Editorial

Everyone hates tolls, but drastic times may call for drastic measures to fix L.A.'s traffic

Los Angeles has the dubious distinction of having the nation’s — and perhaps even the world’s — worst traffic.

Our clogged roadways create all kinds of unhealthy and unproductive side effects. The most serious is the region’s dangerously high levels of air pollution, which can be so potent in some communities that children’s lungs are permanently damaged just by breathing. There’s also the loss of productivity that comes with workers and deliveries stuck in traffic, not to mention the mental and physical stress of crawling bumper to bumper.

Traffic, in case you haven’t noticed, isn’t getting any better in Southern California. In fact, it’s projected to get far worse in the coming years as the region’s population and economy grow. It’s time to start thinking about big changes that will ease traffic and shift people to more sustainable ways of travel. One possibility that has been adopted in other cities is congestion pricing.

Under congestion pricing, drivers pay a fee to use the road during the busiest times of the day. The goal is to reduce traffic by giving people a powerful incentive to take alternative modes of transportation or avoid driving during rush hour.

Los Angeles County already has dipped its toe into congestion pricing with what it calls ExpressLanes, which allow solo drivers to buy their way into what were formerly just carpool lanes on the 110 and 10 Freeways. The toll rises when traffic is heavy and drops when it’s light. The hope is that the lanes will attract so many solo drivers eager to travel faster (the program promises speeds of 45 mph and above) that congestion will be reduced in the general purpose lanes too.

Now the Southern California Assn. of Governments, the six-county regional planning agency, wants to go further. SCAG has floated the idea of creating congestion pricing zones, or “Go Zones,” where drivers would be charged a fee to use traffic-clogged streets at peak times. The money collected could be used to fund public transit, bicycling and pedestrian safety projects so travelers would have more convenient, safe alternatives to driving.

It worked in London. After the city imposed a congestion charge to enter the city center in 2003, car traffic dropped by nearly 40% and travel speeds on the city streets increased. The fee, now roughly $15 per day, has generated more than $2 billion for road and public transit improvements. Speeds have slowed in recent years with the growth in car-for-hire services, like Uber, that are exempt from the charge and deliveries associated with online commerce.

Stockholm’s congestion tax, which ranges from $1 to $4 each time you drive in or out of the city center, has reduced traffic by an average of 20% since it was implemented a decade ago. Air pollution in the most heavily trafficked areas dropped by 10% to 15%, and recent research found a significant decrease in the rate of asthma attacks among young children. While Swedes were initially skeptical of the tax — polls showed some 70% opposed it before implementation — within a few years, public opinion flipped and 70% supported the tax.

Charging a fee to drive into a traffic-clogged area makes people reevaluate the trip. Is it worth the price? Is there an alternative, like taking the bus or train? Is it feasible to travel in off-peak hours or avoid the trip altogether? It takes just a small percentage reduction in the number of cars to ease congestion. And that’s what you’re paying for: faster driving on a road that would otherwise be slow.

Congestion pricing is a fast, efficient way to get people to change their behavior to help reduce traffic and air pollution. Yet there is no escaping the fact that charging for road use has less impact on wealthier people, who can afford to pay an extra $10 to $15 a day, and significantly more impact on lower-income people who could find themselves out of their cars. Southern California already has a serious and growing problem with income inequality, so any congestion pricing model has to be sensitive to the transportation needs and challenges of poorer residents. That could mean using the fee revenue to greatly improve transit, bike and walking options for faster, safer daily commutes, or to provide transportation rebates or allowances to subsidize low-wage workers in congestion pricing zones.

Southern California is obviously very different from London, Stockholm and the other cities considering a congestion fee, like New York City. Los Angeles doesn't have a central business district. It’s a sprawling region with clogged traffic both in city centers, such as downtown and Santa Monica, and on travel corridors, like the 405 Freeway. Driving is ingrained into the landscape here, and the region is still years away from having a fully connected, convenient public transit system.

Still, the reality is that Southern California is not going to build a bunch of new freeways. Nor has adding lanes to existing roadways solved congestion. Yet traffic is going to keep coming. It’s time at least to consider pricing the roads.

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