Friday, October 5, 2007

No more lanes of traffic

The Seattle PI ended a recent editorial with “…the current assumption is that new road plans will open up new lanes and increase highway capacity.” (4/9/07)

The only thing that new lanes of pavement open is more traffic. Nowhere in the world has new lanes solved the traffic and transit problems. Each new highway, freeway, bridge or roadway is hailed as the one that will ‘solve the problem’. Think “I-90” in the late 1970’s; rebuilding the bridge wider and bigger was the promised solution to cross lake traffic. All it did was get more people to move over to the eastside, drive more and drive longer. The number of cars on I-90, 520 and even going around the lake did not decrease—in fact, they increased. And this is true whenever you increase the lanes available.

Go out and get a tattoo: “More lanes means more traffic.”

Even as a transit advocate, I am not stupid enough to think that transit can solve all of our traffic woes. You will never take a load of leaves to the dump in a bus, nor deliver a bunch of refrigerators in a monorail or rush your aged parent to the doctors in a light rail train. So while we need transit, we need traffic capacity. But rather than building ever more lanes in an ever futile attempt to ‘build our way out of congestion’, we need to understand the problem. Only by understanding the problem can we begin to tackle the issue.

First, the traffic is not as bad as it is made out to be. Traffic makes for very funny Dave Horsey cartoons, but we really are not even close to gridlock. Most of you reading this drive to work; I drive for a living. I drive a tour van. I drive most days from the north end of Seattle to the airport and back into downtown during the morning rush hour. On nearly every day, I am held up for a few minutes—but that is all. I maintain a speed of nearly fifty miles an hour, day-after-day. I listen to the traffic reports on the radio and when I-5 is bad, I take Aurora Avenue. Yes, of course, traffic is bad near Safeco Field after a game, but even then I can get out of there in under fifteen minutes (big hint: stay off the major roadways and use the alleys). Traffic in isolated areas—around the Fremont Bridge, the Husky Stadium and the Spokane Street/I-5 interchange among many—can be bad. But these are momentary, can be avoided easily and no amount of building will change them.

Traffic is simply not that bad.

Second, if you carefully note what the traffic reports tell you, you will know that the largest part—estimates are that it is 60% of the problem—are accidents and breakdowns. Now, accidents and breakdowns are not entirely avoidable (that’s why they are called ‘accidents’). But many accidents are avoidable. Many breakdowns are foreseeable. Imagine if we put the monetary effort into clearing accidents and breakdowns that we propose to building new roads? We need to examine and record all accidents—and then, go there and prevent some of those accidents! We need to see who and what is breaking down—and then, stop a few of those breakdowns!

Third, the absolute key is not building new lanes but traffic management. We have the ability to tie the traffic control system to the true, real-time needs of the cars, trucks and buses. The costs of these computer controlled traffic lights are going down, for the same reason that your personal computer costs are going down. Even at the old prices, it would be far cheaper to computerize our traffic control than to attempt to build enough lanes—and that won’t work anyway.

There is much more to traffic control than just traffic lights. We ought to be investigating, initiating and where appropriate, implementing them.

We should examine and document what is causing accidents and then direct the police to making accident reduction a priority.

Three minutes saved by improved traffic control is the same three minutes saved by clearing the freeway for three miles so that you can go sixty miles per hour.

We can change traffic for the better. I know that we can because we have—and it works. Notice how the traffic reports rarely mention the spur freeway that goes from the Everett plant to I-5? They used to mention it all of the time. Then, Boeing changed their program; every worker in that plant (and there are thousands of them) have a different start and stop time. Every minute, a different worker is let off from work. Result? No big traffic jams.

This is just one example of where a little common sense goes a lot farther than a billion dollar’s worth of new concrete.

Fourth, as a last resort, we can initiate demand management. “Demand management” is just a euphemism for “tolls” and I am opposed to “tolls” as usually done. Usually, tolls are simply charging to use the roads and that means that the poor are denied access and the rich are granted the use of the roads. Frankly, I don’t care if it is a dime: it is wrong to let some use the roads and not let others.

But there is a way: as a last resort, I would advocate for what they did in Singapore decades ago. They did not charge a vehicle for entering the city; they charged you for each empty seat as you entered the city. Full cars, trucks and so on, paid nothing. Most drivers simply carpooled up and drove in free. (Those rich people that wanted to ‘show their wealth’, paid $10 an empty seat and this was enough to pay for the toll booths, enforcement and so on.)

Studies show that nineteen out of twenty vehicles going across the I-90 are single occupant cars, but that other one out of twenty vehicles carry forty percent of the people across the I-90 bridge. We could set up tolls that only charged if you were a single driver (commercial vehicles and transit ‘dead-heading’ would be exempt). I think that very few drivers would choose to ‘drive alone’. If I am right, we would see half of the cars on the road, overnight.

One reason why traffic control, accident reduction and removal of breakdowns doesn’t get priority is that the political people don’t get to have a ribbon cutting, contributors to their campaign fund don’t get big contracts and there is something terribly sexy about building the most expensive bridge or roadway or whatever.

If you listen to the radio traffic reports there are a couple of days a year that we hear ‘traffic is light’: the days that the federal workers have off and no one else does. Federal workers are a small, but significant, number of employees in Seattle. I mention this only to demonstrate that we do not need to cut huge numbers from the traffic flow; a few cars, here and there, will do the trick. A couple of fewer accidents and a handful less of cars abandoned in the street will go a long ways. Better traffic management and control will do more than any new bridge, road or highway.

We have paved over twenty-five percent of the city of Seattle with concrete for our cars. More concrete will not solve the problem. Certainly, we can make better use of the vehicles we have on the concrete already poured. Enough with the concrete already.

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