By Noel T, Braymer
The reason isn’t what you think it is.
From almost the time cars were first sold, there has been complaints that there weren’t enough roads. With this came the belief that if only more roads were built and current roads expanded then traffic congestion would go away and everyone would be happy. But this has yet to happen. The fact is as more roads are built, traffic continues to grow and get worse. Called induced demand, the more places people can drive, the more people will drive. But when there is less road capacity, traffic congestion goes down. A good example of this was the expansion of the 405 freeway between Westwood in west Los Angeles to Ventura Blvd in the San Fernando Valley through the Sepulveda Pass. Over the weekend starting on the evening of Friday July 15, 2011, the 405 was closed through the Sepulveda Pass.The public was warned about this with many members of the media calling this coming weekend “Carmageddon”. This implied traffic created by this construction would be like the end of the world. In fact traffic was lighter than normal that weekend. Those who did drive got to their destination sooner than on a normal weekend. Metrolink also had record ridership for a weekend during “Carmageddon” as people sought to avoid traffic. This likely had little impact on travel in the Sepulveda Pass since Metrolink doesn’t have service that parallels the 405 freeway. Yet once the roadwork was finished on the Sepulveda Pass with an extra high occupancy lane added in each direction on the 405, traffic soon returned to normal. In other words congestion was at least as bad or worse than it was before construction began on the 405 in hopes that with more lanes there would be less congestion.
This has been happening at least since most freeways were built following World War 2. The idea was freeways since they wouldn’t have intersections or stop lights, would be able to carry much more traffic because cars didn’t need to stop, which constrained capacity on surface streets. With faster average speeds many more vehicles per hour could be run on freeways compared to city streets. The theory was traffic diverted to the freeways would leave surface streets with less traffic. The freeways would rarely be congested since they would be able to handle the traffic of many major arterial roads. So what happened? Lets look back again in LA during the 1984 Olympics. The naysayers predicted traffic would be hell during the Olympics in LA. Yet traffic had never flowed so well than they did in 1984 in LA during the Olympics. People thought there was less traffic. But actually traffic was heavier, but there was less traffic congestion so traffic flowed more freely. A major factor in reducing congestion during the Olympics was that trucking companies agreed to do most of their deliveries at night instead of during the day to relive congestion during the Olympics. What causes most traffic back ups and stop and go traffic is from vehicles traveling at different speeds as well as accelerating and braking at different rates of speeds. As traffic gets heavier, but long before freeways reach their designed capacity we get stop and go traffic because some people think they will save time tailgating other cars or cutting vehicles off to try to get around traffic.
Of course not all roads are crowded. In fact most are not. I spent most of my childhood in the 50’s and 60’s living in houses by streets with little traffic. The house I lived in the longest as a kid from when I was 10 until I finished High School was at the end of a cul de sac. Cul de sacs were the epitome of the quiet suburban life. But I remember it caused long detours getting around on foot or by bike when I was a kid. But when you have people driving from their tract homes first on the arterial roads and then on the freeways, traffic soon gets congested on the busier roads. This is because traffic from miles around gets dumped on a small percentage of the road system. In the past most American cities had roads based on a grid system. These still exist in older parts of town around this country. Instead of dumping the majority of traffic on a few major streets and freeways, in the past it was spread out on many roads paralleling each other. Also people drove less since they didn’t have to travel as far in the past in a more densely populated area to get around as they do today. While there were fewer quiet streets, there were also fewer congested streets in the past. Also since World War 2 city planners have been demanding that there be plenty of parking both for housing and at businesses. This has used up a great deal of land sitting paved and often empty. This also made it harder to walk to places you wanted to go and made people more dependent on cars. The ironic thing today is the traffic is always worse in suburban areas built after World War 2, than the older parts of town with less parking and a grid street layout.
So why are trains and public transportation in general often having trouble keeping let alone increasing ridership? Part of it is market forces. By that I mean we subsidize driving by giving away lots of “free parking” which is often idle. Also cars have an advantage in that they are their own feeder and distributor. By that I mean most people with a car can drive on almost any road anywhere in North America to any place at any time they want only stopping to rest or fill their car with fuel. In many cases it is almost impossible to get to many places by public transportation in the United States. Quite often the connections between buses and trains in a region are poor or non-existence. Often there are long waits for connections or long walks to get to or from public transport. Much has been made by critics of public transport that fewer people are riding public transport. These are the same people who complain that public transport should cut back service to save money. The result is bus and rail service has been cut back. The result was fewer people ride the bus and trains because there is less service. But the critics complain about how ridership is shrinking so people clearly don’t want to ride public transport.
The population of the United States when I was born was around 158 million people. Today the population of the United States is over 326 million, it has more than doubled since I was born. We have double the number of people, but there is less open land now with more people needing housing and food. We don’t have the land to waste today that we could when I was growing up for new roads and for plentiful parking. The key to reducing road congestion is fewer roads and shorter trips. For a model how this would work we can look at European cities which have higher population densities than cities in this country. Europe simply didn’t have the open spaces like the United States had to build roads and parking on the scale of post World War 2 America. So most major cities in Europe have good frequent rail passenger service as well as frequent rail and bus transit which have good connections to each other. Most of this infrastructure is maintained by tax revenues. Tax revenues are also used to maintain streets and roads in Europe to a higher standard than in this country.
Looking now at Los Angeles we see new skyscrapers all over, particularly downtown. Some of this is for additional housing. The only way Los Angeles can handle the increased numbers of people that will fill up these building will be with more rail service. The freeways are already congested much of the day in LA. A major part of this will be with more rail transit connecting at Los Angeles Union Station to regional Metrolink service, intercity Amtrak and future High Speed Rail service. Better connections between lines with improvements like the Regional Connector downtown for light rail will allow better connections between services and service that run through major hubs like downtown Los Angeles and not terminate there. If you want full trains with rail service you want connections and service to as many places as possible. If you don’t want traffic build cul-de-sacs.