Opinion

There's only one way to fix L.A.'s traffic, and it isn't Elon Musk's tunnels. We need tolls — lots of them

Los Angeles is fed up with its traffic. Despite billions spent in herculean efforts to expand our roads, our freeways are as clogged as ever. We spent $1.6 billion to widen the 405 Freeway in 2014, and yet commute times through the Sepulveda Pass are the same. Perhaps even more frustrating, we’re spending billions more to get people out of their cars and onto Metro — and not only is our traffic problem unmoved, transit ridership is declining.

Things have gotten so bad that billionaire futurist Elon Musk recently promised to “just start digging” tunnels underneath L.A. With enough layers of tunnels, says Musk, any amount of cars could be provided for.

With all due respect to Mr. Musk, this plan encapsulates everything that’s wrong with how we think about traffic. Instead of building our way out of the problem, there is a proven solution to fighting traffic, one that’s much easier, more effective and less costly than our current approach. It’s putting a price on the use of our roads.

Nobody likes paying for anything they are used to getting for free, and freeway tolls are no exception. But why are we willing to pay for electricity, gasoline or air travel, but not for roads?

The reason that electrical power and air travel don’t fail every time they get crowded is that we raise prices to manage demand. If things cost more, people use less of them. We all accept that airline tickets are more expensive during the holidays. And yet we miss that this very same, simple system of pricing could solve our congestion problem. Roads are the only piece of infrastructure we allow to consistently fail due to overuse.

Since 2003, cities across the country have been experimenting with something called “dynamic tolling” as a traffic solution. This entails adding what are called High-Occupancy/Toll (HOT) lanes on freeways. In a HOT lane, carpools drive for free, while solo drivers have to pay. Tolls are usually collected via a transponder, without ever having to slow down. Two of these experimental HOTs are right here in Los Angeles on the 110 and the 10 freeways.

In these HOT lanes, congestion is basically a thing of the past. On one highway in Miami, for example, average speeds went from 20 mph to 62 mph. On a Minneapolis road, speeds of 50-55 mph are maintained 95% of the time. Here in Los Angeles, average speeds on the 10 and 110 are 45 mph in the general purpose lanes and 65 mph in the HOT lanes. And the free flowing lanes are benefiting transit riders, too. Transit usage jumped 10% following the opening of the 10 and 110 ExpressLanes. Despite a poor, under-publicized rollout by Metro, these facilities have created far more traffic relief than the 405 widening at a fraction of the cost.

Dynamic tolling works by varying the price of the toll lanes by time of day. It costs more when traffic is typically busy, and less when fewer people want to use it. Prices can range from $0.50 to around $8 per trip.

A free-flowing road also carries more cars than a congested road, so by keeping things moving, the price actually increases the capacity on the road. Minneapolis’ HOT lane, for instance, carried 33% more cars than it did when it was free.

The system works because when prices go up, it sends a signal to drivers that there are lots of other cars on the road. Just as with airfare, people respond to these signals.

People have more flexibility in their drive times than you might imagine. Roughly half of peak-hour trips are not commutes to work or school. With HOT lanes, when prices are high, people adjust accordingly. If it's worth it, they get in the lane and save time. If they don’t want to pay, they have that most American of options — choice: They could use the unpriced lanes, go at a different time, carpool, or take transit to avoid the cost.

Experts have pointed to tolls as a traffic solution for decades, yet building political support for road fees continues to be a challenge — the most common complaint being: "Oh, so only rich people can drive?"

This critique ignores the fact that working Americans often suffer the most severely from the impacts of poor mobility. Working-class parents who are late to pick up their kids from day care, for example, often pay severe financial penalties. Having the option to reach their destination quickly could actually save them money. In fact, experience with dynamic tolling in the United States has shown that people of all income levels use these lanes. This objection also ignores just how inequitable and dysfunctional our current system is. Tolls may disproportionately burden the poor, but so do sales taxes, gas taxes and every other way we pay for roads.

Moreover, if you're concerned about progress and justice, consider how corrosive the traffic problem is to our public life. Competing for space in unpleasant and unpredictable traffic erodes our hospitality. Clogged roads dim our civic pride and diminish our ability to imagine a better future for our city. How many opportunities — both individually and as a city — have we rejected because we were afraid of traffic? We miss out on sporting events, or we refuse to build housing, or we fight against bike lanes and other roadway safety projects that could save lives.

Is there another way besides tolls? Unfortunately, no. We’ve tried them all. We’ve tried keeping neighborhoods suburban. We’ve tried density. We’ve tried building billions of dollars’ worth of transit lines. We’ve tried widening roads at great expense.

Why are we so willing to try expensive, desperate policies, often with dire, unintended consequences, in order to solve traffic without pricing the roads? The bottom line is, when you give away something valuable for free, you create insatiable demand. Traffic is the result.

The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Herbie Huff is a researcher and lecturer at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies.

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