Traffic Olympics, Part 2:
what's the opportunity?

by Carolyn Chase
May 6, 2002


L ast column we peered into the future of the construction mess about to engulf the 5/805 merge mash and revealed the nature of the screwed up, unaccountable system that has us trapped with rising traffic and rising taxes.

    We’re about to enter the Olympics of traffic congestion folks. You think you’ve got traffic now? You ain’t seen nothing yet!

    Planners tell me, that in the next five years "we’re going to experience what real congestion is like." What we have now – while an anathema to long-term San Diegans – is considered by professionals some of the lightest urban traffic in the state, if not the country.

    The design "standard" for the Regional Transportation Plan is to make things "less worse." After increasing our taxes and building everything in the plan, traffic will still be as bad as today, and likely worse.

    The region has a plan folks, and the plan is for more traffic – and more taxes! Transportation planners admit that what they’re building will only provide "temporary relief." Environmental Impact Reports show that the new capacity will be quickly filled. Jurisdictions continue to approve projects without requiring regional infrastructure fees. We cannot catch up with the current approach.

    But the sick growth pattern in California continues and San Diego regional projections shows we are approaching "L.A. kinds of volumes" in the major corridors – especially the I-5 corridor where they are expecting 24-hour, dual direction flows at capacity in the next few years. They describe the situation as "very, very problematic" and see demand for dual HOV-lanes in the corridor! Honest assessments of traffic volumes in the I-15 corridor could require as many as 22 lanes. Even if you had a place to build them, a Surface Transportation Policy Project study of freeway widening projects around the country found that the collective hours of congestion lost during construction were not made up after the project was finished.

    There is a lack of integrated modeling, thinking and planning about transit’s role in the system. Nor have the cities in the region really embraced land-use designs that reduce traffic flowing on to the overburdened regional systems. On the land use side, the answer is more compact development, transit-oriented development, and walkable and livable communities. The more trips that can be kept local to communities, the more room on the regional systems for commuters and commerce.

    But while cities continue to fight over where to put growth – and allow projects to go in without requiring regional infrastructure funding – more and more of the key to keeping your sanity in the rising traffic is to find the creative ways to avoid it.

    In response to criticism, spokespeople for Caltrans have noted, "The old adage, 'We can't build our way out of congestion,' is more true today than ever. The future of transportation is going to rely heavily not only on projects, but it will also be contingent carpooling, transit, the Coaster, and the trolley. Those are all going to figure heavily into how successful our future transportation is going to be."

    These "Transportation Demand Management" (TDM) measures also include telecommuting, flex-time, compressed work weeks, vanpools, "guaranteed rides home," and all manner of ways to shift and reduce trips. The only good news on the horizon is that by shifting as small as 1-2% of traffic, you can significantly reduce congestion – at the lowest cost.

    TDM measures were a key component of Los Angeles’ successful hosting of the Olympic Games. They were so successful that traffic was not an issue.

    Why does TDM get such short shrift in our region? It’s undervalued by both the agencies and the business community. For the former, it’s not glamorous or big budget. You can’t name it after an elected official. It requires hard work and education. For the latter, it appears too much to them as an additional cost, not an approach to reduce costs and improve employee sanity and productivity. But this is likely to change as the traffic – and the road rage – continues to rise.

    It ought to be abundantly clear that the Chamber of Commerce, EDC and impacted businesses all need to help and not expect to have "government" solve the problem. You can see what the current system of public agencies are able to deliver: more traffic.

    Good business sense says that a happy employee is a productive employee. If you are trapped in traffic at 7:45AM because management is unable to consider other options, your stress level goes up and by the time you get to work you're already spent. On the way home is no different. How many people rush their work to beat the traffic and get home? How many families are disrupted by time wasted? Too many.

    Good business TDM programs increase productivity, reduce absenteeism and improves recruitment and retention. IRS Code Section 132(f) allows $100 in tax-exempt transportation benefits per employee per month.

    Schools have a major role to play as well. If everyone has to be in class when everyone else needs to be at work we compound the problem. "Soccer mom or dad" is an interesting euphemism for a fleet of mega SUV's lumbering all over creation to make sure their precious cargo is safely delivered. Why is this necessary? Because we have designed communities where kids can't walk to school, where streets are designed for cars not people, and where
the perception of crime is high because we all live behind "privacy walls and fences" so there are no eyes on the street.

    The opportunity of the 5/805 merge mess is that area businesses – and all others trapped in the rising tax/traffic paradigm - will be seeking solutions as never before. The question is: will the agencies increase their capacity to help them organize? Will the business community have the leadership to organize themselves? It’s certainly in their interest to do so.

    I would suggest they start first with the out-of-date Traffic Management Plan for the 5/805 merge. Compel Caltrans to do a real TDM plan. Surely if L.A. can get itself together for a one-time event, we can get something together for our daily "Olympics of traffic."