57. It tolls for thee*


The Times is endorsing the MTA's experiment with pay-to-drive toll lanes. When the high-occupancy lines along portions of the 10 and 110 freeways are converted in December 2010, "Carpoolers, vanpoolers and transit users would not be charged a toll, but solo drivers would be allowed to use the lanes if they pay a toll," according to the Times.

The editorial notes that the pay-to-drive option wouldn't be available when the pace of traffic in the new lanes falls below 45 miles per hour. The implication is, of course, that when they slow with high-occupancy vehicles, the lanes wouldn't be available for a solo driver willing to pay for access. That seems counter intuitive. Would solo drivers pay for access when they're less likely to need it?

But the MTA understands the psychopathology of driving. LA motorists "? compelled by the OCD qualities of driving "? would spend up to $15 dollars for access, even if toll lanes offer only an illusion of greater forward momentum.

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In its muddled defense of pay-to-drive, the Times editorial even argues that those who can't afford a trip in a toll lane will be better off. The worker who drives between two poverty-level jobs will now have the "option" to pay for convenience, the Times believes. And MTA's federal funding will be used for transit improvements, including the purchase of 57 new buses.

From my experience, no improvement contemplated by the MTA would ever provide equity for the poor and the transit dependent.

Pay-to-drive has support across a wide spectrum of beliefs about the common good. On the libertarian right, pay-to-drive opens a wedge into an array to public services which libertarians believe should be supplied by the marketplace and priced accordingly. On the environmental left, pay-to-drive strikes at a core presumption of heedless consumers, who must be shown, in this and in a thousand other ways, that there is a price to be paid for their life in LA.

What's lost in this convergence is any notion of the scope and purpose of public space. For the libertarian, "public" is best understood as unproductive, as theft disguised as the common good. And most environmentalists would vastly privilege some public space (a wilderness in the Sierras) over others (the 101 Freeway, for example).

In their enthusiasm for "congestion pricing" and the installation of toll lanes, these positions "? and the Times editorial "? seem blind to the kind of public place that freeways are. They aren't commodities in need of a market or "junk food" in need of restriction for our own good. Once they were the vastly imperfect gift we gave each other. But we are all illiberal now. And no meanness to each other is beneath us.

The image on this page was taken by Flickr user Atwater Village Newbie. It was used under a Creative Commons license.

*And therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee

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