städten in Texas im Gespräch über die Entwicklung unterirdischer Transportwege.

„Um Himmels Willen, nein!” kommentiert USC-Professorin Genevieve Giuliano die Idee. „Autos müssen Schlange stehen, damit sie in die Tunnelkapsel kommen. Den nächsten Stau gibt’s am Tunnelende. Ganz abgesehen von den Milliarden, die es kostet, das Ganze erdbebensicher zu bauen.” Realistischer erscheint der Städtebau- und Transportexpertin der Ausbau vom Straßenbahnnetz. Ob sich eine solche schnittige, elektrische und automatisierte Bahn für den Abschnitt des Freeways 405 lohnt, der Elon Musk in den Wahnsinn trieb, wird gerade mit einer 6 Milliarden Dollar teuren Studie getestet. In 24 Minuten soll die Bahn eine Strecke überwinden, auf der täglich fast 380.000 Autos und Laster stundenlang im Stau stehen.

„Auch hier müssen wir überlegen, wieviel Energie und Geld wir für welches Resultat in das Projekt stecken,” warnt Genevieve Giuliano, und dass selbst über der Erde die geologischen Gegebenheiten Kaliforniens zusätzliche Hürden schaffen. „Erdbebensichere Überführungen zu den geplanten 18 Haltestellen zu bauen ist teuer und aufwändig.”

The Port of Los Angeles is located at the southern end of Interstate 110. Trucks and cars fill the expressway.

Unconventional ideas for San Francisco
Currently, the most expensive and complex transport project in California entails neither streetcars nor tunnels. It’s an express train between Los Angeles and San Francisco. During his tenure as governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger had already promoted the high-speed link that is designed to cover the 600 kilometers in two hours and forty minutes. Runaway costs, delays and protests have diminished the project to a 275-kilometer stretch in the middle of the state. So cars and trucks continue to thunder along Interstate 5 between the two Californian cities, past strawberry fields, cowsheds and orange groves.

That said, San Francisco is already home to one of the impressive transport projects in the U.S.: at peak periods, the Transbay Tube carries more than 28,000 passengers per hour from San Francisco across the Bay to Oakland. Travelling 40 meters below sea level, the trains can reach 130 km/h – and they’re notoriously overcrowded. The only alternative is to brave the tailback on the bridge.

Three years ago the urban planning commission announced a competition, asking for unconventional solutions to this problem, and it sparked the imaginations of the city’s congestion-weary inhabitants. They proposed gondolas, ferries, conveyor systems above and below ground, and flying cars. "We have seen enough promising and original concepts to keep coming generations of urban planners busy," noted Commission Chairman Jake Mackenzie at the close of the competition. That said, not a single one of these suggestions is currently being put to practice. The city is still evaluating the feasibility of the various ideas, Mackenzie says. San Francisco is concentrating instead on studies for another underwater tunnel and an expansion of the existing bridge.

Meanwhile, Lara is on her way home. Again, stuck in traffic. She arranges to meet a friend to spend a weekend cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway. "On Sunday, at 8:00 a.m.," she says and explains: "I’m usually in a bad mood in the mornings, but that’s the only time the roads are empty in this city and you can enjoy your drive."


Kerstin Zilm is a freelance correspondent based in Los Angeles who reports for radio, print and television.

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