By Jorge Casuso
October 3 – If you want to ease traffic congestion, be prepared to tighten your belt and fork over some cash, according to a report released by the Santa Monica-based RAND corporation this week.
The report — “Moving Los Angeles” — found that the only strategies that have a lasting effect are those that raise the cost of driving during the busiest hours in the most congested areas. These include such pricing measures as road tolls, gas taxes and increased parking fees.
The study did not address measures that deal with land use policies, such as Prop T on the November ballot that would cap most commercial development in Santa Monica or the City’s update to its Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), which would steer taller mixed-used developments to specific locations near mass transit.
“Our report did not look at land use measures,” said Warren Robak, a RAND spokesman. “It only looked at measures that would be put into place and show effect within five years. Land use measures take longer.”
The report “debunks common myths about the metropolitan region’s traffic patterns and details the reasons why congestion is so bad — and why it will get worse in the coming years without significant policy changes,” according to a RAND statement.
Implementing measures that “improve traffic conditions and enhance transportation alternatives” won’t be easy, researchers warn.
“Some of the strategies this report recommends — especially those that would raise the cost of driving — are likely to prove controversial,” said Paul Sorensen, the study’s lead author and an operations researcher at RAND.
“But without bold action, congestion across the region will only get worse and cost everyone more — financially, environmentally and through a diminished quality of life.”
Contributing to traffic congestion in the Los Angeles region, which is “very high” in urbanized areas such as Santa Monica, is cheap and abundant parking, the report found.
“Most drivers do not pay the full economic and social costs of driving,” researchers concluded.
In addition, Los Angeles is “polycentric,” with many sub-centers that have high populations or job densities, such as Santa Monica, instead of one single, dominant downtown region, according to the study.
“Though polycentricism can spread traffic out,” researchers found, “it also makes it more difficult to provide a fast, effective, and well-connected transit network and reinforces auto-reliant travel patterns.
“By many measures, the Los Angeles metropolitan area leads the nation in urban traffic congestion. For example, the metropolitan region ranks number one for total annual hours of delay for all travelers and total annual gallons of wasted fuel for all travelers.”
Researchers say the region already has adopted most of the “effective, affordable and uncontroversial” ways to reduce congestion, such as freeway on-ramp meters, traffic signal timing and ridesharing programs.
The report offers 13 options selected as being “the best and most effective, based on their individual merits as well as their complementary interactions.” The recommendations are:
* Install curbside parking meters that charge more during peak business hours for parking in congested commercial and retail districts.
* Enforce the existing California state law that allows employees to “cash out” the value of their parking spaces. Companies with more than 50 employees who lease parking are supposed to offer their employees the option of cash instead of free parking, but this law is not enforced.
* Implement local fuel tax levies at the county level to raise transportation funds.
* Develop a network of high-occupancy/toll lanes on freeways throughout Los Angeles County.
* Evaluate the potential for implementing tolls on those entering major activity centers, like those that exist in London and Singapore.
* Expand rapid bus transit with bus-only lanes on arterial streets and express freeway service in the high-occupancy/toll lanes.
* Offer and aggressively market deeply discounted transit passes to employers, who would purchase passes for all employees, allowing those who commute by transit to ride at reduced cost.
* Develop an integrated, region-wide network of bicycle pathways.
* Restrict curb parking on busy arterial streets.
* Convert selected major surface streets to one-way streets.
* Prioritize and fund investments in upgraded signal timing and control.
* Bolster outreach efforts to assist businesses in promoting ridesharing programs, telecommuting and flexible work schedules.
* Evaluate the costs and benefits of implementing a regional incident management system on the arterial streets to reduce congestion caused by traffic accidents.
A key component of the recommendations is charging fees for driving and parking during peak travel times, also known as congestion pricing, a measure that could face initial opposition, researchers said.
“Congestion pricing is met with resistance when people first hear about the concept,” Sorensen said. “Nobody wants to pay more money for something they’ve previously gotten for free, and many are skeptical that congestion pricing will actually work.
“And there’s a legitimate concern that if it’s not properly implemented, it could end up being more of a burden on the region’s poor,” he added.
Still, congestion pricing has worked in other cities and resistance seems to drop as residents become more familiar with how well it works. In fact, congestion pricing also raises enough revenue to fund significant transit improvements, researchers found.
“Pricing strategies are the only sustainable option for reducing congestion over the long-term, and they will be immediately effective upon implementation,” said Martin Wachs, director of the RAND Transportation, Space, and Technology Program, and one of the authors of the report.
RAND researchers compiled their recommendations after studying successful efforts in cities around the world, including London, Singapore and Stockholm, and many major urban cities in the United States, such as New York and Seattle. A panel of noted local transportation experts served as project advisors.
The full study is available on the RAND website: http://rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG748/