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Column: To beat congestion, L.A. needs to charge drivers more. But how can it be done right?

The problem of traffic congestion in the Southland summons up that quip about the weather often attributed to Mark Twain: “Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.”

But now the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs Los Angeles’ bus, rail and subway lines, is taking the matter in hand. As my colleague Laura J. Nelson reported, the MTA voted Feb. 28 to commission studies on how to raise the cost of driving, with the goal of steering residents and visitors toward public transit or walking in the run-up to the 2028 Olympic Games.

The MTA will take up to two years to study its options. That’s a sensible time frame, although the fundamental question about the need for programs such as congestion pricing — which charges motorists differential fees for using roads based on traffic patterns — or other programs has been answered. Yes, vehicular traffic needs to be brought under control.

Congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come. It’s especially appropriate for L.A. ... the most congested city in North America.
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The unanswered questions involve how. The MTA will focus on three options — a per-mile tax, a fee to enter certain neighborhoods and an expansion of toll lanes such as the 110 Freeway corridor, an 11-mile stretch on which drivers are charged different rates at different times of day. The agency also will ponder whether to impose a surcharge on trips using ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft.

“Congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come,” says urban planning expert Richard Florida of the University of Toronto. “It’s especially appropriate for L.A., which wins the most accolades for being the most congested city in North America.”

But Los Angeles also presents unusual challenges compared with other cities that have implemented or are considering traffic charges. Unlike London and Stockholm, which charge vehicles for entry into central zones, L.A. is polycentric — downtown, Hollywood, Century City and other points not only concentrate vehicular traffic but cause congestion on connecting corridors.

Unlike New York and San Francisco, L.A. developed independently of public transit, so its existing transit system maps poorly to many residential and business areas.

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Yet transportation experts don’t think those factors should prevent L.A. from implementing an effective system.

The combination of smartphone apps and GPS systems could identify the location of cars to enable charging motorists for using high-demand freeway space in ways that are more flexible than the fixed sensors that read vehicular transponders on Southland toll roads. “We have the capacity with mobile technology to tell you everywhere you drove that this is a more expensive time,” says Brian D. Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA.

One major challenge may be educating the public about the pros and cons of congestion pricing. On the surface, it may look like a way of privileging more affluent motorists at the expense of the working class, on the assumption that the wealthy will be more willing or able to pay a fee for a quick, comfortable ride to or from work — in other words, a new tax on lower-income commuters.

But many of our assumptions about traffic — including who drives, when and why — are wrong.

People tend to believe that commuting accounts for most auto trips and the bulk of miles spent on the road; in fact, Taylor says, commuting accounts for no more than 20% of all trips and less than 25% of total mileage. Commuting-related congestion just seems worse because it’s concentrated in a few specific corridors and shoehorned into discrete morning and evening rush hours.

The popular impression also may be that because traffic on toll lanes such as those on the 91 and 110 freeways appears sparse — especially compared with the bumper-to-bumper jams on the free lanes — they represent wasted space. The opposite is true, Taylor says.

“People look at that and say, ‘Look at those underused lanes.’” But the pay lanes are producing “a huge efficiency gain,” Taylor says. According to an early study of the 91 toll lanes, he explains, although the lanes account for one-third of the capacity of the freeway, during rush hour they carried 44% of the motorists on the freeway at 65 miles per hour, while the remaining 56% were mired on the four free lanes at about 25 miles per hour.

These misconceptions play into the debate about equity — that is, how can congestion pricing be designed so it’s not more of a burden on the poor than the rich?

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The truth is that the cost of our transportation infrastructure already imposes a disproportionate burden on lower-income residents. The reason is that programs to improve roads and public transit are almost always funded by sales taxes, the most regressive levies in government’s arsenal.

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Can the trend be reversed? Despite higher transit funding, L.A. congestion (yellow line) has increased and transit and rail trips per capita (orange line and gray bars) have fallen.
(UCLA)

In Los Angeles County, that was true of Measure R in 2008, a half-cent sales tax increase expected to raise $40 billion over its 30-year lifespan; and Measure M in 2016, which extended that sales tax increase indefinitely, raised it to a full cent after 2039, and is calculated to bring in more than $120 billion through 2057.

Some unequal burdens imposed by direct fees on auto use could be moderated by a lifeline program similar to the discounts offered to low-income utility ratepayers.

L.A.’s devotion to the car creates hidden costs across the income spectrum. Apartment builders are mandated to provide parking spaces for their renters, which drives up construction costs. Parking fees for central-city workers are tantamount to a regressive tax on those who must bring their cars to work. Parking requirements create acres of wasted space around shopping centers in off-hours, because they’re keyed to on-peak demand for free parking.

And congestion that prompts drivers to leave the freeway and seek alternate routes through neighborhoods, say with the help of smartphone apps such as Waze, transfers the cost of freeway traffic jams to local residents.

The MTA’s decision to study Uber and Lyft reflects how little is known about the impact of those novel services on urban traffic. A 2018 study by transportation expert Bruce Schaller covering Los Angeles and eight other major cities suggested that the services are exacerbating congestion, largely because their passengers are drawn off of public transportation or walking.

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The main source of transit funding, local option sales tax increases (LOST), falls most heavily on lower income residents.
(UCLA)
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That would confirm the impression of L.A. officials that the rise of Uber and Lyft accounts for at least some of the vexing decline in mass transit ridership in the community. Schaller also conjectured that Uber and Lyft cars driving to pick up passengers add to the mileage driven on city roads.

Other experts, however, think the picture is not so simple. Taylor observes that in bustling cities such as San Francisco, the services may be getting blamed for congestion that would have happened anyway because of strong growth in population and employment.

“If Uber and Lyft had never existed,” he says, “what would have happened? There would have been more transit growth, and more driving.” In Los Angeles, according to a report Taylor published last year with two colleagues, the falloff in transit ridership appears to be related chiefly to a sharp rise in private car ownership, especially among low-income households, and almost entirely unconnected to the rise of Uber and Lyft.

In any case, enthusiasm for funding better public transit appears to be strong in L.A., even if the voters show less eagerness to ride the buses and rails. Measure M passed with a decisive 71% to 29% vote in 2016.

That could change if public transit became more extensive and reliable, and the cost of using private cars more onerous. If the fees raised by congestion pricing were spent on local transit improvements, riders would benefit both from expanded systems and a reduction of bus service delays caused by heavy traffic.

There’s little doubt that congestion pricing is effective in reducing traffic. A study by Edward Sullivan of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo found that in the year after the opening of the Route 91 toll lanes in 1995, travel time in the afternoon rush hour fell to 30 minutes from 70, and average speed on the free lanes doubled. In other words, toll payers and nonpayers all benefited.

The most encouraging aspect of the MTA’s approach to congestion pricing is the time the agency is devoting to getting it right. Its plan includes a pilot program, starting perhaps as soon as late 2020.

“I’m hoping they really do experiment,” Taylor says. He points to Stockholm, which launched its central city pricing with a six-month pilot program in 2006. The city implemented the plan with new buses and bus routes and park-and-ride stations at the edge of the inner city.

Traffic dropped by 20% and congestion by as much as 50%. Pedestrian traffic increased and street culture thrived. By the end of the period, a congestion proposal that had been politically controversial and widely doubted had secured overwhelming public support.

“There’s no question you can do it badly, imposing costs and not achieving desired outcomes,” Taylor says. But if it’s done well, it can transform the urban environment: The Los Angeles greeting Olympics visitors in 2028 could be a very different place from the L.A. we have today.

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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