During the Covid-19 lockdowns that have kept millions of people at home, drivers in Los Angeles and other big cities experienced something miraculous: free-flowing freeway traffic, at all hours. But if a lingering fear of coronavirus contagion keeps former transit riders off buses and trains after the pandemic passes, traffic congestion may end up even worse than before the pandemic. Can we avoid that future?
Yes. Congestion pricing can maintain free-flowing traffic on freeways even during peak hours. London, Singapore, Stockholm and other cities charge tolls for drivers on important roads at peak hours to manage traffic, and many more cities, including New York and San Francisco, are poised to follow these leaders. Los Angeles could be next, and it may soon provide a window into how the model could work for other car-reliant cities. As part of its preparations for the 2028 Olympics, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates bus and rail transit and provides funding and planning for freeway projects, is studying congestion pricing to manage travel demand in its ExpressLanes—two high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes adjacent to four or five free lanes in each direction.
With 134 million vehicle miles driven per day, Los Angeles has the busiest urban highway network in the United States. But its famous freeways are hardly free: Congestion slows traffic down for much of the day, and drivers pay for this congestion in wasted time. Tolls for low-occupancy vehicles in its Express Lanes could change that.
Metro has all the hardware, software, and wetware needed for congestion pricing because it already charges tolls in its ExpressLanes on the I-10 and I-110 freeways. Solo drivers can use the ExpressLanes if they pay the full toll, two-person carpools pay less, and vehicles with three or more persons pay nothing. The tolls are set to ensure speed of at least 45 miles per hour in the ExpressLanes. Unfortunately, the toll exemption for three-person carpools has invited massive fraud. One Metro official reported in 2017 that up to 30% of drivers in the ExpressLanes use their transponders to overstate their vehicle occupancies and drive free during peak periods.
Set to begin in late 2021, Metro’s pre-Olympics pilot program will offer toll-exempt travel in its ExpressLanes only for vehicles with five or more occupants. Buses, vanpools, cars and carpools of five or more persons will pay nothing, while carpools of two, three, or four persons will receive per-person savings of 50 to 75 percent. The five adjacent general-purpose lanes will remain toll-free. The ExpressLanes will allow all drivers to save time when they need it most, such as when they are running late for something important. ExpressLane users will travel faster and save time because the tolls simultaneously discourage solo driving and encourage more sustainable travel. The toll revenue itself can also finance the transit system, where service improvements can help draw even more cars off the road.
Because it is easier for cameras to detect a solo driver who claims to have four nonexistent passengers, the HOV-5 requirement will make it hard for solo drivers to evade the toll. And the tolls for drivers who pay to use the ExpressLanes should decline when they are no longer crowded with solo drivers who lie about their vehicle occupancy.
Adding congestion fees in a time of economic crisis may sound delusional to some ears; job losses and housing instability are rippling across California right now, as in other states. But freeway congestion and the tolls needed to prevent it will not kick in until the pandemic tapers off and travel demand increases. And all the freeway lanes adjacent to the ExpressLanes will remain free. The poorest members of society will pay the least, because they own fewer cars and drive less. Metro also gives low-income drivers a discount on the ExpressLanes, and it uses the toll revenue to fund transit service in the ExpressLane corridors. Richer drivers will pay more because they own more cars and drive more, but they will save time and reduce uncertainty. If a trip on a congested freeway can take anywhere between 15 and 45 minutes, you have to leave home early to be safe. With congestion pricing, you can reliably expect the trip to take 15 minutes.
Indeed, the biggest beneficiaries of HOV-5 will be transit riders who have been trapped in buses immobilized by the congestion that more affluent drivers create. In pre-coronavirus traffic, the express (non-stop) bus service from Long Beach to UCLA took an hour and 35 minutes to travel 26.4 miles to campus, an average speed of 17 miles an hour. According to Google, the same trip in May 2020 usually took only 27 minutes, an average speed of 59 miles an hour. With proper pricing on the ExpressLanes, buses will be able to deliver reliable rapid transit between major destinations in the region. This really rapid transit will especially benefit the 92 percent of Los Angeles bus riders who are people of color.
For decades, Los Angeles has amounted to far less than the sum of its parts because traffic congestion made many of these parts inaccessible to so many people. Butseeing streets alive with bicycles and pedestrians rather than cars during the coronavirus pandemic has opened people’s minds to previously unthinkable reforms. Free-flowing freeways make congestion pricing now seem sensible. And now is the right time to deploy HOV-5 because traffic is light in even the free lanes and few drivers will care if only vehicles with five or more occupants can drive toll-free in the ExpressLanes. As travel increases, congestion will return to the free lanes but the tolls on the ExpressLanes will rise to keep traffic flowing freely.
Many other cities can learn from LA’s HOV-5 pilot program. Nine states (California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington) have HOV lanes with tolls for low-occupancy vehicles (often called high-occupancy toll or HOT lanes), and many of them suffer from the same problems as LA’s. Low-occupancy toll (LOT) lanes could be another name for this arrangement, because the tolls are only are only for low-occupancy vehicles. If LOT lanes—with low occupancy defined as fewer than five persons—succeed in car-centric Los Angeles, they should work anywhere.
Los Angeles will eventually have congestion pricing, so why wait? Congestion pricing can improve life for most people who own a car and for all people who do not. It can reduce fuel consumption, air pollution, and carbon emissions. Reduced traffic congestion can also help businesses and increase LA’s international economic competitiveness, which is critical for the city’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. Life will be much better after we get used to—and learn to appreciate—freeways that are free-flowing because they’re not free for low-occupancy vehicles.
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