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Posts from the Congestion Pricing Category


Vehicle Automation versus Connectivity, and What it Might Mean for Traffic


The U.S. Department of Transportation’s depiction of connected vehicles on a controlled-access highway.

ed’s note: This week, we’re featuring a short series of articles from our board member Juan Matute on what he’s thinking about technology and transportation.

I have the opportunity to be involved in a lot of interesting research as the Associate Director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies. Over the past year, I’ve been involved with our study of policy, behavioral, and market research to better understand opportunities and challenges for connected vehicles implementation.

The study’s formal title is NeTS:Large: Collaborative Research: Closing the loop between traffic/pollution sensing and vehicle route control using traffic lights and navigators, so we call it Green City Transportation Architecture. It’s funded by the National Science Foundation and is more exploratory than applied. Don’t expect to see the research project’s results become commercialized in the near term.

We’ve supported a team of computer scientists looking to optimize vehicle traffic flow within cities and regions through the use of connected “smart” traffic signals, a central navigation server (think Waze Plus), and a dynamic congestion charge.  Implementing such a system requires vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure connectivity, which is the focus of this article.

Vehicles must be aware of their environment in order to respond to it. Automated but unconnected vehicles are limited to one-way line-of-sight scanning to assess their environment. Connected vehicles use data connectivity to communicate with infrastructure and other vehicles, including those outside the line-of-sight, either around curves or more than one vehicle ahead.  Connectivity enables data communication for an activity that’s largely dependent on visual communication (presence of vehicles, stop signs, lane paint, etc.), aural communication (honking), and a set of rules of the road. We’ve already seen the possibilities of data communication between vehicles (or their occupants’ smartphones) and central servers, but there are much greater possibilities from vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure connectivity.

Many of the benefits that people associate with vehicle automation actually come from vehicle connectivity. Adaptive cruise control, where a trailing vehicle automatically speeds up or slows down to maintain separation from the vehicle in front of it, is a vehicle automation feature. However, the biggest increase in vehicle throughput only comes from adaptive cruise control with multi-car platoons, which requires vehicle connectivity Read more…

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Congestion Charging on the Horizon for China’s Cities


Photo of Shanghai traffic: Bert van Dijk

Which Chinese city will be the first to try congestion pricing? Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai — megacities whose populations are on the scale of New York’s? Or second-tier but still mighty cities (think Chicago) like Hangzhou, Nanjing, or Xi’an?

Road tolling à la American turnpikes and thruways is already extensive in China, as a means to finance highways rather than manage traffic. Increasingly, however, with traffic and vehicle exhaust demonstrably harming business as well as human health in dozens of cities, and with strategies like quotas on new vehicles unable to offset the growth in driving, officials are looking to “economic measures.” Tolling vehicle entries to congested city centers has established a strong enough track record elsewhere in improving traffic flow and air quality that it is attracting interest not just from municipal officials but also from China’s national transport and environment ministries.

Cordon or congestion pricing, as such tolling is called, was Topic “A” last week in Hangzhou, a city of nearly 4 million (6 million counting suburbs) south of Shanghai. Some 200 officials and academics from 11 provinces, 30 cities, and at least a dozen universities packed a two-day “International Forum on Economic Policies for Traffic Congestion and Tailpipe Emissions” organized by the Energy Foundation China. Representatives from the four largest world cities with cordon tolling — Singapore, London, Stockholm and Milan — related their successes and fielded questions on everything from the digital nuts and bolts of tolling technologies to the political path that led to implementation. I was invited to report on NYC’s mixed record and share analytical insights from my traffic modeling work.

I’m still sifting impressions, but here are some takeaways thus far:

  • The biggest driver of China’s interest in congestion pricing is air pollution, with gridlock, which is spreading to more hours and more areas in every city, a close second. “Congestion and ‘smogs’ have become major concerns of the public and major bottlenecks for urban development,” summed up one high-ranking official.
  • Revenue generation for public transport — a huge motivator for tolling vehicle trips into the Manhattan Central Business District — is downplayed as a rationale for congestion pricing, perhaps because Chinese drivers already pay road tolls. Revenue may become politically salient, however, as dwindling revenues from sales of land force municipalities to come up with other ways to finance transit lines.
  • The economist’s paradigm of “congestion causation” (the aggregate delay to other road users caused by each additional car trip to the CBD) has barely surfaced in transportation planning and the design of road pricing instruments in China, yet it seems an important metric for screening candidate cities for congestion pricing.

Read more…


As ExpressLanes Flourish, Zev Moves to End Transponder Fees

Unanswered in the report, is Metro making more cash off of irregular users occasionally using the lanes than it is losing cash from the transponder fee waiver.

(Note: According to The Source, I misunderstood the wording of the motion. An earlier version of this article mentioned that staff opposed extending the transponder fee. Apparently they wish to see it extended through the end of the ExpressLanes pilot in February 2014)

Metro’s two staff reports to the Board of Directors on the progress of the ExpressLanes pilot program is full of good news. Over the last five months, there has been a 41% increase in transponder sales in L.A. CountyThe lanes will generate between $16 million and $19 million for investment in the corridors along the I-10 and I-110 in addition to the funding provided by the FTA for the experiment.

The transponder. Image ZevWeb

However, more and more people are holding FastTrak accounts that aren’t regular users.  The number of LA County accounts with infrequent trips increased by 71% from 49,759 to 85,102; the number of accounts with zero trips increased by 103% from 22,053 to 44,767.

The reason the Metro report is only reporting on accounts held within L.A. County is because transponder fees for L.A. County residents purchased through Metro were waived by a Board Action from the April meeting. The holiday from fees is only a six month experiment.

Originally, the ExpressLanes program included a small monthly “maintenance fee” for people that owned transponders and had active accounts but weren’t using the lanes more than a couple of times a month. Following a media uproar (note: Streetsblog covered it first), the Metro Board decided to waive the fee for six months as a pilot program within the pilot program. Basically, if you didn’t use the lanes in some form, you had to pay a $3 maintenance fee.,

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky sits on the Metro Board of Directors and wants to permanently end the transponder fee for accounts that don’t use the ExpressLanes system (or don’t have their transponder account and TAP account linked together).  Metro staff agree that the positives outweigh the negatives, at least for now.

The report that provides the above statistics also recommends letting the maintenance fee return at the end of the trial period. Metro pays a maintenance fee of $3 per month to as part of its contract with FasTrak, the company managing the program. If Metro continues to waive the fee, the agency will have to pay FasTrak $1.5 million more out of another coffers. With net revenue estimated between $16 million and $19 million, that is nearly 10% of the net revenue.

Metro staff also claims that the transponders are not a barrier into entering the ExpressLanes system. Read more…


It Might be Hot, but Antonovich Wants It HOTter on the Westside

Just when you thought the I-405 Widening Project through the Sepulveda Pass couldn’t get less popular.

Antonovich talks to fellow Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents the area covered in the 405 widening. They were talking fire safety, not congestion pricing. Photo:ZevWeb

Last week, news broke slowly that then Metro Board Chair and County Supervisor Mike Antonovich wants Metro staff to examine whether or not it makes sense for the HOV lanes on the I-405 to become  High Occupancy Toll Lanes to offset the ever expanding budget of the widening.

The motion cleared committee and was passed by the Metro Board. Staff is expected to have a report in the next month or two. Metro currently oversees a pilot program its version of congestion pricing, known as ExpressLanes, on portions of the I-10 and I-110. The results of the program are still up for debate.

It might seem odd for Antonovich, who tells Fox 11 he doesn’t actually like congestion pricing, to sponsor such a measure.  The Supervisor explains that it’s not a love of congestion pricing, but an over-arching sense of fairness that moved this proposal. Metro is proposing to create HOT Lanes for the I-5 to pay for expansion of the local HOV network. Since federal funds are no longer enough to cover the 405 project, it’s unfair to expect the entire county to foot the bill while only drivers on the I-5 have to pay the bill for that road widening.

So what say you Streetsbloggers, should the new HOV lane on the 405 be immediately converted into a HOT Lane? Is Antonovich right?

Should the new HOV lane on the 405 become an ExpressLane when it is completely opened?

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Krugman: Costs of Driving Deserve Way More Attention

Two of the nation’s leading lefty commentators weighed in on transportation incentives last Friday, when both economist Paul Krugman at the New York Times and Matt Yglesias at Slate went on a congestion pricing kick.

Krugman kicked things off by remarking that the surest way to reduce the costs imposed on society by drivers is to “get the incentives right, and charge large fees for driving in congestion.”

Yglesias took it one step further, pointing out how a variable fee on roads could lead to a virtuous cycle of better transit service and higher ridership:

Congestion fees are a kind of force multiplier for transit. After all, in some big American cities the peak congestion charge would have to get quite hefty at some times of the day. Some folks will respond to that by paying the fee, some by time-shifting their driving to a less-crowded hour, and some by riding transit. A bus, after all, is a great mechanism for spreading the cost of road access across a large number of people. And while with highways the quality of the service provided declines with the number of users (traffic jams), with well-designed transit it goes the other way. The more people who want to travel on a particular transit route, the more financially viable it is to provide high-frequency service. And high-frequency service is the key to real-world transit useability.

As Krugman noted, congestion pricing is an important mechanism to account for the cost imposed by drivers on society in the form of lost time. Anything that brings the actual price of our transportation decisions in line with the cost to society will be a boon for transit, biking, and walking relative to the status quo.

The flipside of congestion pricing would be to account for the social benefits of non-automotive modes by subsidizing them. The European Cyclists Federation currently has an interesting proposal on this front. With the European Union examining the “internalisation of external costs for all modes of transport, the ECF is advocating for a policy that would function as a kind of carrot, rewarding cyclists through tax rebates and incentives. Meanwhile, in America, we actually have a “symbolic” bike tax gaining traction in Washington state.


Congestion Pricing Opens on the I-10, Hysteria on Hold

Image via Metro

This weekend, Express Lanes opened on 14 miles of the I-10 between Alameda Street in downtown Los Angeles and the 605 freeway. The lanes converted existing HOV lanes to HOV/HOT lanes during non-peak hours. This means solo-car commuters can buy their way into the carpool lane if they have a FastTrack transponder. Carpoolers will also need to purchase the transponder. This need is controversial.

But what hasn’t been controversial is the actual conversion. When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a congestion pricing fee for some lanes in New York City, the press and many community groups went into over drive. In Los Angeles, there were a handful of angry letters sent to the Metro Board of Directors, and there seems to be grumbling about the transpoder requirement for carpools. Other than that, the hysteria is on hold. Or even non-existent.

The worst coverage of ExpressLanes, and really the only negative mainstream coverage, came from ABC 7’s super reporter David Ono. Ono interviews presidents, travels to disaster zones, and is one of ABC’s anchors. I’m guessing at some point he’s going to look back at this story and regret it. Basically, Ono goes for a ride with a driver next to the I-110 ExpressLanes and does a “man on the street” story that is more than a little slanted against the project.

After the video, read on to see what Ono got wrong.

Read more…


ExpressLanes Quietly Open on I-110, Media Finds “Grumbling”…But Not Hysteria

In 2008, when Metro first proposed experimenting with converting High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV Lanes) lanes to High Occupancy Toll Lanes (HOT Lanes) a casual observer might have thought the future of the Republic was endangered. Editorial boards sounded the alarm, the Times’ Tim Rutton wrote a series of semi-coherent opinion pieces, Metro Board members warned of class warfare and a group of Congress Members made a silly video (no longer available online) and warned they would pull Metro funding if they went forward.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Metro Board Member Richard Katz at the Express Lanes Groundbreaking. Photo:

This Saturday, ExpressLanes opened along 11 miles of the 110, starting just north of the 91 Freeway to Adams Boulevard, just south of the 10 Freeway. Single passenger vehicles will now be able to buy their way into the former HOV lane with the zero-emission cars, carpools and transit vehicles if the lane is not already congested. Drivers will need a transponder purchasable through Metro.  By accepting federal funds for the program, Metro was able to purchase clean buses, refurbish the El Monte Bus Terminal and make other improvements. Metro is also planning on a second pilot program on the I-10 early next year.

Metro’s fact sheet is available here.

Not only is the Republic safe following the opening, but the naysayers were nowhere to be found. The only politician throwing cold water on the day was Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who wondered if Metro timed the opening to occur after the vote on Measure J earlier last week. The San Gabriel Valley Tribune wrote a pensive editorial asking, “Are Toll Lanes a Slippery Slope,” but their intent was not to bury the project before it had a chance to succeed. The SGV Tribune stated:

This is an innovative attempt to ease congestion on two of the most troublesome commutes, and a worthy exercise for a region beset with myriad traffic problems. But it’s another step on what could be a slippery slope for Southern California toward pay-as-you-go highways. It may be the best solution for our roads, but it’s a decision that must be made with full public buy in.

To be sure, most of the media coverage that did occur found drivers willing to grumble about the toll lanes even as Metro officials and Mayor Villaraigosa gushed about the lane openings. As one would expect, most of the comments betrayed a lack of basic civics understanding. A sample of the comments can be read at the coverage of the Times, ABC7 and NBC4.

Most of the comments are by solo carpoolers, who now have an option to buy a congestion free trip that they couldn’t before. In other words, most of the people who are complaining will not be impacted by the new program. Read more…


Will Metro Rue the Day It Decided to Require Transponders for ExpressLanes Access

A banner from The Transit Coalition's "We Want Toll Lanes Done Right" page for the I-91 in the Inland Empire.

On November 10, the I-110 ExpressLanes, a type of “congestion pricing” or HOT Lane System, will open on the I-110 from just South of the 91 Freeway going north all the way to just South of the I-10. Early next year, the similar lanes will open on the I-10. In both cases, single-occupancy vehicles will be allowed into what are currently high occupancy or low-emission vehicle lanes (HOV Lanes) for a small cost per mile which will vary pending congestion conditions. If there is too much congestion in the ExpressLane, then it will be closed to all but the carpoolers.

“Everywhere it’s been tried, congestion has gone down,” Mayor Villaraigosa told Streetsblog in our July interview when discussing Metro’s ExpressLanes plan. The Mayor also pointed to the over $200 million Metro received to be a test case for HOV to HOT lane conversion that allowed Metro to refurbish the El Monte transit center, increase bus access along the corridor, purchase 100 new vans for its van pool program, and a laundry list of other improvements.

Yet, many in the transit community fear the coming ExpressLanes, worrying that a “less than smooth” implementation could set the idea of road pricing back a generation in L.A. County.

Nicholas Ventrone, with The Transit Coalition, is one of those that is worried. He warns that by requiring anyone that uses the ExpressLanes, even those doing so “for free” because of a carpool, to have a transponder; Metro is creating an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and undermining support for the project. Read more…


Hearts and Minds: Comments Sections Shows Confusion, Anger for I-10 and I-110 HOT Lanes

Earlier this week, Metro and Caltrans broke ground on the I-10 and I-110 to convert HOV Lanes into variable toll lanes that also allow carpools free access to the lanes.  Metro received $210 million for the project from the federal government, most of which will go into transit improvements for the impacted corridors.  The project removes almost no cars (only the very few that are electric or zero emission) that can currently use the carpool lanes, but will charge solo car drivers somewhere between twenty-five cents and $1.40 per mile.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, Richard Katz and Mayor Villaraigosa pose for pictures for the groundbreaking of an unpopular project. Photo:L.A. Weekly

The truth is, we don’t really know how this project is going to shake out.  Nowhere in America has anyone converted HOV Lanes to toll lanes of any sort, and you can’t even really call the plan “congestion pricing” because the toll option will be removed when there are too many carpools in the lanes for them to run efficiently.  The uncertainty about the result is why USDOT was willing to pay Metro so much to experiment with the program.

Unfortunately, almost none of this information has penetrated the larger public consciousness.  Comments on news websites are running somewhere between 80%-90% against the project.  Most of the comments are wildly uninformed.  Because you’ll doubtless end up in a conversation about this at some point, Streetsblog proudly presents the answers to most of the misinformed comments out there.  And if you like reading crazy comments sections, Steve Lopez’s defense of the project seems to have drawn the craziest comments, with KPCC and the Times’ regular coverage coming in second. Read more…


Update: Regular Carpoolers Will Not Have to Pay to Use ExpressLanes

There won't be a fee for active transponders for regular users of the system. Image: Wikipedia

One of the major concerns many people have with Metro’s ExpressLanes project, which will convert HOV Lanes on parts of the I-10 and I-110 to variable toll lanes, is that the carpoolers who currently use those lanes will lose their incentive to carpool.  Metro addressed those concerns when they announced that carpool drivers would be allowed to continue to use those lanes.  However, those concerns were rekindled when news broke that Metro will charge $3 per month for using the transponder needed to legally access the lanes.

However, that feel apparently only applies to occasional users of the transponder.  Responding to some comments on Streetsblog, Rick Jager of Metro Media Relations writes:

The monthly $3 maintenance fee is waived when the customer uses the ExpressLanes four trips per month or more whether carpooling, vanpooling of SOV (Single Occupancy Vehicle) and that fee is also waived for low income commuters as well.

Thus, if you’re a regular commuter, than you won’t be paying any more than they are now to use the lanes: nothing.