The Rand Road Report

“Will Los Angeles begin to pursue pricing to manage demand for peak-hour automotive travel, or will it instead simply allow congestion to worsen in the coming decades? These are the only choices.”

So concludes the summary paragraphs of a 556 page monograph: “Moving Los Angeles”, just published by the Rand Corporation. If you think congestion pricing is a tool of last resort or just a “European thing” then read this.

The nine study authors, lead by Paul Sorensen and Martin Wachs, compared 28 strategies ranging from freeway ramp metering through one-way streets, car sharing, telecommuting, rush-hour construction bans, driving restrictions, deep discount transit passes, to bicycle strategies. They left out only PAYD insurance and changing the minimum driving age to 21. These 28 were compared for public–sector cost/revenue implications as well as both short and long-term congestion reduction (figure 2.6 in the book). None of the strategies examined has anything but a modest long-term effect on congestion.

Except pricing. Five types were listed, and three – HOT lanes, variable curb-parking rates and parking cash-outs – perform better than all the others except for cordon congestion tolls which performed the best of all 28. The fifth pricing strategy, local fuel taxes*, performed as badly as the 23 non-pricing strategies.

On the flip side, 19 of the 23 non-pricing strategies have modestly-advanced implementation programs in Los Angeles while none of the 5 pricing strategies are past “hardly anything”. In fact “HOT lanes” scored zero.

Worse, is that two of the pricing strategies that show high congestion reduction value also show no implementation obstacles: variable curb-parking rates and parking cash-outs, yet nothing is being done about them.

There are three lessons here: (1) we are spending money on the wrong solutions while clearly ignoring the evidence for the right solution; (2) this is not completely due to the cowardice of democracy, because two of the four winning approaches have no implementation obstacles; and (3) the first key to addressing congestion is through parking pricing rather than road pricing.

There is a fourth lesson: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result.

* Recently, Mary Peters, US Secretary of Transportation, was quoted saying: "Relying on the gas tax is like relying on cardboard to keep the rain out – the longer you use it the less it works." I’m going to miss her. How can Obama do better?