Collectively addressing traffic rather than individual drivers looking for the best route for them

As Waze and other apps route drivers all over the place in order to find the shortest route, one writer argues we need to consider how traffic and congestion is a collective issue:

Road traffic is a great example: absent other incentives, I’m always going to choose the fastest route home that is available to me, even though taking a longer, more circuitous route would help spread out traffic and ease congestion for other drivers across my city. Traffic engineers have long assumed that the Nash equilibrium describes real-world rush hours pretty well.

In fact, mathematical studies and behavioral experiments dating back to the 1960s have shown that the collective delay is almost always worse in the Nash equilibrium, a.k.a. “user-optimized” driving scenario, compared to a world where drivers worked as a team for smoother traffic overall. Imagine a centralized transportation planner who assigned commuters their routes based on what was going to most benefit everybody. That god-like figure could impel some drivers to protract their journeys in order to improve the overall flow and decrease the cumulative time spent in traffic.

In this “system-optimized” equilibrium, our trips would be less harried on average: One widely cited 2001 paper by computer scientists at Cornell found that a network of “user-optimized” drivers can experience travel times equivalent to what a network of “system-optimized” drivers would experience with twice as many cars. Transport engineers call the difference between selfish and social equilibria the “price of anarchy.”

And the proposed solution:

Perhaps the best approach to the future of traffic starts with redefining the problem we’re trying to solve. For most of the 20th century, the principal concern of transportation economists was to reduce travel time across a given distance. But getting as many people as possible to and from work, school, and shopping—period—might be the more important task. If the goal is reframed as increasing access, rather than increasing speed, then the answer involves more than traffic apps and vehicle transponders. Land use patterns would have to be rethought so that people can live closer to the destinations they care about. People should be able to walk as much as they want to, and use bikes, scooters, buses, and trains. Autonomous vehicles, if they come, ought to be carefully folded into the mix with care so as not to double down on congestion and carbon emissions.

The solution hints that this is a much larger issue than apps and whether they should be held responsible by the public. The underlying issue may be this: are Americans generally willing to set aside their own personal priorities in favor of societal arrangements that can benefit more people on the whole?

Americans like to drive and it is baked into the American way of life. One of the reasons Americans like their own vehicles is that it offers independence and control. Rather than relying on a set schedule or having or riding with other people or supporting big systems, Americans like the idea that they can get into their vehicle at any time and go wherever they want. They may not actually do this much – hence, we get fairly predictable rush hours when everyone is trying to go places at the same time – but individual vehicles provide options in a way that mass transit does not.

Making the switch over to systems rather than individual options – including mass transit – requires submitting parts of life to a collective that cares less about individuals and more about the whole. This same debate is playing out in other arenas such as how healthcare should be organized or whether wealth inequality should be addressed. If the favored outcome is individual choice, it is hard to move people toward collective approaches. Even if thinking of traffic and transportation as a larger system means that more people might be stuck less in traffic, the individual participant may not gain that much or may lose the feel of control. Access for all is a hard sell when many like their individual choices (even as they bemoan congestion).

It might take decades or generations before a significant shift away from individual drivers might occur. Indeed, more than just apps can continue to promote individual approaches to driving: ride-sharing still is largely an individual act and the private nature of self-driving cars might just make the choice to drive even easier for some.

Connecting residential segregation, highways, mass transit, and congestion

Historian Kevin Kruse suggests the traffic congestion in today’s big cities is connected to segregation:

This intertwined history of infrastructure and racial inequality extended into the 1950s and 1960s with the creation of the Interstate highway system. The federal government shouldered nine-tenths of the cost of the new Interstate highways, but local officials often had a say in selecting the path. As in most American cities in the decades after the Second World War, the new highways in Atlanta — local expressways at first, then Interstates — were steered along routes that bulldozed “blighted” neighborhoods that housed its poorest residents, almost always racial minorities. This was a common practice not just in Southern cities like Jacksonville, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, Richmond and Tampa, but in countless metropolises across the country, including Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Syracuse and Washington.

While Interstates were regularly used to destroy black neighborhoods, they were also used to keep black and white neighborhoods apart. Today, major roads and highways serve as stark dividing lines between black and white sections in cities like Buffalo, Hartford, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. In Atlanta, the intent to segregate was crystal clear. Interstate 20, the east-west corridor that connects with I-75 and I-85 in Atlanta’s center, was deliberately plotted along a winding route in the late 1950s to serve, in the words of Mayor Bill Hartsfield, as “the boundary between the white and Negro communities” on the west side of town. Black neighborhoods, he hoped, would be hemmed in on one side of the new expressway, while white neighborhoods on the other side of it would be protected. Racial residential patterns have long since changed, of course, but the awkward path of I-20 remains in place…

[S]uburbanites waged a sustained campaign against the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) from its inception. Residents of the nearly all-white Cobb County resoundingly rejected the system in a 1965 vote. In 1971, Gwinnett and Clayton Counties, which were then also overwhelmingly white, followed suit, voting down a proposal to join MARTA by nearly 4-1 margins, and keeping MARTA out became the default position of many local politicians. (Emmett Burton, a Cobb County commissioner, won praise for promising to “stock the Chattahoochee with piranha” if that were needed to keep MARTA away.) David Chesnut, the white chairman of MARTA, insisted in 1987 that suburban opposition to mass transit had been “90 percent a racial issue.” Because of that resistance, MARTA became a city-only service that did little to relieve commuter traffic. By the mid-1980s, white racists were joking that MARTA, with its heavily black ridership, stood for “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.”…

Earlier this year, Gwinnett County voted MARTA down for a third time. Proponents had hoped that changes in the county’s racial composition, which was becoming less white, might make a difference. But the March initiative still failed by an eight-point margin. Officials discovered that some nonwhite suburbanites shared the isolationist instincts of earlier white suburbanites. One white property manager in her late 50s told a reporter that she voted against mass transit because it was used by poorer residents and immigrants, whom she called “illegals.” “Why should we pay for it?” she asked. “Why subsidize people who can’t manage their money and save up a dime to buy a car?”

Translation: decisions about transportation were both a consequence of a national inclination toward racial and ethnic segregation and an ongoing contributor toward racial and ethnic segregation. In a country that is relatively sprawling and prefers cars, determining who has access to transportation and what kind of transportation is available can be part of who can get ahead.

While the root cause of all of this may be racial issues, it is interesting to consider this as a congestion issue. Would the public be convinced to change transportation infrastructure because they dislike sitting in traffic? The evidence from Atlanta as well as numerous other American cities (such as developing a regional transportation effort in the Chicago region) suggests this is not a strong argument. Wealthier residents are hesitant to ride buses, trains may be tolerable, but driving is still preferred even when so many hours per year are devoted to it. Suburban Americans like cars and they like the ability to exclude and I would argue the second is the master priority when push comes to shove.

Buying and demolishing expensive suburban homes to expand I-294

Acquiring property for right-of-ways for highways and other uses can get expensive. Here are a few examples of the Illinois Tollway purchasing homes in Elmhurst and Hinsdale:

A two-story, 3,145-square-foot house in Elmhurst that was built in 2005 and that the Illinois Tollway bought for $710,000 has a date with a wrecking ball later this year. It’s one of the more unusual aspects of the upcoming $4 billion widening of Interstate Highway 294…

The house due to be razed, at 505 E. Crescent Ave. in Elmhurst, abuts a noise wall that parallels a ramp linking Interstate Highway 290 to I-294. The Illinois Toll Highway Authority needs the house’s 0.3-acre parcel to provide room for an interchange ramp, said tollway spokesman Dan Rozek. It’s the only house in Elmhurst that the toll authority intends to acquire…

While the tollway’s plans call for just that one house acquisition in Elmhurst, the tollway intends to acquire and demolish some 11 homes farther south in Hinsdale for the project, many of which are on Harding Road and Mills Street. In a reflection of the relatively high cost of homes in Hinsdale, the tollway paid even more for two Hinsdale homes than it did for the Elmhurst acquisition, shelling out $870,000 for a house at 621 Harding Road and $825,000 for a home at 645 Harding Road.

However, most of those pending Hinsdale demolitions are of homes that are much older than the one in Elmhurst. Of the Hinsdale acquisitions, the house that was most recently built is a four-bedroom, 2,346-square-foot, neo-eclectic-style house at 417 Mills Street, which was built in 1996. The tollway acquired that house in December for $700,000.

Suburban areas have lots of homes adjacent to highways and relatively few meet this fate. And such homes can be worth quite a bit even with all that noise if located in the right community and with the right features (such as plenty of square footage and a recent build).

This is a reminder that perhaps the best lesson to take from all of this is for leaders and planners to do these sorts of things earlier rather than later to save money. If the plan is always to add lanes – which probably just encourages traffic rather than relieving congestion – then do it earlier. These more recent homes might never have been built and communities could plan earlier for such major changes to residential areas.

One truck accident can impact a large area

Traffic patterns in a metropolitan region can be disrupted by what happens to just one vehicle. See this Washington, D.C. example involving a tanker truck:

A tanker truck overturned on the Inner Loop on the American Legion Bridge Thursday afternoon, closing the road and snarling traffic all over the D.C. area for hours.

Complicating the situation: That truck is loaded with 8,500 gallons of fuel, requiring a cleanup that will continue into the night. As of 8:45 p.m., about a quarter of the gasoline had been offloaded…

WTOP Traffic reporter Bob Marbourg stressed how tough it is to predict when lanes will reopen….

The accident occurred around 1:50 p.m., according to Corinne Geller of the Virginia State Police. Another vehicle struck the tanker as it overturned.

The same trucks that are essential to societal functioning can cause big problems. It sounds like there were some special circumstances in this case: the particular cargo of this truck – a flammable liquid – plus the location of the accident on a bridge within a region with a major river flowing through it with the accident occurring before evening rush hour. Change some of these variables – a less problematic cargo or a different location or an accident at 9 PM – and the problem would be less.

At the same time, it may be depressing for drivers that just one accident could cause such a ripple effect. Traffic flow throughout a vast region can be a complex enterprise with hundreds of thousands of vehicles of different kinds traveling on different kinds of roads. Accidents are bound to occur as are other possible events that could impede traffic flow (construction, police activity, weather, etc.). With so many moving parts, it may not take all that much for traffic to slow down and then that delay to ripple through time and geography.

Are there ways to build more resilient road systems? What could be done to prevent such occurrences? Having multiple road options could help though duplicating highway destinations can be difficult. Limiting what kinds of vehicles are on certain roads could cut down on more rare accidents (like this one). Having response teams that can quickly respond to and clear accidents helps. Autonomous vehicles might be an answer in the long run. Thinking more broadly, relying more on transportation options like trains that move more people at a time could the stress on roads.

All of this may not be terribly relevant to the driver sitting in traffic because of this truck crash. Yet, thinking about how to minimize such incidents in the future could have large payoffs in terms of recovered time and energy.

 

Pass through “Viadoom” for a better Seattle waterfront

A number of projects are underway at Seattle’s waterfront and while they are all intended to help the city in the long run, they may lead to short-term transportation issues:

The Washington State Department of Transportation will demolish the viaduct, freeing up 26 blocks of urban land. It will be replaced with a street-level boulevard and 20 acres of waterfront public space designed by James Corner Field Operations. Soon, Highway 99 will traverse Seattle below ground in a long-delayed bi-level tunnel dug by the world’s longest boring machine after a prolonged political fight pitting governor against mayor that made Seattle the laggard in a trio of major urban highway teardowns, alongside Boston’s Big Dig and San Francisco’s Embarcadero.

But this transformation stands to be a painful one. The highway closure kicks off a two-year stretch that City Hall calls the Period of Maximum Constraint and everyone else calls the Seattle Squeeze. The viaduct’s 90,000 cars are losing their north-south waterfront right of way. There’s mass-transit help on the way, in the form of Seattle’s massive light rail expansion, which is set to open a key northern extension in 2021. In between, downtown commuters and residents will contend with a ferry terminal rebuild, a convention center expansion, 600 daily buses moving from the downtown transit tunnel onto surface streets, a streetcar missing link on hiatus, and street closures related to the construction of the city’s second-tallest building.

The first three weeks of the Squeeze—known, somewhat apocalyptically, as Viadoom—are expected to be the worst, until the new State Route 99 tunnel opens on February 4. In anticipation of V-Day, local TV news has been running countdown clocks, and city officials are urging anyone who can to work from home, switch up hours, or take time off. Further amping up the state-of-emergency vibe, Mayor Jenny Durkan hired Mike Worden, a retired Air Force major general, to oversee the city’s response to the Squeeze. (His office did not return a request for an interview.)…

As with marquee waterfront-highway removals in Boston and San Francisco, the hope is that the viaduct’s demise can give downtown a waterfront worthy of Seattle’s setting. The design for the redeveloped space, by James Corner Field Operations, aims to string together several of the city’s major attractions, though some of the bells-and-whistles in the competition-winning design, like a swimming-pool barge and a downtown pocket beach, have been toned down.

It sounds like this will be a win for the city in the long-run. A few years ago, I was some of the locations mentioned in the article and I could see how these changes would benefit both residents and visitors.

At the same time, I could imagine many residents would want to know why this all seems to be happening at once. This is a complaint I have heard regularly in the Chicago area: why is there construction on multiple major roads at the same time that then makes it very hard to find alternatives? People can get the idea about the long-term benefits and still experience frustration at the day to day difficulties these projects pose.

Additionally, what are the odds that all the projects finish on time and on budget? Major infrastructure projects in American cities can end up with significantly larger price tags and seem to last forever as circumstances (and budgets) change. Again, these projects often need to happen but residents may perceive that officials and those involved in the construction do not care much for their time or pocketbooks.

Of course, an easy solution to all of this is to simply pursue these projects far before they become such boondoggles. That, however, is far easier said than done.

Comparing 4 years to finish rebuilding a major interchange to other major undertakings

After the Illinois Department of Transportation recently announced construction on the Jane Byrne will take four more years, the Chicago Tribune compared this time frame to other tasks:

Two world wars were fought and won in less time. Rows of skyscrapers went up in less time. The transformation of Navy Pier, less time. New Comiskey Park, less time. Dan Ryan reconstruction, less time. Millennium Park, less time. The Deep Tunnel Project — oh, wait. That engineering feat began in the mid-1970s and isn’t expected to be completed until 2029. Somebody, go pick on them…

Still, four years is a long delay. Especially for a network so central to Chicago. We’ll never understand why IDOT didn’t order more intense work or bigger crews around the clock and on weekends. Let’s just say that if Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker shares Emanuel’s devotion to penalties and accountability, he’ll make new friends by the thousands.

Is this part of a larger trend of major infrastructure projects today running over schedule and over budget? There are hints yet people are unlikely to hear much about or celebrate projects that are completed on time and near budget.

Comparing the completion time to other projects may not be fair. Some of these sites were closed or not in use when the construction happened. Some happened with some private money at play. Others had more space to work with. Doing the work when the state and other taxing bodies had more money (or were less worried about debt) could help. And World Wars have their own logic compared to construction projects. (That said, I am still amazed how much the United States was able to mobilize and produce in a roughly 5 year span during World War II. Such devotion to the war mission led to unbelievable change.)

Would it simply be better for the Chicago region to accept a Carmageddon week where the interchange is closed and all the possible crews are brought in for 24 hour shifts for that time to rush work forward? Find a week with less traffic, probably a summer week, and give drivers plenty of notice about other options (ranging from mass transit to alternative highways, such as I-294, that can route traffic around the center of the city). Suffer short-term pain, make some serious progress, and show that efforts are underway to reduce the long-term burden of the interchange construction.

When more technology leads to more traffic

Americans tend to assume technology will solve social problems but what if its use in vehicles leads to more traffic?

As Greater Boston creates more jobs and attracts more residents, car commutes have slowed to an excruciating pace. But while economists love congestion pricing — i.e., making people pay for the street space they use and the damage their cars inflict on the environment — it rankles Americans who’ve been raised to view driving alone as a human right. And in cities around the country, the advent of fully driverless cars, which could be many years away, has become an excuse for not building high-capacity transit networks. Autonomous vehicles, The New York Times reported this summer, became a major talking point in anti-transit campaigns in Indianapolis, Detroit, and Nashville.

Meanwhile, big names in the tech industry are portraying public transit as obsolete or worse. “It’s a pain in the ass. That’s why everyone doesn’t like it,” Tesla’s Elon Musk told a crowd last year, per an account in Wired. “And there’s, like, a bunch of random strangers, one of whom might be a serial killer. OK, great. And that’s why people like individualized transport that goes where you want when you want.”…

What autonomous vehicles won’t do is make traffic jams disappear. Someday, a driverless car could drop you off at work at 9 a.m. But what if, instead of parking itself in a private garage — which would cost money — it just circles the block until it picks you up at 5 p.m., because we refuse to charge motorists for the use of most streets?…

That’s all the more reason why Greater Boston can’t sit around waiting to see whether and how driverless cars will evolve. We’ll never squeeze enough cars into crowded spaces to get people where they need to go. In the end, no artificial-intelligence algorithm can change the laws of physics. Plan accordingly.

Adding more vehicles to the road leads to more traffic, even if it is easier to obtain those vehicles or the vehicles can drive themselves.

While this article calls for a long-term look at whether cities like Boston should prioritize mass transit or vehicles (and then act accordingly through means like congestion pricing or spending more money on mass transit), this is part of a bigger conversation: what if Americans will do whatever possible to keep up their ability to drive/ride in cars from their single-family homes to where they want to go? Even putting more money in mass transit can only do so much if density does not increase. And in a city like Boston that is already pretty dense, that could lead to some tough conversations about more affordable housing closer to jobs rather than relying on transportation to even out differences in where people live.