Uncommon sense

by Carolyn Chase


Stuck in traffic? Politicians want to cater to you!

Beware. Haven't past promises given us the same "big lie" - that we can build our way out of traffic? Billions of dollars of building later, traffic is only worse. Now the pols and planners are coming to us with more of the same. You give us more taxes and we'll build more roads to solve your problems. Problem is, studies show exactly the opposite happens. The more roads you build, the more people drive. We never catch up with the growth. Are sixteen lanes enough? Are twenty? Where does it end?

It is beginning to approach at least some limits. When the Taxpayers and the Sierra Club align on something, maybe a sea change is at hand.

The San Diego County Taxpayers Association has signaled that it's time to rethink historical approaches to regional transportation and land use planning. They have officially opposed the 2020 Regional Transportation Plan and the requisite multi-billion dollar tax increase that it presumes. Executive Director Scott Barnett noted, "My Board believes that better management of the transportation infrastructure and its users is the key to best reduce the region's traffic congestion - not simply throwing more money at the problem. Before a $12 billion tax increase is justified, the SANDAG Board of Directors should step back and reconsider their approach to planning, taxing and spending in this region." The Taxpayers developed a set of principles that they are requesting SANDAG and the region adopt. The principles promote efficiency, incentives, and improved, comprehensible performance standards.

Other groups opposing or finding serious fault with the RTP include the Sierra Club, the San Diego League of Conservation Voters, Endangered Habitats League, the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition, Buena Vista Audubon, Preserve South Bay, and a newly formed coalition group: the San Diego Coalition for Transportation Choices. SDCTC was formed as a result of negotiations between the San Diego Sierra Club and developers in the Future Urbanizing Area around the planned State Route 56 (from I-5 to I-15 from Carmel Valley to Rancho Bernardo). The basis for forming the organization was the agreed-upon dearth of advocacy, reasoned education and informed support for a mix of transportation alternatives throughout San Diego. Their board of directors consists of environmentalists, landowner/developers, community members and transportation planners - including myself in one of the environmentalist seats.

What a large cross-section of San Diegans are coming to understand is that we need a new way to approach transportation and land use planning, funding and accountability. We must plan and build an urban form designed around mobility that isn't so exclusively car-based, and therefore traffic and congestion dominated.

The New York Times reported in late January, "Not so many years ago, it was common wisdom that the only way to relieve highway congestion was to add new lanes. Now the common wisdom, supported by several recent studies, is that expanding a road usually leads to substantial increases in the number of vehicles on it. 'Adding highway capacity to solve traffic congestion is like buying larger pants to deal with your weight problem,' said Michael Replogle, transportation director of the advocacy group Environmental Defense, in Washington. So in New Jersey, the state transportation commissioner, James Weinstein, could go before a business group last week and utter words that would have been heresy in that car-besotted state just a few years ago: 'We're past the period where adding lanes is the solution to traffic congestion, make no mistake about that.'" They also reported that the Maryland "state highway administrator has adopted a slogan that would cheer anti-sprawl activists: 'Thinking Beyond the Pavement.'"

Oddly enough, organized business groups in San Diego still seem to believe in the old paradigm. Politicians and the Chamber of Commerce still tell us that commerce requires more roads. I would point out that what commerce really requires is less congestion. But angry drivers also demand more roads. Drivers pay taxes and vote - and so do the road builders and designers - and you have to give them what they want.

What if giving the voters what they want ends up costing them more and screwing everyone to some degree? This is the ultimate "commons problem." A commons problem is where if everybody gets what they want (the common wants) - then the entire system as a whole (the common good) breaks down - and everyone suffers. Overindulgence of certain kinds of common wants causes the common good for all to decline.

But governance for the common good always runs into conflict with appeals to let the "free market" handle it. If everyone wants a suburban home, then we should let the market build them. Anything else, according to this world view, is inappropriate social engineering. Somewhere in between social paternalism and congestion chaos lies a better path.

It would be much better to use informed research to make smart choices for incentives and taxing policies that favor the common good and not just the popular - even common-sensical ideas from the past expressed in unserviceable market demand. It was once common wisdom that the world was flat. It was easier in some ways for Columbus to persuade the world otherwise than it may be to have Californians and their politicians and planners learn how to get out of traffic!

Building new roads has not led to reducing traffic congestion. It ultimately leads to more congestion in the long run, because it does not confront the need to do the only thing that can sustainably work: demand side changes and market-based planning for the transit network to supplement the car-oriented network.

The Board of Directors of our Metropolitan Transit Development Board deserve kudos for their strategic planning efforts in this direction. They have committed significant resources to a market-research based program of transit development that's aimed at getting real answers to the questions of "what can transit really do." They've commissioned extensive market research, hired expert help, and have begun a regional discussion on how to make transit more central and more effective.

Cities that have built more roads do not have less congestion. They just have more cars driving around creating more pollution and more noise and more...well... traffic. Smart Growth means trip shifting and the land use and transportation decisions that make it possible for people to be mobile without cultural car overdependence. Our aging demographics also call for it. As more and more seniors become unable to drive, mobility alternatives will become even more paramount.

As expanding the belt is not the right answer to a fat belly, an agenda dominated by building more roads is not the corrective response to growing congestion. It is, however, the response that commits us to continuous tax increases that do not address the real problems. As the utility industry was compelled to pursue more demand-side management changes - and in the process saved taxpayers and the environment billions of dollars and pounds of pollutants - so must we determine the best demand side approaches to transportation. They cannot be the exclusive approaches in the short term, but the commitment must be made to move into a different paradigm for dealing with the transportation aspects of growth.

You can still give your input to SANDAG on the 2020 Regional Transportation Plan before their Board hearing to adopt the plan on February 25th. To encourage public comment on its plan, SANDAG has a toll-free number: (888) 472-6324. The plan is on their website:
www.sandag.cog.ca.us/ where comments can also be emailed.