LOS ANGELES — If you’ve ever traveled during rush hour from the San Fernando Valley to Santa Monica or anywhere near downtown Los Angeles, you already know traffic is atrocious.
So it should come as little surprise that the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is looking at those areas for a congestion pricing pilot program that would charge drivers extra for traveling during peak times.
On Tuesday, Metro announced the specific areas it’s considering: downtown Los Angeles; Interstate 10 West of downtown; the freeways traveling into and passing through downtown L.A. freeways; and the Santa Monica mountains between Interstates 405 and 5, including an area west of Highway 101.
Metro will narrow the field to one candidate by summer, with implementation expected in 2025.
“There’s been a traffic problem in L.A. for as long as anyone can remember, and we have to be nimble and try something new,” said Joshua Schank, chief innovation officer for Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation. “We’ve done a lot to improve the situation over the last several decades, but single-occupancy vehicles remain the dominant form of transportation in Southern California by a lot. When we look at all of the things that we’ve tried over the last several decades, one that we haven’t tried is the very powerful tool of congestion pricing.”
The concepts Metro is considering include so-called corridor pricing that places a charge on all lanes along a certain stretch of roadway, similar to the high-occupancy vehicle lanes that already exist on many freeways in the L.A. area; cordon pricing that creates a boundary around an area and then charges a vehicle to cross that boundary, like the system used in London, Stockholm, and Milan; or a hybrid of the two.
Metro did not specify exactly which type of congestion pricing would be used in each of the four concept areas it’s considering, except for downtown LA. That would use a cordon pricing model that covers the central area of downtown L.A., according to Tham Nguyen, senior director of Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation.
Bound by several of L.A. County’s most congested interstates and highways – Route 110, Interstate 10, and U.S. Highway 101 – the concept would address traffic congestion generated from trips entering downtown rather than local trips by people who reside in the area, Nguyen said.
Like most of the areas Metro is considering for congestion pricing, downtown L.A. has a number of transit options available, from buses and trains to on-demand scooters and bicycles.
Two of the other areas being considered are also around downtown. The concept involving Interstate 10 West of downtown would address East-West travel and would also use cordon pricing along the Interstate as well as parallel roadways to address any spillover traffic that could occur from imposing a fee on such a main thoroughfare.
Another concept would impose congestion pricing on the freeways traveling into and passing through downtown. Part of that concept would “look at what additional transportation improvements could be done in this area to better serve trips that are regional or passing through downtown or begin and end in downtown,” Nguyen said.
The Santa Monica congestion pricing concepts include a larger plan for the Santa Monica Mountains to address heavy North-South congestion between the San Fernando Valley and L.A. basin and a smaller version that seeks to reduce traffic between U.S. Highway 101 and Interstate 5 across the Santa Monica mountains.
Those areas already have several existing or planned high-quality transit routes serviced by Metro Rail, MetroLink, Express Bus, and local bus services. If the area is chosen for the congestion pricing pilot, Nguyen said Metro would work to identify improvements to provide even more options.
The specific amount of money Metro plans to charge will be determined through the study. It “must be low enough to allow people to continue to afford to drive but high enough to encourage some people to change their travel behavior,” Nguyen said.
Recognizing that some travelers, including low-income and disadvantaged workers, may not be able to give up driving at peak times, Metro is considering a system of rebates and discounts to make sure that congestion pricing is affordable. London’s congestion pricing, for example, includes a 90% discount for residents and allows registered disabled people to travel for free.
To help Metro decide exactly where it will implement the congestion pricing pilot program, the agency is looking at some of the factors shared by the cities that have successfully implemented such systems. These include placing congestion pricing in areas that have natural or human-made structures as boundaries, such as water and hills, to prevent traffic from diverting to other areas, as well as locales with commercial activity and an abundance of transit options.
Traffic reduction efforts that include pricing have worked in other cities, said Nguyen, who pointed to the reductions in vehicle trips in London and Stockholm since they implemented congestion pricing. London saw a 15-20% reduction in vehicle trips and a 30% traffic reduction within the congestion pricing zone. Bus trips increased 38%, bus wait times decreased 30%, and emissions decreased 12-19%.
“In places where congestion pricing has been successfully deployed, a shift of 10-15% of people that don’t drive during peak time makes a huge difference,” Nguyen said, adding that L.A. sees a similar significant improvement in traffic flow when K-12 schools are not in session.
Even during COVID, LA ranks first in the nation for traffic congestion, according to the new 2020 TomTom Traffic Index.
“During the pandemic, we’ve seen a substantial reduction in traffic, but it’s likely to rebound as the economy recovers and as population grows,” Nguyen said. “We want to come back from this pandemic stronger than we were before in terms of better mobility, and planning for that starts now.”
In making its decision about where to conduct its congestion pricing pilot, Metro is looking for at least one partner and possibly several in order to be successful. Of the 88 cities in the county, Los Angeles has not only expressed interest but has a dedicated staff to explore working with Metro on the pilot, Nguyen said. Some Westside cities are also interested.
This month, Metro will conduct three virtual community meetings to solicit feedback on the four proposed concepts. By summer, the agency plans to narrow the field to a single concept. It expects the Metro board to decide on that plan by the spring of 2022.