It is a well-known fact that Los Angeles has traffic problems. Traffic solutions, however, are always elusive in this burgeoning, automobile-dependent city. Los Angeles was designed as a driver’s metropolis, but keeping pace with the growth of the driving population and the density of the urban area has become nearly impossible.
That may be a large part of the reason why Los Angeles County officials voted to consider additional tolls on carpool lane use and other related regulations. While these measures mean well, they miss the fundamental issue: Los Angeles is running out of freeway space. Interstate 101, for example, is especially notorious — in the morning rush hour, drivers spend an average of an hour and a half to travel less than 30 miles. It is clear that Los Angeles needs to expand its transportation network quickly instead of issuing ineffective restrictions on its use.
Consider this: Current traffic costs Los Angeles over $1,700 per resident per year in wasted fuel, lost wages and unachieved potential productivity. When it is recognized that the city of Los Angeles alone has about 4 million people and that the County has about 10 million, the shocking material cost of traffic becomes clear. The quicker that this issue is resolved, and the longer-lasting the solution, the better for everyone.
So what should we do about this gargantuan problem? It’s simple — build more roads.
Building new freeways is certainly not cheap. But using the above estimates, neither is the $6.8 billion that Los Angeles traffic currently costs residents every year. And there are quite a few of those residents driving to work. In 2015, nearly 95 percent of workers in Los Angeles commuted to work, a grand total of over 4,450,000 workers. That figure grew by more than 700,000 from 2000 to 2015. In the same time period, the number of workers carpooling dropped by nearly 27 percent. The number of cars being driven to work in Los Angeles is on an upswing, in spite of increasing and substantial carpooling incentives. Being stuck in traffic for hours while sharing a vehicle with coworkers, for whatever reason, is simply not as attractive an option to commuters as waiting in that same traffic alone is.
Carpooling incentives clearly are not enough to stem the automotive tide in Los Angeles. Even freeway expansion, such as that which was performed on Interstate 405, is insufficient. Now, after a substantial upgrade that cost $1 billion, traffic on the 405 during peak rush hour traffic is actually slightly slower. The kicker? That upgrade program was for a carpool lane that has proven to be only marginally effective.
New carpool lanes and carpool restrictions do not help the overwhelming majority of commuters who drive themselves to work. Only an expansion of the road network can.
It is true that building new freeways can have harmful side effects. From health concerns to questions about maintaining historical buildings and personal real estate, very few people are initially happy when a freeway is built. However, these challenges should not stop Los Angeles from considering the option of expansion. Los Angeles needs new roads, and if it works with the California government to carefully and responsibly construct an enhanced transportation network, the city will flourish as a result.
As Brian Taylor noted in his 1992 doctoral dissertation at UCLA, “Short of road pricing, toll financing, or some other radical restructuring of highway finance, a new wave of metropolitan freeway development is simply not possible.”
His point holds true today — new freeways don’t build themselves. In order to fairly generate sufficient revenue in the meantime, the roads in Los Angeles should be designated as toll roads that charge for use by the vehicle. Doing so would provide necessary revenue for an expansion project and would provide a more tangible, economic incentive to carpool. This would get more cars off the road and partially offset the recent trend of growth in automobile use. People tend to care a great deal about their wallets, and going about road expansion in this way will give them a strong economic reason to help accomplish that gargantuan task which has evaded Los Angeles until this point: unclogging the freeways.
Trevor Kehrer is a senior majoring in political science. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.