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Curing Traffic Congestion Will Take More Than New Roads

Traffic congestion across U.S. metros continues to rise, according to the Urban Mobility Report by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. But solving the problem will mean thinking beyond infrastructure.

Traffic congestion in cities across the nation is on a disarming trendline heading upward, fueled, in part, by a strong economy and car-centered transportation networks.

American drivers spent an average of 54 hours in traffic in 2017, according to the 2019 Urban Mobility Report, recently released by the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute. This finding is 15 percent higher than it was five years ago. The study reviewed traffic in 494 urban areas nationwide.

“Usually, the first step of doing anything is understanding the problem,” said Bill Eisele, a co-author of the report. “And I think what we do a good job of is explaining just how extensive the problem is, and then from there we can begin to have the policy and other discussions about what we can do to fix it.”

The congestion problem is not a new one. Traffic delays caused by slow or stopped traffic have been steadily increasing since the Texas A&M transportation think tank first began cataloging it back in 1982, when drivers on U.S. roads spent a mere 20 hours a year in congestion. Time spent in congestion declined slightly and briefly in 2008 during the opening of the Great Recession, then quickly increased in 2009 and has been on the march up ever since.

By 2017, the most recent year statistics are available, congestion alone would contribute to 3.3 billion gallons in wasted fuel — enough to fill tanker trucks lined up from Los Angeles to Boston, the study points out.

And just as the causes of traffic congestion can waver from city to city, the solutions should not be single-focused.

“It should be a multi-prong approach,” said Justin Rees, CEO of TransLoc, a provider of micro-transit and owned by Ford Smart Mobility.

Rees stressed the philosophy that data should be at the center of any study reviewing solutions to the congestion problem as a way to flesh out where transportation inefficiencies may lie. And officials should gather the data and then analyze it “in a way that identifies inefficiencies,” he continued.

“Data needs to be used in a way that gives cities the opportunity to analyze all the pieces for the solution,” said Rees. “Like what bus routes should not be used because the ridership isn’t playing well there.”

Off of the freeways, movement through many cities has slowed to a slog.

A 2018 report by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority concluded travel speeds on key arterial streets declined more than 25 percent from 2009 to 2017. The decline was driven in part by population and job growth, as well as the increase in activity by ride-hailing operations like Uber and Lyft, along with the rapid growth in delivery vehicles supporting e-commerce. The Urban Mobility Report ranked the San Francisco metro as the second most congested in the country, after the Los Angeles region. 

The slowdown underscores the reality that streets serve many users, and the smart management of the traffic on them means designing streets for everyone.

“We think it's important to measure our streets not just by motor vehicle congestion, but by the use we're getting out of them,” said Alex Engel, a spokesperson for the National Association of City Transportation Officials. “Streets are public space — in fact, 80 percent of the public space in cities.”

“Certainly, in most cities you see an increase in congestion,” said Steven Higashide, director of research at the TransitCenter, a research and advocacy group, as he pointed to the rise in deliveries related to e-commerce or ride-hailing use.

“That means it’s especially important for cities to manage space on the street,” Higashide added. “The point of public transit is not to reduce congestion. It’s to give people the freedom to escape congestion, and that really doesn’t show up in the Urban Mobility Report at all. It’s very focused on delay for car-commuters.”

In fact, said Higashide, car “congestion” may be the wrong metric to measure the efficacy of a transportation system.

“What cities really should be measuring is access to opportunity, like how many jobs can you get to in 30 minutes? Can you get to school or the grocery store in half an hour? And if you can, it doesn’t really matter whether that’s 30 minutes in city traffic, or 30 minutes on a train, or 30 minutes on free-flowing highways. It just matters, what can you get to in a reasonable amount of time?” said Higashide.

One of the problems with the Urban Mobility Report, said Higashide, “is it essentially implies that we need free-flowing car traffic. But the pursuit of that has led to billions of dollars in highway widening that don’t fix traffic and never will."

San Francisco, and other large cities, are considering mechanisms like congestion pricing — charging a per-vehicle fee for entering high-volume districts — as a way to reduce congestion and achieve sustainability goals.

However, this approach can have “unintended consequences,” said Rees, by adversely affecting lower-income workers who also need to commute into downtown areas.

“There are good and bad sides to this particular issue,” he remarked.

Which is why the funds generated by congestion pricing, Rees argues, should be funneled back into the kinds of transit and transportation projects which would improve the opportunities for these workers.

“If the desired outcome is to reduce congestion by pushing the prices up during that time, that is fantastic,” said Rees. “But we need to make sure that we offset the downside, and the unintended consequences that can adversely affect the mid- and lower-income communities.”

Some of the most economically booming midsize-to-large metros in the country are also seeing traffic congestion climb swiftly. Austin, Texas, ranks as the 14th most congested city, tied with Portland, Ore., according to the report.

“Any of the growing areas — places that are experiencing the growth — the congestion levels are soaring,” said Eisele. “They really are just taking off. So I think what that communicates is, wherever there are the jobs, the economic vitality, a growing economy, it’s directly linked with the congestion.”

The solution, he added, is two-part: adding capacity — building highways — as well as managing the demand of the congestion.

“At some level, congestion is just an indication that there’s more demand than the supply we have out there,” said Eisele. 

“Congestion really is almost the inevitable result of a successful city,” echoed Higashide, who added that traffic, transit and city planning should work in concert to ensure various transportation modes are not overly encumbered by traffic.

“If you are a city that’s growing, but the transit system is just buses in mixed traffic, that means that the transit system is trapped in congestion,” said Higashide. “And the point of transit should be to allow people to escape congestion.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.