Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Continuing evolution of carpool lanes in Los Angeles

Here's a timely update on the diamond lanes we read about in Joan Didion's Bureaucrats. The experiment of how to best manage freeway lanes in Los Angeles continues. Last year 11 miles were converted to toll lanes and, like the 1970s demonstration project, the plan is making things better for some and worse for others.
L.A. County's first foray into toll lanes shows that those willing to pay are getting a slightly faster commute, but everyone else is seeing more traffic. Some trips now take 15 minutes longer than before the carpool lanes were reconfigured on the 110 Freeway. 
Here's the full article.


  1. I believe that the most difficult pill for the US to swallow is that the days of cheap, easy and fast commuting in large cities is essentially dead. Tolling is a practice that has obviously been around for years but most motorists will typically turn their back to it, opting for the longer commute because the price to operate a vehicle is relatively inexpensive and the alternative commute manageable. However, times have changed. Tack on a growing population equating to massive congestion that would crush even the most hearty of car enthusiasts soul, the vast sprawl of the city and all of the sudden paying for ones time isn’t such a zany idea. I believe many L.A. residents, who can actually afford it, will eventually come around to purchasing the convenience tolling provides but it certainly won’t come without commuters being vocal about the new system.

    The article states, “the 110 and 10 toll lanes are L.A. County's first attempt at ‘congestion pricing,’” which is true and it hurts. Congestion is a key byproduct of sprawl within Los Angeles (and beyond) and it has obviously taken its toll (haha?) over the decades. For affordability, and other reasons, residents continue to reside further and further away from their downtown central business districts. This takes an automobile to reach both locations. The domino effect of these decisions equates to more cars on the road and more congestion to endure. A partial solution to this is higher density within the core of the city. A wonderful example as a prime candidate for this social revolution comes as an example within the article by L.A. resident Ted Bischak. “Bischak's round-trip commute to a downtown real estate office costs about $8 a day in tolls. He's considering taking a different route to avoid the fees, even if it's a little longer.” One must wonder how much commuting time and extra money in tolling fees and overall car expenses Bischak could save if he relocated to a place say, in downtown, next to or near his office?

  2. Josh, I think you are right on for the starting point to any conversation on this topic. Many people would still be rather incredulous about the cost of auto travel in other countries. It is incredibly difficult to enact any change that raises the cost of driving when there is a strong sense of entitlement to inexpensive, private auto travel. This leaves us often charging less for freeways than they are costing us with little political feasibility to address this.

    The strategy of Caltrans baffles me in some ways. Both parties involved are being penalized in this scenario. The free lanes are charged greater travel time and the toll lanes are charged both tolls and the cost/stress of increased traffic tickets as people struggle to adapt to new travel regulations. By presenting the decision as the less awful of two options really undermines the relationship between the public and their transportation system and may create added difficulty later on.

    The other thing that stood out to me, and I feel comes up relatively often, is the one of the final statements of the article, "the truth of the matter is, there aren't that many options left to increase freeway capacity." Even after making this statement, the focus is still on making use of those options before turning to alternatives. I don't think congestion can be solved with a single travel mode. It is time to start diversifying our travel and developing multiple attractive travel options rather than squeezing a few more drops out of an exhausted infrastructure system. 

  3. I really have to say that this article raises questions about the feasibility of tolling. Where people are able to, they are likely to find alternative routes as stated in the article. I hope the paradox created by this is not lost on those in charge, as the fees they otherwise would be collecting are being lost, and the wear and tear on other segments of the system is going up due to increased traffic. The implementation of a tolling system without quick, efficient, and safe alternatives won't have that much of an impact.

    Personally, I don't find toll systems to be that effective, especially when the alternative is leaving just a few minutes earlier. It is a novel way to increase the diversity of their funding, but the inexpensive (albeit heavily subsidized) nature of the automobile system is what keeps it so popular in the U.S. Increasing the costs to some, while not to others will only encourage people to take the path of least cost.

  4. It's pretty interesting that this article makes no mention of the very high level of transit service that uses both of these toll lanes. LA Metro and other regional/municipal operators take great advantage of these lanes free of change. Not only do they get a benefit from the speed (and therefore allows them to save a good amount in operating cost), but it attracts so many people to ride since it's a faster and cheaper (and therefore more competitive) option than driving alone or even carpooling. The transit agencies also get free advertising by operating buses along these lanes as they zoom by the solo drivers waiting in traffic. These tolls lanes seem to be a great solution to not only push people out of their cars, but also pull them to alternative modes like transit.
    Also, I find it a little strange that carpoolers have complained of a $3 charge if they do not use their transponders more than 4 times per month. Why buy the transponder if you don't use it more than 4 times per month!?!

  5. I don't have a lot of experience with toll lanes and transponders, so I'm curious as to how carpoolers are able to not pay the toll fees. When you buy the transponder, you just say "I'm a carpooler" and you're good? I just imagine that there are people that carpool regularly with other people and get out of paying the tolls (as they should), then on days when not carpooling, they're still able to use the carpool lane because they have the transponder? Are there cameras that regulate this? Do the carpool transponders signal differently to cops so that they can check for more than 1 person in the car? I was hoping the article explained prevention of that loophole a little bit more, but it didn't.

    I was recently in Dallas, Texas (another victim of severe urban sprawl) which has a great deal of toll roads. My uncle-in-law was having to pay over $70 a week in tolls (and he doesn't make very much). Luckily for him, he is a single guy and doesn't require much, so he was able move closer to work and now lives in a hotel room that's 5 minutes from work (no tolls). However, while this worked out for him, these options are not always available to people with kids, debt, mental and physical health issues, etc., so they are stuck with paying the tolls or taking on the congested free lanes. I like the idea of the tolls as a way to change people's driving behavior, but I worry that it tends to target the middle-low income people that can't afford the expense. If the toll roads are implemented along with cheaper alternative travel options, then I could see it being more equitable.

  6. This is a really fascinating project!

    Josh, I think you really hit on one of the key elements underlying this story, and that's the "driver entitlement" mindset of most people. Although it's can be quite a stumbling block for those trying to experiment with and improve the transportation system, I think it's really a justified mindset considering the general nature of America's road and highway policy.

    However I've got to agree with Haley's observation that for many (if not most) people, relocating their residence is not a very reasonable response to commute difficulties. Given the multitude of factors that go into a residence choice, the increasing turnover in employment, and especially for households where there are multiple workers, it seems like the traditional economic "commute/residence" equilibrium is a fantasy.

    Tom, I agree that the story is quite neglegent in not mentioning the transit aspect of this project at all. Beyond the indirect advantages the project should provide to transit, direct transit improvements are an integral part of the project. Three BRT style lines are being established or improved as a key part of this program. 47 new busses are being added, and many of the stations are being renovated with (among other things) bike lockers. The transit element is also integrated in many smaller ways with the project. For instance, the fee for using the toll lanes is dynamic and changes with the amount of congestion on the toll lanes. However, during the peak periods the toll must always be more than 1.5x the BRT fare. Additionally, Metro is trying a cross-incentivitizing program which I've never seen anywhere else. Riders who link their Metro TAP card accounts (used to pay the bus fares) with their FasTrak accounts (used to pay the road toll) get a toll credit every time they ride the BRT line.

    Tom, when you ask "why buy the transponder if you don't use it more than 4 times per month" it's because you'll need the transponder to use the carpool lanes at all. I've got to say that as an ex-near-LA resident, and an infrequent carpooler, I can feel the carpooler's pain on this one. When I lived near LA I didn't carpool regularly, but when I did carpool to or through LA I made special effort to go on the freeways that had continuous and connected carpool lanes - it made a huge difference! As an infrequent carpooler, I feel I have just as much right to the carpool lanes as someone who goes everyday. But now something that I could do without any trouble, I have to buy into the whole transponder system to take advantage of. And on top of that, it's like they're saying there's a minimum frequency threshold to be a "real" carpooler. That being said, I also get real angry whenever I see someone in the carpool lane alone - and this program is supposed to reduce that. So, there's advantages and disadvantages.

  7. Haley, the new transponders needed for carpool rates have a small switch on them that the driver uses to indicate if there's one, two, or three+ people in the car. Combined with cameras and police enforcement, this is how they seperate the carpoolers from the toll users. If you don't have the new transponder (older versions don't have the switch), you'll be charged like a toll user even if you're carpooling.

    The story somewhat misrepresents the FasTrak payment system. The FasTrak transponder account carries a pre-paid toll balance, and it must be either linked with a credit card or can be cash-based. In both cases, you have to pre-load the account with \$45. For the cash accounts, you also pay a \$30 deposit that can be refunded if you return the transponder. The credit card linked accounts automatically add credit when the account balance falls below 1/3rd your normal monthly usage, and the cash accounts send an email/letter reminding you to refill the account. There's also a "low income" (~\<40k household) option for the accounts, that includes a one-time \$25 toll-credit, waives the deposit, and waives the monthly non-use fee. Otherwise, you need to use the lanes for 4 one-way trips (single or carpool) to avoid a \$3 monthly fee.

    Haley, I think you've also identified that any toll scheme has potential equity implications. Even with the low income accounts, there's the fundamental fact that the toll lanes allow for a "premium" experience for those that choose to pay for it. However, unlike toll roads or bridges, using the toll lanes is not a necessity to use the road. In Dallas, there might be no easy way to avoid the toll roads. In LA, there's a very easy alternative route - one lane over.

    I think that also highlights something that's missed in this story, and that's that (in theory) there's really no capacity being taken away from non-toll, non-carpool drivers. This project just converts what was already a carpool lane into a carpool/toll lane. For carpools, the lanes are still free. For single-drivers, the other lanes are still free. The only drivers whose "view" of the road is changed are those who choose to pay a toll. In practice though, the carpoolers are being forced out until they buy into the FasTrak system and the carpool-violaters are being forced out by better enforcement. In the short term, this does seem to be a disruption to the freeway system. But the real test will be how it performs in the future.

  8. Toll lanes in Los Angeles, and particularly congestion pricing, is a complicated issue. On one hand, congestion pricing is equitable because it charges those who use the system more to pay a higher rate. HOT lanes are also optional, so those who choose not to use the service don’t have to pay the cost for those who do. Beyond the toll lane, the less desirable aspects of tolls are more noticeable. Critics of the Los Angeles toll lanes are increasing concerned that the added congestion and pollution in the “regular” lanes will have environmental impacts to the nearby communities. Likewise, the commuters who choose to use the tolls are given an extra incentive to buy live further from the city center by decreasing their commute time, thereby encouraging sprawl. However, if the revenue from the toll lanes is used for improved bus service in the nearby communities as intended, the pollution effects may be mitigated as the commuters change their travel mode choice to transit.
    It should also be noted that the Los Angeles metropolitan region is not a stranger to toll facilities. The State Route 91 (SR-91) Express Lanes just south of the Los Angeles County border is a fully automated 10-mile toll lane in the median of the SR-91 freeway, similar to the new HOT lanes in Los Angeles. The express lanes on SR-91 have been in operation since 1995, and feature similar congestion pricing, with prices rising as high as $9.95 for the 10–mile stretch during peak hour times.


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