Stacy Bernstein is a kindergarten teacher at Brawerman Elementary School near Koreatown in central Los Angeles. She drives 24 miles north from Torrance on the I-110 to get to work and pays extra to use the Metro ExpressLanes.
Since 2012, her morning commute has slowed by 17 percent. Average speed on I-110 between Manchester and Washington dropped from 24.5 miles per hour to 20.7 in 2016, making it one of the sharpest decreases in the area, according to an extensive data analysis conducted by USC’s Integrated Media Systems Center and the Annenberg School for Journalism.
Over the past five years, rush-hour commuters on Los Angeles freeways have experienced a slowdown of seven percent on average, according to this analysis. That’s a decrease in average speed from 39 miles per hour in 2012 to 37 in 2016.
The evening commute south on the 110 is almost as bad, slowing from 33 mph in 2012 to an average of 28.6 last year, a 13 percent decrease. This is Bernstein’s evening commute every day.
“If I'm going to make in 45 minutes, the FasTrak is moving,” Bernstein said. When traffic is bad, the drive takes around an hour and 15 minutes, even in the fast lane. Solo drivers like Bernstein are charged between $0.25 and $1.40 per mile. Toll rates increase as the traffic increases.
“Two summers ago when I was doing it, it wasn't as bad at all,” she said. “It would take me maybe 35 minutes as my good time, and now 45 minutes is the good time.”
There are many reasons why congestion has gotten worse in the past few years. One big reason: An improving economy. In January of 2012 the unemployment rate in Los Angeles County was 11.8 percent; it has since dipped to 4.8 percent. More jobs mean more people driving to work.
Not even the I-110’s FasTrak lanes can cope with the volume of traffic. Sometimes Bernstein says traffic is so bad that paying for an express lane can make little difference.
“Even parts of the FastTrak are going zero miles per hour for five to ten mile stretches,”she said.
Allen Chen, an engineer with California Department of Transportation, said the county does not plan to use the old strategy of improving freeway capacity on the freeway. Instead it will improve freeway interchanges, the spots where two freeways intersect.
“These are awful, very well-known bottlenecks,” Chen said. “Some of the freeway interchanges were designed in the 60s or 70s. At that time traffic was much lighter than the current demand.”
Measure M, a half-cent sales tax increase with no end date, which passed during the November 2016 election, was widely supported across Los Angeles County. The plan promises to reduce traffic throughout by fixing the places where it backs up and improving and encouraging the use of public transportation. The tax increase is expected to raise $860 million in its first year of assessment.
Bernstein said she voted for Measure M even though there won’t be easy public transportation she can use to get to work.
“Whether or not I'll be able to take the subway, even if it gets other people off of the road, it still benefits me,” she said.
Part of the money generated by Measure M will be used to modify problematic interchanges like the one joining the I-110 and I-405 in Gardena. Average rush hour speeds around this interchange are slower 30 miles per hour in some cases.
The measure will not improve capacity for cars in the county through freeway construction or additional lanes. However sadistic it may seem, Metro’s planners have done this on purpose.
“They're doing that to discourage driving and trying to facilitate more of the transit usage and other modes of transportation,”Chen said. “If we continue to build the roads, if we continue to make accessibility for motor vehicles to be more convenient, then there will be more traffic.
The planners know adding more lanes and freeways will only allow for more people to drive. To combat this, they’re trying to change commuters’ behavior.
“They want to change the way the government focuses on investments,” Chen said. “The investment would be not on infrastructures to facilitate more vehicle driving, but they want the investment to focus on transit use, greener solutions, bicycles and walking.
Measure M’s passage shows that Angelenos have at least bought into the idea of using more public transportation. The ballot measure required 66 percent approval, and 71.5 percent of voters said yes.
The most recent census figures from 2015 show that 83.2 percent of workers in L.A. County commute in a car, truck, or van.
“The [public] transit use has not increased very much. Transit is only five percent of the transportation population,” Chen said. “If they only have a ten percent increase in ridership in transit, that translates to a 0.5 percent of all transportation usage.
Under Measure M, freeway improvements are largely restricted to bottlenecks, so it’s going to be up to commuters to use the new transportation options it offers.
Enough commuters will have to change the way they get to work in order to make this plan possible. Until then, people like Stacy Bernstein will be stuck idling in the ExpressLanes.