L.A., Beijing to exchange ideas on solving traffic woes

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 at 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, L.A. 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.

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