Los Angeles, Automobile Mecca, Doubles Down on Bus and Bicycle Infrastructure

One of the planet's most well-known car cities is gearing for a transportation reboot.

Los Angeles wouldn't be Los Angeles without its trademark mind-numbingly slow traffic. For a city as well-known for its congestion as its movie stars, it's a surprise to many people to learn that L.A. once sported one of the nation's most extensive streetcar and rail systems. The advent of car culture put an end to all that efficiency though; during the mid-1960s the last of over 1,100 miles of track was ripped up to make way for more automobile lanes (and thus, more mind-numbingly slow traffic).

You'd be hard-pressed to find an American city more shaped by the automobile than Los Angeles. Its spider web systems of freeways are arteries connecting (and dividing) people throughout the Southland. Traffic and urban sprawl were always going to be byproducts of this culture. The city has mostly curbed the heinously unhealthy smog problem that also resulted, although it's still a rare day to be able to see across the entirety of the basin without a gray smoky glaze getting in your way.

Over the years, city officials have tried to fix this wasteful transportation monster by investing in various public transit projects. Over 1.3 million Angelenos take advantage of Metro bus and rail each weekday, although the system itself isn't yet much to write home about. The famous "Subway to the Sea," first promised to residents 30 years ago and now currently under construction, is planned to terminate almost six miles from the ocean, thanks mostly to deep-rooted NIMBYism and various budgetary restraints. Metro rail's LAX train, which runs atop the 105 freeway, doesn't even reach the airport, necessitating a 15-minute shuttle ride in the same congestion you were hoping to avoid. The L.A. Metro is a textbook "convenient for some, not worth the trouble for most" system. 

All that said, it remains a top priority for the mayor and city council to find solutions to foundational transit problems. The status quo is one rife with pollution, wastefulness, inefficiency, and high traffic fatality rates. Car culture has been good to the City of Angels in many ways, but it's all come at a staggering cost.

With this in mind, city leaders tasked with carving out L.A. transportation policy for the coming generation have pushed through an ambitious plan that will prioritize bicycle and bus infrastructure while controversially deprioritizing automobiles. David Zahniser of the Los Angeles Times reports:

"Known as Mobility Plan 2035, the plan spells out hundreds of miles of new bicycle lanes, bus-only lanes, and other road redesigns. It also seeks to cut the fatality rate from traffic collisions to zero within 20 years, in part by keeping cars within the speed limits. And it builds on other changes the city has already made to its streets in recent years ...

... City leaders say the plan reflects a newfound view that simply widening streets is no longer feasible or, in many cases, desirable. They contend that if even a small share of motorists change their travel behavior, choosing alternatives to the car, the city can make a big dent in the overall number of miles traveled."

We're seeing a growing trend of cities moving to better accommodate bicycle commuters, modifying streets and sectioning off lanes to keep them safe from killer cars. Los Angeles' plan also strives to protect pedestrians, who made up one-third of overall road deaths in the city from 2012 to 2013 despite being involved in only 10 percent of accidents. Safety is at the core of the plan. The diversification of transit options is somewhere in the crust. Nearly 240 miles of bus-only lanes would be installed in order to give residents that extra incentive to leave the auto at home.

One key downside to Mobility Plan 2035 (aside from its unimaginative moniker) is its net negative environmental impact. The council likes to think reducing space for cars will encourage fewer people to drive, yet projections indicate congestion should only get worse, at least in the short term. They hope the entrenched transportation inertia that has plagued the City of Angels for 50 years will slowly erode as streets evolve. Couple this with the increased popularity of smart growth in local urban planning and city leaders might be setting course for a better future on L.A. roads. 

There's a big difference between "might be" and "will be," though.

It's not going to be easy riding quite yet. Legal challenges will mount. Angry constituents who are set to see traffic grow in their neighborhoods will fight city leaders with elevated gusto. For a city so attuned to liberal values and environmentalism, most Angelenos draw the line at auto restrictions.

And in many ways, they've got every right.

The city remains difficult to traverse without a car. All the smart growth and bike lanes and bus infrastructure in the world isn't going to change that. Targeting commuters is key to success but there's only so far one can expect any progressive transit policy to go.

The fact of the matter is that grandma lives in Marina Del Rey; Uncle Phil lives in Whittier; Aunt Joyce lives in Eagle Rock; and there's no way in hell mom and dad are taking three kids on a convoluted three-hour-long bus ride to see any of them. 

L.A.'s transit plan is ambitious, yes, and it could eventually turn the course for the inner reaches of the city. But it seems L.A. is way too L.A. for anything to change any time soon. Evolution in transit, as with biology, occurs at a mind-numbingly slow pace.

Read more at the LA Times.

Below, economist Lawrence H. Summers extols the many virtues of large-scale infrastructure investment. It just makes sense:

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
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Dubai to build the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant

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Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP / Getty Images
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.