LA traffic seems to have replaced “the weather” in Mark Twain’s remark, “Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.”
Last Thursday evening, July 26, over 200 people gathered for a RAND Policy Forum on “Gridlock in Los Angeles: Getting Past the Standstill” at the company’s Santa Monica headquarters. The week before, the Westside Urban Forum assembled more than 85 for a July 20 Westwood breakfast discussion of “Does LA Have the Funding to End the Gridlock?” featuring SM City Councilmember Pam O’Connor who this year chairs the Metro governing board.
And neighborhood groups all over the Westside have been meeting for the past couple of months to discuss County Supervisors Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky’s proposal to couple Pico and Olympic boulevards as a one-way pair (Santa Monica Mirror, July 19-25, 2007).
The Rand Forum
Martin Wachs, director of the company’s Transportation, Space and Technology Program, who has been studying traffic for 40 years, laid out some intriguing information about LA traffic:
• The growth in the movement of goods exceeds the growth in passenger movement;
• The greatest growth in passenger movement is not in commuting – only 20% of passenger trips are commutes;
• When an employer provides free parking, 90% of employees drive to work alone; but when the company gives a cash allowance, only 70% drive to work alone;
• The unpredictability of travel times is at least as troubling to drivers as the length of travel times.
Wachs concluded that the real traffic problem was not a technical question – there are plenty of technical answers – but a question of political will: everyone wants to reduce congestion, but no one wants to change their own behavior or pay more money. And with that, he turned the discussion over to the politicians who joined him on the dais, Supervisor Yaroslavsky and former state Assemblyman Richard Katz, now a consultant and Mayor Villaraigosa’s appointee to the Metro board, both of whom agreed that political courage was the key to solving the traffic problem.
Among other proposals, the panel discussed “congestion pricing” – a plan employed in some cities abroad whereby people are charged a fee for entering the most congested areas. Wachs said it works (congestion has declined everywhere it has been implemented) and the technology to assess the charge electronically makes it feasible. Yaroslavsky said it was too unpopular to ever happen here.
One of the features of the Rand policy forums is that there is often as much expertise in the audience as there is on the dais. Former District Attorney Gil Garcetti asked from the floor if it might not be wise to take traffic planning out of the hands of local jurisdictions and turn it over to a Governor’s appointee who would be more free to implement unpopular measures. Wachs (interestingly, the non-politician on the panel) allowed that China had been successful in imposing anti-congestion measures without much worry about public opinion, but he drew applause when he added that he would not trade democracy for efficiency.
Also on the political courage theme, Katz made a strong appeal that voters should not target elected officials on single-issue politics because such conduct will only insure that officials “will just do the easy stuff.”
The good news is that it does not take a large reduction in traffic to substantially alleviate congestion – a 10-15 percent reduction has dramatic effects, according to Wachs. The panel referred to the by-now-legendary easing of traffic during the 1984 Olympics, and Yaroslavsky said that studies reported that was only a three to four percent reduction.
Focus on Funding
The breakfast meeting in Westwood featured California Transportation Commissioner Larry Zarian as well as Santa Monica’s O’Connor. Much of that discussion focused on funding. Zarian, a former Glendale mayor who is the only LA County voice on the state commission, said that the $20 billion voted for transportation last November was a small fraction of the $100 to $150 billion that is needed. O’Connor expressed great disappointment that the Assembly had shifted so much of the transportation money that had been authorized by the public to other uses “to fill holes in the budget.”
Zarian advocated taking transportation out of the hands of the politicians and turning it over to experts without constituencies.
Another wrinkle on that democracy/courage/efficiency theme came from Yaroslavsky at the Rand forum apropos of his Pico/Olympic plan: he said that none of the city officials (from Los Angeles, Beverly Hills or Santa Monica) would ever have initiated the proposal. “It’s too controversial, but [as a county elected official] I have the absorption capacity – a large enough constituency” to be able to get away with it. He reported that LA City “studied it for 90 days and concluded they want to study it for another 90 days.”
After the panel, Yaroslavsky told the Mirror that the worst traffic in the corridor is between Centinela Avenue and the San Diego Freeway (I-405), and he would very much like to see the one-way couplet implemented at least between Centinela and Fairfax avenues. If that were done, he thinks that Koreatown interests to the east (where there is opposition to the plan) would later want to extend the plan through that district.
But that’s the way things work in a democracy: you have to do a lot of talking about something before anyone does anything about it.