Stuck in Traffic

Anyone notice how much longer it takes to get around in your car these days?  Just getting from your house to the kids school, then Chipotle for dinner and back home again is a chore.   Midwesterners used to mock smog filled, road congested southern California where the average driver spent 40 hours in traffic back in 1982.  They are not laughing anymore because drivers in 32 urban areas now average over 40 hours of time spent in traffic per year!  Maybe you live in one of these 32 cities; Los Angeles (drivers average 72 hours per year!), Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, Washington DC, Miami, Dallas, New York/Newark, Portland, Seattle, Houston, Boston, Phoenix, San Diego, Riverside, Detroit, Denver, Sacramento, Baltimore, San Jose, Orlando, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, Austin, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Tampa, Charlotte, Louisville, Tucson and Nashville.  Unfortunately, it’s only going to get worse as 20 more cities will likely be on that list by 2030 based on a study by the Texas Transportation Institute. 

Sam Staley and Adrian Moore in their important new book Mobility First show how congestion is only getting worse and threatens our economic vitality.  The research is detailed and their analysis is compelling.  They recommend some basic economic approaches such as matching supply with demand and engineering solutions such as improving ‘the flow in the pipe, not the size of the pipe’  They point out examples of technological improvements that are already in use in various parts of the world.  Unfortunately, our transportation planners don't seem to be focused on these types of improvements.  One of the stunning things I learned in the book is that many of our planners generally don’t even consider reduction of congestion as a goal; rather they focus on minimizing the increase while spending billions on transit for a small percentage of the population that uses it.

Speaking of transit, Staley and Moore pop the bubble on rail transit as a viable option for reducing congestion, citing the fact that only 4.6% of commuters (in markets that have rail transit) use it and ridership is actually decreasing.  Market share of transit as a percentage of commuters has actually dropped by 50% since 1960 leaving most transit systems in financial shambles requiring state and federal subsidies (ie our tax dollars) to keep them afloat.  In fact only the BART in San Francisco provides a positive payback on the enormous investments required to build and maintain transit systems.  The widespread perception that transit can alleviate congestion is dead wrong because people prefer to drive.  Why?  Because as the authors point out, they get to where they want to go generally in half the time.  The other misconception about transit is the alleged positive impact it has on the poor.  You have probably heard this before; ‘how will poor people get around if there isn’t a train or subway'.  Staley and Moore reference the 2007 study by the American Public Transit Association that shows that  only 5% of the ridership is from households earning less than 5%.  Apparently poor people can get around just fine without riding empty modern transit cars.  Staley and Moore are not ‘transit bashers’ and actually point out the role that transit can and should play in the transportation system.  However, it sure makes one wonder why the state of Minnesota is spending billions on the Central Corridor and North Star Lines.

This is an important book and should be read by everyone, especially if you live in one those 32 cities!


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