Saturday, November 17, 2007

What we could do today, tomorrow and this year

I was speaking to a group of suburbanites against a ballot measure that would build more roads and transit (it was a proposition that costs 57 billion dollars, not finish a single road and the transit planned was worse than none at all). I gave my reasons why the proposal was so wrong and so on, and someone in the back yelled “Then what would you do instead?”

Good question. Here is my answer. You’ll notice that I will try to define the problem in a couple of sentences before I give the answers. Truly understanding the problem is the key to having the answers.

First, there is no way to build your self out of congestion. It won’t work. Cities like New York, Chicago and Las Angeles have tried it and failed. In fact, building more roads just creates more travel. Not only will there be more cars, trucks and other vehicles, but individual vehicles will travel more.

There are enough roads. It’s just that we all want to use a few of them at the same time. The average American city has paved at least 25% of its land surface for cars. Surely, if we spread out demand, there is enough concrete for all of us.

The second point is that 60% of congestion is caused by accidents, breakdowns and stalled vehicles. All of the roads in the world are useless if there are vehicles stalled, broken down or involved in accidents on those roads. You could do more to alleviate congestion by removing breakdowns and accidents than you can by building more capacity.

That being said, it is important to start working on solutions, both so that you can make some headway on the problem and to show people that you are at least trying. So the trick is to attack the problem from several fronts.

The first and easiest task is to spread out demand. The key is to flatten the demand curve as much as possible. This is not to say that you ignore the breakdowns and accidents. In fact, you need to do both remove the obstructions and modify demand. It just so happens that in the flip of the coin in my mind, demand modification won.

Change nearly everyone’s work schedule

Get rid of the 9-5, Monday through Friday work schedule.

Thirty miles north of Seattle are the huge Boeing 747, 777, and 787 plants. The assembly plants are about three miles east of the Interstate 5, the main north-to-south corridor. You leave I-5 and drive three miles on a spur freeway to the site. This roadway used to be jammed when the workers were released at the end of their shifts. Then Boeing got smart. Now, every worker has an individual, separate starting time—and ending time, of course. When the individual’s eight hour shift is up, they pack up their tools, clean up and head out. Their replacement (Boeing is working around the clock) comes in and takes their place. The result is that Boeing loses no production time as shifts change and the spur highway out to the Interstate 5 three miles away flows easily.

Obviously, there are people in the general workforce that must start at 9:00 and stop at 5:00 but they are a tiny minority. Most work is more flexible than that.

Newsweek is reporting that 27% of us will be telecommuting by 2010. Even if we aren’t all telecommuting, I would bet that many of us spend the first hour or two answering emails, taking care of the phone messages or just catching up on the news that affects our industry. This could be done from home.

Inform people of alternative routes

OK, so say that you are on the road and traffic begins to back up. Once again, I call on technology to the rescue.

We need to set up ‘traffic speed ahead’ indicators. These simple displays would consist of three numbers: the top number would be the average speed of the cars in the next mile, the second would be the average speed in the next five mile and the final number would give the speed of the next ten miles. These indicators would be placed at ‘decision points’. Let us say that you are approaching the on ramp for the southbound freeway into town. The indicator lists the speeds as “18”, “42” and “55”. This would tell you at a glance that there is a very bad problem within the first mile of the ramp, but that the rest of the freeway is moving well. You would skip this ramp, use surface streets to reach the next ramp south and use that access instead.

As Global Positioning Systems become more commonplace, they will improve. Truckers will not be afraid to try alternative routes even in unfamiliar areas. The GPS will guide them expertly around traffic. They will eventually be enabled to deliver exact alternatives with real-time savings displayed. By the end of the decade most new vehicles will come with GPS.

Clear the way during peak hours

There are some vehicles that simply should not be on the major highways during peak hours of traffic: mobile homes, huge ‘over-sized’ trucks, army convoys and a few others. There is no practical way of stopping them, but you could fine them if they get involved in an accident, breakdown or stoppage. Make the fine so high that no right-thinking company would risk it. Why in the world can’t they move the mobile homes between midnight and four AM; is someone waiting for them somewhere at 9:00 AM? (These vehicles are driven by pros and their record is probably better than most. That misses the whole point. It is not that these types of vehicles are involved in accidents and breakdowns disproportionaly, it is that when they are involved, it is a great big mess.)

If congestion persists, toll Single Occupant Vehicles off the road at peak hours

The political pressure to toll is becoming too great to resist. It can be turned to the advantage of those that want to reduce congestion. Nineteen out of twenty cars in the commute traffic carry only one passenger. The gains from carpooling are paltry. But if tolling was designed to ease congestion, we could simply not toll anyone with more than one person per vehicle. If the toll was set high enough to compel people to carpool with even just one additional person during the peak hours, we could see the total of cars cut nearly in half during peak hours. And that would be anything other than ‘paltry’.

Study where, when and who is causing accidents and breakdowns, and then go out there and stop those accidents and breakdowns

Transportation experts will tell you that this has been studied to death. They are wrong. The State of Washington does not keep a computerized list of all of the vehicles left at the side of the road. They do not have a law that if your vehicle is abandoned three times in five years, we keep the vehicle until you prove that it is road-worthy and won’t be left again (or you could sign an agreement not to drive on the freeways).

A few years ago, a new Chief of the Patrol in the state of Washington directed the troopers to concentrate on four types of violations and issue tickets. The Big Four were drunk driving, excessive speeding, aggressive driving and not wearing a seat belt. No more verbal warnings, no stopping to help someone change their tire, don’t sweat the tail light out, just going out and issuing tickets for these four offenses. Where they did this, the fatalities dropped by 25%. Some of the drivers got off the road. Accidents fell and traffic moved.

Tell your law enforcement people that you want the accidents to go down and you will back them to the fullest.

One way to do that is to enact laws calling for the confiscation of vehicles for some infractions. Drunk driving, no insurance and truly excessive speed should be punished not by fines or jail but simple confiscation of the offending vehicle. Nothing else will stop some people. Sixty days for the first offense, 180 days for the second and permanently—with crushing the vehicle the third and final time. This may seem excessive; we just had a driver with several DUI’s go the wrong way on the freeway kill someone in the car that they were unlucky enough to hit. Now, that seems excessive to me. Had we confiscated their vehicle a couple of DUI’s ago, this accident would have never happened. By the way, the accident closed the freeway for several hours. Given that someone died, this is not the biggest part of the problem. But if the vehicle had been seized, the closure of the freeway also would not have occurred.

Get law enforcement to video their arrests. Watch as the conviction rate nears 100%. Wisconsin did this and their conviction rate is 92%.

Generally, get serious about traffic law enforcement. Go after those things that cause accidents. Confiscate the vehicle of those people doing these things. Keep up the pressure and don’t accept accidents as a normal part of traffic. Yes, there will always be fender benders but the really big, traffic-clogging accidents are caused by really bad behavior and we can stop this. All we have to do is decide to act.

Have law enforcement get in front of vehicles and then, lead them off the road

Law enforcement pulls up behind the offending vehicle and them follows them off of the road where they write them up a ticket. There are three things wrong with this out-dated approach.

First, the presence of the cop car does slow down the other cars on the road, but to some degree, they slow down too much. The cars behind them, seeing tail lights, slow and so on and pretty soon, you have traffic jams.

Second, too many cop cars are hit while sitting at the side of the road. Now, it is mostly drunks slamming into the back of the cops but this is a lousy way to catch drunk drivers. In the past year, seven state troopers have been hit at the side of the road.

Third, if the police pulled in front of the offenders, activated a lighted sign on their trunk that said something like “Slow down, follow this vehicle off of the road” with blue lights and sirens for added emphasis, this would virtually eliminate high speed chases. (The drunken driver that I cited above driving the wrong way on the freeway was being pursued by a police officer. Had the law enforcement vehicle been in front, there would be no chance that the drunk driver could have entered the freeway on-ramp the wrong way.)

Clearing accidents and breakdowns should be, after taking care of the injured, the highest priority

Imagine if I dropped a load of wood onto the roadway. Or someone had a mattress fall off their truck. Would we allow the obstruction to stay there? Of course not. When someone is involved in an accident without significant injuries, we should simply push the vehicles off of the road. Any additional damage that the vehicles suffer would simply be added to the damage caused by the accident. It is maddening to see literally tens of thousands of people stopped simply because we do not feel that we can order the state troopers or city police to push the cars off of the roadway.

The shoulder lane of the highway is the most important lane of any highway

In Seattle, in our great rush to build High Occupancy Lanes, we decided to use the shoulder lanes as HOV lanes. This was a giant mistake. The shoulder lane is where you take your accidents, where police write tickets and where we can safely put breakdowns. It is the lane that keeps the others—all of the others—flowing freely.

The shoulder lane should be considered sacred and treated as such.

Bring back the shoulder lane. Even though it would technically reduce capacity, it would substantially increase flow on all lanes. It would reduce congestion. Even if we had to forego HOV lanes, flow would be improved.

Design for flow of traffic

The trick is not to build more lanes of traffic but to use the lanes that you have to better effect. Cars stopped are lanes of traffic that do not work—in fact, the lane might as well not exist at all. Keep things moving on the lanes that exist and you won’t have to build more lanes.

There are the accidents and breakdowns, but there are also the single car parked in the curb lane after three o’clock in the afternoon that effectively reduces the lanes available by half. There are the traffic signals that are holding up thirty-five cars and two buses for no good reason because there are no cars coming in the other direction. There are too many entrances and exits on the old Highway 99 that make that six-lane road both slow and dangerous.

This is not to argue for all-flow, everywhere. The neighborhood streets should be flow-restricted. They should not be used as shortcuts for people and things going from Rainier Valley to Beacon Hill, from Greenwood to Wallingford and downtown to Capital Hill. But the major highways, the arterials and the freeways ought to be made free flowing.

Modernize your traffic control lights to move traffic—and for crying out loud, add ‘left turn only’ arrows. Restrict parking and treat blocking parked cars like the obstructions that they are (you don’t need to tow them across town; just take them around the corner or nearby and put a lock on the wheel). Go to where the chokepoints are on major throughways and eliminate those problems.

Change the laws—especially tax laws—to favor driving less, or not driving at all

Every law, every rule ought to be changed to always make it better to drive less or not drive at all. Right now, there is no real change in the cost of insurance (the largest single check that you write for the privilege of driving) if you drive fewer miles or don’t drive one day. Make every insurance company offer a policy that notes how many miles you drive and lets you pay by the mile. Better, consider making minimum insurance part of the cost of a gallon of gas. You buy a gallon of gas and twenty-five cents of the price buys you collision insurance (covers the other person in case of accident). Don’t worry insurance companies, there is still plenty for you to sell in the form of extra added coverage that most car owners will want. But if you don’t drive, you don’t pay for insurance.

We should help those who choose not to drive or drive less. The state could try tying your cartabs to the amount that you drive instead of the cost of the vehicle. The local cities could pay the sales tax on bikes. State and local governments could simply give people money—or more likely bus passes, rebates on bikes and the like—for not owning a car.

I know that some of us need to have and drive a car (I consider myself one of them). But every rule, law and tax ought to reward you for not driving or at least driving less.

The reason for this is simple: everything that you do to releave congestion opens a place and someone on a bus, in a carpool or who has switched to off-peak hours, says “Hey, I can drive alone at 8:30” --and does. Unless and until you get the total number of vehicles off the road, you are really just spinning your wheels.

Sisyphus rolled up the rock to the top of the hill every day just to see the rock rolling back down the hill, to begin again rolling the rock up to the top of the hill again. Then one day, Sisyphus said to himself “Hey, this is stupid” and stopped rolling the rock up the hill and then the rock didn’t roll back down and he went and started a dating service for the Gods on the Internet and made a million bucks and retired to Montana or something very like that. The point is, if you keep rolling a rock up the hill and the same thing happens every day, you really should try something else. I don’t have the answer, but I think that we ought to try lots of things, see what works, discard what doesn’t and stop doing what is obviously not working.

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