Lanes to nowhere

by Carolyn Chase


raffic congestion and population growth/overcrowding rated as top concerns for San Diegans in a newly announced San Diego Association of Governments (Sandag) telephone poll. The poll was conducted last November as one component of our so-called Regional Growth Management Strategy. The poll responses were compared to a similar poll conducted in 1992.

Traffic and population growth pushed crime and gangs to the third spot as the region's primary problems. Respondents in 1998 were more "likely to favor planning for growth." Support for actively limiting growth dropped from 25 percent to 18 percent, while "support for planning for growth" grew from 58 percent to 68 percent (I can't help but wonder what in world the respondents thought "planning for growth" actually meant.)

Traffic congestion emerged as a concern throughout the survey. Respondents were also asked about solutions for relieving congestion during the morning and afternoon commute periods. One question asked them to allocate $100 tax dollars to three transportation areas; they chose $37 for
freeways, $33 for improving local streets and roads and $30 for public transit. Just over half the respondents said no, they were not willing to accept higher population densities in their communities if it meant that there would be less development in rural areas.

Apparently, San Diegans have not yet made the connection between traffic congestion and that popular development pattern, urban sprawl. I don't know about you, but I know that I wouldn't allocate a single dime without finding out what would actually matter.

The development of systems that work to support a high-quality of life in an urban area requires understanding of complex systems, not just off-the-cuff pontificating by those stuck in traffic. More than eight out of ten of the San Diegans polled work outside the home and drive alone to work. Thirty-four percent commute 30 minutes or more, up from 29 percent in 1992. Is it any surprise that they would want more of their money to go toward the problems that seem most immediate to them?

But manipulating transportation system performance is both an art and a science - and like so many big bureaucratically controlled systems, more money does not automatically produce solutions. Funnily enough, more freeway spending does not get you less traffic. With big money at stake, adherence to proven standards should be more important than what an average person happens to think about it, based on their personal experience.

It seems that people think that higher density means more traffic. In fact, traffic is a "unnecessary byproduct." of mismanaged growth and bad design and seems to be a fixture where everyone pursues car-dependent urban sprawl with continuing population growth. Studies over many years have shown that you cannot drive your way out of this car-centered development pattern. You actually have to design and build communities differently.

The Texas Transportation Institute (TTI)'s 1998 annual report on congestion in major metropolitan areas provides a rich set of data on the effectiveness of congestion management strategies. By analyzing TTI's data for 70 metro areas over 15 years, the Surface Transportation Policy Project recently determined that metro areas that invested heavily in road capacity expansion fared no better in easing congestion than metro areas that did not. In fact, numerous studies indicate that highway construction often generates more traffic, raising congestion levels. Adding more roads does not help, it only generates more and more driving, which in turn, gives you more and more traffic - and it's expensive too.

Trends in congestion show that areas experiencing greater growth in lane capacity spent roughly $22 billion more on road construction than those that didn't, yet ended up with slightly higher congestion costs per person, wasted fuel, and travel delays.

International transportation research has yielded other counter-intuitive insights: the reduction of roadway capacity actually reduces traffic in most cases because people shift to mass transit, walking, bicycling and other modes of travel. In 1998, British researchers analyzed 60 road closures worldwide and found that, on average, overall traffic decreased by 25 percent when a road was closed. In some cases, they found that an astonishing 60 percent of the driving trips disappeared. People's quality of life undoubtedly went up.

So how can we match counter-intuitive solutions to these complex systems?

While politicians, pundits and pollsters debate the problem and merits of smart growth, "urban ecology" is the becoming the term of art for those committed to building cities that work for both people and the environment. It's two boring terms put together and will probably never catch on with the marketing types. But its tenets are more clearly focused and its practical orientation may indeed outlast the term limits of many local elected officials.

Urban ecologists seek to connect community, convenience and conservation to create cities of neighborhoods where people can live an integrated urban life. To these new urban fans, cities have been and should be the most attractive living environments with parks, residences and commerce mixed together.

Their vision of urban living conserves the earth's resources - energy, materials, land, habitat - and reduces pollution and global warming. They tout urban development and redevelopment as opposed to urban sprawl development. This is something that can actually lead to less traffic.

Urban ecology development saves taxpayers money by using and upgrading existing water, sewage, energy and transportation infrastructure. These city proponents love getting rid of their cars, car and insurance payments, maintenance, repairs and stress. Walking is the preferred every day exercise for all ages in this kind of community. This cultural evolution is the best possible path out of the traffic.

Will Californians - Southern Californians, to be precise - really choose to live this way? Not until enough people come to understand the processes that lead to the current problems and begin to redirect those systems. Recent polling can really only show our frustrations. Real leadership combined with neutral expertise is required to actually support solutions that will matter.