Last week we looked at induced demand and learned why adding road capacity will not result in a decrease in Austin’s traffic congestion. Due to the rational (and irrational) behavior of urban travelers, it’s safe to say that we can’t expect to necessarily improve traffic by adding more road capacity. Instead, we should look at alternative options to help solve Austin’s traffic problems.
First, I’d like to clarify that I’m not saying we should never build any roads. Rather, the purpose of the last article was to show that a road system must be appropriately sized for it to be financially sustainable. Because roads require continuous and costly maintenance, it doesn’t make sense to build an elaborate highway system requiring continuous investment. Instead, let’s provide travelers with more options and use our existing system more efficiently.
Again, there is no magic bullet. To relieve congestion and reduce travel times, we will need to rely on a thousand small cuts. Some strategies rely on decision-makers and politicians for implementation, others are things you can do individually. The strategies here are by no means exhaustive, but each is an opportunity to alleviate some of Austin’s current problems.
So, without further ado, here are my seven key strategies to solve Austin’s traffic problems more effectively:
Toll roads and managed lanes, lanes with a surcharge to use or free for high-occupancy vehicles, can make an immediate impact on traffic. Roads may seem like a free public commodity, but taxpayers subsidize their overuse. By adding a cost to each trip, we start to re-balance demand: People who do not wish to pay will shift how they travel, when they travel, and if they travel. It also provides a more reliable travel time to those who are willing to pay–which is a particularly important for truck drivers or people like me who want to make a flight on time!
Separated Rail and Bus Rapid Transit
Adding grade-separated or lane-separated transit (like bus or rail) provides an effective alternative to driving because it’s not as impacted by road congestion. Because they operate on separate systems removed from the traffic, travel times are drastically reduced, making it an attractive system to commuters. The key here is to select strategic routes that serve and connect geographic areas with higher-density or concentrated housing and employment centers.
Separated Bicycle Lanes
There is no point bicycling to work if you get stuck in traffic and have to wait behind cars. Providing a separate, continuous bike lane system is not only safer, it’s a great alternative to driving and can shift a significant number of commuters, particularly in central city areas. In London, bicycling is already faster than driving to most points in the city.
Land Use Planning
The golden ticket is coordinating transportation and land use planning. By appropriately zoning for higher density, mixed-use development in central areas, we can increase the number of citizens who can viably commute between work and home by transit, bicycle, walking, or even carpooling. Promoting the concentration of employment will ensure that transit routes can be developed to actually take people to their place of work.
Unfortunately, the State of Texas does not permit zoning or land use planning outside of municipal boundaries, so urban areas will continue to sprawl indefinitely without changes to legislation. However, if we focus on building fewer roads to remote areas, we can reduce the desirability of land at the periphery and deter development that contributes to both urban sprawl and congestion.
We can also zone appropriately within our municipal boundaries. The City of Austin has been particularly focused on developing high-density districts around MetroRail stations over the past few years, and in the coming decade, we will reap many of the benefits of these strategies, particularly once redevelopment is complete and more frequent train service becomes viable.
Employer Policies: Telecommuting and Employer-paid Transit
Policies that allow telecommuting and staggered work hours can reduce peak demand and the number of work trips in a region. Employer-paid transit passes or subsidies can also give people that push to use public transit It’s also good practice to have ample bicycle parking and shower/locker facilities.
Charging for Parking
Eliminating free parking can be the most effective tool at reducing the number of single-occupant vehicles on the road. Creating a parking cash-out program or charging monthly fees for spaces can be one of the easiest and most effective programs at shifting demand. It also helps waste less space on parking and allow for more structural development in high value areas.
Y-O-U and Your Friends
It sounds cliché, but you really can make a difference by making smart choices!
Step one: Live as close to your workplace and neighborhoods you frequent as possible. Before you think you could only afford a home in Hutto, you should remember that most American suburbanites spend upwards of 30 percent of their income on transportation. That means you could afford something more expensive in central areas by cutting transportation costs.
The Center for Neighborhood Technology has a great tool that shows the lowest cost areas of American cities based on a composite housing and transportation index, and the results are not what you might expect; close-in areas are in most cases less expensive! See for yourselves here.
In Conclusion: We have enough roads already!
Believe it or not, we already have more roadways than we can really afford. The Federal Government subsidizes construction of roadways–up to 80 percent of the cost in the case of the interstate highway system– but not operations and maintenance. This has left us financially overburdened, particularly given the limited revenue sources that are politically palatable (Remember: gas taxes have not gone up in decades despite higher fuel economy). That’s why we have to make optimal use of our existing infrastructure AND promote a multi-modal, balanced system. Not only will it save us time and money, it will create an urban environment that provides a better quality of life for all of us.
We may not all reach the same conclusions, but I feel very strongly that the solution to our transportation woes will need to be multi-faceted, and new roadways are not the answer.
What other options should Austin consider to reduce traffic?Or do you still think roads are the answer?
Photo Credit: johnphilipg on Flickr used under Creative Commons