Could Paying To Drive Improve Your Commute? LA Metro Is Looking Into It

(Photo by Steve Boland/Flickr CC)

If you think about it, traffic is kind of like a weird zen koan paradox: we want to get rid of it so we can drive more.

"The problem is interesting in that almost everyone who is suffering from it is also simultaneously causing it," said Michael Manville, a professor of Urban Planning at UCLA.

Manville is among many transportation experts who champion a somewhat unsatisfying but obvious solution: make people want to drive less, namely by increasing the cost to do so.

Unsurprisingly, given human nature, the idea has had trouble catching on, but it's slowly making inroads among policy-makers in Los Angeles County. Thursday the Metropolitan Transportation Authority inched forward with a plan to study two proposals that aim to do that.

The first would charge a congestion fee to drive where and when the roads are busy, kind of like they do in central London.

The second would tax ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, a charge that would likely get passed on to consumers, but would require the state of California to cede its regulatory powers over the apps to local governments.

This map shows Metro's projection for what the local transit system will look like in 2028. (Courtesy Los Angeles Metro)

The ideas were originally part of a suite of proposals that Metro came up with to raise billions of dollars in revenue needed to accelerate eight major transportation projects before the 2028 Olympics.

But given their controversial nature, the agency decided to pursue them separately as potential congestion-relief measures rather than revenue generators.

Despite broad scholarly consensus that pricing the road is the only way to reduce congestion, Manville said much of the public remains skeptical.

"When it comes to roads and congestion on roads, we have become accustomed to the idea that our problem can be solved by building something," he said.

Metro is also doing a lot of that. Measure M, the fourth sales tax increase approved by county voters for transportation funding, is raising more than a hundred billion dollars to nearly double the size of the rail network and expand freeways.

Those add more capacity, but you might have noticed they haven't solved the problem (they almost never do). That's because they only address one part of the congestion equation.

Addressing demand is the other part: getting fewer people to want to use the road at once. And that's where pricing the road can be effective (as it has been in London, Stockholm and Singapore).

But there are plenty of legitimate concerns, chief among them how to avoid overburdening poor people with such a system. Metro will be reviewing the preliminary results of the study, including proposals to address equity concerns with programs like low-income discounts and universal free transit, this summer.