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Why are we pursuing a Traffic Reduction Study?

Photo by Eric Demarcq via Flickr creative commons.

Metro’s Traffic Reduction Study is  moving forward  and we’re preparing to hold our first public meetings in the coming weeks to discuss the study process, timeline, and  get early feedback from  communities. The study will focus on determining if, where and how a potential pilot that includes congestion pricing and more high-quality transportation options could reduce traffic to make it easier for everyone to travel, regardless of how they travel. The following article is by Metro Chief Innovation Officer Joshua Schank, explaining why this effort is needed.

Los Angeles has been fighting traffic for over a century. We have tried almost everything. We built more freeways. We improved traffic signal technology. We expanded roadways. We built mass transit, ripped it out, did nothing for 30-plus years  and then started building it again. And yet nothing seems to make a difference – and traffic keeps getting worse.

We’ve experienced a temporary reprieve from traffic as a result of COVID-19. It won’t last. We all gasped at the images of empty freeways, but according to new data from SCAG – people are driving almost as much on our freeways as they were in January, just before the pandemic. This is occurring despite the fact that so many people are currently unemployed or working from home.

We don’t know what the future will hold but the economy will recover, more people will return to work, the population will continue to grow and almost certainly more cars will converge on our roadways in the coming years. Worsening traffic has been a defining characteristic of our region for decades (some say it is the defining characteristic). Recessions have merely slowed traffic’s growth while periods of economic expansion have accelerated it.

We need to keep up our efforts to beat traffic and we have to try something new. The reason these old ideas haven’t worked is because they have all tried to deal with the problem in the same way. When we build or expand roads, or build or expand public transit, we add more capacity. Unfortunately, it’s basically impossible to build sufficient capacity to meet travel demand in a growing economy. A growing economy means more people taking more trips. Any new capacity is quickly absorbed, and traffic returns. When we build more lanes on a freeway, people who previously didn’t drive that route — perhaps they went at a different time or took a different route or took mass transit or didn’t take the trip — now find it more attractive. They decide to take the new route and, soon enough, it’s just as clogged as before. To make matters worse, this ineffective solution is also very expensive, slow and disproportionately impacts vulnerable communities.

Our roads are an important piece of infrastructure that people depend on –- and they should work effectively. We can and we must look for solutions to the problem of traffic. That’s why it’s time to consider something else. And not just anything else, but a solution supported by decades of research and demonstrated success around the world. It’s typically called congestion pricing.

The idea is simple. Rather than forcing everyone to suffer in traffic, wasting hours of their lives and polluting the air, we limit the use of the road to the maximum number of cars that it can handle. By charging a fee to use the road that corresponds to demand for that road at that time, we can ensure traffic flows smoothly.

We are all familiar with this concept because we see it all around us every day. It’s the fast pass in amusement parks, the pre-check for airlines, the surge pricing for ridehailing and the bag charge at the grocery store. But let’s face it, these are luxuries. We don’t absolutely need any of these things.

We know roads are different. We depend on our roads to get to work, school and so many other things. We also depend on electricity, water, and gas — and here, too, congestion pricing is applied. On hot days, when the demand for electricity increases, the price of electricity rises to reduce demand and maintain the stability of our electric grid. Without congestion pricing we would almost certainly face regular blackouts. Would we tolerate not knowing if we had the power we need when we need it for our homes, schools, businesses, hospitals and other critical facilities? Not likely.

This is what we do with our roads however, and the list of consequences is severe and numerous. Because our roads are free, people aren’t incentivized to think about other options. This could be traveling at a different time, carpooling or taking another mode. The key is to find the right price that enables as many people as possible to use the road and keeps the road performing at optimal levels with traffic moving freely. If we charge the right price, far more people will be able to drive, and to do so without sitting in traffic. And if the roads aren’t clogged, buses will move freely so that people on mass transit will travel faster too. This is the potential power of congestion pricing.

Based on implementation in London, Stockholm, Singapore and Milan, we believe this idea could work in Los Angeles. It’s at least worth testing with a pilot. This is what the Traffic Reduction Study will explore – where could we test this idea in L.A. County to see if it works? If it works, then we can enjoy the benefits of traffic reduction (finally!). If not, we can get rid of it — but at least we will genuinely have tried everything we could to fix traffic in Los Angeles County.

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