April 15, 2007
The first step is to end the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's virtual monopoly and allow private jitney and bus operators to enter the transportation market to compete with the MTA and with each other. Taxi cabs introduce only a small degree of competition because local authorities keep fleets small.
Transit entrepreneurs who get 100% of their revenues from fares (unlike the MTA, which is heavily subsidized by taxpayers) would quickly figure out what kinds of services would attract car drivers. Unfortunately, any entrepreneurs who dare to try right now would be prosecuted for defying the MTA's state-sanctioned monopoly.
That's ridiculous. It would cost nothing to end the monopoly and allow independent jitney services to freely enter the transit market. The result would be a burst of new travel options and fewer cars on the street with one occupant.
A surprising amount of traffic isn't caused by people on their way somewhere. Rather, it is caused by drivers who clog the streets while searching for parking spaces. For instance, about 8,000 cars a day park at the 470 meters in Westwood Village, so even a small amount of cruising time for each car adds up to a lot of traffic. Over a year, this cruising amounts to about 950,000 miles of travel -- the equivalent of 38 trips around the Earth.
And here's an inconvenient truth: Those 950,000 miles waste 47,000 gallons of gas and produces 730 tons of the carbon dioxide in one small business district.
What causes this astonishing waste? The fact that an hour at the meter costs 50 cents -- only 20% of the price for off-street parking, so drivers have a strong incentive to cruise.
Some cities adjust their meter rates to eliminate the incentive to cruise for parking. For instance, Redwood City, Calif., sets its downtown meter rates to achieve an 85% occupancy rate for curb parking. The price is 75 cents an hour at the center of downtown, and less elsewhere. Drivers can usually find a vacant space near their destinations because the vacancy rate is about 15% elsewhere, and the cruising time is near zero.
The added revenue totals $1 million a year, and Redwood City uses it to pay for more police and cleaner sidewalks in the metered downtown district.
If Los Angeles wants to reduce traffic congestion, -- as well as lower greenhouse-gas emissions -- and do it all quickly it should charge the right price for curb parking and spend the new revenue for public services in the metered neighborhoods.
We unwisely keep trying to connect self-sufficient parts of the city through long-distance corridors. The proposal to turning Olympic and Pico Boulevards into one-way streets is yet another example of this foolish policy. Such a conversion would basically kill retail in such affected areas as Pico-Union and Pico-Robertson and work against any attempt to capitalize on their densities by attracting mix-use developments. Just look at what happened when some downtown streets were made one-way: Retail development catering to pedestrians has been a hard sell.
What Los Angeles needs is a transit system that better reflects what it is -- a sprawling mid-density city. So build the world's easiest-to-use bus system. This network should expand such transit innovations as the MTA's Metro Rapid buses, which run in dedicated lanes, and Rapid Express buses, which make few stops. These systems are far less expensive to build than light rail or a "subway to the sea."
We also should synchronize more traffic lights, fix more potholes and -- most important -- build "village centers" in neighborhoods so people do not have to make as many trips across town. Lowering city taxes on home-based businesses, which would encourage their creation, would facilitate this transition.
Finally, we need to think about building toll lanes, or tollways, to divert the truck traffic that grinds through the city. The 110 and 710 corridors to the ports are obvious candidates for such lanes. This should be a win-win all around: safer freeways because of fewer trucks, quicker trips for trucks, and decreased pollution because trucks would idle less.
Our traffic nightmare didn't spring up overnight, nor can commuters expect an easy, quick fix. It will take coordinated efforts on the part of city officials, transportation planners and engineers, employers and commuters. Short term, these ideas, collectively implemented, could ease traffic congestion:
In the long run, if more employers offered workers variable work schedules and rewarded those who used mass transit instead of company-subsidized parking, rush-hour congestion would significantly lessen.
A big roadblock to faster traffic flow is the now-outdated notion that carpool lanes, or high-occupancy vehicle lanes, are good congestion-busters. For the most part, they're not. Carpool commuting is becoming less common even as more lanes to accommodate it are being built. Better that we turn these carpool lanes into special toll lanes.
The toll would go up or down depending on the flow of cars: The greater the congestion, the more expensive to use these high-occupancy-toll lanes, or HOT lanes. But the flexible-pricing system would maintain free-flow conditions, allowing more vehicles to fly along the same lanes that today are often as congested as the regular ones.
Apart from buying special software and hiring some back-office staff, setting up HOT lanes would be simply a matter of installing antennas for communication with electronic toll collectors, video cameras to catch cheaters, changeable message signs at various points along the route and plastic pylons to separate the lanes from the regular ones.
Transit buses also could use the special lanes, creating the virtual equivalent of an exclusive busway (think the Valley's Orange Line), but at the fraction of the cost because there is no need to build facilities from scratch. The Bay Area plans to develop a regionwide network of HOT lanes. Because L.A. is home to the nation's most extensive carpool-lane network, it would seem a natural for conversion to a HOT system.
For starters, we need a fast but comprehensive analysis of which short-term measures could reduce congestion in Los Angeles now, including new incentives for carpooling and telecommuting, This could be undertaken by city or county transportation staff, a committee appointed by the mayor or an independent research institution. But it must be done immediately.
Second, we need to strengthen the city's only widely used rapid transit system -- buses -- by making it easier, faster, cheaper and more reliable to use than a car. The would require more buses and Rapid Express bus-only lanes should be established on as many major city arteries -- both east-west and north-south -- as possible, including Wilshire Boulevard.
Instead of increasing bus fares, as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has proposed, we should freeze or cut them to attract even more riders. To pay for this, new capital projects should be deferred and subsidies allocated to keep bus fares affordable.
Long-term transportation planning is essential, but the MTA must not be allowed to starve its bus system to feed a future rail system. And reasonable alternatives to the subway, such as a monorail system that may be both cheaper and quicker to build, should not be dismissed out of hand.
It's important to understand that L.A. is not congested because it has more roads than most U.S. cities (it doesn't) or because people drive more here than most other places (they don't). L.A. is congested, and getting more so over time, because development densities here are high and increasing, while most people get around in cars. Continued growth will only worsen the situation, and improved public transit while desirable on many grounds won't reduce traffic. Worldwide, congestion is endemic in cities with the highest levels of transit use. While public transit can prove an attractive alternative to sitting in traffic, transit systems actually depend on slow-moving traffic and high parking prices to effectively compete with automobiles for customers.
The cold, hard truth is that there are only three ways to truly "solve gridlock," and none is popular. First, we could substantially increase road supply by spending tens of billions to blanket the southland with so many new roads that every conceivable vehicle trip could be accommodated during rush hour. Second, we could drastically reduce travel demand via a severe economic downturn, catastrophic disaster, or prohibitions on driving that would empty our region of millions of residents and thousands of firms so that those who remain behind could travel freely. Most of us would agree that neither of these rather extreme options is desirable.
The third way is to bring road supply and travel demand into balance with prices. So instead of paying for transportation as we do now with bonds, sales taxes, fuel taxes, and the like, drivers would instead pay as they go -- they would pay dearly to travel at rush hour in congested areas, and much less at other times and on other routes. While common sense tells us that millions of trips would have to be priced off of the roads before traffic would move freely, common sense in this case is wrong. When it comes to traffic, small price changes can make a big difference.
So why would pricing road use reduce congestion so much more than, say, one-way streets or a subway to the sea? Because added road or transit capacity that reduces delay in the short term, encourages additional vehicle trips on newly (and temporarily) uncongested roads over the longer term. Pricing, on the other hand, replaces one cost (time spent sitting in traffic) with another (tolls paid to travel freely during rush hour). But while spending time in traffic produces no revenue, spending on tolls generates a lot of money to improve highway and transit systems directly from those who benefit most from road use (instead of, for example, our current transportation sales taxes that disproportionately burden the poor).
While pricing roads is the only reasonable path to a far less congested Los Angeles, the idea remains wildly unpopular among voters and the people whom they elect. Fair enough, but we then need to be honest in acknowledging that our current efforts to reduce congestion will at best slow its inexorable rise. If L.A. is to continue growing, Angelenos do have a choice: They can pay more time in traffic delays on free roads, or they can pay more in tolls to avoid traffic. But either way, it's gonna cost them.
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