30.7.06

AN IRRELEVANT ALTERNATIVE? Capital Times editor Dave Zweifel reviews the National Strategy to Reduce Congestion.

The federal government's Transportation Department has just issued a "white paper" on reducing traffic congestion in the country and guess what? It doesn't include a word about how improvement of either passenger or freight rail in America might be able to help.

Once more, the powers-that-be in Washington are determined to put all the nation's transportation eggs essentially in one basket more and bigger highways with a small sop to improving some airport traffic control systems.

Mr Zweifel would like to see more reliance on the railroads.
Why leaders of this administration can't understand that to put 500 people on a train essentially removes 500 cars from the highway is nothing short of perplexing unless, of course, road builders just have better connections and more money.
I'll yield to nobody in my enthusiasm for passenger rail. All the same, I'll not let that enthusiasm blind me to bad policy analysis. First, 500 people on the train need not be the equivalent of 500 cars on the highway, allowing for families traveling together. Second, under the circumstances most favorable to that one-to-one correspondence, namely the morning commute, 500 cars might not be on the highway to the central business district, but those cars are probably headed to a parking lot near the train station. (In Chicago, even if Metra were able to path a few more Naperville Zephyrs of a weekday morning, it is unlikely that many additional passengers would be able to locate parking near the train. And parking lots represent idle capacity and environmental degradation of a different form than the traffic jam.) Outside of the few cities where one might speak of a central business district, the investment in new commuter trains and latter-day interurbans might be misguided (insufficient travel to the few destinations the service touches to be cost-effective or to have much of an effect on traffic.)

A more comprehensive analysis of congestion released by the Federal Highway Administration suggests that two perpetual sore points with me, maltimed traffic lights and work zones, contribute more to road congestion than the few hundred people who might have occasion to ride a train to work. The former are often a consequence of ill-thought-out privatization (a developer builds a shopping center and helpfully pays for the traffic lights controlling mid-section access to the parking lots, but those lights are never timed with the timing of the signals on the existing section roads.) The latter is often a consequence of public decisions to rebuild an obsolete highway network under traffic. Why obsolete? Consider some observations by Samuel Staley of the Reason Foundation.

Travel demand has outstripped road building by 3 to 1 since 1980. Simply bringing capacity up to current levels of demand will go a long way toward reducing congestion.

But this is only part of the solution, and perhaps not even the most important. Simply laying more asphalt won't pave our way out of our slowing productivity and congestion mess. We need to pay a lot more attention to what kinds of roads we build, where we build them, and when they get built.

This is a bigger job than most people realize. In essence, it calls for a whole scale reconfiguration of our regional highway system.

The basic design of the current system—its DNA—was established by the federally funded Interstate Highway System laid on top of incremental expansions of local roads. This established a "hub and spoke" design, where large volume highways (spokes) would funnel people into a central employment center (the hub). Often, an outer beltway (rim) was created to connect the spokes leading to the hub.

I'm going to be a bit harsher than that. The Interstate Highway System we have today is the trunkline railroads of the 1920s. Think about it: Pennsylvania + Rock Island + Union Pacific + Southern Pacific = I-80. New Haven + Pennsylvania + Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac + Atlantic Coast Line = I-95. (The rest of the map is left to the reader as an exercise.) As Mr Staley notes,

This highway system served the needs of the mid-20th century city well when most people still worked and lived in the central city. The post-World War II era of suburbanization changed all that.

Now, fewer than 20 percent of travelers during peak periods are commuters. Most of those trips are not even going into the central city. Suburb-to-suburb trips dominate travel patterns. Central cities are no longer the economic drivers of regional economic growth. Indeed, the growth of suburban cities and "edge cities" has created more balanced regional economies.

Our transportation system and network needs to be similarly balanced. The hub and spoke system isn't suited for a modern economy where technology and employment allows for flexibility and decentralization, and where travel decisions are based on personal needs accommodated by the customized travel flexibility offered by the automobile.

That last sentence notes the real problem passenger rail advocates face. If there is a train headed for Real Chili in time for lunch, or toward the museum campus with convenient return times when the kids are ready for a nap, or to and from the office in a central business district, there is a potential public interest in providing those trains, or at least in not providing inefficiently many (or inefficiently few) roads. But it's a bit much to attribute the preferences of a study of traffic congestion to malice on the part of the highway lobby.

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