After NYC, Will Los Angeles Be Next to Consider Congestion Pricing?

Charging $4 to drive in certain parts of Los Angeles could cut incoming traffic and greenhouses gases by a fifth, according to a new study.
by | March 28, 2019 AT 2:49 PM
The Southern California Association of Governments has released a study showing the potential impact of a rush hour congestion fee for Los Angeles drivers. (Shutterstock)

SPEED READ:

  • A new study estimates that congestion pricing in Los Angeles would reduce traffic and greenhouse gases while increasing other modes of transportation, including transit, biking and walking. 
  • Congestion pricing is in place in parts of central London and Stockholm.
  • The idea is picking up steam in New York City.
 

The key to unclogging the Los Angeles area’s notoriously congested roads could be to charge drivers during peak hours of the day. A new study looked at a so-called congestion pricing proposal to charge a $4 fee during rush hour for drivers who enter one of the region’s most gridlocked corners: the space between two intersecting freeways in western Los Angeles and eastern Santa Monica.

The money raised from the fee would be used to improve transit options and to subsidize access to the area for low-income drivers. Similar systems are already in place in parts of central London and Stockholm, and the idea is picking up steam in lower Manhattan.

“This is the type of policy that could have the greatest impact on quality of life in the shortest amount of time with the least amount of resources,” says Darin Chidsey, the interim executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), which conducted the study.

The group estimates that incoming traffic to the tolled area would drop by 19 percent during rush hour periods. Transit trips would increase by 9 percent during peak hours, while the number of people biking and walking would increase by 7 percent. Travel times and greenhouse gas emissions would both drop by about 20 percent.

The group’s 156-page report doesn't carry any official weight -- the creation of congestion pricing zones would require changes to state law, not to mention the buy-in of local communities -- but it could be significant. Los Angeles County is already exploring congestion pricing pilot projects.

SCAG says the project it studied would more than pay for itself. It would bring in roughly $69 million a year, even after covering the cost of installing tolling ($15 million) and expanding transit service ($27 million).

The researchers decided that West L.A., which is emerging as a “second downtown,” made a better fit for congestion pricing than downtown itself. For one, West L.A. has more widespread congestion both on the I-405 and I-10 freeways and on the nearby arterial roads. The highways, in fact, are part of the problem: There aren’t many roads that cross them, so those that do are always crowded. The researchers also concluded that it would be easier to install a cordoned-off zone for congestion pricing in West L.A. than downtown.

Of course, the biggest obstacle to imposing congestion pricing wouldn't be technical but political, which the researchers acknowledge.

In focus groups, participants naturally have a “visceral” negative reaction to the idea, says Annie Nam, a transportation finance expert for SCAG who oversaw the study. They have a hard time grasping how the system would work. Polling shows only 30 to 40 percent of respondents are open to the idea.

But the same is often true of congestion pricing on toll roads, where drivers have to pay more to use express lanes when the demand for them is highest, Nam points out. They were initially unpopular on Los Angeles-area interstates, but people are more likely to appreciate their benefits once they see them in action.

In Stockholm, authorities initially only imposed the congestion pricing for a limited time and then stopped the experiment. Without the congestion pricing, traffic returned to the central city. Then voters were asked to decide whether to impose the congestion pricing, and they overwhelmingly voted in favor of it.