How the road-congestion crisis can be thoroughly, prudently and properly resolved

It has been nearly a decade since authors Ted Balaker and Sam Staley released to the world their treatise “The Road More Traveled – Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It.” In “The Road More Traveled,” there is much I did and did not agree with. Ten years on, I would like to get a sense of what in this team’s book is holding true today and what if anything the authors contended they didn’t get just quite right. Rather than devote time, energy and space to try to summarize all that the authors put forth, I focus on parts having to do with certain “myths” that the duo covered and whether what they offered as rebuttal then is today accurate, somewhat correct or entirely off base. This is the basis of what this three-part series is about.

Series introduction

Perpetual motion is the antithesis of absolute immobility and vice versa, pure and simple. Countervailing forces – congestion/gridlock (c/g) plus delay caused on account of c/g – if severe enough can incite angst, frustration, even surrender as in it is easier to completely avoid a problem, confrontation, unpleasant situation, than to deal with such head-on, or, it can prompt and facilitate change.

360px-CBX_Parkchester_6_jeh[1]That said, reducing or totally eliminating congestion/gridlock and its consequent delay by determining and instituting the appropriate fixes to resolve the crisis; by locating the right leaders and backers (in and of itself a daunting-enough task); by finding and then allocating the financial resources to get the job done right in committing to and winning the fight, are each and all way easier said than done – trust me on this. Complicating matters even more is in deciding how best to do all of the above and an inability to reach consensus will make the job that much more difficult. Still, to not try at all is to give in to failure. For additional perspective, see the paragraph just above.

It is helpful to remember that climate change, global warming and carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases were not exactly the hot-button topics when Balaker and Staley introduced the world to their “The Road More Traveled” book in 2006 that they are today. “Peak car,” as it has come to be called, reached a zenith in 2004, just two years earlier. And, items like the Great Recession, the housing-bubble burst, and the tanked economy were, at that time, terms not yet part of Americans’ everyday lexicon.

Now to the myths.

Car congestion can’t be reduced with public transportation: false

The authors seem to embrace the notion that public transit cannot alleviate congested traffic or is at least not a very substantive means of doing such on a large scale and simply can’t compare to other, what the two book writers in question see as methods that are more effective. The duo then offer supporting data to back that position, like arguing that public transit use by American workers between 1960 and 2000 had been on the decline pointing out that in spite of a seven-fold increase in transit spending since the ‘60s, ridership among workers fell off by a percentage of more than six-in-ten, and as recently as 2006, transit use (I’m assuming by workers) is south of five-in-one-hundred.

While likely true, I am not swayed by such data nor am I bombarded by T.V. ads promoting public transit usage the way I am with advertising exploiting the automobile. In fact, in many auto T.V.-promo spots, how many times have I seen cars featured racing down open, uncongested roads – in this case sans any other vehicles in frame? Presented in this light, it gives one the impression that in owning an automobile one also owns the roads that one drives upon no matter the location. I mean, let’s get real here. After viewing one of those commercials, congestion is probably the last thing on the viewer’s mind at that point. No congestion, at all? We all know that isn’t true.

Something else to consider here is what role suburbanization plays in transit usage. The authors and I agree that suburban influence practically guarantees increased automobile usage and that leaves fewer suburbanites as transit-systems’ patrons. In this case proximity presumably determines transit-ridership success and in terms of tapping suburbia, transit’s access is limited. It doesn’t mean that things in this respect can’t change. Keep in mind also that in today’s world, car-sharing services are perhaps having an impact too.

320px-Salt_Lake_City_panorama[1]Meanwhile, in two metro regions of note – Denver and Salt Lake City – transit patronage is experiencing quite a remarkable upsurge. In the latter region, Salt Lake City, the area is more a collection of communities, making it suburban-like and transit service there is working exceedingly well. In Denver, moreover, there is much in the way of transit expansion as well, the downtown region around a completely revamped Union Station serving as a hub. Balaker and Staley insist that with niche transit services such as commuter express buses (I take this to mean Bus Rapid Transit or “skip-stop” services) or highly patronized localized corridors, whether successful or not, will not do much to reduce congestion on the regional level; at least this is what I understand the authors to be suggesting.

What I am picking up is that the duo are not totally dismissive of the role of transit as a congestion-relieving apparatus but rather because of population densities (or the lack thereof), costs and other limiting factors like lifestyle preferences, expecting transit to be a real congestion-busting tool beyond making more than a slight impact, is expecting much.

Given the right conditions, on the other hand, there is every reason to believe transit could be a force to be reckoned with in the car-congestion-reduction department. If not a congestion reliever in the grand sense, transit still pulls its weight in reducing pollution as long as ridership, comparatively speaking, is healthy.

In upcoming installments I will look at other “myths” and provide supporting and opposing viewpoints.

So stay tuned.

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