Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

It's time we changed our transportation focus

Last Friday, Seattle City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck gave a powerful speech arguing against a new viaduct during a special meeting of the council. Here's an excerpt from it, courtesy of The Stranger's Eric Barnett:
We will be a laughingstock. We will be an embarrassment. We will not be able to stand on our leadership. We will not be able to be taken seriously when we talk about sustainability and the environment if we do this. There is a solution that’s more cost-effective and more financially responsible that we can develop.

It would save the state money if they would just free us from this stranglehold of focusing on auto capacity. Twenty-five years from now, if we proceed with this plan, this elevated structure will be congested, backed up to West Seattle the day it opens. If we don’t take steps to address our transportation problems now, it will be gridlock.

This is not a choice about my political future. If I could trade this job today and stop that elevated freeway I would do it in a flash. It is that important to our city, this beautiful place, the environment we live in that is so envied by people the world around.
Building a new viaduct would certainly be a mistake, but Steinbrueck really hit upon something that is more important in his remarks which eschews the viaduct debate - and that is that we need to change our transportation focus from moving cars to moving people.

We're just not there yet.

Case in point: While elected officials, activists, and citizens in Seattle and King County argue about how to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Evergreen Point floating bridge (a debate which is also sucking up oxygen in Olympia) WSDOT bureaucrats and the folks working on the Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID) package are unbelievably considering asking voters to fund a new cross-base highway down in Pierce County as part of the proposal.

That's right. A new highway. State Route 704 would cross an imperiled ecosystem that supports some of the rarest wildlife in the western half of the Evergreen State. It would be accompanied by a widened 176th Street, a two-lane road that starts where the freeway would end.

That's not how you solve congestion. A new highway isn't even capacity replacement, it's new capacity.

New pavement is nothing short of a giant encouragement for more people to drive - and it almost always leads to more sprawl.

Despite all the evidence that it does not work, the political establishment and many interest groups are still stuck in the wrong mindset. The following excerpt from the book Suburban Nation describes this phenomenon in better depth.
The simple truth is that building more highways and widening existing roads, almost always motivated by concern over traffic, does nothing to reduce traffic. In the long run, in fact, it increases traffic. This revelation is so counterintuitive that it bears repeating: adding lanes makes traffic worse.

This paradox was suspected as early as 1942 by Robert Moses, who noticed that the highways he had built around New York City in 1939 were somehow generating greater traffic problems than had existed previously.

Since then, the phenomenon has been well documented, most notably in 1989, when the Southern California Association of Governments concluded that traffic assistance measures, be they adding lanes, or even double-decking the roadways, would have no more than a cosmetic effect on Los Angeles' traffic problems. The best it could offer was to tell people to work closer to home, which is precisely what highway building mitigates against.

Across the Atlantic, the British government reached a similar conclusion. Its studies showed that increased traffic capacity causes people to drive more - a lot more - such that half of any driving-time savings generated by new roadways are lost in the short run. In the long run, potentially all savings are expected to be lost. In the words of the Transport Minister, "The fact of the matter is that we cannot tackle our traffic problems by building more roads."

While the British have responded to this discovery by drastically cutting their road-building budgets, no such thing can be said about Americans.

There is no shortage of hard data. A recent University of California at Berkeley study covering thirty California counties between 1973 and 1990 found that, for every 10 percent increase in roadway capacity, traffic increased 9 percent within four years' time. For anecdotal evidence, one need only look at commuting patterns in those cities with expensive new highway systems.

USA Today published the following report on Atlanta: "For years, Atlanta tried to ward off traffic problems by building more miles of highways per capita than any other urban area except Kansas City...As a result of the area's sprawl, Atlantans now drive an average of 35 miles a day, more than residents of any other city." This phenomenon, which is now well known to those members of the transportation industry who wish to acknowledge it, has come to be called induced traffic.

The mechanism at work behind induced traffic is elegantly explained by an aphorism gaining popularity among traffic engineers: "Trying to cure traffic congestion by adding more capacity is like trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt." Increased traffic capacity makes longer commutes less burdensome, and as a result, people are willing to live farther and farther from their workplace.

As increasing numbers of people make similar decisions, the long-distance commute grows as crowded as the inner city, commuters clamor for additional lanes, and the cycle repeats itself. This problem is compounded by the hierarchical organization of the new roadways, which concentrate through traffic on as few streets as possible.
The authors of Suburban Nation used Atlanta as one of their examples, and indeed Atlanta's problems are well known. So well known that the famous standup comedian and Daily Show regular Lewis Black started off one his appearances there by complaining about the city's transportation disaster:
Nice to be back in Atlanta, nice to see that you've really worked out your traffic problems. You don't [care] about it, do you? I guess this must be my sixth appearance here and every time I've begged the audience, I'd plead with something...and nobody seems to [be concerned]...I've tried as hard as I can to explain that you're living a psychotic lifestyle and you don't care.

Six lanes, six lanes of traffic....and nobody moves. I mean, that's just unbelievable. And what's truly extraordinary is those signs you put up, over the road. The electronic ones. The ones that say, "Oh, you have 4.5 miles to go from Point A to Point B, and it'll be 45 minutes." Why do you do that to yourselves?

There are too many cars everywhere. Nobody seems to deal with this reality. It's beyond belief. And you guys? Public transportation? You're just like, "Ha, ha, ha, ha! Who needs it!?"

But there are too many cars, and there's going to come a point where, I'll tell you, one morning, you'll get in your car, and you won't be able to back out of the driveway. There'll be cars on every inch of the road. You know, there'll just be a complete meltdown.
New pavement is counterproductive, so why is Sound Transit Board Chair and Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg so eager to build this new highway?

There are other foolish examples as well. Some Eastside lawmakers keep talking about further widening Interstate 405. What is that supposed to accomplish? Have these people forgotten that Interstate 405 was built in the first place as a bypass for the already crowded I-5? Now I-405 is considered to be one of the most, if not the most, clogged highway in all of Washington State.

We built Interstate 405 and traffic hasn't gotten any better. Instead, it got worse, like it has in other cities. But the solution to the mess has stayed the same. Albert Einstein once allegedly said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

It's time to change the way we look at transportation. If we think about moving people instead of moving cars, then the obvious solution is not building new highways and laying fresh pavement. It's constructing effective transit systems and giving people a choice. If walking, biking, or taking mass transit is convenient, people will do it. So let's make those options realistic and practical.

We've already made some progress. Sound Transit, a favorite target of the local right wing, is one of the best things that's ever happened to Puget Sound. Its express bus and commuter rail services are allowing a huge number of metro residents to feel comfortable abandoning their automobile.

I'm one of them. When I go to downtown Seattle, I often take Sound Transit's 545 Express because it's quicker and more convenient than driving.

You don't have to worry about parking - and when State Route 520 is congested, as it so often is, you roll right by the metered onramp lines and slow moving traffic jams in the HOV lanes.

Sound Transit is actually proposing an increase in the frequency of service on Route 545 because it is so popular. I can attest to that - I saw riders turned away on a November trip I took during peak hours because the bus I was on was simply too crowded to hold them. There appeared to be more people standing than sitting.

And light rail? Central Link is under construction and on track for completion in 2009. When it's finished, it will provide a seamless connection between SeaTac International Airport and downtown Seattle.

Tacoma Link, a shorter line which has already been operating for several years, has already exceeded ridership expectations. Central Link is perhaps the smartest transportation project this region has ever embarked on.

Already planning is underway to extend the line to serve more urban neighborhoods. Puget Sound voters will be asked this November to approve additional funding to extend light rail in several different directions as part of Sound Transit's Phase 2 proposal.

Our dollars are most wisely spent investing in transit systems and taking advantage of redevelopment opportunities that arise from their construction or expansion. Replacing unsafe structures such as the Alaskan Way Viaduct or the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge should be a top priority, but building brand new highways or widening existing ones is not a sensible course of action.

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