More of the same

by Carolyn Chase


ast week, a very smart friend of mine, made the following observation about politics: "Don't sweat it Carolyn, politics is designed to discourage people." I had been expressing my personal angst over how the culture in the so-called "Smart Growth Coalition" Transportation subcommittee had evolved.

From the first meeting, the "we know the answers already" contingents had passed out the parts of their agendas they wanted to make public.

There is a major initiative being pursued mostly by the development and chamber types to build more and bigger roads as the answer to our dreams. It's called GAPS and there is a "white paper" entitled "Halting the dismantling of San Diego's Roadway System." To give you a sense of their orientation, the group is called the San Diego
Highway Development Association.

Quite a few members of the "Smart Growth Coalition" Transportation Committee are people who have already "bought in" to the GAPS strategy. Their simplistic rationale is that we have more traffic congestion because we haven't built all the roads we should have. The solution is therefore to build more roads. It's an example of defining the problem to get the answer you want. Many of them support building roads at the expense of all other alternatives. Their strategy is to push for reevaluation of all the roads that have been downgraded or deleted in the County over the years.

The problem is that transportation research has shown that the more roads you build, the more traffic you get. Regions that have invested heavily in road construction have fared no better at easing congestion than those that have invested less. But these people simply do not believe in limits. They are the heart of the "we can build our way out of anything" crowd.

Just to set the record straight from the get go - I'm not against all roads or cars in general. As a Southern California native, I think it's genetically impossible. I've owned a car since college and I use the road system frequently.

What I'm against is pollution, traffic and fragmentation of our remaining natural areas. I'm also against systems that discriminate and segregate people by race and class; there is no question that roadways contribute to this. By design, roads provide no direct access for the young, the poor or many of the disabled and elderly who make up one-third of our population. Road domination also drives resources away from making other alternatives competitive.

No one, from experts to lay people, has been able to answer my simple question of how we could build an effective road system at an acceptable cost to accommodate another million cars. Our cities have not been planned, designed or built to absorb - or shall we say, cram in - another million cars. But we're evidently going to try, whether it's smart or not. Some are recommending that we just continue to widen I-5 up to 10, 12 or 14 lanes, depending on the section, and widen several arterial routes. Even if they could take the right-of-ways, where does it end?

Actually, it's not quite true that the experts haven't told me how to cram in the cars. The answer is: you can't. It's just that the professional planning establishment can't point it out that bluntly. Any real solutions either cost too much or are a threat to existing spending priorities. So it's buried in long sentences that amount to that.

Alan Hoffman of The Mission Group, a local transportation consulting firm, has calculated that, based on the current SANDAG base data, the addition of 1 million people to the region will lead to approximately 685,000 additional cars.

Hoffman's analysis shows, "If only one in six cars is on the freeway at the peak commuting time, and we're willing to limit these cars to a maximum speed of about 30 MPH, the region will need to add the equivalent of close to six entire new I-805s (or, in other words, 1300 lane-miles) just to hold these cars. If you want these cars to flow freely (at 65 MPH), we'll need close to eleven new I-805s. Of course, the arterial network has little room in many places to receive these cars, should they seek to leave the freeway, and all the new lane miles will do nothing to improve current conditions."

One of the main things I've learned in studying transportation networks is that they meet the definition of complex systems. A main aspect of complex systems is that they respond in ways that are counter-intuitive. Common sense does not necessarily apply - especially when you've reached certain threshold conditions.

There is ample evidence that investment in new roads and freeways does almost nothing for increased mobility, since the pattern of growth will follow the new highway capacity, quickly reducing the new roads to the same gridlock that plagued the old ones. In the meantime, city streets and other urban transportation corridors and systems suffer from lack of investment and there are fewer alternatives if the public moneys are all, or almost all, put into roads.

The United States has built the most roads at the expense of other travel modes. Drivers in 70 metropolitan areas spend an average of 40 hours per year sitting in stalled traffic. Wasted fuel and lost productivity costs $74 billion annually.

Hoffman points out, "We have to stop asking the auto to do what it's not good at doing: getting us from where lots of other people are to where lots of other people are going. For these kinds of trips, rapid transit is unparalleled. What cars are best at doing is getting us from where relatively few people are to where few others are going. If we want to preserve this kind of mobility, we've got to stop depending on the auto for that first kind of trip."

On another level, I was most sorry to see the suggestion that the reopening of deleted roads battles is smart. It's not smart to go after opening old political battles where the wounds are deep and local. It's just more of the same old paradigm kicking in again. It revealed a lack of political sophistication that I found shocking. It's not smart, not smart at all, but divisive - which is the last thing you need if you are trying to actually build a coalition. Certainly road improvements are going to be needed, but it's not smart to shove every deleted and downgraded road onto the table and promote a plan designed with the thinking of the late 1950s. We have learned a few things since then.

The GAPS party line seems to be that if everyone just abided by the plans, everything would have worked out. But when you really start to look at the list of roads, you get an interesting education. Few of the deleted or downgraded roads have a significant relationship to the major problem traffic spots on I-5 and I-15. In my part of the city, the road downgrades looked to be great savings to taxpayers and unneeded even today.

In a bit of political irony, during the same time this committee was meeting, the San Diego City Council held a hearing endorsing the GAPS process. A week later though, they voted to permit a project in the right-of-ways of one of the major disputed roads. Consistency is not necessarily a virtue in politics, I guess.

GAPS is a disingenuous call to hew to central planning when it fits certain interests and not others. What about the democracy these people seem to cherish in most of their other political rhetorical battles? Isn't it really that they like democracy when it goes their way, and they don't like it when it doesn't? When they want their General Plan Amendments to go through, shouldn't we just be telling them that they should just forget it and stick with the plan? A lot of thinking people would support that. Somehow, I think there are gaps in this process and it's not just with some roads. I think there are also some gaps in thinking and fairness involved here as well.

On a positive note, I can report that the GAPS plan is not part of the final recommendations being put forth by the Smart Growth Coalition Transportation Group, though it was a battle right to the end. There were a few members of the group who really don't get that coalition building is about finding common ground, not just common pavement.