Transportation wonks typically agree that charging people for using the roads is the best way to reduce traffic. What if we paid people for not using the roads?
It’s no secret that Los Angeles County has a traffic problem. According to the Inrix 2017 Scorecard, Los Angeles again took first prize as the number one most congested city in the world, with an average of 102 hours wasted stuck in traffic. Other studies have estimated the cost of sitting in traffic cumulatively costs Angelenos billions of dollars in lost time and other expenses every year.
To give Angelenos back two weeks of their lives, and reinvest those billions back into the economy, we need some extraordinarily innovative ideas. While we are investing heavily in expanding our transit system and mobility backbone, what else can we do to dramatically change the way that Angelenos get around L.A. County?
What if we pay people not to drive?
The concept is to pull the same economic lever as congestion pricing, but in a different direction. And it’s a lever that many – from the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) to the L.A. Times – are considering the value of pulling more as traffic continues to worsen and alternatives come on line. Could incentives to not drive be as effective as disincentives to drive? Could they be implemented sooner?
There have been some limited pilot programs to test this concept, with public agencies rewarding customers for using their assets in the off-peak. For example, BART in the Bay Area announced that they would provide reward points for customers who choose to travel on their system during off-peak hours. In Rotterdam, between 2009 and 2012, the Dutch government sponsored a pilot program to reduce the number of peak trips on working days made by a test group in return for a monetary reward. This program successfully achieved a reduction of seven percent of trips taken during the peak. According to the L.A. Times, “A 2008 study gave drivers in Seattle a hypothetical cash sum to spend on trips, charged them tolls linked to traffic congestion levels, and let them keep money they did not spend. Their cars were fitted with equipment to monitor driving patterns.” The Georgia Department of Transportation has also launched a program that directly rewards drivers with cash or prizes for using a commute alternative.
Los Angeles County could be an excellent place to develop the necessary software to test and refine this concept. Even a small reduction in the number of people driving during the peak can create enormous mobility benefits. But developing the correct project scope and software design will be challenging, particularly developing mechanisms to ensure that peak trips are actually avoided and that people are not gaming the system.
So as pulling this lever appears more and more imperative, paying people not to drive could be a way to reward Angelenos for rethinking how they use our roads, and build the infrastructure to do so, sooner rather than later.
Marla Westervelt works for the Office of Extraordinary Innovation.