- - Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Traffic congestion is the dark lining of the silver cloud of prosperity. There’s good news and bad news for commuters trying to navigate the tangled web of overflowing highways in Los Angeles. The good news, misleading as it may be, is that L.A., the city that first struck up a love affair with the automobile, no longer has the worst traffic congestion in the nation. The bad news is that L.A. seems determined to recapture that dreadful honor. The euphoria of mild weather and extreme politics has a dizzying effect.

Washington has displaced Los Angeles as the city with the longest commutes, according to Texas A&M Transportation Institute and Inrix, a travel information firm. The nation’s capital tallied an average traffic delay of 82 hours per commuter per year, nosing out L.A. by two finger-drumming hours. For commuters in the outer suburbs, the figure is twice or three times that. It’s the price Washingtonians pay for deliberately limiting access to the expressways.

The Los Angeles City Council has approved a plan to transform hundreds of miles of automobile traffic lanes into bus lanes and bicycle paths. Mobility Plan 2035 is touted as a strategy for encouraging residents to forsake their cars and learn to love public transportation. Given the barely bearable condition of the L.A. daily grind, the council appears to be throwing in with the green fanatics who intend to eliminate the ability of plain folks to go where they want to go, and do what they want to do, in their gasoline-powered cars.

In a city of 500 square miles, a bicycle has its limits, even if, as they usually do, the bicyclists breeze through red lights and ignore stop signs. (Just watch them.) Not everyone is fit enough to power through an hour or so of cycling, morning and evening, especially during the summer sizzle. As more lanes are designated off-limits to drivers, the streets and roads will become jammed and cars will become immovable objects. “What they’re trying to do is make congestion so bad, you’ll have to get out of your car,” an Angeleno tells the Los Angeles Times. With the price of gasoline a dollar a gallon above the national average, California motorists are stuck between a truck and a hard place.

Washington’s streetcars, a throwback mode of public transportation that once stitched the city together seamlessly, disappeared in 1962, and are trying to make a comeback. Buying modern streetcars and laying the rails has cost the city $200 million so far, and the fare boxes are expected to collect only about $500,000 a year when the streetcars finally roll.

Transportation engineers envision the day when self-driving cars and trucks take over streets, and traffic flows like a light pancake syrup instead of the sorghum molasses that makes traffic stick together now. But there’s always a dark side to technology, and a software scientist has demonstrated how a computer-guided car can be disabled with a $60 homemade laser device. The gadget creates false images of obstacles in the path of the car, forcing it to stop. With cities competing to devise the worst solutions for gridlock, a genius may yet be driven to invent a device that commuters can point to a car ahead — perhaps adorned with the bumper-sticker that boasts “I may be slow but I’m ahead of you” — and make it vanish. That’ll be the day.

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