Wednesday, 6 April 2011

LA takes the first bold step towards congestion pricing

For those of us who have worked in the road pricing/tolling field for some time, the economics behind pricing road space to manage congestion are obvious. The tools to enable it to be done efficiently have long been in operation, when one wants to charge for individual points on the network (as in Singapore) or create inner city cordons or areas (like Stockholm and London). For higher density cities with intensive public transport and busy city centres, such approaches to congestion charging can deliver substantial benefits. However, for cities where employment and traffic patterns are far more dispersed, it is quite different. 

Such is Los Angeles. 3% of employment is located in the downtown CBD, so most commuting patterns involve people travelling by car in a criss cross of motions between residential and commercial locations across the metropolis. A LA has grown as a city, this has become the typical pattern of there NOT being patterns and dominant origin/destination pairs.  

Transport policy in Los Angeles has gone through several eras.  Of course it is the location of the so-called Great American Streetcar Scandal, which is itself controversial (as some say it was only a matter of time anyway).  Until the late 1970s, Los Angeles followed a "predict and provide" model for roads, building an extensive freeway network to connect the metropolis.  However, this could not keep pace with demand, and the second strategy - public funding of public transport came next, with LA Metro rail both in subway and light rail forms.  That also had next to no impact and suffered colossal budgetary overruns.  So the strategy now is HOT lanes.
LA HOT lane trial

Tollroadsnews has an excellent article summarising where this project has got to.  Two significant stretches of highway are involved.  The I-10 will use an existing HOV lane and the hard shoulder to create two lanes in each direction. The I-110 already has this as HOV lanes.   Pricing will be distance based, according to crossing set points on these highways, at prices ranging from 25c to $1.40 per mile.

The lanes will be dynamically priced in real time to maintain a minimum speed of 45 mph, with the use of a DSRC based tag system for ALL users of the lanes (including high occupancy vehicles).   It is curious that all those involved in the design and development seem rather new to this type of system, I wonder how they will manage the risks.

Buses will be free and trucks will not be allowed to access the lanes, which is a shame, but probably reflects the I-10 lanes being substandard for wider vehicles.

Full details of the project are on the official website here with maps.

Tollroadsnews is supportive of this step as "Fuel taxes have got us where we are today - wasting billions of hours and dollars sitting in traffic. The taxes as a a major financing mechanism are the problem.

The solution is in making highways self-financing, direct-charge operations, managed one by one for efficient operations by operators forced to make a living selling a road service. In a small but important way that's what LA's toll lanes are experimenting with

However, another perspective is from Streetsblog Los Angeles, which tends to be a environmentalist/anti-car view.  It doesn't like it because " there is nothing in the congestion pricing plan that encourages people to drive less.  The plan removes no current drivers from the current car pool lane, even "HOV-2" vehicles at any point.  Then taking the "congestion" out of congestion pricing, the lane will actually be closed to paying vehicles during the most congested periods.  In other words, this plan will not effect traffic during the most congested periods."

Certainly this project wont fix LA's congestion, but it is seen as a pilot trial for something that could be extended across much of the LA freeway network.  HOV lanes have had their day and I've never been a strong supporter of them, as they do not reward much other than fortuitous multiple occupancy of vehicles (families etc).   My answer to Streetsblog is that the HOV component of this should be phased out over time.  If prices at the maximum level don't do the job, I'd argue that the HOV threshold should be raised to  3+ and 4+ (and progressively until it is effectively only giving buses a free ride).  The choice remains, and the benefits to users will be obvious.  It means those who value time can choose a fast trip, while others can take their chances with the existing route.  This will dissuade motorists and reduce congestion.  However it will disappoint Streetsblog LA because it isn't designed to discourage driving, but to get more efficient use of the road network.  That does mean rationing of HOV users in due course as the only ones not price sensitive.

Some Streetblog commentators think LA should have a London/Stockholm style congestion charge, which of course simply wouldn't work.  The long term solution is to shift from fuel tax to distance, time and place based charging.

What this project will demonstrate is how pricing can work.  Despite socialist and conservative critics, the untolled lanes remain as a choice.  The HOT lanes offer people a choice to avoid congestion either by having three passengers or paying, and it should guarantee a minimum level of service so for the first time, two LA highways will actually have trip reliability built into their operations.  That is a significant step forward.   

A network of toll lanes would be a major leap forward in changing how LA transport works, because the choice offered would be a premium service that will meet needs that will vary from day to day.  

It wont fix congestion, as this will remain on the parallel lanes and on roads that cannot be feasibly segregated, but that is for another day.  That is for a more widespread revolution in how Californians pay for road use.

For now, it is relieving congestion for those willing to pay on two key routes.  Let's hope it is a stunning success, as it provides one approach, particularly well suited to lower density new world cities, which have the space to build or convert lanes on major highways to tolled use.

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