We Know How to Fix Traffic, We Just Don't Want to

Just another L.A. commute
Just another L.A. commute
Prayitno / via Flickr

It's shaping up to be Traffic Week here at L.A. Weekly, with a cover story on the MTA's new $120 billion transit plan, plus coverage of a new study showing that, yes, L.A. has the nation's worst traffic jams (but the 405 isn't as bad as you think).

It's tempting to think that traffic is one of those insoluble dilemmas of Los Angeles — just the price you pay to live in a thriving megalopolis that a lot of other people also want to live in. But the fact is that transit experts do have a pretty good idea of how to fix traffic.

There is a catch, however. The situation is sort of like that Citizen Kane quote about making a lot of money — it's not so difficult, if that's all you want to do. Similarly, it's not that hard to solve traffic, if all you want to do is solve traffic.

The solution is congestion pricing. The MTA does this, on a pilot basis, on the 110 freeway south of downtown and on the 10 freeway in the San Gabriel Valley. It's had a mixed record so far — a lot of people use it, but a lot of people don't like it. But if you ask James Moore, the director of the Transportation Engineering Program at USC, it should be used everywhere.

"If I were king, I would price all the capacity," Moore says. 

The tolls on the 110 and 10 "Express Lanes" range from 25 cents to $1.40 per mile.  As traffic slows, the tolls go up. The goal is to maintain a minimum speed of 45 mph. (Many more details can be found here.) The idea is that putting a price on use of the freeway internalizes the external costs of driving, and forces people to make more efficient use of the freeways.

"If you don't use price to allocate resources, other mechanisms emerge, such as queueing," Moore says.

A traffic jam is thus little different from a Soviet-era bread line.

So now, on those segments of the 110 and the 10, drivers finally have a choice. They can pay a toll and zip along in the fast lanes, or pay with their time to use the congested, non-toll lanes. The problem is that too many people are choosing to pay the toll.

About 500,000 people have obtained the transponders that allow them to drive in the toll lanes. In January, the MTA staff reported that the lanes are so crowded that speeds have dropped. When traffic gets too slow, all the toll-paying drivers are kicked out and lanes revert to carpool-only.  To address this issue, the MTA decided to boost the maximum toll in increments of 10 cents per mile.

During the debate, some of the board members voiced concerns about the whole concept. Supervisor Don Knabe complained that there is "no rhyme nor reason to the pricing," and noted that people sometimes dart in and out of the lanes to avoid paying.

"None of this makes any real sense," argued Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. "I have never liked letting people pay to ride in these lanes."

Kuehl said she could see the argument for allowing hybrid and electric vehicles in carpool lanes, because it lowers carbon emissions. But she did not see a case for letting solo drivers pay congestion tolls. She also noted the problem of allowing access for low-income drivers, which the MTA has addressed to a degree through a rebate program.

"Nothing is gained but money," Kuehl said.

There is another gain — a faster commute for people willing to pay for it — but to see that, you'd need to be able to imagine yourself using the toll lanes. Kuehl's argument is similar to one you sometimes hear from rail critics: if it doesn't benefit non-users, then there is no benefit. In fact, the real benefit of either mode goes primarily to those who take advantage of it.

What non-users really want is free-flowing traffic, even in peak hours, in one of the greatest cities in the world, for free. But you can't have all of those things. If you're against congestion pricing, it just means you prefer to have bad traffic than to make the tradeoffs required to improve it.

That all said, the Express Lanes might work better if they were set up differently. For instance, when traffic in the toll lanes slows, all the electric cars and carpools could be kicked out, giving priority to the toll-payers. That would make traffic a breeze for the toll-payers. But the MTA has chosen to encourage carpooling and electric vehicles, at the cost of greater congestion.

In the world where James Moore is king, and all lanes are subject to congestion pricing, there would be a real concern about equity. Rich people would happily pay the tolls, while a lot of poor people would stay home. That's one argument for building out a functional transit system, which would offer decent mobility for the low price of $1.75 per trip.

But in the world where toll lanes are an option alongside non-toll lanes, drivers have a choice of paying with their time or their money. By not offering that choice more broadly, the MTA is forcing everyone to pay with their time.


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