Taking the ‘free’ out of freeway

In Tim Rutten’s column “Diamond Lanes for the Rich,” he writes about what is and will continue to be a very controversial decision by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Board of Directors. As a longtime resident, Rutten’s thoughts are extremely valuable and certainly contribute positively to public discussion regarding the matter. The core of his argument seems to be the idea that congestion pricing unfairly affects those least unable to afford the additional cost of using what currently is a free service.

I would like to add to this discussion as well, from the perspective of a private consultant working in the transit industry to improve mobility for low-income residents in numerous communities throughout the nation.

The plan to implement toll lanes on freeways in Los Angeles County represents a shift in conventional wisdom in the transportation planning community. Although previous efforts to improve mobility on dedicated, grade-separated roadways included road-widening and high-occupancy vehicle lanes, efforts lately have centered on improving mobility through more accurately pricing the goods (freeways) to reflect the cost (building, maintenance, environmental damage and time spent commuting).

Transportation planners have realized that when it comes to freeways, the adage “if you build it, they will come” rings quite true. A study (pdf) by UC Berkeley of 30 counties between 1973 and 1990 found that for every 10% addition to roadway capacity, a 9% increase in miles traveled followed within four years in metropolitan areas. Results like this have prompted transportation planners to reevaluate the current toolbox of solutions to freeway congestion. Several solutions have been developed, and congestion pricing is just one of them. It helps to compare freeways to restaurants to understand their shortcomings. Like freeways, most restaurants experience “peak hours,” when demand outstrips supply. These periods are typically brief (a few hours at a time), and often the rest of the day there is a glut of capacity.

Congestion pricing will encourage those unwilling or unable to pay to use toll roads to either change their address or change their commuting behavior. This policy will affect the pocketbooks of the poor more acutely than the wealthy, should they decide to drive in the toll lanes. But driving in general already brings with it an exorbitant cost of entry for low-income people: One must purchase an expensive vehicle, insure it, register it, maintain it and purchase fuel for it. And it should be noted that this policy will primarily affect single-occupant low-emissions vehicle owners and carpoolers (though carpoolers will pay a reduced rate). This policy will improve mobility for buses and those willing to pay the toll. Those who do not want to pay are still perfectly free to use general-purpose lanes and do what they currently do: sit in traffic.

Another comparison will help explain why Southern California is experiencing a crisis in terms highway congestion. If, 50 years ago, the government had decided to hand out as much free food as people wanted, then naturally all but the wealthiest would stop paying for food at grocery stores. These stores would slowly close, ensuring everybody’s only option was getting food from the federal government. This works fine until demand begins to outstrip supply. This is similar to how many efficient, privately run rail-based transit systems failed in the middle of the 20th century. To this day, people seem to think freeways should be free. The solution is to provide people with options for getting what they want at a price, which is exactly what congestion pricing aims to do. It applies free-market principles to highway use.

I do not believe congestion pricing is the best solution to the problem, and I’m not entirely sure it’s a good solution at all. But paired with more affordable housing near job centers as well as significant increases in transit funding, it could promote a shift from lifestyles favoring single-occupant vehicles toward lifestyles favoring transit, bicycles and one’s own two feet.

Michael Eshleman is a transit industry consultant who graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a degree in City and Regional Planning.

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