L.A., Beijing to Exchange Ideas on Solving Traffic

LOS ANGELES -- Two cities notorious for their choked roads are teaming up to share ideas on how to better manage traffic.

A Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority executive says he is working on an agreement with his counterpart in Beijing that will lead to an exchange of technical expertise and joint research projects.

While the notion of the car capital of the world teaching China's capital how to handle traffic seems far fetched, experts say the two cities can benefit from the partnership.

"Clearly there are things to learn on both ends," said Randall Crane, an urban planning professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who's working on a book about Chinese urbanization.

"Beijing planners are desperately trying to adjust to an increasingly car-oriented world, where people don't live where they work. At the same time, LA wishes it had as good of a transit infrastructure -- and as many people wanting to take transit."

Beijing, which went from having almost no private cars 15 years ago to having vehicles snarl to a crawl for most of the day, wants to know how Los Angeles copes with such problems.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles can benefit from learning about Beijing's speedy expansion of its rail transit system, said Paul Taylor, deputy chief executive officer of the MTA.

"They're experiencing the same problems we've gone through in a much more accelerated way," Taylor said. "They know we have more cars than anywhere else in the U.S. and probably on a per capita basis more than anywhere in the world, and they'd like to know how we deal with that."

As traffic becomes universally common, cities are increasingly looking outward to learn how other cities are tackling the challenges of growth and congestion. Chances are, a new approach to curbing traffic in one city has been tested somewhere else.

"We benefit so much in learning how other places ... actually get an innovative project to happen," said Tilly Chang, deputy director for planning at the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, which is forming a similar partnership with Shenzhen, a manufacturing hub in southern China.

"Being able to say this is not a crazy idea that we have, other people are thinking about it, too, can really open people's minds," she said.

Taylor said he recently spent a week meeting with Chinese officials at the invitation of the Ministry of Transport. He toured Beijing and said he was impressed by the quality of the subway service, and the scale of the city's bus operation.

With gridlock and smog commonplace, Los Angeles County has been focusing on high-capacity transit systems -- light rail, interurban heavy rail, dedicated busways -- to catch up with the transportation demands of its 10 million residents.

In late 2012, the MTA will begin charging a fee to drivers looking for a faster drive on new freeway toll lanes. The concept, called congestion pricing, uses market forces to keep traffic flowing by raising the toll during rush hour.

It is being tried in several cities and has been credited with improving highway efficiency.

Taylor noted that 35 percent of Beijing's roughly 20 million inhabitants travel by bus, with another 18 percent by bicycle.

"In LA, those percentages are probably together less than 5 percent, so it's impressive how they do things," Taylor said.

Car ownership in Beijing has grown so fast that during the 2008 Beijing Olympics authorities took half of the cars off the road on alternate days to combat air pollution and reduce congestion. They extended the restriction by banning privately owned vehicles from roads one day per week, according to license plate numbers.

Other measures include staggering the work hours of certain workers to ease traffic during the morning and evening rush hour, and monitoring traffic speed via global positioning systems installed in the city's taxicab fleet.

Last month, road construction triggered a 10-day monster jam -- stretching to 60 miles (96 kilometers) at one point -- on a four-lane highway that links Beijing to the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia. Some vehicles were stuck for five days, forcing drivers to pass the time by playing cards, sleeping on the asphalt or bargaining with food vendors.

Taylor said Beijing transportation officials were interested in how Los Angeles manages parking and carpool lanes and how it plans for future travel demands. China is about to embark on another 5-year transportation plan and it wants to learn more about the American planning process, which requires an environmental review plus public input before any transportation or development project gets approved.

"They think that the idea of involving the public in developing a plan is a novel, intriguing idea," Taylor said.

A call to the spokesman of the Beijing Municipal Committee of Transportation rang unanswered. The committee's website mentions Taylor's visit.

Taylor said he left China with the impression that the country was seeking solutions so that bottlenecks don't stifle its breakneck growth.

"I think China recognizes that they're on a path that's not sustainable," he said. "We've already been there, we experienced rapid growth and use of automobiles and we're seeking alternatives to the car."