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Could London-style toll zones reduce LA traffic?

File: Traffic jams up trying to enter the 110 freeway, May 7, 2001, in downtown Los Angeles.
David McNew/Getty Images
File: Traffic jams up trying to enter the 110 freeway, May 7, 2001, in downtown Los Angeles.

A new campaign on billboards and social media that informs Angelenos they spend more than 100 hours a year stuck in traffic doesn't come as much of a surprise, but one of its proposed solutions is: congestion pricing.

It's a system that has proven successful in cities like London, Stockholm and Singapore: Charge drivers a toll to use certain roads during rush hour.

Now the Southern California Association of Governments is promoting the idea as part of its "100 Hours" campaign to raise awareness about traffic issues as it ponders long-term solutions.

"We're not going to build any more freeways in Southern California," said Association Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata. "We have to make the system we have work for us, and if you don't price the system right, it's not going to work."

A broad base of transportation research conceives of roads as a resource like any other that should be managed according to the law of supply and demand, he said.

"In the same way as if you made any other thing available for free then people will use more of it," said Matthew Turner, a professor at Brown University who has studied the effectiveness of various attempts to reduce traffic.

Turner and many other transportation researchers agree that charging a market rate to use the road is the most effective way to reduce congestion. They argue that charging drivers more to go to a crowded destination downtown at rush hour would encourage some to avoid the trip or take it at a different time.

In the congestion pricing zone in Stockholm, traffic has been reduced by about 20 percent during peak hours, just enough to keep roads flowing.

In Los Angeles, which has a different layout and traffic patterns than centralized European cities like London or Stockholm, a few different densely crowded neighborhoods could be designated toll zones, or as the Association of Governments dubs them, "Go Zones."

Non-residents would be charged a variable toll to drive through, say, West L.A. or Downtown L.A., said Ikhrata. The revenues could be used to invest in more transit or in creating more space for walking and biking, he said.

It would require a big leap for the proposal to become reality. The Association of Governments can't make policy, and many politicians shy away from the idea of tolling, due to low public acceptance of the idea.

Taxpayers, after all, already pay for the building and maintenance of roads, and some complain that charging a use fee for roads would unfairly burden the poor.

Proponents of congestion pricing say commuters end up paying for delays caused by traffic in other ways, and that the revenues from tolls could be used to subsidize fares for low-income people, as gas or electric utilities do.

Ikhrata hopes the "100 Hours" campaign will at least start a conversation.

"The more facts are on the table, the more congestion we are experiencing, the more likely these ideas can take hold," he said.