Test Drive : Experts Say L.A., Choked in Smog, Is the Perfect Lab for Transportation and Clean-Air Experiments


At first glance, the brochure looks like a promotion for the Nature Conservancy or Cousteau Society--its slick cover is an artistic swirl of aqua ocean waves gently bearing the word Symbiosis .

But at the bottom sits a familiar red, white and blue logo: NISSAN.

And inside the cover, an introductory message ties it all together: "Nissan is taking firm action to protect and preserve the environment."

A car that protects and preserves the environment?

That might sound like the ultimate oxymoron, but this is not the National Lampoon. The brochure is a sign of the new, ecological '90s. And for Southern California's 5 million commuters, their eyes stinging, lungs aching and brains benumbed by their daily ration of 6,000 pounds of highway pollutants, it may be a sign that change is taking place.

In the world of local transportation, where "innovation" has meant computerizing freeway on-ramp traffic flow, possibilities are popping up all around. A lot of these ideas were previewed last week at a conference that brought together an unprecedented assortment of city planners, transportation officials, academics, utility executives, environmentalists, scientists and public officials.

They spent two days at the Sheraton Universal, where 45 speakers and a lineup of corporate exhibitors alternated free-wheeling panel discussions with state-of-the-art exhibits.

"Los Angeles is a laboratory for the world," said Canada's Larry Miller, a transportation consultant.

"Los Angeles has the congestion and the air problems, but it also has the energy and talent to solve them," said Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), a conference co-sponsor. "My goal is to show people what's being done--and there are solutions right now."

And indeed, although many of the concepts were familiar, the combination of players at the conference gave renewed credibility to the hope that real change can take place.

"The '90s will be a decade of tremendous experimentation and change in transportation, and Los Angeles is the heart of it," said Jonathan Baskin of Nissan, North America.

"We have a generation of managers who care a lot more about the environment that the people they replaced. It happens to parallel the generation of people to whom we sell cars."

Although the changes are being driven by a number of complex forces, their impact on daily life here will be twofold, said Richard Schweinberg, manager of electric vehicles for Southern California Edison.

"We're going to put some environmentally acceptable vehicles out there, and we are going to give people a choice of getting out of their cars completely with a modern and efficient mass transit system."

These are new options for Southern Californians and Schweinberg sees embracing them as a question of survival. "The comment I make to people now is that you sit there in traffic, and you sit there in fumes, and you deserve something better."

Not only commuter frustration, but new, alarming health studies are combining to dampen Californians' love affair with the car, he said. "We thought all we deserved was the current gasoline vehicle and the current diesel truck. We all accepted that to have our cars, we had to have the pollution that came out of the tailpipe, and that's not true."

Ray Grabinski, chairman of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, maintained that Los Angeles is pulling out of its "one-person, one-gas box" rut, but most people haven't felt the effects yet.

"There is such a feeling of L.A. being a pit in terms of transportation, when in truth we've turned things around rather dramatically," said Grabinski, whose LACTC oversees the county's sprawling hodgepodge of roads, rails and bikeways, including the new Metro Rail system.

"The public has showed, in approving transportation funding initiatives (including Prop. 108, the Passenger Rail and Clean Air Act; and Prop. 111, the Traffic Congestion Relief Act) that they are ready to make some big changes."

Grabinski, eager to show that Los Angeles is cleaning up its transportation act, organized last week's conference with Katz, chairman of the state's transportation committee.

Katz shares Grabinski's optimism:

"I think Los Angeles has the ability, from innovation to manufacturing, to become for transportation what the Silicon Valley has been to computers."

As a start, the conference provided a startling preview of the near-future possibilities for Southern California.

One step into the exhibit room provided the unusual sight of Detroit's Big Three rooting for the electric vehicle. The exhibit, sponsored by Southern California Edison, featured General Motors (Impact), Chrysler (TEVan) and Ford (Ecostar)--now joined in an electric battery research consortium. Accompanying material noted that these vehicles meet new state air quality standards: By the year 2000, nearly 10% of new cars in California must produce no tailpipe emission.

Clark Equipment Company's line of natural gas lift trucks was heralded as "Built around the air we breathe." Toyota featured a flexible-fuel Corolla which operates on either methanol or gasoline. Santa Barbara's CleanAir Transit displayed its homey, 29-passenger electric bus, which has been shuttling passengers.

This is the new look of transportation, said Diane Wittenberg, manager of electric transportation for Southern California Edison.

Despite their history of crying wolf in regard to alternative fuels, she noted, the world's auto makers are now taking such fuels and electric vehicles seriously, driven into action by last fall's new tough standards from the California Air Resources Board.

"The auto makers have kicked into high gear, not only to have electric cars, but to make sure they are saleable, priced right and performing right."

Wittenberg and other experts offered an intriguing peek at alternative vehicles and fuels:

* "We're developing clean, ample supplies for natural gas to power trucks and buses, something that would have been ridiculed a few years ago," said Richard D. Farman, chairman of Southern California Gas Co., which is focusing on fleet vehicles. "We know the wedding of a single person to the car is becoming passe."

* "By the year 2000, you'll be buying your second electric vehicle (EV)," predicted John Dabels, general manager of electric vehicles program for General Motors. "Most commute trips are within the EV range now. We envision a two-car family with internal combustion for long trips and EV for commutes."

* "The reformulated gas of the future is extremely clean," said Brian Sullivan, of ARCO's clean fuels task force. "You might be surprised to know that our vision of the future is an electric vehicle powered by solar. We see that happening in the middle of the next century."

The picture five years ago would have been very different, said John Bryson, chairman of Southern California Edison Corp., noting that "traffic delays and wasted fuel alone cost Southern California motorists close to $10 billion."

"Clearly, finding solutions to our transportation and air-quality ills in the face of a growing world population is one of our most pressing problems," he said.

The conference's "Crystal Ball" session featured large-screen computer imaging that created a futuristic Los Angeles overlaid with monorails and people movers, with high-speed commuter trains snaking down freeway medians and magnetic levitation trains whisking passengers in and out of the city.

"I think we've put to rest the nonsense that you can't pry an Angeleno out of a personal car," said Katz. "More and more people are asking for alternatives."

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