Thursday, February 16, 2006

Driven to Despair

The Metropolitan Council of Governments has done a major analysis of traffic congestion in the Metro region, says the Washington Post, and reached this conclusion: traffic is bad. Really, really bad.
'Drivers on some highways designed for mile-a-minute travel are lucky to make five miles in an hour. Freeways that were manageable three years ago, such as the Dulles Toll Road, are now bumper-to-bumper at peak times. Congestion on some highways has doubled in three years, when the last study was released.'
Doubled in three years? Maybe, just maybe, the pattern of growth has something to do with that. But it's not all bad news, says the Post:
'Sprinkled into this snapshot of a region traffic-choked at nearly every turn are a handful of success stories. An added carpool lane on Route 50 in Maryland has improved the morning rush, and revamped interchanges in Tysons Corner and Springfield have eased tie-ups on the Capital Beltway.'
No, wait, it really is that bad. Here's an over-the-top quote to prove it:
'Transportation experts said they knew the region's traffic was bad -- but not this bad.
"It's even worse than what we would have expected," said John Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "This is a template to know where the problems are. For political leaders to have this report and do nothing is akin to doing nothing while Rome burns."'


At 10:31 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

It wouldn't be so bad if your arguments were unproven if they weren't inconsistent and circular.

We know that minor improvements in traffic handling can make major differences in congestion. For example, some experts claim that half of all congestion is caused by traffic incidents and our failure to respond quickly. Conversly, if we do nothing, or worse than nothing by say, arguing over road construction for thirty years, then why should it be a surprise that traffic congestion doubles in three years?

It is an axiom of queueing therory that the increase in congestion is exponential once the service capacity is reached. That is why it appears that you cannot build your way out of congestion. Even though we increase the service capacity, and provide service to far more people, we view the road expansion as a failure because congestion still exists. Any other venue that is crowded, we call a success. The congestion still exists because we have not moved the exponent yet.

No matter what method we use for trafic handling, we will face the same problem, which is why Metro has not reduced congestion, and neither will telecommuting, ITS, congestion pricing, growth management or any other method. As long as everyone wnat to go to the same place at the same time, we are going to have congestion. Downtown Houston is 75% streets and it is still congested. Why? Because it is developed to a density 25 stories deep. Metro is not a failure any more than a new lane width is, merely because it has not reduced congestion. Like the lane width it has increased service.

The only question is which which one gives better service for the money? Objectively, there isn't any question that autos give better, faster, more frequent, more comfortable service, better adapted to carrying goods, and making multiple stops on one trip, and for about the same overall costs as Metro. Provided, however, that we don't write idiotic policies designed expressly to eliminate the advantages of autos by bringing them to a screeching halt.

Even if we could build our way out of congestion, or provide Metro service that is not standing room only, we wouldn't do it because it would be an enormous waste of resources during no peak periods. Congestion and crowding are part of the picture, get used to it.

If our pattern of growth over the last three years is responsible for doubling the congestion in three years then it should be pretty obvious what is causing it. but dozens of researchers have pointed out that we know almost nothing about patterns of development and traffic: our models are nowherenear adequate to the task and have never been validated.

Theories about patterns of growth and traffic are just that, and there is plenty of evidence that other issues are at play. After the Dotcom bust, traffic in Silicon Valley decreased tremendously, and it is now back to previous levels, but the pattern of development didn't change appreciably in the meantime. Maybe, just maybe, our traffic is so bad because our business and commerce is so good.

On the other hand, if it is our pattern of growth over 20 years that has caused our traffic congestion to double in the past three years, then what? Undo 20 years worth of work? If we plan a different pattern that takes 20 to fifty years to promote and achieve, how ill it undo the problems we already have?

Sorry folks, more capacity won't solve the problem, but it will add more capacity. 2 million more people are going to need more capacity still, on top of the catch up we need to do, and remember, it's exponential. We are going to have to add more capacity and use more land and it is going to cost a bunch of money.

Even this won't solve our problems, but all the fuzzy thinking alternatives will only drive us more to despair.

At 3:42 PM, Blogger Jim Wamsley said...

Transportation problems in Northern Virginia will never improve until there is a connection between the congestion analysis and the funding priorities. Funding priorities are set in Richmond based on Statewide considerations. The Metropolitan Council of Governments analysis of traffic congestion is not a consideration in future project funding for the region. Instead, roads are funded from one pot of money and transit is funded from another. A good description of Transit funding is found in this Audit Report.

Until Congestion Reduction or Accessibility becomes the goal of transportation spending congestion will increase.

At 4:08 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Exactly right, Jim. Our transportation funding priorities got derailed 30 years ago. As it stands now, planners admit openly that they love congestion because it promotes their other social goals.

Those social goals depend on a strong economy and a strong economy depends on transportation. Transportation doesn't work when it is congested, so promoting social goals that result in congestion is shooting yourself in the foot.

At 4:54 AM, Blogger Larry Gross said...

There's a metric known as VMT (Vehicle Miles Travelled) that many transportation planners are well aware of.

The basic premise is that VMT has been rising at a much higher level than population growth with the clear implication that people are simply driving more than they used to.

One can GOOGLE the subject and get thousands of links... I chose one that shows that in the DC areas from 1982 until 1997 population increased by 28% while VMT increased by 82% and Freeway VMT increased by 107%.

So we're talking about congestion which is nothing more than more people utilizing existing highway infrastructure.

I think the point I'm trying to make is that according to some folks the "crisis" is simply due to the fact that the population is growing and the road infrastructure is not.

I think the VMT data challenges this assumption and clearly demonstrates that the existing population AND new growth - BOTH are driving longer distances for longer periods of time.

Now, the most obvious question in my mind is why folks would do this when they KNOW that congestion is bad and getting worse?

One conclusion must be that it's still not "bad enough" for folks to change their driving preferences.

One might also attempt to theorize that folks "have no choice" but to drive further and longer - at which point - I'd have to be convinced of the difference between a "mandatory" trip and an "optional" trip.

Home to work and work to home - yes - a mandatory trip.

Do folks buy more bread or go to more movies or soccer games than they used to? Maybe .. but I seriously doubt TWICE as much.

Does the VMT mean that people have decided to live further from where they work?

Yup. If you don't believe this - move to Fredericksburg, Va 50 miles south of DC and look at the percentage of NoVa commuters relative to local commuting.

So, we're back to the question.

Why would someone, knowing what they know about congestion levels and delays - still choose that kind of commute?

I don't know the answer. I do know that a LOT of transportation professionals spend their entire careers trying to understand the implications of higher VMT but one conclusion that they do make is that new highways in congested areas actually spur MORE driving

AND that existing folks will actually utilize that capacity at a higher rate than increasing population will.

There is still quite a bit of non-agreement about this phenomema known as "induced traffic" but I think it has given transportation professionals enough of a reality check to doubt that new infrastructure will get a full 100% net gain in capacity.

Given the fact that right-of-way in urban areas is already so expensive as to easily be 10 times the cost of a rural right-of-way, one does have to take a sobering view as to that little phrase known as "bang for the buck" or cost effectiveness.

I note with some humor that advocates of urban highway expansion often seem to cite rural right-of-way costs - and then compare that number to say METRO costs.

But methinks the answer is quite simple - charge folks for using infrastructure - not a flat rate - but the rate required to actually pay for that infrastructure.

Don't go whining to the state to essentially pick the pockets of other jurisdictions to pay for Northern Virginian's problems but charge the folks who live and work here for their use of the regional infrastructure.

I'd posit that once this equation is matched and costs allocated according to use that the "congestion crisis" will miraculously begin to abate.

If we sold electricty, or water/sewer or many other commodities like we do road capacity, we'd have brownouts, blackouts, water shortages, etc - their equivalent of crisis "congestion" so methinks the answer is as simple as letting folks vote with their pocketbooks.

At 10:33 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

That is right, Larry, VMT has gone up much faster than road mileage, and the result has to be that roads are more crowded. Two reasons that are unlikely to be repeated are women entering the workforce and the advent of just in time commercial deliveries. Also the cost of motoring has declined due to better automobiles.

But since work travel only accounts for 20% of mileage we can't blame an 82% increase in VMT entirely on where people choose to live. It is also possible that given the difference in housing price and quality of living, that people are making rational economic decisions about how to balance their cost of housing with their cost of motoring. That balance may shift over time as roads become more congested, gas more expensive, or as you suggest we change the equation by adding a new factor designed to punish them for policy decisions made decades ago.

A rational economic decision isn't the same as a rational social decision, but if enough people make bad economic decisions, it won't take long to throw the social equation out of balance.

The National Energy Model estimates VMT based on the number of eligible drivers, real economic growth, and the cost of motoring. that model works well without considering where people live.

Even though I have lived close to work, in town, in the suburbs and far from town, my automotive records show my driving has been pretty constant for many years.

So, yup, VMT is going up and some of it has to do with people who live in Fredericksburg. But Bob lives in Fredericksburg and doesn't commute. I'd suggest that Fredericksburg needs more jobs, especially jobs like his. Some claim that if F'burg had more jobs then people would live still farther away.

The national energy model would suggest that to reduce VMT we need to have fewer drivers, more expensive driving, and less economic growth. More expensive driving is likely to have the same effect as any other tax: it will reduce economic growth. If we are all guilty of warming the atmosphere through profligrate economic activity then maybe we should advocate that everyone become poorer.

Who wants to go first? If Northern Virginia money stayed in Northern Virginia, they could come closer to paying for their own roads, but as you point out, you would get less roads for the buck. You would be putting those less roads in the place with the greatest excess demand. That is the same place where induced demand or latent demand is most likely to rear its ugly head. But,since the roads there will be most heavily used, you get the most use for your dollar, even though you get less road per dollar. You get a high road benefit because more people use the road, and use it at all hours.

I'm not smart enough to know if that is the most bang for the buck.

What you don't get is less congestion. The price elasticity for transportation suggests that the price would have to be high indeed to reduce travel.

What would we do with all the money we took out of the economy? I suppose we could pay people to stay home, that would reduce VMT. If we charge enough to reduce congestion we may take enough money out of the economy that a lot of them will be staying home anyway.

If work travel is 20% of VMT and we get half of everybody to stay home, that takes care of 10% of VMT. We increased roadway by 28%. Now that we have killed the economy, all we have to do is figure out what to do about the other 50% of "excess" VMT.

Obviously that scenario doesn't work very well. You can't have congestion pricing without congestion, so I don't see that congestion pricing will have as much effect as we think. The price is going to be set to maximise income, not minimze congestion.

Some people are going to be upset if they pay to reduce congestion and don't get what they pay for.

Over a long period of time, some people will change their habits and move closer in. This will transfer a lot of land value from farther out to closer in, and that will change the balance of the equation people use when figuring where to live: fewer people will feel that they can afford to live close in.

Maybe you use the money from congestion pricing to subsidise rent control, but I don't see that either of those activities adds anything constructive to the economy.

I think you are right. If we sold electricity the way we sell roads, we would have brownouts. But if we paid to produce electricity the way we pay to produce roads, we would also have brownouts.

At 12:07 PM, Blogger Larry Gross said...

I'm not in favor of punishing people. On the other hand, I'm not in favor of providing them with something at less than it costs.

I also don't think that jobs can be "created" any more than I think that you can build dense "smart growth" homes for folks who want a different kind of home - like a SFR with a 1/4 acre of land.

In both cases, let the marketplace work.

And I don't care if the reasons for increased VMT are because of women or JIT - ONLY that ANY consumer of highway capacity pay their fair share of what it actually costs to maintain existing infrastructure and the costs to add new infrastructure.

I'm basically in favor of letting the marketplace respond to demand by assigning the actual costs necessary to satisfy that demand on a sustainable basis.

I think our existing transportation policy is based on essentially a ponzi scheme where everone thinks they can get as much as they want for a fixed price so the "only" cost to long commutes is THEIR time and not the loss of road capacity.

Our transportation policy should be based on providing a necessary and needed service - not to provide economic venues for business nor to guarantee everyone the "right" to the American Dream.

If someone wants a piece of that infrastructure then pay for it.

Folks talk a big line about personal responsibilitiy and making your own way but they scream bloody murder when you tell them than roads are not intended to guarantee them the home of their dreams.

I'm all for people choosing whatever paths that are available to them to achieve that American Dream.

I just think that our Government Policies should not essentially be welfare for those who want 'more' than what they can really afford and that's exactly what we do when we build roads to satisfy those seeking lower price homes. It's a failed strategy.

It costs BIG BUCKs to add capacity now and what we have is billion dollar back-logs of "urgent" projects that no one wants to pay for but everyone wants to bitch about.

who said.. "we've met the enemy and 'oh my god'? " ?

At 1:12 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

I agree, we should charge what it costs. I'm not sure we will like the results, but we don't like what we have now, either. It is really the only thing that is doable, but I doubt it will cause a big shift in living patterns or a big reduction in congestion.

I think it should be phased in gradually so as not to deliver too big a shock. I think a gas tax is a reasonable proxy that is easy to phase in a little at a time. The infrastructure is already in place. It affects those that drive the most and the heaviest vehicles more, which I think is appropriate.

In London, almost half the congestion fees are absorbed in administering the system, which strikes me as crazy.

But the gas tax is politically dead on arrival. What I think will eventually happen is congestion pricing in Tidewater and NOVA. those folks will get hit with what is effectively a regional tax that is similar to what they previously rejected. Unless that tax stays at home and is applied to what we agree are enormously expensive fixes, it will wind up as just another way for the rest of the state to siphon money.

The other thing we have to watch out for is that people with different agendas will want to calculate the costs differently. Some of those arguments may bear little relation to reality.

Once we go that route, we ought to apply the pay your full costs idea equally to Metro, bike trails, etc. We pay to ride Metro now, but compared to the costs, it is basically free.


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