At Thursday's mayoral debate, Councilman Eric Garcetti suggested offering a $1 million prize to whoever can solve L.A.'s traffic problems.
You might think that traffic experts would be excited about that. But you would be wrong.
“The solution to L.A.'s traffic problem is a political issue,” said Martin Wachs, an emeritus professor of transportation studies at UC Berkeley. “The notion that someone could think up a solution that might be worth $1 million is fanciful.”
Garcetti modeled the idea on Netflix's $1 million prize for the best new algorithm for movie recommendations.
“Here's my idea for Los Angeles,” he said at the debate. “Take all the traffic data that we have now, the sensors that we have out there, and put out there — raising privately — $1 million, to say, 'Everybody around the world, help us solve L.A.'s traffic.' And somebody who comes up with a good idea to cut our traffic, you're gonna get $1 million.”
Traffic experts have no shortage of ideas — build more roads, impose congestion pricing, increase the gas tax, etc. etc. The catch is that all of those ideas are less popular than the problem they seek to solve.
“It's not as though people in my area haven't thought through these issues,” says Brian Taylor, the director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies. “To say, 'Well how about $1 million?' — it implies there's this missing algorithm.”
From the sound of it, Garcetti seems to have been thinking about better signal timing. However, traffic experts say that would not reduce congestion. Instead, it would boost capacity while leaving gridlock unchanged. To reduce congestion, one must grapple with the fundamental forces of supply and demand.
“We know everything we need to know to address traffic delays,” Taylor says. “We can restrict development density. We can expand road capacity… We can limit people's ability to use a roadway. We can have a license plate scheme. Each one of them, when we present it to elected officials, they say 'That's not going to fly politically.'”
Bill Carrick, Garcetti's strategist, emphasized that the prize money would come from private sources, and no tax dollars would be involved.
“The idea of this is to get some outside-the-box thinking that's not traditional,” Carrick said. “What have you got to lose?”
The Garcetti campaign also released a supportive quote from Sam Friedman, CEO of ParkMe, a Santa Monica-based firm that helps drivers find parking spaces via a mobile app.
“You never know where the next big idea will come from, and incentives like this can drive innovations from companies, garage tinkerers and universities alike,” Friedman said. “Our elected officials should absolutely be aggressive about finding new ways to address our city's growing traffic congestion.”
Wachs said that Garcetti's proposal is “clever and fun, but it evades the genuine issue.” He says he has dozens of ideas to reduce traffic, such as turning Olympic and Pico into one-way streets, increasing the cost of parking, reconfiguring the way shopping centers are built, and so on. The problem is that each one affects someone's interests and thus carries a political cost.
“The question is not one of finding a technical solution,” Wachs said. “The question is finding political consensus. I'm not sure $1 million or $1 billion or $10 billion would lead to a political consensus.”