5 ways the electricity system can learn from L.A. traffic

The latest stats are out and the verdict is in: After losing the “honor” to Honolulu in 2011, last year Los Angeles recaptured its long-standing distinction as home to the worst traffic in the United States. By far the most congested stretch of road in America is an 8-mile segment of the 405 freeway. In traffic-plagued cities and corridors such as that, drivers can spend an incredible 62 hours per year sitting idle in their cars in gridlock. That’s a week-and-a-half worth of time that otherwise could be spent at work, with family, whatever. Blech.

The crux of the problem, notes RAND Corporation in its report “Moving Los Angeles,” is “an imbalance between the supply of road capacity and the demand for driving during peak travel hours.” Well, duh.

Listen, I’m no traffic engineer, but I did grow up on Long Island close enough to New York City that I could see the Twin Towers on the western horizon across the Great South Bay. I’ve driven the streets of Manhattan aplenty. And I’ve lived in Weehawken, N.J., directly across the Hudson River from midtown Manhattan near the Jersey entrance to the often-clogged Lincoln Tunnel. In other words, I’m no stranger to big city highway bumper-to-bumper traffic. There’s a reason locals nickname the Long Island Expressway (I-495) “the world’s longest parking lot.”

From where I sit (thankfully, not in traffic anymore, now that I live in Longmont, Colo., and ride the bus), traffic congestion and solutions to that big honking problem are coming at it from the wrong angle. Attempts to alleviate congestion largely seem to assume that you need to travel from point A to point B. Thus you either increase capacity (build more lanes), encourage public transit and ridesharing (move more people per vehicle) or shift the timing and/or size of peak driving demand by disincentivizing trips (congestion pricing). Even multimodal transit-oriented development that encourages light rail, bus and bicycling still assumes you’re going from point A to some distant point B. Most recently, earlier this year Los Angeles made the widely publicized move to synchronize all 4,500 of its traffic lights.

But what if what’s so enticing about point B is actually at point A, so that the trip isn’t necessary in the first place?

Utilities, listen up

An electric power substationThere are lessons to be learned here about our electricity system. Seriously. Our nation’s network of congested cities and highways and our electricity system based upon large central thermal power plants and long-distance transmission lines are really quite similar. Bear with me while I explain.

Imagine that our cities are the equivalent of large power plants, our major highways the equivalent of transmission lines, people driving the equivalent of moving electrons, the fuel and time wasted sitting in traffic the equivalent of transmission line losses, and city and neighborhood surface streets the equivalent of the electricity distribution system.

They are both antiquated and constrained systems of infrastructure. And in both cases, one of the most attractive solutions starts by asking a basic question: Do we really need congested pathways -- whether highways or transmission lines -- as much as we do? What if decentralization -- through distributed generation of electricity and intelligently designed smart growth -- reduced congestion by addressing its root cause?

There are at least five ways our electricity system can learn from Los Angeles’ traffic and urban planning:

1. Site generation and demand closer together. Instead of trying to figure out increasingly difficult ways to get people (or electrons) from point A to point B, locate both generation and demand at or near point A. People spend much of their driving time going from home to work, and sometimes to the supermarket and retail stores. But if all of those needs are in the same vicinity, they never need to get on the congested highway or other major artery in the first place. That’s a core principle behind smart growth and projects such as Millennium Hollywood, which includes “concentration of new residential development in pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, reducing the need for short, street-clogging drives for basic errands such as buying groceries.” Similarly, distributed electricity generation sited closer to load centers can help to offset the need for transmission and distribution capacity upgrades and other major infrastructure investments.

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