Should planners go to car shows? After all, aren’t we supposed to hate cars and only use alternative modes of transportation like public transit and bikes? Well, even as someone who relies on the subway for my daily commute, drives mostly on weekends, and shares one car with my wife, I have to admit that it would be plain silly to not talk about automobiles in a car-centric city like Los Angeles. Whether we like it or not, cars are here to stay and they can be fun to drive when the freeways and streets are not clogged up by heavy traffic. Wanting to learn more about the cars that may (or may not) be on our streets soon, I went to the L.A. Auto Show at the Convention Center over the weekend. It was helpful that I was there with a friend who is a car enthusiast because I did not even know where to begin, with the show covering over 870,000 square feet of exhibit space! Founded in 1907, the L.A. Auto Show is one of the most influential and best-attended auto shows in the world, attracting about 900,000 visitors each year.
Concept cars are the cars of the future and what I most wanted to see. I enjoyed the L.A. Auto Show in large part because of its focus on forward-thinking technology and green design. One of most exciting cars on display is the Honda FCEV (Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle) Concept which made its world debut at this auto show. The concept has a very aerodynamic body and offers a potential styling direction for Honda’s next-generation fuel-cell vehicle anticipated to launch in the U.S. and Japan in 2015, followed by Europe. Although it looks more like a racing car, the Honda FCEV Concept actually provides seating for five passengers. The Honda FCEV is one of five concept cars that L.A. Times writer David Undercoffler highlighted in his review. Another vehicle of interest is Toyota’s Driver Awareness Research Vehicle (DAR-V). Developed with the assistance of Microsoft Research, the DAR-V tries to limit the distractions that drivers face by providing key information before a driver even gets behind the wheel. With a combination of Kinect-powered gesture control, voice command and key fob activation, a display built into the side window displays information about traffic, weather, daily schedule and appointments, and navigation. By getting this information ahead of time, the driver will hopefully be less distracted while s/he is driving. Because the DAR-V system can recognize and differentiate between individuals, the system might also be used to reduce driver distractions in other ways. For example, children might play “games” designed to help them buckle their seatbelts quickly, thereby easing the stress on parents and helping them focus more of their attention on the road. Toyota’s DAR-V is one of the vehicles on Gizmag‘s C.C. Weiss’ top ten list of concept cars and special editions at the L.A. Auto Show.
There was no shortage of hybrids on display at this car show. In addition to its well-known Prius, Toyota seems to offer a hybrid version of each of its vehicles. While I am interested in owning a hybrid one day, the 2014 Prius is still a bit pricey for me, with its MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price) at over $24,000. (In the meantime, I will just stick with my reliable, more affordable Corolla!) In addition to the Toyota fleet of hybrids, there are other lesser known green vehicles, as Jeffrey Jablansky of the New York Daily News points out in his article. Specifically, he shares about the following: the 2014 BMW i8 plug-in hybrid, the 2014 Volkswagen E-Golf electric vehicle, 2014 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell sport-utility vehicle, and the 2014 Cadillac ELR luxury plug-in hyrbid. Of course, none of these cars are cheap. The BMW i8, for example, has a price tag of over $135,000, which means only a selected few would be able to acquire it. Hyundai’s Tucson Fuel Cell is interesting in that it is powered by hydrogen stored in an onboard tank, and has no greenhouse gas emissions. This sports-utility vehicle offers up to 300 miles of gasoline-free driving per fill-up, and will usher in a new era of fuel-cell transportation, alongside cars like Honda’s FCEV.
Mobile Source Air Pollution Reduction Review Committee (MSRC)
While we are talking about green vehicles, I would also like to highlight the work of the MSRC which reviews and funds projects and programs that reduce air pollution from motor vehicles in Southern California. Most people do not know this, but the MSRC was the first organization in the country to provide public funding to support the development of heavy duty hybrid electric vehicles. While working as a planner with the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning, I had the honor of serving as a member of the MSRC’s Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) which assesses which projects are funded as part of the MSRC’s annual work program. The MSRC was created in 1990 by the California State Legislature as part of AB 2766 that authorizes the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to collect a $4 surcharge on vehicle registration fees. Under AB 2766, 30% of the $4 is part of a “discretionary” fund overseen by the MSRC, 30% is distributed to the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) for activities necessary to reach the state’s clean air goals, and the remaining 40% is distributed to local cities and counties in the South Coast Air District to be used for clean air projects. The MSRC funds projects that result in direct and tangible reductions in air pollution from motor vehicles. The discretionary funds can also be used for related planning, monitoring, enforcement and technical studies. Over the years, project categories have included:
- Clean fuel vehicles and infrastructure programs such as alternative fuel stations, maintenance facilities and driver and mechanic training;
- Trip reduction and commuter assistance campaigns such as ride-sharing programs, telecommuting and videoconferencing, major event center transportation services, parking management, freeway service patrols and traffic signal synchronization;
- On-board diagnostic systems that monitor vehicle emissions;
- Research and development of new clean air technologies, such as development of alternative fuel vehicles and vehicle retrofit technologies; and
- Educational projects such as programs designed to teach students and others about opportunities to reduce transportation-related air pollution.
Local governments, public agencies, private-sector businesses and research institutions are among those who typically apply for MSRC funding.
Cars and Park Planning
The relationship between automobile ownership and access to parks is not often discussed, but cars clearly make a big difference. Cars give people mobility and options. A community with high levels of vehicle ownership and easy parking do not require as many parks nearby. Residents may like having parks in close proximity, but cars greatly reduce the challenge of distance (at least for those who can drive). With cars or some form of transportation, residents can travel to recreational facilities outside of their immediate neighborhoods, including beaches, arts and cultural facilities, regional parks, state parks, and national parks. As part of my work on community parks and recreation plans for unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County, I have discovered that many of the underserved communities have lower levels of vehicle ownership and are more dependent on public transportation. This suggests to us that new neighborhood and community parks should be located within walking or biking distance to residents and/or in close proximity to public transportation lines wherever possible. Looking into the future, it is also interesting to imagine what a less auto-dependent Los Angeles would be like. Specifically, some auto-related uses such as gas stations, auto repair shops, and car dealer lots may be converted into parks and recreation sites in the future. Many of these uses are strategically located along major streets or convenient intersections, and may be appropriate for recreational use.
Overall, it was both fun and educational to be at the L.A. Auto Show. Even as someone who knows little about cars, I recognize their importance and impacts on planning at all levels. Being at the show also reminded me of my brief time serving on the MSRC’s TAC and remembering the important work being funded by the committee. It is unfortunate that while it does so much to promote clean transportation and reduce air pollution from vehicles, the MSRC is rarely recognized for its efforts. Finally, the park planner in me always prompts me to think about the events I go to and how they affect or relate to parks. In this particular case, I am hoping that even cleaner and more affordable vehicles would be made available in the future so that more people could access parks and recreational areas outside of their immediate neighborhoods, and that parks adjacent to freeways and major streets would be less impacted by poor air quality.
Note: All photos by author.