Golf carts galore. That’s what the South Bay Cities Council of Governments is envisioning for 243 miles of roads in the Southern part of LA County.
The proposed Local Travel Network, as it’s called, would use existing roads to create a new system of interconnecting, low-speed streets for neighborhood electric vehicles such as GEM cars, e-bikes, e-scooters, electric skateboards and other forms of zero-emissions personal mobility devices in the hopes that it will reduce traffic, lower greenhouse gas emissions and improve overall street safety.
“We think the reason why people aren’t using e-bikes and a lot of these slow-speed vehicles to get where they need to go is they don’t feel safe. They don’t know the routes or where they will bump into a fast street,” said Jacki Bacharach, executive director of the SBCCOG, which adopted a resolution to pursue the initiative last week as an enticement for residents to get out of their cars.
The resolution comes as California strives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and as the state plans to build 3.5 million homes by 2025.
Lacking a robust public transit system to service an area that is home to 1 million residents, SBCCOG has been working on the idea for almost a decade. In 2012, it received a grant from the Air Quality Management District to loan a small fleet of golf carts to residents to understand how they travel through the area. It found that 70% of trips are three miles or less, yet the majority of individuals took those trips by car — spending an average of $9,000 individually and $1.5 billion collectively each year.
“What we’re trying to get people to think about is if you’re only going three miles, you can take a cargo bike and get exercise, and it’s zero emissions. It’s much less cost than if you take your Cadillac Escalade, and you can park it anywhere,” Bacharach said. “Don’t get rid of your first car, but you might not need a second or third one.”
According to the council’s route refinement study, 64% of all trips originating in the South Bay also terminated in the South Bay, averaging seven minutes per trip. Just 9% of travel that originated in the South Bay ended outside of its 25-mile radius, which stretches north from the Port of Long Beach to Los Angeles International Airport, and west from the Palos Verdes Peninsula to the Pacific Ocean.
“We’ve found ways to go neighborhood to neighborhood to destination,” said SBCCOG Project Manager Aaron Baum, adding that the low-speed streets in the network are already limited to 25 mph and are not major arterial roadways. “Running next to buses is not going to happen, but crossing at controlled intersections will. All of our network runs across major streets at stoplights.”
Under the proposal, about 10% of the area’s 2,000 miles of existing streets would be outfitted with street paint and other modest infrastructure improvements to support lightweight, zero-emission vehicles such as e-bikes. The lanes would be sharrows, so they would not prohibit higher-speed vehicles. They would, however, be posted with signs to alert motorists to be aware of small, slow-moving vehicles and the 25 mph limit.
“The concept is a great idea,” said Juan Matute, deputy director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies. “E-bikes, scooters, these smaller GEM cars — they all have smaller batteries so they use less energy per mile because they’re not lugging around the heavy weight of a large battery and a full car, but I’m not quite sure about the implementation.”
Research has shown that signs indicating a street’s speed limit aren't as effective as engineering changes such as speed humps to slow traffic. The best practices, he said, are lanes that provide some physical separation between vehicles traveling 25 mph or faster and bikes and scooters traveling 25 mph or slower.
Paint and sharrows “are very out of favor among traffic engineers and safety advocates because they rely on this promise: if enough people feel safe enough to ride, then it would be safe enough to ride, but you never really get there.”
Education about the Local Traffic Network will be key, the SBCCOG said. The council is currently in talks with the 16 cities that comprise the South Bay area, including Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach, Hawthorne and Torrance, to workshop the concept and develop corridors for a pilot program it hopes to launch next year.
It has also applied for Measure M transportation funds to develop the signage.
“We’ll do this in phases. It’s hard to herd 16 cities, so we’ll go where we get the most reception,” said Bacharach, who further said the South Bay’s beach cities have been the most receptive so far because many people already own and operate low-speed vehicles.
South Bay is home to 750,000 registered vehicles, 400 of which are neighborhood electric vehicles such as golf carts.
“We’ve had a golf cart here for the past two years,” said Shawn Giaconi. The mother of four and member of the Manhattan Beach Golf Cart Crew was one of several South Bay residents making statements in support of the Local Travel Network during last week’s council meeting.
“I greatly enjoy leaving our big Suburban at home while I use our golf cart to take our kids to school, to all their sports activities and the beach," she said. "It makes us feel better knowing we're not taking this big gas guzzler.”
Individual interest groups representing other types of low-speed vehicles also support the proposal.
“It just makes sense,” Carson Bicycle Coalition President Ray Aldridge said during the meeting, noting that he had recently bicycled the seven and a half miles from Carson to the Pacific. “With this Local Travel Network in place, it would be a commonplace thing to just get on your bike and ride to the beach versus getting in your car and driving.”
In addition to reducing traffic congestion and lowering emissions, the SBCCOG says the low-speed streets network will preserve parking and overall room in popular areas because they take up less space than cars.
“I hope it does work,” Matute said. “It would really be quite neat to be able to get sound some larger swaths of area in LA with those types of vehicles that aren't highway legal but are still practical ways to get around in a place with Southern California’s weather.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 3.5 million homes will be built in the South Bay by 2025. The error has been corrected. (June 4, 2021)