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Los Angeles County Exploring Congestion Pricing Pilot Tests

LA Metro, the public transit agency in the Los Angeles metro region, is helping to lead a pilot project to introduce congestion pricing. The concept has gained popularity in international cities in recent years.

LOS ANGELES — Add Southern California to the list of regions exploring congestion pricing. Los Angeles city and transit officials are conducting a feasibility study to examine the rollout of a congestion pricing pilot project in the next two years.

“Traffic congestion is really at a crisis level here in L.A. County,” Phil Washington, CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, told the CoMotion LA conference last week. “Now, we know we can’t create a new city, but we can reimagine sort of what we’re doing here in Los Angeles County. In fact, we must reimagine this county and this city. We’ve got to reimagine what we’re doing. Because the cost of doing nothing, to solve our traffic congestion, is just too high.”

Los Angeles County is home to more than 10 million residents — more than the population of most states — spread across more than 4,000 square miles. It has earned the not-so-enviable reputation as being one of the most car-dependent metros in the country, where commuters now spend at least 119 hours a year sitting in traffic, according to the 2019 Urban Mobility Report by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

Solving congestion, say the numerous experts who gathered at the CoMotion LA conference — which explores the many areas of transportation innovation as well as public policy directions — should take many forms. But a central ingredient always seems to be reducing personal car trips. And charging for those trips has proven to be a workable approach in cities like Singapore, London and Stockholm.

In London, traffic volume dropped 15 percent in the congestion pricing zone, with congestion falling 30 percent, said Christina Calderato, head of delivery planning and transport in London and one of the architects behind the 2003 congestion pricing plan. In 2021, the congestion pricing zone will be significantly expanded beyond the original eight-square-mile central London zone.

Not surprisingly, congestion pricing has been met with grumbling by residents and motorists. What’s important, said Calderato, is consensus around shared goals and objectives.

“And once you’ve done that, you need to hold your nerve, and understand you’re not going to win everybody over… So you bring people with you, and you hold your nerve, and you implement. You do what you said you were going to do, and you wait for the benefits to start happening,” said Calderato during the panel discussion “The Cost of Street Space: Congestion, Curb and Lane Pricing.”

Los Angeles, anyone will tell you, is not London. Yes, it has significant traffic and air quality issues like the British capital. However, the City of Angels is also tremendously spread out and nearly every home owns a car, which means the congestion pricing narrative must be told in relation to those residents.

“I think one thing that we have to say to people is that, yeah, this would reduce emissions, and yeah, this would shrink the total footprint of our transportation system if we had congestion pricing. But also, it would make driving so much better,” said Michael Manville, associate professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles. “If you have a region full of drivers, it’s real important to frame congestion pricing as a policy that is good for drivers.”

Los Angeles plans to have its congestion pricing feasibility study complete in the next 15 to 18 months, said Washington.

“At the end of that, we will identify pilot areas in this county to implement congestion pricing,” he said. “And what also will come out of this study is what model of congestion pricing we should use.”

Residents and others in the pilot area can expect to be offered incentives and mitigation opportunities like free transit passes, with the ultimate goal of making public transit in the nation’s second-largest city one day free, paid for by revenue generated by congestion pricing.

“We know that that is a lofty goal, but we believe we can do this,” said Washington. “If we can pull this off, in the most congested area of this country, then it can be done anywhere in the world,” he added. 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.