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Congestion pricing in Los Angeles, explained

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Why charging motorists to drive in crowded areas at peak times might work—and why it might not

Traffic Congestion Costs Motorists Extra 38 Hrs A Week And Hundreds Of Dollars
Traffic on the northbound and southbound lanes of the 110 Harbor Freeway starts to stack up during rush hour traffic. 
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Los Angeles has the notable distinction of having the some of the world’s worst traffic, but seemingly endless road congestion is hardly unique to the Southland. To address their own traffic problems, many cities around the world use “congestion pricing” to dissuade people from driving into crowded areas at peak times.

By charging a toll to enter a congested geographic area, cities reason they can encourage people to either forgo an unnecessary car trip or take mass-transit.

Metro officials are now mulling the idea of charging people to drive, and on Thursday, the agency announced it had awarded a total of $5.5 million to two firms to study a congestion pricing pilot program and conduct complementary public outreach about the study.

In a nod to concerns about the disproportionate impact a pay-to-drive model could have on low-income drivers, Metro officials said the study would also include devising an implementation plan “that prioritizes equity for all road users.” The study is expected to take between 18 and 24 months.

Any form of congestion pricing that Los Angeles might implement would be put into effect along with mobility improvements, Metro said. That would include “additional, faster, more frequent and discounted or free public transit,” and upgrades that make streets safer for people walking and biking.

“We are now forced to think outside the box in search of new ways to combat our worsening traffic,” said Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts, who chairs the Metro board. “This study will give us the data we need to better determine if this innovative traffic-busting approach can work in the Car Capital of the World.”

Below, a break down of what congestion pricing is and how it could look in Southern California.

What is congestion pricing and how does it work?

Congestion pricing is a transportation management strategy that, proponents say, can reduce traffic and raise revenue for other transportation spending needs. In practice, congestion pricing amounts to a toll levied on motorists for driving into or through a specific area where congestion prices are effective.

By pricing space on the road like the scarce commodity it is, like air travel or electricity usage, congestion pricing boosters say congestion pricing discourages drivers from hitting the road during the most crowded times. Because—even at peak times—many driving trips are for reasons other than work or school, congestion pricing theoretically gives people the incentive to either take transit—or to avoid driving through the affected area until off-peak times.

Where has congestion pricing been used successfully before?

The Mayor Considers An Off Peak Congestion Charging Scheme
A sign informing motorists in London that they are entering the Congestion Charge zone.
Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The best example is London, which enacted strict congestion pricing through many of its central districts in 2003. If a motorists wants to bring their vehicles into central London between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., they have to pay a fee of roughly $15. In the first 10 years, the fees have netted about $1.6 billion, most of which has been reinvested back into transit, including improving the city’s bus network.

Several other cities have also experimented with congestion pricing. In Stockholm, as the Los Angeles Times pointed out, traffic dropped by an average of 20 percent after the city introduced its congestion fees. Though 70 percent of Swedes were initially opposed to the tax, after a few years of lighter traffic, 70 percent support now the tax.

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, North American cities are more hesitant. New York Governor recently said that “congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come,” potentially renewing a previously stalled effort to charge motorists driving to Manhattan. Vancouver is also studying potential congestion charges in its city center, as are officials in Portland.

Why could it work in LA?

Well, Los Angeles has a lot of congestion. If London has had success, then there’s good reason to believe that a similar scheme here could have similarly positive effects like less traffic, less pollution, and more money for mass transit. Coupled with the fact that traffic is only going to get worse as the city grows more dense and more populous, congestion charging could be used to discourage driving.

A charge might work best in an area such as Downtown, which is already well connected to transit. For that reason, it’s not totally inconceivable to imagine a Downtown LA devoid of cars, particularly as Metro builds even more rail lines to and through the neighborhood.

There’s also the argument that mass transit, specifically buses, will work better with less traffic. Metro is struggling to provide regular and rapid bus service largely because buses themselves get tied up in traffic. If congestion pricing could reduce the volume of traffic, more space could theoretically be dedicated to buses and bikes.

Why might it not work in LA?

Unlike relatively compact and centralized European cities, Los Angeles is a big, sprawling metropolis with relatively slow mass transit and no distinct central employment district.

Where Londoners benefit from an ubiquitous underground network and a recently reworked bus system and Stockholmers can cycle across their entire city in a matter of a few minutes, Angelenos, for the most part, lack a convenient alternative to getting in their car and chugging down the freeway.

At the same time, many of the city’s most congested neighborhoods grow crowded only when commuters who neither live nor work in the neighborhood pass through.

Hollywood, with its unbelievably bad gridlock during commuter hours, is perhaps the best example. A congestion charge in Hollywood, which acts as a sort of funnel point for Valley commuters heading over the hill, would likely do little but enrage Valley commuters who have no choice but to drive anyway.

Though the Metro Red Line does run beneath the Cahuenga Pass, mass transit throughout across the Valley is woefully inadequate for funneling a 101 freeway’s worth of commuters through the Red Line’s two Valley subway stations.

Then there’s the concern that a congestion charge of any sort would disproportionately affect poor people. Given that many people flee the high housing costs of central Los Angeles for the less expensive outer suburbs—forgoing a transit-accessible commute in the process—a congestion fee would inevitably burden those who already can’t afford to live where a car-free- or transit-commute is possible. Those who can comfortably afford to pay the fee get the benefit of a quicker car-commute.

What could make it work in LA?

In Mobility Plan 2035, Los Angeles city planning officials articulated that their planning goals moving forward are try to get people out of their cars and onto buses, trains, and bikes. A congestion charge, as it’s been implemented in other parts of the world, is not directly opposed to this goal. But it’s also not perfectly aligned.

The challenge with Los Angeles is that if it suddenly cost, say, $10 to drive through a congested district like Hollywood or Downtown, the region’s current mass transit would hardly be able to pick up the slack. This isn’t to say that Los Angeles isn’t well on its way to giving people more options for mass transit, but the fact remains that we aren’t there yet.

London used revenue from its congestion tax to dramatically improve the city’s bus service and replace thousands of car-trips into the is city-center. Metro, similarly, is currently in the early stages of examining how to retool its massive system of buses and bus routes.

Should congestion pricing ever be used in Southern California, the question of equity means it should only be done if people have the real option to travel without a car. If Metro radically reimagines its bus system into a countywide system of bus-only lanes and pre-pay stations, that might just be possible.