IF VEHICLE MILES TRAVELED IS DECLINING, WHY DOES TRAFFIC KEEP GETTING WORSE

Our roads feel more congested than ever.  It takes forever to get down Mass Avenue across Boston or Cambridge.  Memorial Drive, near where I live, is now backed up starting at about 4pm and continuing until nearly 7!  Route 93 out of Boston is perpetually stop and go, every day, at nearly every hour.  Sure, we all like to complain, but this is more than personal whining:  according to a new study, “even after $24 billion in Big Dig construction, Boston’s legendary traffic woes are still making the top 10 nationally for rush-hour tie-ups.  Boston is also leading the nation in year-to-year congestion level increases.”  Globe columnist Derrick Jackson points out that, “The Boston metro area is the nation’s ninth largest, but experienced the third highest rise in traffic delays since 1982, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. With the announcements in recent months of several new office, residential, and hotel skyscrapers, and with outgoing Mayor Menino wanting 30,000 new housing units by 2020, things will get much worse…”

 

My own experience is that it is almost always faster to cover 5 miles or less across town by bike than by car, or even by subway – unless you are starting and ending less than a block away from a station and you are lucky enough to immediately catch an arriving train.

But data also shows that each of us is driving fewer miles each year.  In 2012 Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) per person hit the lowest level since 1996.  Massachusetts drivers’ 8,318 average annual miles driven, down 4% since 2004, puts us near the bottom of the national list: 41st! It’s not simply about the poor economy and unemployed people not needing to commute; there seem to be deeper trends. The percentage of women entering the workforce has leveled off, removing a key reason for the past increase in commuter traffic.  Cars no longer have the cultural cache of sexy masculinity or provide a symbol of adult freedom or even simply feel like fun – these days, they’re just glorified computers with mobile sound systems!   For the past decade or so, “Millennials” under age 30 have been driving and even getting their driver’s licenses less frequently than any previous similar-age cohort.  In fact, despite continuing population increases the nation’s total VMT has dropped nearly 1% over the past eight years.  More urgently, the actual levels of traffic have been lower than nearly all the predicted traffic volumes calculated using the state’s modeling formula over the past several decades.

So….where are all the cars coming from?  

THE STANDARD STORY

I’ve heard people say that it’s because of the building construction and bridge/road repair.  However, the traffic jams started appearing several years ago, even before the current boom in Stimulus-initiated road repair (which we were lucky to finally get after years of neglect under the banner of “no more taxes”).

Maybe it’s because even though we’re driving fewer miles overall, and even spending less time per day in a car, we’re taking more short trips?  Has the growing 18% of our  retail economy that happens on-line economy increased, rather than reduced the daily average of ten trips generated per household – commuting, shopping, visitors, pizza deliveries, mail, trash, newspapers?   It’s probably not primarily about population growth – of which our state has had relatively little in recent years.  Perhaps it is that our population is getting more urbanized and concentrated so that those who still rely on cars are moving around in a smaller overall area?

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that we can’t build enough new road capacity to de-congest without ripping down huge swaths of our city.  And even if we did, experience shows that expanding road capacity simply attracts more cars until it, too, solidifies into jam.  Roads can be improved.  We can improve intersections and signal timing.  We can fix potholes.  But, ultimately, there simply is no way to make more than minor improvements.   Some of our political and transportation leaders seem to understand that this new reality requires new policies – the GreenDOT program at MassDOT and Boston’s Complete Streets/Bike Network plans are good examples.  The state’s quick development of a T-line plan between Back Bay and the already congested Seaport boom zone is another.  It should be obvious that we need a vast expansion of transit, bicycling, and walking options.  But public understanding still lags behind and is expressed through complaints about lack of traffic-encouraging projects as well as fury about inadequate parking spots.

ANOTHER APPROACH?

At the same time that we expand non-car infrastructure, we also need to discourage over-use of cars by charging for downtown access, which might begin to help cover the true cost of allowing cars.  Globe columnist Derrick Jackson recently pointed out that London, Stockholm, Milan, Singapore, and domestically, New York, San Francisco, and Washington DC have all either implemented or proposed using congestion pricing and/or charging market-rates for parking to better control and limit downtown traffic.  As for the former idea,  Tufts University’s Julian Agyeman, says, “Some people consider [congestion fees] a tax, but it actually is a way to democratize the city by making it more accessible to more people.”

Our city and regional economy will flounder and our quality of life will suffer if we can’t create a cost- and time-efficient transportation system.  Facilitating increased car traffic won’t get us there.

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Some relevant previous posts:

CIRCLING THE BLOCK: Saving Money, Time, and Aggravation Through Parking Reform

ACTIVE TRANSPORTATION CREATES HEALTHY COMMUNITIES: How To Use Your Roads To Lower Your Doctor (and Insurance) Bills

BUS SYSTEM IMPROVEMENT IS KEY TO TRANSIT: Local, Improved, Express, and Bus Rapid Transit

NON-MOTORIZED HIGHWAYS: A Regional Green Routes System To Connect Municipal Bike Networks, Sidewalks, and Parks

 

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posted in ROAD DESIGN AND MODE CHANGE by Steve Miller

 

 

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