Traffic, Emissions Reduced As Arizonans Stay Home

Arizonans staying home amid the pandemic are making a measurable impact on road congestion and air quality. Weekday vehicle traffic volume is down by a third since early March, according to the Maricopa Association of Governments.

Average weekday traffic volume on Valley roads has declined since early March. (Photo courtesy Maricopa Association of Governments)

More Valley workers are telecommuting than ever before, and if some workers continue to do their jobs from home after social distancing orders are lifted, Eric Anderson, executive director of the Maricopa Association of Governments, is optimistic that could create long-term benefits.

“Even a 5% reduction in travel, if people are going to be telecommuting more in the future, could have a big, dramatic impact on how our future transportation system performs,” Anderson said.

Data from analytics company INRIX shows Valley travel speeds are up and travel delays are down. And with fewer cars on the road, satellite measurements show nitrogen dioxide in Phoenix’s atmosphere is more than 10% lower than at the same time last year.

To talk more about this is Eric Anderson, executive director of MAG.

Comparing the same period of March 2019 to March 2020, findings show a reduction of 10.5% in nitrogen dioxide emissions. (Photo courtesy Maricopa Association of Governments)

Gas is Tired: Rethinking our Fossil Fuel-Dependent Car Culture

LOS ANGELES – Car culture is a way of life in Los Angeles. More specifically, gas-powered vehicle culture.

The vast freeway system is teaming with with big, gas-guzzling SUVs and luxury vehicles at all hours of the day and night. There is even a charm to the vintage classics automobile collection that the city collectively owns. There is pride, power and a sense of safety in these giant machines. Cars and the infrastructures they rely upon are a system we depend upon for our livelihood and existence in Los Angeles.

Yet, they are more than just transportation for humans to get from point A to point B: “Cars have evolved into objects of culture, power, status, desire, image, and habit,” writes Edward Humes, author of “Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation.”

However, how does driving a gas-powered SUV fit in a world overwhelmed by global warming, climate change and the hope for a green revolution?

Car ownership in Los Angeles County is among the highest of metropolitan areas worldwide and it is growing at an exponential rate. In 2018, the DMV reported 7,744,896 million registered cars, trucks and motorcycles in Los Angeles County, an area that is home to nearly 10.2 million people. Each year, 1 million new cars enter Southern California — the equivalent to one-seventh of all U.S. auto sales. A report from the California Air Resources Board shows that vehicle transportation contributes 40% of California’s greenhouse gas emissions.


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Despite the region’s infamous congestion rankings, vehicle sales have increased and concurrently public transit use has decreased. Despite valiant efforts from the city to encourage and improve public transit, such as the Measure M tax, a recent report by LA TransitCenter and UCLA found that people do not use public transit because it is slow, not safely accessible by walking, is inhospitable, and many of the likely transit users cannot afford to live near the transit station. Overall, people prefer the privacy of their personal cars as a more comfortable and much more practical mode of transportation.

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So, if car culture is not going anywhere, is it possible for Los Angeles to be part of a green transition and curb our dependence on fossil fuels?

Buying an electric vehicle may seem like old news — and California is leading the way with electric vehicle ownership — yet electric is not projected to surpass the number of gas-powered vehicles on the road until 2050.

“Electric vehicles make sense from a financial standpoint, particularly in places like Los Angeles where car culture is so prevalent,” says Ben Holland, Senior Associate in Mobility Transformation at Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank focused on transitioning from fossil fuel to renewable energy. “The more you drive, the more it makes sense to go electric, because the cost of electricity is so much lower than gasoline,” Holland says. “Long distance commuters can quickly pay off the premium they paid for an electric car.”

The two main hindrances keeping consumers from buying an electric vehicle are the lack of charging stations and the initial cost. According to Chargehub, there are less than 2000 charging stations in the city of Los Angeles, and only 7% of those are fast chargers. This challenge is currently being tackled by the city’s promise of adding 250,000 more charging units by 2025. The other challenges are more difficult.

Three converted Prius Plug-In Hybrids charging at San Francisco City Hall public recharging station. (Photo by Felix Kramer / Creative Commons)

Electric vehicle prices range anywhere between $22,000 and $72,000 before rebates and there are few subsidies or initiatives to make them attainable for middle and low-income individuals. “The problem is this is a luxury good, and in a lot of ways even a car itself is the ultimate luxury good,” says Ryan Popples, CEO of Proterra, America’s largest electric bus manufacturing company. “How are we going to get electric vehicle technology into everyone’s hands faster than just providing them with new cars? Transit.”

In a city with a declining public transit ridership, Popples says a transition to electric public transit should address the public’s concerns about the existing bus fleet. “[Buses are] loud, they’re dirty, they’re really heavy, incredibly inefficient and highly unreliable,” Popples says. With a goal of making electric buses 10 times more efficient than natural gas buses, Proterra’s buses are designed to be the exact opposite: quiet, clean, light, reliable and very efficient, he describes.

An older version of LA Metro buses. (Photo courtesy Port of Authority / Public Domain)

What Los Angeles needs more than cleaner buses to become a cleaner, more sustainable city, however, is to break out of a culture that depends strictly on single-user vehicles. “We need to start thinking about prioritizing the movement of people, not the movement of cars. That’s where transit comes in. If we can reverse auto-centric, single-occupant road design and maximize the movement of people, then transit will be a clear winner,” Holland says. “Buses, just like long distance commuters, travel many miles a day, so it’s a win-win from a climate perspective.”

Shifting a collective mentality by making transport more efficient as well as zero-emission could help change behavior and also substantially reduce the city’s fossil fuel consumption. Updating infrastructure with a fast-track lane for zippy electric buses and running them on a more frequent schedule would cut the transportation time for buses and put them back on the map as a viable transportation option.


A Proterra electric bus at its charging station. (Photo by Sounder Bruce / Creative Commons)

Last year the California Air Resources Board voted on a proposal for Innovative Clean Transit Regulation to replace all public transit agencies with zero-emission buses by 2040. The proposal’s most recent Notice of Decision from December 2018 states: “The ICT regulation requires California transit agencies to gradually transition their buses to zero-emission technologies… and to implement plans that are best suited for their own situations.” There is no deadline for this transition.

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LA Metro’s Idea of Solving Traffic: Making You Pay for It

LOS ANGELES — Good news, drivers. Metro is looking into the one solution that has actually been proven to reduce traffic.

Los Angeles County’s transit agency is set to vote this week to study a practice called “congestion pricing,” which would charge people to drive on roads based on how busy it gets.

Metro CEO Phil Washington proposed the idea last month as a way to not only reduce impassable roads, but accelerate some big transportation projects for the 2028 Olympics.

“We have to do something about congestion in the county and it’s going to get worse,” Washington told KPCC’s AirTalk in December.

HOW DOES CONGESTION PRICING WORK?

If you’ve ever been hit with surge pricing while using a ride-hail service like Uber or Lyft, or tried the express toll lanes on the 10 or 110 freeways, you get the gist of congestion pricing. Users get charged a fee that goes up or down based on demand for a limited commodity, in this case the roads.

Metro is looking at three distinct models for congestion pricing:

  • The first, cordon pricing, is the most common in practice. It sets a variable fee to enter a certain neighborhood, usually the central business district, as is done in London and Stockholm.
  • The second model charges drivers based on the number of miles they travel, with rates dependent on the time of day and where the travel occurred.
  • Under the third model, drivers are charged on certain busy corridors, like freeways or big arterials, such as Wilshire Boulevard.

In all cases, the fee would vary according to the size of the demand. Driving at 8:30 a.m. would cost much more than at 10:30 p.m.

The idea is to force people to consider whether they really need to travel into a crowded area or at a peak time, or whether they might travel at a different time or elsewhere, or use a less costly alternative mode of transportation.

WHY ARE EXPERTS SO HOT ON CONGESTION PRICING?

“The reason that people like me and my colleagues like congestion pricing so much is that it really is the only way to meaningfully reduce traffic congestion,” said Michael Manville, UCLA urban planning professor, at a Metro committee meeting in January.

“Conceptually, it’s the only way to do it. Empirically, it’s the only policy that’s ever been shown to reduce congestion and keep it reduced,” said Manville, pointing to successful programs in London, Stockholm, Milan and Singapore.

In London, the number of private cars entering the congestion zone dropped by 39 percent between 2002 and 2014. In Stockholm, traffic dropped by 20 percent during the 2006 pilot program, enough to convince a skeptical public to vote and make the charge permanent.

New York City has been working on some form of congestion pricing for years.

Manville also pointed to evidence that efforts to expand road capacity, by building more or bigger freeways or taking some cars off the road by building trains, don’t permanently reduce traffic. In most cases, these increase it.

“What basically happens is that you can have a situation where suddenly the road’s moving faster, but pretty soon people realize that, and they start to converge on the road at that time,” said Manville.

(Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

It’s such a well-documented phenomenon that it has a name: the Fundamental Law of Road Congestion — and we’ve written about it here.

Congestion pricing operates on basic economic theory. If there’s a high demand for a commodity and you give it away, people will get in line to get it and “pay” with their time instead. Soviet bread lines or free ice cream cones show how this plays out.

But if you set the price of a commodity correctly, you can mitigate the demand for it, and in the case of the roads, make them function more efficiently.

Many people are understandably resistant to the idea of paying for something they currently get for free. Until now, it’s been pretty difficult for congestion pricing to get political traction in the U.S., or be taken seriously by decision-makers.

DON’T WE ALREADY PAY FOR THE ROADS?

Theoretically, yes. Gas taxes are intended as user fees that pay for the construction of roads, although technically our gas taxes haven’t actually paid for the roads in quite some time.

In Los Angeles County, residents also pay higher sales taxes to fund transportation, thanks to four voter transportation tax measures approved in recent years.

Manville said we could think of congestion pricing as metering road use, the way we meter the use of services like electricity or water. Once the pipe system or the electric grid is built and paid for, utilities don’t stop charging people to use the service. If they did, people would leave their water on for 10 hours or run their air conditioners all day.

“One thing that price does that the gas tax does not do is not just make sure that the service is there but that it’s good service,” he said.

Under Manville’s analogy, the roads are like the water service. We only have enough of it to allocate well, and it’s only allocated well if it’s priced right.

AREN’T THERE PRIVACY CONCERNS?

A cordon or corridor system would likely require all cars to carry a transponder, such as the FasTrak currently used for the express lanes. A charge based on vehicle miles traveled could be viewed as more invasive, requiring some kind of location-enabled tracking that plugs into a car’s computer.

Metro has already had a hard time enforcing tolls in its express lanes, admitting a full quarter of users evade payment by switching their transponders to carpool or avoiding transponder readers. Metro is pursuing video systems that can read the number of passengers to catch carpool cheaters.

WON’T CONGESTION PRICING HURT POOR PEOPLE?

This is an oft-cited criticism. The fact is the charges would disproportionately burden lower-income people.

Manville pointed out that we accept many other regressive charges, such as those for utility bills, gas taxes and transit sales taxes but that there are many ways to mitigate the negative effects for disadvantaged populations. Offering a low-income discount, as Metro does for transit fares, is one.

The revenues from congestion pricing can also be reinvested into alternative modes of transportation like transit to make non-auto travel more viable. And with reduced traffic, buses can operate much more efficiently.

Metro’s Washington has even suggested that county transit could be offered free with revenues from congestion pricing. Metro estimates congestion pricing could raise about $10 billion a year.

“If we were to implement something like this, we would be the first major city in the world that would offer free transit on the scale that we have it here in Los Angeles,” he said.

Traffic continues to be huge air polluter – but local politics makes it hard to say no to new roads.

LOS ANGELES – Based on the annual 2018 “State of the Air” report from The American Lung Association, Los Angeles was ranked the top city spot for high ozone days out of 227 metropolitan locations.

Arizonans should be concerned too as the Grand Canyon state ranked eighth in the same category. And during the summer of 2018, Arizona exceded recommended ozone 49 times.levels and had a record 49 days of dangerous air.

Traffic combined with heat can create unsafe air and in many big cities in the west, air pollution and traffic combined are two of the biggest problems facing those areas. The problem is made worse by rapid growth, suburban sprawl and the “inversion affect,” which traps polluted area in cities near mountains.

The crux of the problem is alleviating the headache of heavy traffic while simultaneously preserving open space and endangered species.

Based on yearly transportation studies, Los Angeles is the most congested city in the country. Orange County, home to 3 million residents, connects to L.A. county and contributes to the load of traffic in the area.

With congested traffic as a main concern for most drivers in Southern California, the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) has established a project involving a route from Orange County, south of LA, to San Clemente, 60 miles south of LA. Orange County is one of the largest counties in the country, home to 3 million people.

Approximately 25 million people live in Southern California, an area where most destinations are not within walking distance.

To combat the escalating population in the 1980s, state transportation officials created four new highways in the Orange County region. The purpose was to create alternative routes to Interstate 5, one of the country’s busiest highways.

Today, the state owns 51 miles of highway throughout the county The plan TSA had in mind was to connect the 241 state highway in the south portion of the O.C. to Interstate 5 freeway. It would eventually merge in San Clemente.

The plan faced several obstacles over the years, most notable lawsuits from the San Onofre coalition, comprised of organizations including the state of California.

Phoenix, ranked lower than L.A., is the fifteenth most congested state in America, based on a 2017 report from the transportation analytics company Inrix. It revealed the city has over three thousand hotspots and the 2026 cost of congestion will be $9.5 billion.

The state is also working on expansion, adding 22 miles to the South Mountain Freeway. According to the Arizona Department of Transportation, the construction is projected to be finished by the end of 2019.