Why Elon Musk Is Wrong about His Boring Solution to L.A.'s Traffic Congestion

Herbie Huff of the UCLA's Lewis Center and Institute of Transportation Studies pens a well-reasoned opinion for the Los Angeles Times as to why a market-based strategy to manage demand is the best approach to traffic congestion in Los Angeles.
March 6, 2017, 11am PST | Irvin Dawid
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Traffic in Los Angeles is "so bad that billionaire futurist Elon Musk recently promised to 'just start digging' tunnels underneath L.A., writes Herbie Huffresearch associate at UCLA's Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies and Institute for Transportation Studies. "With enough layers of tunnels, says Musk, any amount of cars could be provided for."

With all due respect to Mr. Musk, this plan encapsulates everything that’s wrong with how we think about traffic. Instead of building our way out of the problem, there is a proven solution to fighting traffic, one that’s much easier, more effective and less costly than our current approach. It’s putting a price on the use of our roads.

Huff points to all the other commodities that are not only priced, but whose prices increase with the level of demand, and the chaos that would ensue if they didn't use pricing to manage demand.

And yet we miss that this very same, simple system of pricing could solve our congestion problem. Roads are the only piece of infrastructure we allow to consistently fail due to overuse.

Well, let's not forget parking.

Huff then addresses the application of dynamic tolling on High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes, including the Metro ExpressLanes on the 110 and the 10 freeways in L.A.

Here in Los Angeles, average speeds on the 10 and 110 are 45 mph in the general purpose lanes and 65 mph in the HOT lanes. And the free flowing lanes are benefiting transit riders, too. Transit usage jumped 10% following the opening of the 10 and 110 ExpressLanes. Despite a poor, under-publicized rollout by Metro, these facilities have created far more traffic relief than the 405 widening at a fraction of the cost.

In response to the Lexus Lane (equity) argument against HOT lanes, Huff writes that it "ignores the fact that working Americans often suffer the most severely from the impacts of poor mobility." For example, the fee for arriving late at day care to pick up one's child doesn't vary with the income of the parent.

In fact, experience with dynamic tolling in the United States has shown that people of all income levels use these lanes. (See examples from Washington and Florida.) This objection also ignores just how inequitable and dysfunctional our current system is. (See ITS infographic below.)

This image can be reused and shared under the Creative Commons 4.0 License.

Want to read further? "Just Road Pricing," by Lisa Schweitzer, associate professor at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, and Brian Taylor, professor of Urban Planning, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies, and director of the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies in the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles.

ACCESS 36, Spring 2010, and ACCESS 50, Special Issue: Transportation Finance.

Hat tip to Len Conly.

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