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What Will It Take to Change Commuters' Behavior in Los Angeles?

A lot of small nudges could add up to the big shift L.A. needs.

If any city needs help with its commuting behavior, it's Los Angeles. There's a very easy way to see this firsthand: Simply station yourself on any overpass, on any major freeway, around 8 a.m. on a workday. You'll be able to count on your fingers how many people are riding in carpools. You'll lose track of how many drivers are solo.

Angeleno commuters lose about 70 hours per person per year sitting in traffic—that's the equivalent of nearly ten days! It averages to about 485 million wasted hours that cost the region more than $10 billion annually, estimates Vision Los Angeles. Plus, commutes in Los Angeles are a third longer than they should be, according to a study by Texas Transportation Institute. But it wouldn't even take that much change to see an improvement in those numbers, according to a study by RAND. Reducing the number of cars on the road by only 2 or 3 percent could cut congestion delays by 10 to 15 percent.

While there are plenty of innovative solutions worldwide for reducing the amount of drivers on city streets—from congestion pricing to work-from-home days to carpooling apps—in Los Angeles, which practically invented the single-car trip, it's going to take a larger behavioral shift. The public transportation system is growing—a new major rail line will open this spring—and the city announced an ambitious bike share program last weekend, but those modes are a ways off from being able to support all commuter needs. In the meantime, how can the city help Angelenos share, borrow, and rent vehicles so we don't have so many cars on the road?

Many drivers don't know, for example, that the city can help place commuters in a carpool or vanpool using their Rideshare program. According to April McKay, director of customer programs and services at Metro, drivers can register with their address and place of work confidentially. "There are thousands of interested ridesharers in our database," she says. "We’ll help them find someone close by their home who shares their workplace destination and hours." The motivation to share a ride is often economic: While something like high gas prices might increase the number of calls to their Rideshare hotline, McKay says that what really helps is when employers themselves offer incentives.

When it comes to employers, the local shining example is UCLA, which reported last month that it saw record low congestion rates in 2011—the lightest traffic since it started keeping track in 1990. In the university's annual State of the Commute report [PDF], researchers highlight specific tactics that discouraged what they call "drive-alone commuters": a 50 percent subsidy for transit passes, discounted parking for carpoolers, and a partially subsidized vanpool. It's apparent that the programs are working: Only 52.9 percent of UCLA employees now drive to work alone. Across Los Angeles County, it's 72 percent.

Hannah Polow, an urban and regional planning graduate student at UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs, agrees that UCLA's employer-focused approach is impressive. But not all businesses have the financial ability to subsidize transit passes or the organizational breadth to coordinate location-specific carpools. She says where she sees the most potential for Los Angeles is encouraging multiple-car households to reduce their total number of vehicles, getting families to learn to use one car together.

While the economic benefits are obvious, she says aiming for one car per household can help people start to experience a car-lite lifestyle without having to jump right in. "While still having the security of one vehicle, families can incorporate creative transportation trips. For example, the person driving can rotate by day and assist the others with a ride to the bus stop, a pickup to prevent an uphill bike ride, or participate in a carpool group," she says. "And for those times you really need an extra car—and there are these times—depend on your neighborhood car-share vehicle."

It's true that people might be more likely to surrender at least one car if they knew they could have one available when they needed it, and that's how car sharing programs could be another big part of the L.A. commuting conundrum. Earlier this month, Los Angeles announced the approval of a city-wide car sharing program, which could bring vehicles to 300 spaces across the city. The cars would be parked by transit hubs, like the new Expo Line, scheduled to open April 28. The concept has worked well so far: A previous one-year pilot program with Zipcar that stationed cars near UCLA and USC proved so effective that the city added additional spaces near the Red Line subway and, Zipcar has also expanded into other local cities like West Hollywood. Zipcar's not even the only option in town: LAX Car Share currently operates eight locations for car-sharing in L.A.

Of course, transit-oriented car-sharing found in pockets around the city will only make sense for those who live close to public transportation. For everyone else, there's another, newer option. RelayRides, which recently launched in Los Angeles, is a peer-to-peer sharing service that allows people to "rent" cars owned by other drivers. Unlike Zipcar, there are no membership fees, and renters can buy insurance to cover them while driving a stranger's car.

But you don't need a company to share a vehicle, argues Joe Linton, a bicycling advocate and co-organizer of CicLAvia, who lives in L.A.'s Eco Village. His neighbors set up a Google calendar for their car, which functions a lot like the peer-to-peer rental service. The owners block out the times they need it, and others can reserve it when it's available.

What Linton would like to see is some city-wide technology that can help groups of people who live near each other connect and create their own car-sharing systems. "We've got a lot of one-car persons, and quite a few zero-car persons like me and not so much in between," he says. "The former can't imagine not having a car for every trip, the later can't imagine having a car for every trip." This way, those without cars can give tips and advice to help wean car owners off their vehicles, while still having a car at their disposal when they need it.

And with the right connections, one can rely on the kindness of social media for car-sharing needs. Kristina Wong, a car-free comedian and actor who lives in L.A.'s Koreatown, says she'll post Facebook updates asking for help with rides or hauling, and publicly offers her "car-sitting" services to friends who are headed out of town (complete with a ride to the airport). "I think for people who are afraid they will be carless, it’s important to know your backup systems," she says. "I am an artist with an erratic schedule and the biggest anxiety with my first few months of carlessness is the 'what-if' situation."

Even with her Zipcar membership and good friends on speed dial as backup, taking the leap was challenging, says Wong. She hopes to see more stories like hers shared by the city with tips on how to go car-free. "If people aren’t willing to part with their cars altogether, I’d challenge them to designate a 'car free day' each week where no matter where it was they have to go, they had to get there without a car," she advises. Or even better, she says, spend a day exploring your neighborhood and see how many needs could be met within a one-mile walking radius. "I discovered so many businesses there were in my neighborhood that I never thought to support," she says. "Look at it as an adventure."

Are you an Angeleno who found yourself inspired by last weekend's CicLAvia, which opened streets for biking and walking? Enter the LA/2B GOOD Maker Challenge where you can create your ideal itinerary for a car-free day in L.A. and have the chance to win $500 to bring it to life!

This post is the first in a series exploring transportation issues in Los Angeles sponsored by LA/2B, an ongoing collaboration between the Los Angeles Department of City Planning (LA DCP), the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LA DOT) and GOOD/Corps, an affiliate of GOOD, that provides an opportunity for people in Los Angeles to discuss the future of our streets and transportation.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user FontFont.

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