eMission control – Focus: Roadways

Does America have enough roadway lane miles or do we need more? Since the question is a ‘two-parter,’ firstly, YES and secondly, NO.

In America Revealed, Episode 2: “NATION ON THE MOVE,” a Public Broadcasting System broadcast, mentioned is that total American road mileage is four-million.

A person cannot tell much from that number alone. One must also take into consideration how efficient or inefficient every one of those lane-miles are, the demographics of who’s driving them, the number of miles being driven on them – is that number increasing, decreasing or remaining flat? – and, in this regard, what the future trends are likely to be. Of all factors to consider, for me, of course, the most important is environmental as in impact to the air we breathe.

When I think how air quality can be adversely affected by roadway use, in order for roadway users to get the most for their hard-earned dollars, the efficiency thereof is of prime importance.

Take the case of intersections with left-turn arrows. To me, it makes very little sense to sit behind the wheel in left-turn lanes waiting needlessly for a green arrow all in an effort to make a simple left turn. In many situations, the left-turn arrow is only lit once per traffic-signal cycle. Even when there is no opposing traffic coming from the opposite direction, motorists wanting to turn left cannot do so until the green left-turn arrow appears. It’s inefficiency to the hilt, in my opinion.

In “The future of driving: Seeing the back of the car,” in the Sept. 22, 2012 The Economist, it states, “A growing body of academics cite the possibility that both car ownership and vehicle-kilometers driven may be reaching saturation in developed countries—or even be on the wane, a notion known as ‘peak car’.”

“There are different measures of saturation: total distance driven, distance per driver and total trips made. The statistics are striking on each of these counts even in America, still the most car-mad country in the world. There, total vehicle-kilometers travelled began to plateau in 2004 and fall from 2007; measured per person, growth flatlined sooner, after 2000, and dropped after 2004 before recovering somewhat. ….The number of trips has fallen, mostly because of a decline in commuting and shopping (of the non-virtual variety).”

So, this begs the question: Are more roads needed if fewer miles are being driven? Considering there is still plenty of congestion to go around, maybe the question that should instead be asked is: would it not be better to maintain the infrastructure already in place, focus more on improving land uses and invest in practices that maximize transportation efficiency and thus reap corresponding environmental benefits that are part and parcel of this type of developmental response?

“In America, where over 50% of the population lives in suburbs, more than half the nation’s 51 largest cities are seeing more growth in the core than outside it, according to William Frey at the Brookings Institution,” as emphasized in The Economist.

Meanwhile, in “Study: 10% More Smart Growth = 20% Less Driving,” writer Angie Schmitt writes: “Dr. Sudip Chattopadhyay measured the impact of certain smart growth indicators on 18 metro areas across the U.S. He found that a 10 percent increase in smart growth amenities — measured by residential and job density and per-capita transit spending — leads to a 20 percent reduction in miles driven.”

Schmitt notes also that if central California cities like Bakersfield, Fresno and Modesto, for example, had comparable densities and offered transit amenities of the likes of the Los Angeles’ and the San Francisco’s of the world, a reduction of 55 percent in driving activity per household per year or roughly 5,238 fewer miles driven could be expected.

And by virtue of that, not only would air quality see improvement, but family households would save money; less of the family income dollar would be eaten up by transportation-related costs.

Wouldn’t that be something?! Indeed, it would!

– Alan Kandel