How to Fix LA's Traffic Problem

How to Fix LA's Traffic Problem

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Robert Petrosyan, Fiscal Policy Senior Editor

For almost as long as it has been a major city, Los Angeles has had trouble with the traffic in its city. As someone who has lived in the LA metropolitan area for fourteen years, I can easily attest to this being a fact, and a nuisance for Angelinos everywhere. 

In theory, traffic should not be a problem for Los Angeles. Most of the city’s growth took place in the 1940s, when cars became extremely commonplace, and apart from some of the old roads in downtown Los Angeles, most of the major roadways in the city were made with driving in mind. Additionally, there is no shortage of freeways for Angelinos to use when they commute. The 5 is the major north-south freeway in the city, flanked by the 405 and the 605, whereas the 10, which is horizontal, is flanked by the 110, 210, and 710. And this is only in regards to the interstates in the metropolitan area. If we were to also include the state highway system, there would be a total of 36 different freeways in LA County, and a whopping 48 freeways if we were to tally up all the freeways in the LA metropolitan area.

And yet despite this abundance of options, traffic is still an onerous burden on drivers in LA metropolitan. On rush hour, it is common for average speed to range around 25 miles an hour in some of the more congested parts of town, and it is common for drivers to waste up to fifty minutes waiting in traffic on certain parts of the freeways. From experience, I have seen how a simple 25 minute drive from Irvine to Fullerton can turn into a one hour twenty minute debacle if you happen to be driving at the wrong time. 

So what is the best way to address this problem? A recent approach has been to widen the freeways to accommodate more traffic. In theory, this should work, but the results from recent projects have actually shown an opposite effect. For example, traffic has slightly increased during rush hour on the 405 after it was expanded due to the phenomenon of induced demand, where the news of wider freeways leads to an increased demand to drive on them, leading to the same or even greater amounts of congestion as there was before. This explains why 48 freeways are not enough to keep LA from having a traffic problem. 

A solution that bears a lot of traction with many economists is the idea to put a price on the use of freeways through toll roads and toll lanes. In theory, economists agree that to manage rising demand, there needs to be an increase in price. The attached article explains that freeways bear the problem of excess demand that leads to a supply shortage, in this case, space on the road. When taking opportunity cost into account, the time saved not having to sit through traffic would compensate for the extra money that is spent on a toll. Some freeways in Los Angeles tried adding toll lanes, and the speed on those lanes increased dramatically from about 25 to 65 miles per hour.

Of course, in addition to the disproportionately adverse impact tolls have on the poor, there is also another major problem with this solution. Tolls decrease traffic on the freeways where they are operated, but instead of solving the Los Angeles traffic problem, tolls merely redistribute them. The toll lanes on the 110 have less traffic, but for non-payers, there are less lanes to use, and traffic increases for them. Likewise, if we convert the 405 into a toll road, the traffic on the 405 would decrease, but the traffic on the 5 would swell immensely. 

Perhaps the leading driver of LA’s traffic problem is not the lack of freeways or the lack of tolls on the freeways. Perhaps it is due to the sheer size of the metropolitan area. Los Angeles metropolitan not only includes downtown LA and the cities in the LA basin, but it also includes the nearly two million people that live in the San Fernando Valley. In addition, there are another two million people that live in the San Gabriel Valley east of downtown LA. But that’s only Los Angeles county. There are about a million people in Ventura county that are included in this area, and cities in the west of the Inland Empire bring another 4 million people into the fold. There are varying classifications on whether the southern border of LA metropolitan is in Irvine or in San Clemente, but once that is also tallied, that is another 2.6 to 3.2 million people added to this metropolitan area. In total, there are over 20 million people from an approximately 5000 square mile area in this region. 

And the big problem that comes from that is that downtown Los Angeles is the primary business hub for this entire region. Since residents have to travel long distances to get to their workplaces, surface streets are usually not an option, and too much travel cost, whether it may emerge from lack of money or time, disrupts one’s ability to work. 

Therefore, instead of focusing on how to better bring residents closer to their work, perhaps we may be best served attempting to bring work closer to the residents. Urban planners should focus on establishing business districts strategically placed in different sectors of the LA metropolitan area, If the large LA business center in downtown was flanked by about six business centers in different parts of the region, commuters who may be averse traveling from Irvine to Los Angeles for work may instead find work within their own neighborhoods. This would shave commute times significantly for commuters. Those who choose to work in a local business district will have much shorter commutes they can use surface streets for as opposed to freeways, and those who still choose to commute to Los Angeles will find much less traffic, and will be able to arrive more quickly to their work. 

This solution is one that is more complex than just tolls and expansions, but to truly change the way we use our freeways, solutions need to understand what the freeways are used for, and address the consumer demand that leads them to use the freeways in the first place. By establishing business districts in several parts of the metro area, we are lowering the traffic on the freeways, and allowing commuters to work closer to their homes. The lower commuting times and the less time spent in traffic will improve productivity. Perhaps then, we will finally begin solving a longstanding problem in the city of Los Angeles.  

Follow this author on Twitter: @Rob_Petrosyan

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