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What the Government Is Doing about Road Congestion and Why It Is Not Helping

Updated on January 8, 2018
tamarawilhite profile image

Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, engineer, mother of 2, and a published sci-fi and horror author.

Introduction

Why are we seeing so much money spent on transportation and infrastructure but not seeing improvements in traffic congestion? Why do we see traffic getting worse despite all the solutions rolled out to try to fix it?

Trains

The left loves trains, despite the high cost of this type of infrastructure. Add in the fact that trains take twenty years to be heavily used after high density construction moves people to the areas immediately around train stations, and you see a solution for congestion that doesn’t help for decades after it is built.

Compounding the problem is the fact that it takes years to build light rail systems, whereas buses can be put on the road almost immediately, and buses can have their routes altered based on demand or changing consumer needs. But few people get kudos for setting up a new bus route or buying ten new buses, while opening a new train station creates photo ops and naming opportunities. The painful irony is how many of the trains that do get built don’t stop where people need them or get built where they aren’t used at all, like several trains in California that only connect small towns but don’t connect them to the nearest big cities.

When transportation planners assume everyone will carpool, regardless of the reasons they can't, you get poor traffic congestion solutions.
When transportation planners assume everyone will carpool, regardless of the reasons they can't, you get poor traffic congestion solutions. | Source

New Lanes without New Capacity

One problem with the main solutions to congestion is that the new lanes being added to existing roads are rarely adding capacity. For example, highways that are adding on new lanes that are toll lanes aren’t going to help traffic congestion much because few people can afford to pay more for the toll lanes in addition to their car payment, gas and insurance.

Another variation of this problem is when new lanes are added but are HOV lanes – in short, the new capacity isn’t open to the public because most people drive alone. Adding one or two new lanes that only a few percent of drivers can use is very little help. And civic planners don’t appreciate the real reasons why people tend to drive alone. For example, as an engineer who has participated in public infrastructure surveys, I brought up the fact that I could not carpool because I had young children who often had to be picked up early when sick or school schedules required it. That made carpooling impossible, but their surveys assumed people didn’t carpool for petty reasons like not wanting to fight over radio station selection or feeling cramped in a shared car.

The problem is made far worse when existing traffic lanes are turned into HOV lanes in a bid to push people to buddy up in their cars, ignoring the fact that many people drive alone because they need the flexibility in scheduling or route.

Emphasis on Transit Options Few Use

One of the most egregious wastes of public “transportation” dollars are when they are used to install walking paths in parks instead of sidewalks and pedestrian bridges that would be needed on a daily basis. Think of communities where you can’t walk several blocks to the store on a wide sidewalk but there are biking paths and jogging trails through all the parks. An even worse form of this is taking out traffic lanes to install bike lanes, which relatively few people use.

The most horrendous misuse of transportation dollars is taking money originally earmarked for widening roads and spending it on scenic bike paths for recreational purposes instead. Yet this happens because those alongside the roads rarely want to lose part of their yards to a wider street, and the public tends to support pretty recreational projects over the practical.

NIMBY often means not building new roads because the immediate public doesn't want it.
NIMBY often means not building new roads because the immediate public doesn't want it. | Source

The Bias against Cars

The dominant school in civil planning says let’s get everyone out of cars and into public transportation or out on the street walking and biking. The end result is that they don’t want to build roads unless they absolutely have to, and when they have to, they install only a minimum of capacity for cars compared to other modes of transportation.

This is why you see more and more downtown areas not only designed for pedestrian friendliness but outright banning cars. More common is the use of congestion based pricing to push people to not drive when they most often need to be In the area and incentivize public transit or parking far out and walking in. The end result of this is spending public transit dollars on skyway pathways, walking paths, revitalized plazas and public transportation over the road capacity most sorely needed.

On the flipside is public planning that tries to eliminate the need for cars, such as trying to limit construction of detached single family homes and encouraging high density condo and apartment construction. Another form of this is the development limits many cities have placed to say no new homes beyond this line while requiring new construction inside of that limit to be multi-family housing. In such an environment, the default solution to road congestion is more buses, not more roads or lanes on existing roads.

In this environment, you also see planners unwilling to build new roads out of fear that it will bring traffic, while they hope that not building new road capacity will force people out of their cars and into alternatives.

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  • bradmasterOCcal profile image

    bradmasterOCcal 3 months ago from Orange County California

    Tamara

    Unlike Ft Worth, Most of California is surrounded by mountains making ground passages limited to a few roads that over congested. Buses and many light rail share the roadway with the rest of the vehicles making is unsafe traffic accident wise.

    There is over 15 million people in Southern Ca within a 100 miles of Los Angeles. Again there is limited access to traveling from LA to San Diego for example. A Toll Road that would have skirted traffic around the main freeway (I5) was blocked from completion for over 20 years. All the freeways servicing Southern Ca are gridlocked.

    There are 5 major airports less than 40 miles from LAX and there is no train connection to any of them. There is also no train connection to Disney Land from theses airports and this tourist attraction brings in a lot of visitors.

    As I mentioned 15 months ago, look at the train service to JFK and compare it to the no train service to LAX.

    Southern Ca doesn't have the real estate to build more freeways, and the existing freeways have been lane maxed out. I15 is the only major road eastbound to get you to Las Vegas and points east.

    Traffic to an from Las Vegas is dense, and this contributes to the gridlock in LA and surrounding areas trying to go east.

    Monorails and other above ground rails are being built around the world but not so much in this country. They take up very little real estate compared to other vehicles. They can be built within exists freeways systems. The Japanese Shinkansen has been around since 1964 and they have modernized this bullet train to the latest model today.

    Yes, the cost of trains, especially adding dedicated new track and routes is expensive. But, politicians and politics that delays even the started of a proposed rail system easily burdens the budget significantly, as is the case here in CA.

    The route chose is along the 99 highly through the most dense built up real estate. If they would build along the sparsely populated I5 and used intelligent project management they could have had a lot of the rail up already.

    In order for you to properly evaluate your argument against trains and their expense, you need to put a cost for the roadway gridlock where it can take an hour to go just ten miles, as is the case in S CA on the 91 between Anaheim and Corona.

    This gridlock has lots of direct and indirect costs. The other advantage of Trains is that they already go the heart of the city, while airports are distant from the city. And then air travelers have to use ground transportation to get to the city.

    Ca is the worse place to do any mega projects, especially the high speed rail. Even worse is their habit of making these projects a form of work continuum for themselves and their friends. Project Management is not a strong point for the state. Instead of starting the High Speed Rail from San Diego to LA, and SF to San Jose, they started in Fresno???

    By doing it the other way, they could have had highly populated routes routes at either end taking cars off the road while the rest of the system was in progress. Many people in SF and San Jose commuted between those cities, as do people in LA and San Diego.

    The entire length of the system is about 600 miles, and wouldn't it be better if 10 companies or more divided those miles and built the rail concurrently?

    By the way, shared tracks with other trains is not a good idea. Dedicated tracks, and elevated tracks make more sense.

    The high speed rail in TX between Houston and Dallas is no way as complex as it is in CA.

    Thanks for your comment.

    For buses, you might want to see O Bahn buses.

  • tamarawilhite profile image
    Author

    Tamara Wilhite 3 months ago from Fort Worth, Texas

    bradmasterOCcal There is a bad focus on trains over other forms of public transit. For the cost of a train system, you can have buses IMMEDIATELY and don't have to put everyone through a painful process of altering land use to put people where the train stations are.

  • bradmasterOCcal profile image

    bradmasterOCcal 18 months ago from Orange County California

    Tamara

    I agree with some of your thoughts here and disagree on others.

    I agree we can't make roads wide enough to reduce traffic congestion.

    I disagree that trains and other variations of trains cannot help.

    google the Sky Tran for a start. It is a mag lev suspended 2 seat car. Less than $10mil per mile.

    Also things like the JFK and SF airport Air Trains help.

    Connecting rail to airports like the Air Train would help most urban airports reduce congestion.

    High speed rail projects cannot be done effectively by the government. The government doesn't know how to complete projects. Take the CA High Speed Rail (HSR). It is already been overbudget several times and it is hardly even started.

    Other countries around the world have not only HSR systems but they have local rail service around the city. Take a look a Dubai.

    We haven't captured more water, improved our electrical grid, improved our National Highway System and other things while the population has more than doubled.

    The projects will never be cheaper than they are today. Conservation and restrictions don't work in a country where the population is increasing.