DC streets most clogged in nation: what can we do?


    The Texas Transportation Institute of Texas A&M University recently released TTI’s annual traffic study.   Not surprisingly, it made the front page in the Washington, DC, area since DC tied with Chicago for the nation’s worse traffic congestion. Putting aside not-minor methodological issues (see here as well), the simple reality is that it gets much (MUCH) harder to move around DC in an automobile year-after-year.    This then leads to a simple question as to ‘what to do about this’.  Do we simply need more roads?  Is public transit the only answer?  Or, can a variety of efficiencies provide a significant part of the answer?

    Sadly, too many would argue “Roads, Baby, Roads” (to be powered by vehicles fueled due to “Drill, Baby, Drill”?).

    Pete Ruane, president of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, said the report underscores the need for Congress to move ahead on the six-year transportation funding reauthorization bill that has been stalled for more than a year.

    “The report makes one thing crystal clear,” Ruane said. “The failure of elected leaders at all levels of government to adequately invest in transportation improvements is taking an alarming toll on American families and businesses. If members of Congress had to sit in mind-numbing congestion every day like their constituents, they might have a greater sense of urgency in passing the 15-month-overdue transportation bill.”

    Should it surprise us that roadbuilders find that new roads are the only answer?  And, that they argue for rapid movement on funding for new roads?

    How about another perspective?

    The American Public Transportation Association also urged Congress to act.

    “There is no doubt that expanding public transportation use is the key to reducing traffic congestion,” said William Millar, the association’s president. “Congress needs to move on passing a well-funded, multi-year surface transportation authorization bill. Each passing day means a delay in addressing congestion problems which impact individual and undermine business productivity.”

    To be clear, from its very first days, I’ve been a supporter of the DC Metro system (along with a fan of urban transit globally).  That early fandom is now reinforced by a near daily commute via the rail.  And, it is clear that the DC Metro has tremendous benefits for those who don’t ride it: estimated at 36 million fewer commuting hours per year due to reduced congestion valued at $766 million along with another $75 million or so in saved gasoline. (E.g., ‘external values just for commuters of some $850 million per year, far (FAR) less than any public transit ‘subsidy’.) (Note that these benefits are irrelevant for a Republican movement determined to support fossil-foolish car culture interests. The Republican Study Committee’s SRA (Senseless Retrenching Act — SRA) would chop off Metro funding at the knees.) Even as improved public transit is a critical element of a more efficient transportation network that brings many other benefits, public transport is “the” answer or even “the key to reducing traffic congestion”.

    Perhaps the most dismaying projection came from the authoritative voice of one of the study authors:

    “Clearly, in any growing area – and D.C. has continued to grow – you need to build more capacity,” Tim Lomax, the TTI researcher who co-wrote the report. “You can do little things like stagger work hours, fix traffic-light timing and clear wrecks faster, but in the end, there’s a need for more capacity.”

    Is capacity — whether roads and/or (better option) transit — the only answer to the challenges of traffic?

    The simple and true answer: no.

    With close to zero investment, congestion could rapidly fall with lowered pollution and improved productivity.  Alternative work schedules and alternative work arrangements are a starting point.

    While, nationwide, “approximately 45 percent of American workers are employed in sectors where a five-day workweek is not inherently necessary.”  That percentage is even higher in Washington.  If that number is 50%, putting them on a 4 day workweek (10 hour days) would cut commuter traffic by 10 percent. As Whitney Angell Leonard pointed out in Five Alternatives that Make More Sense than Offshore Oil,

    traffic delays are reduced by 10 percent for every 3 percent of commuters who stay home one day a week, ultimately saving everyone more time, fuel and money.

    Telecommuting offers tremendous potential to cut into the traffic even more. If just six percent of DC-area workers telecommuted half the time, that would meet the three percent threshhold — five days per week.

    Additionally, enabling expanded flextime would add yet another path toward carving into the DC-area gridlock.

    These three — easily and cheaply implemented — adjustments to work patterns would have greater impact on reducing congestion than any potential transit or traditional road investments over the coming decade or more. (Just imagine if the (then) Democratic-controlled Congress had announced a major flex-time/telecommuting/alternative work schedule for all staff amid Deepwater Horizon as an example of practical paths to cut into our oil addiction?)

    These, of course, are only a taste of effective paths to reduced congestion. Others include:

    • Traffic management improvements such as traffic circles, improved lighting timing, etc …
    • Taking steps to ease, enable, and encourage increased use of bicycles (and other ‘alternative’ transit) for commuting and other transportation needs. (Okay, a ‘capacity’ path: networking the area with greenways.)
    • Long-term ameliorative paths such as ‘smart growth’ (zoning to foster mixed use neighborhoods) and house financing that encourages people to live closer to work and other ‘destinations’ (addressing location efficiency; see here (pdf) on location efficiency as well)

    While I strongly support increased public transit (including the new line under construction to Tyson’s Corner and beyond), one thing is clear:  increased capacity (especially not increased road capacity) is not the answer to DC’s congestion problems.  Highly cost-effective paths exist to reduce congestion, improve productivity, save people money (and time), improve the community, reduce local pollution, cut into America’s oil dependency, and help reduce America’s contribution to global warming.

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