Seattle’s mayor has announced a vague proposal to toll downtown streets in order to relieve congestion. While the Antiplanner supports congestion pricing, I oppose cordon pricing, which is more of a revenue-raising scheme than a congestion-reduction program, and it isn’t yet clear which of these two the mayor is proposing.
Tolling has a bad reputation in Seattle because stiff penalties on people who failed to pay bridge tolls were so oppressive that they put some people into bankruptcy. At the same time, a well-designed tolling system can be good for low-income people, in the same way that they are better off paying market prices for groceries rather than having food allocated by the government, which generally results in little or no food available at all.
The downtown congestion that the mayor wants to fix is a problem of the city’s own making. Thanks to a variety of subsidies and incentives, the number of jobs in greater downtown Seattle — which covers a little more than 10 percent of the city — grew by 30 percent to 262,000 between 2010 and 2017. Although only a quarter of downtown employers drive to work, that’s more than the number who drive to work in downtown Portland, where more than half the employees commute by auto but has only around 100,000 jobs. Continue reading
Los Angeles is still the most congested urban area in the world, according to the latest INRIX traffic scorecard. However, what is more interesting is that congestion seems to be declining in several fast-growing cities in Texas, thanks to construction of new highways.
Dallas is twice as big as Seattle and Houston is three times as big. The Dallas and Houston urban areas are both growing nearly twice as fast as Seattle’s, but Seattle is concentrating its growth in the city while Dallas and Houston allow more people to settle in the suburbs. INRIX found that congestion was worse in Seattle than either Dallas or Houston, which was a direct result of Washington’s growth-management policies.
Moreover, while INRIX’s congestion index for Seattle — and most other cities — grew worse since last year’s scorecard, the congestion indices for Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and El Paso all improved. That’s unusual in the United States, INRIX observes, but cities in Scotland and Germany have also managed to reduce congestion by building new facilities. Continue reading
Portland’s transportation policies are working. At least, they’re working if you think their goal is to increase congestion in order to encourage people to find alternatives to driving. At least, the increased-congestion part is working, but not many are finding alternatives to driving.
According to Waze, Portland has the fifth-most-miserable traffic in the United States. Waze is an app that asks its users to rate their driving experiences. Rather than just measure hours of delay, Waze’s driver satisfaction index is based on a variety of indicators including traffic, road quality, safety, driver services, and socio-economic factors such as the impact of gas prices on the cost of living.
Waze calculates the index for any area that has more than 20,000 Waze users, which means 246 metropolitan areas in 40 countries. Nationally, the U.S. is ranked number three after the Netherlands and France. In terms of congestion alone, the United States ranks number one (that is, has the least congestion). The Netherlands and France edge out the U.S. in overall scores because of their higher road quality and safety ratings. Continue reading
The Millennials favorite city, Portland, is showing just how well light rail works in reducing congestion. Which is to say, it’s not working at all.
According to a new report from the Oregon Department of Transportation, between 2013 and 2015 the population of the Portland area grew by 3.0 percent, but the daily miles of driving grew by 5.5 percent. Since the number of freeway lane miles grew by only 1.0 percent, the number of hours roads are congested grew by 13.6 percent and the number of hours people are stuck in traffic grew by 22.6 percent. Many roads are now congested for six hours a day.
I’m not sure where those new freeway lane miles are supposed to be unless they resulted from expanding the region’s urban-growth boundary. Except for reconstruction of part of state highway 217–which wasn’t counted in the above numbers–there hasn’t been any new freeway additions in Portland since the 1970s. Instead, the region has been putting all of its spare dollars into light rail and streetcars. Continue reading
Two weeks ago, the Center of the American Experiment published a report by the Antiplanner showing that traffic congestion in Minneapolis-St. Paul was the deliberate result of the region’s Metropolitan Council’s plans to increase congestion in order to get more people to ride transit, walk, or bicycle. The Antiplanner quoted Met Council documents saying that it was not going to try to relieve congestion, cited budgetary numbers showing that more than 80 percent of capital spending was going for transit systems that carried less than 1.5 percent of travel while less than 10 percent went for roads that carried 90 percent.
Since the report was released, Met Council supporters have issued a couple of responses, including one yesterday. What do they say?
- Let’s spell Cato Institute with a K as in Kato. Get it? KKK? Right wing? Ha ha!
- Don’t believe anything the Antiplanner says; he doesn’t even have a degree in urban planning. (Thank Edwin Mills for that.*)
- Congestion is actually a good thing; be glad you have it.
In 1982, the Twin Cities had the 35th-worst congestion in the nation. By 2016, it had grown to be the 17th-worst and amount of time the average commuter spent in traffic had quadrupled. If you are stuck in traffic in the Twin Cities, says this new report, don’t blame population growth; blame the Metropolitan Council, the region’s metropolitan planning organization.
Click image to download a 1.7-MB PDF of this report.
The Metropolitan Council’s official attitude is, “We can’t build our way out of congestion, so we will provide alternatives to congestion” in the form of light rail, bike paths, and maybe a few high-occupancy/toll lanes. The council’s 2040 plan has $6.9 billion programmed for transit improvements, $700 million for bike paths, and $700 million for road improvements. That means 8 percent of the funds goes for the 90 percent of the people who drive to work while 83 percent goes for the 6 percent who take transit. Continue reading
“Building bigger roads actually makes traffic worse,” asserts Wired magazine. “The reason you’re stuck in traffic isn’t all these jerks around you who don’t know how to drive,” says writer Adam Mann; “it’s just the road that you’re all driving on.” If only we had fewer roads, he implies, we would have less congestion. This “roads-induce-demand” claim is as wrong as Wired‘s previous claim that Tennessee fiscal conservatives were increasing Nashville congestion by banning bus-rapid transit, when actually they were preventing congestion by banning dedicated bus lanes.
In support of the induced-demand claim, Mann cites research by economists Matthew Turner of the University of Toronto and Gilles Duranton of the University of Pennsylvania. “We found that there’s this perfect one-to-one relationship,” Mann quotes Turner as saying. Mann describes this relationship as, “If a city had increased its road capacity by 10 percent between 1980 and 1990, then the amount of driving in that city went up by 10 percent. If the amount of roads in the same city then went up by 11 percent between 1990 and 2000, the total number of miles driven also went up by 11 percent. It’s like the two figures were moving in perfect lockstep, changing at the same exact rate.” If this were true, then building more roads doesn’t make traffic worse, as the Wired headline claims; it just won’t make it any better.
However, this is simply not true. Nor is it what Duranton & Turner’s paper actually said. The paper compared daily kilometers of interstate highway driving with lane kilometers of interstates in the urbanized portions of 228 metropolitan areas. In the average metropolitan area, it found that between 1983 and 1993 lane miles grew by 32 percent while driving grew by 77 percent. Between 1993 and 2003, lane miles grew by 18 percent, and driving grew by 46 percent.
That’s hardly a “perfect one-to-one relationship.”
Few problems are as costly as traffic congestion. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, it costs commuters more than $100 billion per year. Studies in a number of cities suggest that costs to businesses are roughly equal to that, for a total annual cost of around $200 billion. Yet it is hard to persuade people that the only effective solution–variable tolls aimed at preventing ttraffic from reaching congested levels–should be implemented.
Atlantic Cities may have found the literal poster-children that could do it: premature babies. According to research reported in an article by Brooklyn resident Sarah Goodyear, tolls that reduce congestion also reduce air pollution (a fact the Antiplanner has often pointed out) which in turn reduces the number of babies born prematurely.
Because a quarter of all U.S. housing is located near congested highways, ending that congestion and the resulting pollution “could reduce preterm births by as many as 8,600 annually, for a cost savings of at least $444 million per year,” estimates a MacArthur Foundation policy brief. Now, $444 million is only 0.2 percent of the total cost of congestion, but it might be the 0.2 percent that will get people to accept that they should pay more to use roads during peak periods of the day just as they pay more to use airlines, hotels, telephones, and other services during peak periods–and that would benefit everyone except for the people who enjoy watching other people sit in traffic.
“Who needs traffic lights?” is the name of the YouTube video shown below. It shows an intersection in Ethiopia in which some fourteen lanes of traffic cross six more, with pedestrians wandering amidst vehicles turning right, left, and going straight unhampered by signals, signs, or seemingly any conventions other than to drive on the right.
This video seems to support proposals by many urban planners that streets would be safer if there were fewer, not more, signals and signs. At the extreme is the late Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic planner who advocated getting rid of street signs, signals, and crosswalks.
Portland traffic is “stressful and unpredictable,” according to one of the co-authors of the Texas Transportation Institute’s urban mobility report. In fact, by some measures, Portland has the sixth-most-congested freeways in the nation, after DC, New York, Los Angeles, Bridgeport, and (strangely) Provo-Orem.
There are other measures by which Portland isn’t quite so bad, though overall Portland ranks 17th even though it is the 23rd largest urban area. The significance of the freeway number is that it is based on actual measurements of traffic by Inrix, while most of the other measures are calculated based on estimates of miles of driving and lane miles of roads. The Antiplanner has never trusted these calculations because a lane mile of highway built in 2000 has a far greater capacity to move traffic than one built in 1950. Thus, the measure that ranks Portland sixth-worst is probably one of the most reliable in the report.
Portlandia supporters, of course, attempt to double-talk their way out of this. The mobility report, says one, “ignores differences in trip distances among metro areas and how trip distances have changed over time.” The Texas people disagree, saying they do take distances into account. Moreover, a look at census data reveal that the average Portland commuter takes 24.2 minutes to get to work, which about the same as in other urban areas of similar size (Minneapolis is 23.4 minutes; Denver is 25.7; St. Louis is 23.6; Cincinnati is 22.8; San Antonio 23.8). Since census data also show that 85 percent of Portland-area commuters still take autos to work, Portland’s investments in transit and bike paths have, at best, merely nibbled at the edges of the problem.