Your Private Driver: City Planning

This is a weekly column that offers news, insights, analysis, and user tips for rideshare platforms like Uber and Lyft. 

A video game has consumed the majority of my personal time for the past two weeks, threatening to become something of an addiction. That game is Cities: Skylines, a city-building simulator in the vein of the classic SimCity franchise. I’ve already spent over 100 hours building freeways and interchanges, laying out residential and industrial areas, making sure the landfills don’t overflow, salvaging the shorelines from floods, and dealing with rush-hour traffic. That last part is the game’s biggest challenge; so much so that once I actually managed to mostly eliminate the traffic jams plaguing my virtual downtown area, I felt like I knew how to clear up Los Angeles’s legendary traffic congestion better than their city planners. Of course I also have a slightly larger pretend-money budget than they do, but since when have such practicalities ever gotten in the way of progress?

My time with the game has still led me to think about the city of Los Angeles in a different way during my travels though it. My brain imagines without prompting ways to improve the flow of freeway interchanges, different routes for public transit, more effective ways to time traffic signals, and whether or not bulldozing a neighborhood to run a freeway through it would be worth the drop in land value and tax revenue. Inevitably the best solution for L.A. is probably the same as it is in my pretend city: get more cars off the road by providing alternate ways of getting around, whether it be by bus, subway, bicycle, or blimp. Okay, maybe not blimps.

Eventually my attention will be drawn to another vehicle with an Uber or Lyft emblem on rear window. Then another one, and another, and–holy crap there are a lot of these things. Seriously, there are so many vehicles sporting an Uber or Lyft trade dress in Los Angeles that getting rid of them would free up about 25 percent more space on the region’s streets and highways. While the rideshare impact probably isn’t as drastic in any other city (with the exception of San Francisco), eventually urban areas all over the United States will have to contend with the added congestion from so many additional vehicles on their roads and freeways. So my Cities: Skylines-modified brain came up with another puzzle to solve: how does one design a city to accommodate for the traffic impact of thousands of Uber/Lyft vehicles on their roads?

You’ll most frequently see rideshare vehicles clogging traffic whenever they’re attempting to pick up or drop off a passenger. In many cities this isn’t an issue, but in congested areas like central Los Angeles, places to pull over out of the path of traffic are at a premium; either they’re all taken up by parked cars (on-street parking spaces are worth more than your life here) or the traffic lanes extend all the way to the curb. Most passengers don’t have the awareness to request their rides from a convenient or even legal spot, so irritated drivers are stuck waiting behind vehicles blocking driveways or turn lanes or even through traffic lanes while three people try to cram their luggage into a trunk that’s too small.

Most shopping and entertainment districts have passenger loading zones (white curbs in California) that allow up to five minutes of wait time to drop off and pick up passengers–perfect for rideshare purposes. Still, these zones can get packed at certain times, like when a restaurant or nightclub closes and there are a rush of requests. Several vehicles are all waiting to take their turn in a loading zone that fits at best two vehicles at a time, and traffic is still backed up.

My personal solution would be to expand these passenger loading zones at the expense of on-street parking. While Uber and Lyft don’t do much for traffic congestion, they do free up the need for a parking space with every trip. In a city where you can spend more time trying to find a place to park than actually driving to your destination in the first place (not an exaggeration), making it easier for people to leave their cars at home seems like a no-brainer. Removing the need for Uber drivers to compete with parked cars for curb space is that natural progression of that trend, and it’ll make driving through commercial districts that much less annoying, since they won’t have to worry nearly as much about rideshare drivers randomly obstructing traffic.

Amusingly enough, this tactic actually did work in my game of Cities: Skylines. Traffic was getting backed up by fleets of buses trying to pull into crowded bus stops, and I didn’t feel like demolishing thirty buildings just to expand the road. So I built a parking garage nearby and replaced the curbside parking lane with a dedicated bus lane. No more buses blocking traffic, problem solved!

While this editorial was really just an excuse to talk about my current favorite video game a little bit, the overall point is something that city planners and traffic managers do have to consider in the real world–that Uber and Lyft are having an adverse traffic impact on their cities, and that likely won’t change until the much-hyped driver-less carpool of the future becomes a reality. While city governments seem to want to address the problem with more regulation of rideshare drivers (to get them off of the roads), there could be other, simpler alternatives.

I wonder if I sent the Transportation Authority a copy of the game would they get the message?

Sekani Wright is an experienced Lyft driver working in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. If you have any questions you would like answered for this column, you can contact him at djsekani at gmail dot com, or on twitter and reddit at the username djsekani. Have a safe trip!