HWR: will expanding roads fix traffic?

Art of Transit: 


Increasing mobility in Southern California: a new approach (Reason Foundation)

Construction of the elevated portion of the Harbor Transitway on the 110 freeway south of DTLA. Photo: Metro Library.

Construction of the elevated portion of the Harbor Transitway on the 110 freeway south of DTLA. Photo: Metro Library.

First, I’ll say this: I like reading stuff that pushes back against the conventional wisdom. I may not agree with it, but I think questioning widely held assumptions is healthy for a democracy.

And I think it’s fair to say that the Reason Foundation’s proposed $714-billion (yes, billion) mobility plan for Southern California goes against the conventional wisdom these days. Which is: that Los Angeles County should heavily expand its transit system — especially on the rail side — and build  limited freeway projects that are mostly designed to improve current bottlenecks.

Instead, the Foundation’s proposal concentrates on the region’s arterials and freeways and pays for half the plan money raised  from new tolls. From the plan: “Tolling would help build approximately 710 lane-miles of new expressway capacity, 3,475 new/converted lane-miles of express lanes and truck toll lanes, and 559 new managed grade separations” — with the grade separations also tolled.

Perhaps just as controversial: the plan calls for building six new freeway tunnels, including two new ones under the Santa Monica Mountains, another under the San Gabriel Mountains, a downtown bypass tunnel that would connect the 2 freeway to the 110 and one to fill the 710 gap between Alhambra/El Sereno and Pasadena.

Even more controversial!: none of the new lanes would be general traffic lanes. All new lanes would be tolled and some of the road widening that would be needed would come at the expense of street parking.

And the not surprising: bike lanes and pedestrian improvements are in the plan but only in cameo-lite roles.

Improving bus transit is also part of the Reason Foundation’s proposal:

It is crucial to improve the transit network as well. Our express lane network allows buses to travel in the lanes free of charge, and our managed arterial network allows buses to use the tolled grade separations for free. Using these premium features will decrease the travel times and increase the reliability of BRT (bus rapid transit) and express bus. We also provide details on how to build on the success of the region’s express bus network and L.A. Metro’s BRT-lite system. Combined with local bus, express bus and the existing rail options, the region can create a bus-based transit system with the quality and coverage a rail-based system cannot provide.

I didn’t read every last word in the plan but I did spend some time last night digesting a big slice of it. I think there’s a lot of interestingness here, although I suspect it will be dismissed too easily by some because of its cost, emphasis on cars and the Reason Foundation’s libertarian leanings. If you’re into transportation, I encourage you to read it.

First, my skepticism:

Anything that costs more than the annual U.S. military budget is probably a non-starter. Betting that the plan in its entirety will clear up traffic and reduce emissions strikes me as putting an awful lot of the eggs in one basket at a very steep cost — I think rail transit here can (and does) move people if rightly deployed (112.6 million boardings on Metro Rail in 2014, btw). And all those new freeway tunnels in the study would likely result in never-ending litigation most welcomed by lawyers, lawyer’s real estate agents and lawyers’ yacht makers.

And yet, there’s also a lot in the plan that I found really interesting and commendable

I really like that the Reason Foundation resisted the temptation to lowball and/or sugarcoat the cost. And I think the report does an excellent job of explaining the causes of congestion in our region although I’m not crazy about the assertion that we’re so fundamentally different as a region that road expansion is the only way out.

I also like that the study is standing up for bus transit, bus riders, the transit dependent and affordable housing near transit at a time when rail transit and fancy new development often gets most of the attention. I think the idea of managed arterial intersections is fascinating, although with obvious challenges (many intersections have little room to expand). The chapter on alleviating major bottlenecks is essential reading for anyone interested in the subject of traffic congestion.

Most of all, I think there’s a lot of useful information on managed lanes (branded as ‘ExpressLanes’ in L.A. County) — lanes in which the tolls are set by demand. The Reason Foundation would like to see two managed lanes in each direction on most freeways and would require that ALL vehicles — including carpools — pay the tolls with the exception of vanpools and transit buses. That’s a controversial proposal but one that I think should be part of the public policy debate.

The call for more tolling is certainly nothing new (UCLA’s Brian Taylor talked about tolling vs congestion at this Metro-sponsored Zocalo Public Square forum) and I think it’s likely that managed lanes will increasingly be part of the traffic congestion conversation here. If so, this plan is ahead of the curve on that front.

Your thoughts, people?

Here’s the bonkers, $700-billion plan to fix Los Angeles traffic (Curbed LA)

See above.

Pearl grasping and the Reason Foundation’s mobility plan for Southern California (Lisa Schweitzer)

A response similar to mine and some will suggest even more informed. The last graph is nicely played.

Metro Planning Committee approves bike share fare structure (Streetsblog LA)

The full Metro Board of Directors considers the proposal in early December for the DTLA bike share pilot program scheduled to open next year. The walk-up fare would be $3.50 per 30 minutes. A 30-minute trip would be $1.75 with a $40 annual pass. Trips up to 30 minutes would be free with a $20 30-day pass.

A holiday treat from Congress (NYT)

If you need a laugh, columnist Gail Collins takes a dim view of a bill that would eliminate the requirement that private pilots get regular medical exams.

Recent HWRs

Nov. 18: A new mobile fare app in S.F., scramble crosswalks and aerial tram (using airplane bodies) proposed between Vegas and L.A.

Nov. 17: can transit beat traffic, electric cars and total global emissions, fossil fuel programs vs. climate goals

Nov. 16: L.A. transit vs S.F. transit, a cartoon car neatly explains sprawl, traffic and parking woes and determining the environmental impact of Uber and Lyft.

Nov. 13: Readers recommend books to read while in transit, bike sharing debuts in SaMo, induced demand and Caltrans.

Nov. 12: Regional Connector cost increases and potential delays, suspect in bus slaying arrested, bike share and bike infrastructure, Missy Elliot in the subway.

Questions/Concerns: email me. You can also follow me on Twitter or my photography blog for non-transpo things.



16 replies

  1. What an exciting approach! I felt energized reading a transit proposal that tackles the heart of the current congestion mess head-on, proposing a tunnel to the valley and a downtown bypass tunnel , instead of touting light rail extensions to future transit communities in the middle of nowhere, which although commendable in spirit, do nothing for the rest of us stuck on the south 101 at Vermont (Gold Line extension to Claremont, I’m looking at you.) Good stuff, particularly the section on the correlation of traffic flow speed to CO2 and noxious emissions. That should be required reading of no-build congestion fanboys.

  2. My first thought: Where are all of those cars going to park? We’d have to radically change the way we’re growing the region to make this work.

  3. What a lovely city we will live in if the Reason Foundation’s plan comes true. We will be able to drive really fast through places not worth caring about or spending time in to get to places worth caring about. If we take “driving fast over long distances” to be equivalent to “moving somewhat slower but covering shorter distances via transit,” why do they favor car over transit? Driving is boring and inefficient. Aren’t these people supposed to be conservative?

    • “Driving is boring and inefficient.”

      The other coefficient to that statement is that people also want convenience and if they don’t have to do the driving, they’ll pick the car that comes to pick you up wherever you are instead of mass transit that makes you wait and have to share it with strangers.

      You can look to the growing popularity of rideshare services like Uber and Lyft for that. That is the reality.

      And basing on that, it doesn’t take too much to theorize what would happen when self-driving vehicles become the norm. It maybe still some years off, but we’re already starting to see some semi-autonomous vehicles up on the market for next year, and you know how these things are. They start to trickle down from the higher end Mercedes and BMWs and as technology improves and costs go down, it trickles down later to being standard on Fords and Toyotas.

      Technology is moving faster than ever. Remember, just eight years ago, no one had an iPhone and cell phones were mainly used to just call and text people. Now you wonder how you ever got by without a smartphone.

      Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be investing in mass transit. The more alternatives, the more competition, the better. But changes have to be done with mass transit as well to keep up with the competition, like they themselves too investing in technological improvements.

      So far however, Metro hasn’t kept up with the technologies used in mass transit compared to the rest of the world or even private sector like Uber and Lyft, so you can’t say Metro is doing a good job in making things more efficient themselves either.

    • “Aren’t these people supposed to be conservative?”

      They are libertarian.

  4. The Reason paper states that several of the unfunded rail projects should be cut. The sole reason they say it should be so is because they are unfunded.

    However, we may have a half-cent ballot proposal up next year that may add funds to speed up additional rail projects such as the Gold Line extension to Montclair, extension of the Crenshaw/LAX line, Green Line extension to Torrance, the Sepulveda Pass rail idea, or the Purple Line extension to the VA Hospital or hopefully to the sea as it was originally planned.

    Furthermore, there is nothing noted there on some of the prospective ideas that are supposed to come from Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation to bring in “extraordinary innovative” ideas to increase the revenue flow for Metro. We haven’t heard much what these people are doing these days (hopefully not wasting taxpayer money) but it will be interesting what they can come up with. The more revenue, and perhaps even profit, Metro can make on their own to fund their own projects, the better.

    So either of those two things or both, can happen to keep rail projects alive, which should be so.

    That being said, tolling the freeways and reducing the number of free parking are ideas that should be agreeable by many who are pro-transit.

  5. RE: military spending vs. domestic infrastructure

    Since the topic came up where $714 billion to fix our infrastructure spending is realistic or not compared to our nation’s military budget (around $600 billion per year), put it another way, is that we need to ask ourselves do we really need to be spending $600 billion a year on military spending which would rather be better if we cut back and used it toward domestic infrastructure?

    A week ago, this issue came up in the GOP Presidential debate in which Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Rand Paul sparred over our burgeoning military spending.


    Rand Paul’s words stuck with me: “how can you be conservative, but liberal in military spending” and “we spend more on our military than the next 10 nations combined.” And he’s right on that one too.


    Spending more than Russia and China makes sense, but do we really need to be spending more than the UK, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy, and Brazil combined also?

    We can just as easily halve our nation’s military spending and still have bigger spending than Russia and China combined.

    We can then re-direct $300 billion back into infrastructure spending. And that’s just one year of military spending cuts! Even a fraction of the military spending cuts for the next four or eight years being redistributed back into fixing LA’s infrastructure would be positive benefit in upgrading our infrastructure, both roads and transit, wouldn’t you agree?

  6. The plan sounds great to me. The end is coming to FREEways. It actually make sense to turn the new projects into troll roads. As far as building a tunnel from the 2 Fwy to the 110 Parkway is a waste of $$$. The only tunnel the 2 Fwy might connect to is the tunnel under the San Gabriel Mountain which has been discussed/considered for years.

  7. Regarding the Reason Foundation study, any plan that focuses on reducing congestion for cars, including tunneling under the city and widening of roads, only serves to further spatial distancing of already segregated communities. Promoting transit brings our diverse communities together, advances cross-cultural understanding and promotes social cohesion.

    • “Promoting transit brings our diverse communities together, advances cross-cultural understanding and promotes social cohesion.”

      The problem is that you can’t promote transit to do what you are saying when the existing flat rate transit fare structure actually encourages “spatial distancing” and “segregated communities.”

      If the price of a Metro Rail ride is the same whether you’re going a short distance in a densely populated area in East LA to DTLA versus a less densely populated area such as the SFV going to DTLA is also the same $1.75 fare, it’s not really encouraging diversity or controlling suburban sprawl.

      Rather, it’s still feeding into the conservative and inefficient urban planning model that people will live farther and farther away because there’s no incentive to move closer in higher density areas because the transit fare is the same whether you live far or close.

      The Libertarian Reason Foundation actually calls for transit fare reform by going to distance based fares which translates to what you’ve advocated. If you truly believe in what you said, then you’d be for Reason’s ideas which also include transit fare reform, for the exact same reasons that you advocate.

      Transit Agencies Should Implement Distance Based Fares

      Furthermore, if you consider science to be your religion, then you should be for this idea as scientists, researchers, and professors in the transit field are all for distance based fares. You are free to Google fact check this if you wish.

    • What liberals say:
      “Promoting transit brings our diverse communities together, advances cross-cultural understanding and promotes social cohesion.”

      What liberals really mean:
      “Honestly, I really don’t care about any of this but I say it anyway because it makes me feel good and it’s politically correct. But when I care, it’ll be selective and I choose whom to care about more than others.”


  8. “Anything that costs more than the annual U.S. military budget is probably a non-starter.”

    I assume you’re referring to table ES1, but I think you’re reading the table wrong.


    There are 17 items listed there that none of them are realistically able to be done in just one year let alone concurrently. I doubt Reason is saying you have to do all 17 of those items like building a tunnel, fixing bottlenecks, upgrading arterials, adding more toll lanes, or invest in intelligent transportation system and get it done within a one year at a total cost of $714.1 billion, but rather, itemizing how much each of those will cost and how much each of them will cost if those items were done at any year.

    Most rational way of reasoning would be that the $714.1 billion figure is spread out over a 20-30 year project.

    I think overall, Reason is saying that:

    1. Let’s invest in express toll lanes and other revenue generating ideas through P3s that can be done without increasing taxes.
    2. Express toll lanes investment will cost about $105 billion in investment
    3. But the express toll lanes will likely generate $362 billion through its life cycle
    4. $362 billion in revenue generated through toll lanes can cover over 50% of the other $714.1 billion upgrades that is listed there
    5. And we will only need the other $352 billion to be covered by taxes, which is a lot less than the $606 billion that SCAG says that we need

    There are certainly some parts that do require more scrutiny, but in general I do support adding more ExpressLanes to other freeways here in LA and even tolling the general lanes as well, so in that aspect, I too agree with Reason.

  9. “Resisted the temptation to lowball and/or sugarcoat the cost” – really? When they assume in the appendix that every “managed arterial grade separation” will cost $42 million that is a definite lowball, when the grade separations currently being built by ACE are costing $70 million or more in industrial areas. Does anyone read the details and seriously believe that you can elevate Santa Monica Boulevard over, say, La Cienega for $42 million? Plus the “managed grade separations” would create a huge wall in some areas, like the proposal to grade separate all the intersections on Alameda south of Union Station. Basically it would bring back the 1950’s freeway system proposal in practice.

    The proposal also kicks out ALL HOVs from the to-be-converted toll lanes and only allows buses and government registered vanpools to use them – and bizarrely asks planning agencies to “explain” to the public why this must be the case. They must have more faith in government than they say they do. I feel bad for the funders who spent their money donating, and instead got a proposal that is half baked. Nowhere in the report is Title VI of the Federal Civil Rights Act mentioned, which mandates that environmental justice be considered and that racial minorities not bear the brunt of improvements. MTA had a consent decree foisted on it, setting back rail construction, when activists claimed a Title VI violation was hurting the bus system. Because of this, MTA now has to do socioeconomic and racial analysis on every service change and have it approved by its board. This proposal is a giant Title VI violation because of all the “managed arterials” being placed in minority communities.

    • “Does anyone read the details and seriously believe that you can elevate Santa Monica Boulevard over, say, La Cienega for $42 million?”

      Sounds about right to me. Caltrain grade separation cost a total of $155 million at three intersections in San Bruno (http://www.caltrain.com/projectsplans/Projects/Caltrain_Capital_Program/San_Bruno_Grade_Separation.html).

      Simply divide it by three and you get $51.6 million per intersection. Santa Monica and La Cienega is a road not a train track, so costs would be slight cheaper. The $42 million per intersection is about the right ballpark if you ask me.

    • “Basically it would bring back the 1950’s freeway system proposal in practice.” my thoughts exactly. I look at some of these diagrams and it reminds of La Cienega and Slauson.