Los Angeles faces a 53-hour traffic nightmare this weekend when officials shut down a ten-mile stretch of the 405 Freeway for demolition work. The impending gridlock, which has been cleverly dubbed “Carmageddon,” could shock even L.A. drivers already used to the worst congestion in America: One official at the California Department of Transportation has warned of backups up to 64 miles long. It’s too late to do anything about this weekend’s fast-approaching traffic crisis, but what can the city do over the long term to address its notorious congestion problem?
According to an article in New Geography by RAND Corporation scholar Paul Sorensen, the answer is not more roads. “There simply isn’t much space to build new roads in Los Angeles, particularly in the most densely developed urban areas,” Sorensen writes. He argues that other approaches—“better transit service, ridesharing programs, traffic signal synchronization, and the like”—may help, but only if they’re combined with one key policy: congestion pricing. This approach, he notes, carries the obvious benefit of raising revenues for future improvements, but there is a second, unexpected benefit as well: Congestion pricing would allow roads to accommodate more traffic. Why? Because, Sorensen writes, “pricing enables more efficient use of the road capacity that we already have, because roads on which traffic flows smoothly (at roughly 40 mph or higher) can carry far more vehicles per lane per hour than roads snarled in stop-and-go congestion.” This means that pricing is not simply a matter of keeping people off the road. Instead, Sorensen concludes, it is “useful to think of pricing as a means of managing peak-hour travel demand rather than reducing it.”