LA Traffic
Gridlock in LA

The Gridlock State

TRafFic is one of the biggest problEms California has to solve.

Learn how csu campuses are working to end the state's mind-boggling congestion.

For Californians, traffic is both a fact of life and a source of unending frustration. Simply put, the state’s available road space cannot accommodate the constantly growing demand, which has led to record levels of congestion. But traffic doesn’t just take a financial toll, it hurts quality of life for nearly everyone who calls the Golden State home.

Los Angeles is the most congested city in the nation, with drivers spending an average of 102 hours in traffic per year during peak travel periods. San Francisco ranks third in the U.S., with an average of 79 hours. By comparison, the average U.S. driver spends only about 41 hours per year battling tr​affic.

Factoring in lost time, wasted fuel and carbon emissions, the combined total cost of congestion in Los Angeles and San Francisco is estimated at nearly $30 billion. In addition, Los Angeles has 10 of the 25 worst traffic hotspots in the U.S., an unwanted honor that's expected to cost drivers $91 billion over the next decade.

Through research, innovation and education, the California State University is actively working to solve the state’s traffic troubles and, in the process, improve Californians' daily lives while keeping our economy on the right track. Read on to learn more about the work of our faculty, students and staff at campuses all over the state.

The Pioneers

San José State University's Spartan Superway

In a 9,000-square-foot warehouse near the San José State University campus, dozens of students are working on what may be the future of urban transportation: the Spartan Superway. Students involved in the project, led by San José State engineering professor Burford Furman, Ph.D., are creating a futuristic personal rapid transit system that uses renewable energy.

The Superway operates similarly to a monorail, with four-person podcars that ride on an elevated rail, but travelers stop at “offline stations” that deliver them directly to their destination without having to stop at every station along the way. The result is a quick, convenient journey.

The elevated Superway also has the potential to alleviate traffic congestion more effectively than traditional ground public transportation by reducing the volume of vehicles on the roads. In addition, commuters would have a shorter travel time, less waiting and fewer parking headaches.

Smaller-scale rail systems like the Superway's automated transit network (ATN) may be a good solution for easing traffic in small- and medium-size cities in which conventional rail is not feasible. The ATN concept itself is not new, but the Spartan Superway team is taking new approaches to inspiring the next generation of engineers and commuters.

The Spartan Superway project brings together students from mechanical and civil engineering, computer science, industrial design and business.

Students working on the Spartan Superway experience hands-on learning, much as they would working at a start-up.

Mechanical engineering students weld a piece of steel for the Spartan Superway project.

Buford Furman, Ph.D., (left) engineering professor, and former engineering professor and team sponsor Ron Swenson (right) have led the SJSU Spartan Superway project since 2012.

Industrial design student drawings of the Spartan Superway podcars focus on efficiency, aesthetics and passenger comfort.

With the Spartan Superway, we took a very different approach to urban transportation by using vertical space. Currently, cars, bikes and pedestrians compete for space on the ground in urban areas. By placing transportation machinery above existing rights of way, we increase pedestrian and bicycle safety on the ground.

— Dr. Burford Furman, Professor of Engineering, San José State

A Sustainable Commute, With The Help Of The Sun

The Superway would be the only system of its kind in the world that’s completely solar-powered. Students have created three different models, including one at full-scale. According to Dr. Furman, a lot more engineering work must be done as features such as accessibility are addressed.

This interdisciplinary project, launched in 2012, is made possible in part by former SJSU engineering professor Ron Swenson. As co-director, Swenson mentors students and supports the project through his non-profit organization.

The design has captured the attention of a number of industry and government leaders around the world. Furman and Swenson continue to approach businesses for help with developing the technology needed for the Spartan Superway.

The Problem Solvers

Cal Poly Pomona's Dr. Xudong Jia and Students

At California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, students of civil engineering professor Xudong Jia, Ph.D., take part in a senior project that gives them plenty of real-world experience in tackling some of Southern California’s worst traffic hotspots.

Every year for more than a decade, a group of Dr. Jia’s students selects a local area with significant traffic challenges and works together to develop a solution, which they then present to the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

This past year’s project focused on a segment of highway—State Route 60 (SR 60)—in Beaumont, a small city in Riverside County. Because Beaumont is growing rapidly and its infrastructure can't keep up with traffic demand, students developed a plan that would increase the capacity for vehicles, alleviate congestion and provide improved access for drivers along the route.

Their plan includes a proposal for adding an additional lane in each direction of traffic along a section of SR 60, as well as adding a modified cloverleaf interchange at the intersection of SR 60 and Jack Rabbit Trail. The overpass of this intersection would accommodate bicycles and pedestrians.

Play Adam's Profile Video 

In addition to the technical skills they'll need as future transportation engineers, students must also acquire communication, presentation and leadership skills. These are especially important for success later on in their careers.

— Dr. Xudong Jia, Civil Engineering Professor, Cal Poly Pomona

Students not only get to add this hands-on experience to their resume even before they graduate; Caltrans uses much of their research—for example, the SR60 project is now being used as part of planned improvements to accommodate future growth in the region.

The hands-on learning partnerships with Caltrans are gaining momentum. Jia’s program caught the attention of Derek Higa, assistant director of design for Caltrans District 7, who is currently working to implement a similar model with Cal State LA.

“It’s a win-win for them as students and for Caltrans as an employer,” Higa says. “They get valuable industry skills and we get great job candidates and research we can use to improve our transportation system.”

The Thought Leaders

CSU San Bernardino’s Leonard Transportation Center

Solving a problem as big and complex as traffic in a state the size of California requires creating a dialogue with a wide variety of people. That was the genesis of California State University, San Bernardino’s William and Barbara Leonard Transportation Center (LTC), which focuses on issues related to reducing transportation costs and increasing efficiency in Southern California. 

In addition to a robust research and student engagement program, the center serves as a local think tank and leads many of the conversations that must take place for the state to find solutions that will ease congestion now and into the future. 

“We are currently undergoing a radical transformation in the transportation sector with the advancement of new technologies, and that makes planning ahead even more important,” says LTC Executive Director Kimberly Collins, Ph.D.

CSU San Bernardino is also garnering attention with its recent selection as one of only 18 institutions nationwide to take part in a U.S. Department of Transportation program to study expected traffic trends in the next three decades.

Finding solutions to the mobility challenges in Southern California is much more likely when people from different walks of life are engaged in the conversations.

— Dr. Kimberly Collins, Executive Director
Leonard Transportation Center, CSU San Bernardino

Leading the Dialogue

The LTC hosts dialogue series and workshops that bring public and private sector experts together to explore solutions to these problems. To address traffic challenges years down the road, the conversation has to start today, says Dr. Collins. Visit the LTC’s Mobility Dialogue Series site to learn about upcoming panels and workshops. Below are links to two recent conversations.


A recent session at the LTC focused on the use of congestion pricing — in which drivers pay a toll or fee during peak commuting hours — to improve traffic flow. The approach has been effective in many urban areas because, surprisingly, most drivers during rush hour are not commuters. However, some have expressed concerns about equity of use due to the economic incentive.                                                                                      

read about Congestion pricing

A May 2018 dialogue session brought together professionals from industry, government and academia to address the possibilities and challenges of transportation innovations like electric cars and autonomous vehicles.                                                                                    

learn about the new technology

Heavy Traffic Ahead

As California’s population continues to grow, so will the need for ways to solve traffic congestion. A study by the Public Policy Institute of California projects the state’s population will reach 44.1 million by 2030 and that average annual increases will be equivalent to adding the population of a city the size of Anaheim every year.

The CSU is tackling the problem from all angles — acting as a think tank to encourage novel and practical ideas, facilitating the engineering of large-scale solutions, and preparing the workforce to implement them.

This article is the first in a series on California's transportation problems and the ways in which the campuses of the California State University are working to solve them. Please read our subsequent coverageon the CSU's role in reinventing and repai​ring California's roads and highways, and check back for future articles on finding new and better sources of fuel and improving the logistics of the air and sea transportation that serves not just California but the planet.

We look forward to introducing you to the faculty, students and staff of the CSU and the work they do every day to provide safe, sustainable transportation through research, policy and hands-on learning.

Story: Elizabeth Chapin



Share this story