While California Put on ‘Road Diet,’ Drivers Still Stuck in Traffic Gridlock

Kerry Jackson
Kerry Jackson is a Fellow at the California Center for Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

Quick, name the place where drivers suffer through maybe the worst traffic on Earth while policymakers are committed to making it altogether intolerable. Yes, of course it’s California.

Earlier this year, Inrix, a transportation analytics firm, ranked Los Angeles as the city with the worst traffic in the world, as measured by annual “peak hours spent in congestion.”

Southern California drivers who commute regularly to Los Angeles experience this gridlock every day. They spend an average of 104 hours “in congestion in 2016 during peak time periods.” Inrix says that sitting in traffic costs the average driver in the Southland $2,408 a year in lost productivity, and fuel burned while idling or creeping along in slow-moving parking lots.

Los Angeles also had “10 of the 25 worst traffic hotspots in America,” according to Inrix, “costing So Cal drivers an estimated $91 billion over the next 10 years.”

While California drivers slog through grueling traffic, policymakers have been putting them on a “road diet.” Joel Kotkin of Chapman University says “the notion animating the ‘road diet’ is to make congestion so terrible that people will be forced out of their cars and onto transit.”

The governor’s office has pursued road diets, as well as the cities of Los Angeles and San Jose. San Francisco has been putting its drivers on various, and often costly, road diets since the 1970s. The Reason Foundation says that in addition to its Vision Zero effort “to eliminate all traffic deaths by 2025,” Los Angeles “is still planning to implement over 40 road diet projects” across the city.

Further antagonizing California drivers is the $52 billion fuel tax hike that lawmakers passed to repair the state’s cracked and battered infrastructure. Is there a dime available for expanding highway capacity to open gridlock? Apparently not. But don’t be surprised if considerable portions of the revenue are spent on “transportation” projects that will not improve automobile travel. Transportation analyst Wendell Cox says that California lawmakers “don’t have any problems spending money on roads” as long as the funds aren’t used “to make drivers’ experiences any better.”

It’s not out of the realm to imagine that lawmakers will also try to siphon off some of the revenue to repair the high-speed train wreckage.

In addition to increasing the typical California family’s financial burden by nearly $800 a year, according to Reform California, the fuel tax hike is also organizationally incoherent, as are other elements of the state’s transportation policies. Consider:

  • How much of that $52 billion will be raised over 10 years if policymakers are able to eliminate vehicles with internal-combustion engines that burn the fossil fuels subject to the tax hike and replace them with electric vehicles? As the forced transition to EVsthat Brown and Democrat Assemblyman Phil Ting favor overlaps with the final years of higher fuel taxes, revenue will fall.
  • If the objective of road diets is to get drivers off the roads, won’t that also hurt revenue?
  • And if it’s a policy goal to remove cars from California roads, won’t the mandatory transition to EVs actually require a less than one-for-one replacement ratio? In other words, replacing every internal-combustion vehicle with an electric vehicle won’t decrease the number of cars. Will policies change from efforts to subsidize EV sales to discouraging them?

Public policy should be consistent, coherent and just. Not muddled, contradictory and heavy-handed. It should never be used to herd people, to compel them to conform to politically favored behaviors. But this is what we get from the government we have in California. It’s as lousy as the traffic congestion.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

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