Remember not so long ago I mentioned that I was thankful that I didn’t end up being the lone right-brained soul in a left-brained transportation department? Well, I’m still so thankful, and my not-so-frequent encounters with other left-brainers continually reaffirm that view and even gets me thinking a little deeper.
When I realized I was going to become a transportation planner I decided I needed to write down what I believed was important regarding transportation maintenance and development; a personal transportation philosophy if you will.
I don’t agree with the “make ‘em wider and build more of ‘em” mentality regarding roads. It bugs me that some people only look toward the building of more and bigger roads to solve all of our transportation problems. That really makes no sense. More pavement on the ground means more of our local and state budgets dedicated to the upkeep of roads and bridges. It’s just not sensible to continually invest in more and more asphalt. We can’t afford it now, and our grandchildren definitely can’t afford it.
And it goes without saying that by always looking toward expanding the roads we’re just doing more to encourage the rampant overuse of the SOV (single occupancy vehicle). Instead of figuring out ways to cram more people into the pipes we should perhaps look outside the pipes.
While sitting chin on fist, elbow on knee, I came up with a simple metric for transportation planning. This is not my sum total transportation philosophy, but it’s a key tool and component for assessing needs. The goal of this metric is to scale back the use of the SOV to reduce congestion and improve air quality, as well as reduce our investment in suburban sprawl and unsustainable infrastructure development. The goal—in a nutshell—is transportation sustainability. Here we go:
1) Eliminate the distance and/or frequency needed to travel.
2) Reduce friction along existing routes.
3) Create new routes.
The first level assumes that you cannot combine all destinations into one geographic point. It is what I’ve referred to in the past as “condensing your lifestyle.” This is probably the most feasible and most effective approach considering that the toothpaste is already out of the tube so to speak. Instead of figuring out how to allow people to continue with their 20 mile commutes as fast as possible, perhaps we could look at encouraging people to reduce the distances they need to travel by car, by either relocating or by using alternate modes of transportation or mode sharing. Again, these solutions are less about dusting off the paving machines and more about mentally restructuring our lives. If you decide you’ll make choices that bring you closer to your destinations and maintain that attitude, then eventually you’ll succeed and reduce your transportation footprint.
I struggle with the second one. I’m most definitely NOT saying that the next possibility is to widen, straighten, and flatten our roads until they are all four lane, limited access boulevards with 65 mph speed limits. “Reducing friction” may involve traffic calming to even out congestion. It may involve making certain streets one way. It may involve restricting a street to bike-ped-transit traffic only. Reducing friction could mean employing more transit to reduce the number of vehicles on the road. But it may also include widening, straightening, and flattening.
It’s like an energy audit before installing solar on your roof: before you make the big investment, make sure you’re doing everything you can to conserve and reduce your usage. Otherwise you gain little and struggle to recoup your investment costs.
The absolute last ditch solution should be to build a new road. And even then (knowing that before most new roads are completed they are already obsolete) we should already be thinking of how to reduce traffic, not accommodate more and more and more cars. We will never build our way out of our congestion problems. If we can manage to alleviate them for a time we know that it is only a matter of time before there are enough cars on the roads to clog even the most overly built highways into gridlock.
And so, that leads us back to the root of all of our transportation problems: population. But I’m not going back there right now.