This is the only solution and it is a good one.
The reason that electrical power and air travel don’t fail every time they get crowded is that we raise prices to manage demand. If things cost more, people use less of them. We all accept that airline tickets are more expensive during the holidays. 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.
Since 2003, cities across the country have been experimenting with something called “dynamic tolling” as a traffic solution. This entails adding what are called High-Occupancy/Toll (HOT) lanes on freeways. In a HOT lane, carpools drive for free, while solo drivers have to pay. Tolls are usually collected via a transponder, without ever having to slow down. Two of these experimental HOTs are right here in Los Angeles on the 110 and the 10 freeways.
In these HOT lanes, congestion is basically a thing of the past. On one highway in Miami, for example, average speeds went from 20 mph to 62 mph. On a Minneapolis road, speeds of 50-55 mph are maintained 95% of the time. 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.
Dynamic tolling works by varying the price of the toll lanes by time of day. It costs more when traffic is typically busy, and less when fewer people want to use it. Prices can range from $0.50 to around $8 per trip.
A free-flowing road also carries more cars than a congested road, so by keeping things moving, the price actually increases the capacity on the road. Minneapolis’ HOT lane, for instance, carried 33% more cars than it did when it was free.
The system works because when prices go up, it sends a signal to drivers that there are lots of other cars on the road. Just as with airfare, people respond to these signals.
People have more flexibility in their drive times than you might imagine. Roughly half of peak-hour trips are not commutes to work or school. With HOT lanes, when prices are high, people adjust accordingly. If it’s worth it, they get in the lane and save time. If they don’t want to pay, they have that most American of options — choice: They could use the unpriced lanes, go at a different time, carpool, or take transit to avoid the cost.
Experts have pointed to tolls as a traffic solution for decades, yet building political support for road fees continues to be a challenge — the most common complaint being: “Oh, so only rich people can drive?”
This critique ignores the fact that working Americans often suffer the most severely from the impacts of poor mobility. Working-class parents who are late to pick up their kids from day care, for example, often pay severe financial penalties. Having the option to reach their destination quickly could actually save them money. In fact, experience with dynamic tolling in the United States has shown that people of all income levels use these lanes. This objection also ignores just how inequitable and dysfunctional our current system is. Tolls may disproportionately burden the poor, but so do sales taxes, gas taxes and every other way we pay for roads.