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Carrots and Sticks Could Reform L.A. Commuter Habits

July 20, 1986|G. J. FIELDING | G. J. Fielding is a professor of social science at UC Irvine and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies for the University of California system. and

During the next decade, about 80,000 new employees will join the 240,000 who already work in downtown Los Angeles. They will bring with them 13,000 more cars and create a need for 1,000 more buses to transport them to the 27 million square feet of new building space that is expected.

Metro Rail would help ease congestion problems associated with this continued expansion, but it has only received funds to begin construction of a four-mile "starter" line; the full $3.3-billion subway is still far from reality. Although completion of the light-rail line from Long Beach and improved Amtrak service from Orange County will bring some relief, they will not preserve mobility.

Los Angeles cannot afford to spend and build its way out of this transportation dilemma. Part of the solution must come by managing the system, to use existing road space more efficiently and reduce demand.

The city of Houston demonstrates what cooperation between resourceful business leaders and government can accomplish. Rather than waiting for completion of that city's planned rail system, business firms initiated their own ride-sharing programs. These have been so successful that the Texas Department of Highways has joined in. Dedicated transitways are being constructed on 30 miles of freeways to link 35 suburban park-and-ride operations with Houston's downtown district.

In Los Angeles, vehicle occupancy in autos entering the downtown area is only 1.36 per car. Increasing occupancy to the 1.46 per vehicle achieved on the San Bernardino Freeway would eliminate 25,000 auto trips.

Transport management aims to reduce congestion so facilities can operate more efficiently. The Harbor Freeway is designed to accommodate 2,000 vehicles per hour, achieving this rate as long as speed averages 45 m.p.h. But above 2,000, vehicle speed slows to 10 m.p.h. and capacity shrinks to 1,000 vehicles per hour. Since only half as many vehicles can be accommodated, it takes longer to get to work.

On the Artesia Freeway, Caltrans has demonstrated how an express lane can increase capacity. The lane carries 40% more people during peak hours. Carpools using the lane have reduced their eight-mile trip on the freeway to a nine-minute ride, while travel time on the other lanes is down from 30 to 20 minutes.

Plans exist for constructing express lanes on the Harbor Freeway. If connected with similar lanes on the Artesia, Century and Santa Monica freeways, Los Angeles could have a system that would benefit all.

Changes also would be required on downtown streets. More one-way streets, elimination of curb parking, pedestrian overpasses and computer-controlled signals all are needed. Some already have been implemented, but others will require tough decisions by elected officials.

Cooperation from business leaders would help. If business would take a more active role in sponsoring ride-sharing, the California Transportation Commission might provide additional money for central city projects.

Faster commuting will encourage some to participate in ride-sharing. Others will need a financial incentive. Free parking is regarded as an employee benefit by most firms. Yet it encourages employees to drive alone and is costly to both firms and the community. Taxing commercial parking would discourage free parking and provide funds needed for highway improvements.

Charging higher fares for bus patrons during peak travel hours also would help. Buses entering the downtown area already are overcrowded during commuting periods. Some patrons could use buses at other times, but there is no price incentive to alter travel behavior.

Pricing alternatives are controversial but effective. The introduction of parking fees for government employees in Ottawa, Canada, resulted in a decrease in the proportion of employees driving to work from 35% to 27%, and a daily increase of 3,000 transit trips.

Small changes are significant in transportation management. During the Olympics, travel on central freeways declined by 2% to 3%, but it made a remarkable difference in travel flow.

Los Angeles needs Metro Rail to reduce congestion. But in the meantime, there are a wide range of strategies that can be employed to increase capacity and reduce the demand for travel. No one strategy will accomplish it all. Strategies that reduce travel time by enhanced traffic flow should complement strategies that encourage ride-sharing. Also, care must be taken not to confuse the traveling public. Changes must be simple, easily modified and widely advertised in advance.

Traffic in Los Angeles will not become intolerable in upcoming years if it's properly managed. But to accomplish this, cooperation between business leaders, property owners, Caltrans and the city is essential. The strategies will only be effective if people realize the need for them and are willing to act accordingly.

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