August 28, 2015

What to Do About Our Choked Roads?

There is a poster, produced by the city of Muenster in Germany, for their 2001 campaign to push for better space management of their roads. It compares, side by side, the space required for sixty people to commute to work by car, by bus and by bike.

A picture is worth a thousand words! A composite picture like this poster is worth more than three thousand words, which is great for me, as I have a few other things to say.

Car commuting is a great example of the prisoners' dilemma: going by car is great if it's just you and your four wheels on the road, and you can go unimpeded from A to B. But real life is never like that (unless you work the graveyard shift). So many of us now commute by car that we're constantly in each other's way, suffering delays and stress together, wasting time and money sitting in interminable traffic that only seems to be getting more interminable with every passing year.

So far, the standard response has been to widen the roads, or to build more roads. But those measures tend to be counter-productive: New roads are like magnets, sucking in cars: they exert a seeming irresistible attraction to more traffic, which proceeds to clog up the new lanes or roads, and you're back to where you started with the congestion, except that now there are even more cars on the road in total.

Quite apart from the health hazards coming out of tailpipes. Plus the carbon emissions.

Inside a city there isn't even any space for more or wider roads. In places that do have the space, building new roads or widening them is expensive. So much so, that Iowa's Department of Transportation has made the unprecedented proposal to stop building new roads, so that more funds are available for the maintenance of existing infrastructure.

A lot of technologists are saying that the near-future self-driving cars will help dissolve traffic jams. Sure, they probably will - for a while, and on the highways where the distance between human-driven cars must be large. But again, inside cities, where congestion already puts traffic at a stand-still, adding self-driving cars is not going to help much to get it flowing.

In Los Angeles, things have gotten to such a head that the city, the birth place of "car culture", is taking the astonishing step of re-examining its relationship with its freeways. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, columnist Christopher Hawthorne says,

"Increasingly the fundamental task Los Angeles faces is one of re-urbanization — of infill development, of reanimating or repairing the public realm. At the heart of that task is an understanding that the most successful kinds of spaces in the city are the ones where a broad range of activities has a chance to play out.

In this emerging Los Angeles, the freeway is an outlier, a hulking support system for an aging, if not outdated, set of beliefs."

Strong words indeed! However, this sentiment is not exceptional, but part of the broader zeitgeist. The state of California, suffering from a crippling and prolonged drought that can be attributed at least partly to man-made climate change, is proposing to slash the use of petroleum for transportation by half by 2030.

If the bill goes through, it will be very interesting to see how California will get to the 50% reduction in 15 years. They already have the nations largest fleet of electric cars, but both EV ownership and the power generated by renewable sources like wind and solar would need an improbable jump to eliminate all carbon emissions from half cars and trucks on the road today. My sense is that popular resistance to nuclear energy makes that avenue not a realistic option, and in any case it would be hard to ramp up nuclear energy production on the scale required within fifteen years.

Most commentators on the road congestion problem have dismissed public transportation as a viable option. (I'm talking about buses, light rail and trains, not car-sharing or Uber). I agree that on the whole public transportation in the US is patchy, not very fast, often unreliable, with the exception of some highly localised successes. In short, it stinks.

I say that it not a reason to write it off. Public transportation can be quite glorious: fast, on time, clean, and used by a large cross section of the population. Look to Seoul, Tokyo, Paris or Rome for examples of places where that is the case.

Photo by Supermac1961

Inside cities, reducing the number of cars on the roads would make space for a whole bunch of cool things besides bicycles: things like sidewalk cafes, street markets, festivals; things that turn a bunch of buildings into a beloved neighbourhood. A place where people want to spend time - which is why such streets can be called Sticky Streets.

A combination of a good public transport network and safe cycling infrastructure (to cover the notorious "last mile" to and from the home) can do wonders, not only to traffic congestion, but also to the health and wealth of the residents and - yes - their happiness.

The big secret of public transportation is that it has to be public. A patchwork of private enterprises is simply never going to deliver the way a seamless public network can. The best infrastructure - light rail, BRT lanes, fast-charging stations for electric buses - is expensive, and can often only be reasonably undertaken by a city or even a country or a state.

This is where public education comes in. People need to be convinced that the public outlays are worth it, paying for themselves in the long run not only financially but also in better health. And that it's okay that parking space is being exchanged for safe separated bicycle paths, because that helps reclaim our streets from the automobile, which has had it for long enough now, thank you very much.

I expect to see more outreach programs soon, like the one that generated that poster for Muenster.



You may also like:
1. Ten Ways to Calm Car Traffic
2. How the Dutch got their Bicycle Paths
3. Low Traffic Zones: anything but cars


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