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Experts Tackle Traffic Congestion at RAND Forum

By Jorge Casuso

July 31 -- When civic leaders ponder answers to LA’s legendary gridlock, they’d best heed the warnings of the past -- every solution implemented over the past 125 years has failed to make a dent, a traffic specialist warned at a forum in Santa Monica last week.

The good news is that reducing traffic by only 5 to 10 percent would make driving across the nation’s second-largest city a smooth ride, according to the panelists at “Gridlock in Los Angeles: Getting Past the Standstill,” a forum sponsored by RAND on Thursday.

The bad news is that the only real solutions -- changing the behavior of motorists voluntarily or through coercion or punitive measures -- will be difficult, if not politically suicidal, the experts warned.

“The question of what we do about congestion is a political question,” said Martin Wachs, director of RAND’s Transportation, Space and Technology Program. “The bottom line is that we all want traffic congestion to be reduced, but we don’t want to change our behavior or pay more.”

“Traffic is a confounding problem, and there is no simple answer, but there are some simple answers,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, chairman of the LA County Board of Supervisors and a panelist at the forum. “You have to have the courage to try simple solutions.”

One simple answer, said Yaroslavsky, is his proposal to turn Pico and Olympic boulevards into one-way streets, a proposal that he said is being studied to death.

Another simple solution, said Richard Katz, a former State legislator and a member of the Governing Board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), would be to build a 710 connector through Pasadena, “an old idea” that’s been around “since we were in the womb."

Reducing congestion, Katz agreed, “will take political will and all of you to do something different.”

A boom in population and commerce, an increasing volume of trucks, an underdeveloped public transit system, a thriving tourism industry and a dearth of new roads all contribute to gridlock, Wachs said.

“Traffic congestion is a by-product of economic and social success,” said Wachs, who has authored four books and 160 articles on the topic and related issues. “People are shopping more, working more, going to college more.

“If you want to escape traffic congestion in LA, you can move to Duluth,” he told the crowd of some 100 Angelenos, almost none of them born in the area.

Building new roads, rail lines, and freeways or adding fleets of buses have never solved the problem, Wachs said. To illustrate his point, Wachs showed photos of Downtown streets gridlocked with horse-drawn carriages, red-line cars, automobiles and buses.

Some answers that could work -- such as creating car-free zones, banning on-street parking or quintupling parking rates -- are untenable, Wachs said.

But others, in combination, could make a major dent on a problem that is having emotional and economic impacts on those stuck behind the wheel, Wachs said.

Potential answers include:

  • Taking full advantage of technology, including computerized signals, radio and cell phones,
  • Building new capacity,
  • Adding transit improvements, but also “not falling into the trap” of thinking that building the subway to the sea will alleviate congestion,
  • Encouraging staggered work and school hours,
  • Moving goods at night, and
  • Using coercion to get drivers to travel at different hours.

“We need to reduce traffic, but not by a lot to make the system run smoothly,” Wachs said.

Traffic could be significantly reduced if 10 to 20 percent if those driving alone carpool, if motorists are charged when they enter congested areas or if pay lanes are layered above freeways, with the revenue generated used to finance public transit, Wachs said.

“Some include some pain to get some gain,” he cautioned.

Other proposals that could work, but will take political will, include increasing the number of passengers required to use car pool lanes from two to three, Katz said. The lanes could also function as toll lanes for those who want to move more quickly.

Another idea being floated is “pricing congestion,” which requires motorists to pay a fee when entering congested areas, Katz said.

The plan -- which has been tried in large European cities -- would be difficult to implement in sprawling Los Angeles, experts warned.

“I wouldn’t put all my eggs in the pricing congestion basket,” Yaroslavsky said.

Yaroslavsky -- who blamed much of the region’s traffic woes on “unbridled” development - warned it will be difficult to legislate the changes in behavior required to alleviate congestion.

“There’s political courage and political suicide,” concluded Yaroslavsky, who served on the LA City Council for nearly two decades, before being elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1994.

“If you take away something people feel they’re entitled to, you’re tilting at windmills,” he said.


“The bottom line is that we all want traffic congestion to be reduced, but we don’t want to change our behavior or pay more.” Martin Wachs




“There’s political courage and political suicide. If you take away something people feel they’re entitled to, you’re tilting at windmills.” Zev Yaroslavsky


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