LOS ANGELES — Congestion pricing has the potential to reduce both traffic and pollution in an equitable manner, but must overcome a bad reputation in the United States, experts say.
On day two of the CoMotion LA conference in Los Angeles, speakers said they can reach those goals in the transportation sector - supporting the use of congestion pricing to encourage behavior change among drivers and pay for needed improvements.
While New York City is set to be the first U.S. city to introduce a congestion pricing model, it has also received support from other cities, with Seattle and Los Angeles studying its feasibility.
Phil Washington, CEO of LA Metro, said that congestion pricing could help with equity efforts by paying for free transit in the city, something he acknowledged is a "lofty goal," but has plenty of benefits.
"We know that if we have congestion pricing there's going to be a smoother flow of traffic and we know all these things, but free transit in the area and taking that burden away from families in terms of the expense of transportation could mean the difference between affordable housing, it could impact homelessness, it puts money back into families' pockets," Washington said in a speech.
The feasibility of congestion pricing is currently being studied by LA Metro staff, with an initial proposal for a pricing structure and zones set to be released once that study is completed. Washington said he is open to whatever the study brings, and that LA could be a leader.
"If we can pull this off in the most congested area in this country, it can be done anywhere in the world," he said.
But there needs to be the political will to stand up to initial opposition. Stockholm, Sweden, ran into significant blowback when it introduced its own congestion pricing plan, although officials now say it has achieved the desired effect on traffic.
Heather Thompson, CEO of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, said during a panel discussion that the narrative around cars needs to change in the U.S.
"This idea that roads and space is free is false," she said. "It's causing all these problems with traffic and pollution and making them worse."
Leaders often addressed the need for greater equity in mobility, something that can be enhanced through the collection of congestion pricing revenues. Calgary, Alberta, Mayor Naheed Nenshi said cars have dominated the conversation for too long, even when it comes to transit planning, and it must change.
"Too many of our transit routes were built to optimize the road," he said in a speech. "They built hub-and-spoke models to come into the center city and go out again, they're not getting people directly from where students live to where universities are, and so on and so on."
Transit investment has meant a new plan to get light rail and bus-rapid transit (BRT) to complement each other and get people where they need to go, Nenshi said. And a low-income transit pass subsidized by the city government has opened up new opportunities for low-income people to improve job prospects and be more mobile.
"If people can't get around their communities, how can they feel like they are truly participating in their communities?" he said.
Meanwhile, Washington said LA Metro's gender and racial equity action plan will play a key role in helping the agency determine a path forward, helping city leaders make decisions that are best for everyone.
"The idea behind the equity action plan is that everything that we do in terms of mobility, we look through the lens of equity," Washington said. "We know there's inequitable infrastructure systems out there, so what we want to do is make sure we're looking through the lens of equity."
The issue of equity is sure to come up again when the California state legislature returns, and Democratic State Sen. Scott Wiener said he is "cautiously optimistic" about one of his bills that would increase housing density near transit stops by loosening existing restrictive low-density zoning regulations.
Tabled in May by the State Senate Appropriations Committee, the transit density bill is set for another trip through the legislative process in January. During an on-stage interview, Wiener said the legislation is necessary to curb the state's "awful approach to housing" and a system "designed to fail," with so much land only zoned for single-family homes.
Decisions made about equity will resonate for decades to come, Nenshi said. He noted that he wrote a letter and placed it into a time capsule to be opened in the city in 50 years, incluing a "bunch of bets" on transportation. Nenshi challenged everyone present to look ahead in their own decision-making.
"What are you writing in your time capsule? How is the work that you're doing today making life better today and in the future for everyone?" Nenshi said.
Fighting climate change
Within the focus on equity, speakers also noted the importance of using the transportation sector as a way to cut emissions amid the dire warnings about the impacts of climate change.
The transportation sector is one of the biggest sources of pollution in cities, and Wiener said that it is in danger of "tanking our climate goals" without dramatic action. While California is ahead of schedule in decarbonizing its electric grid, land-use policies force people to drive too much because of where housing is located, and more must be done, he said.
"If we can pull [congestion pricing] off in the most congested area in this country, it can be done anywhere in the world."
CEO, LA Metro
"We're not going to meet our overall climate goals unless we start focusing more housing in job centers, near transit, allow for density, and stop forcing people to drive everywhere," Wiener said.
The growth of electric vehicle (EVs) use could help cut those emissions, although it is imperative to also ensure equitable access to them, especially as prices are still high without government subsidies, speakers said.
But during a panel discussion, Richard Bruce, director of the UK Department for Transport's Energy, Technology and Innovation arm, said charging infrastructure has evolved to such a point that range anxiety should become less of a factor, especially as more charging stations become available.
Meanwhile, transit agencies are at the forefront of electrification, with electric buses rapidly becoming the norm across the country. Chief of Innovative Mobility at the Colorado Department of Transportation Sophie Shulman said it does not need to be limited to larger transit agencies.
Although smaller agencies in more rural areas may not electrify as quickly, leaders can work with them to understand their specific infrastructure needs and how their energy usage will change, Shulman said.
And while the need for transit agencies to have more charging could put additional pressure on the electric grid, especially when combined with charging private EVs, utilities and cities can be partners on electrification and infrastructure needs.
Katie Sloan, director of e-mobility at utility Southern California Edison, said during a panel discussion that agencies and cities need to be "in lockstep" and work "early and often" on those issues. But there is still a long way to go.
With so much at stake, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti called on city leaders to act fast to decarbonize their transportation networks and cut emissions or face certain disaster.
"If we don't take action, we won't be talking about getting around," Garcetti said in a speech the previous day. "We'll be talking about the chaos on this planet."