Zoning trade-off: privacy vs. adverse effects

The conclusion of Sonia Hirt’s book Zoned in the USA sums up the advantages and disadvantages of a zoning system that privileges the single-family home:

Arguably, zoning – the kind of zoning that makes explicitly private space the formative compositional element of America’s settlements – does deliver the gift of privacy to American families. But put all the other arguments mentioned in the previous paragraphs together, and one begins to wonder whether the original promises of zoning were either highly suspect from the beginning or have since been turned on their heads. Paradoxically (from the viewpoint of zoning’s founders), we may not have more pollution and worse public health with our current zoning that we would have if we had modified our land-use laws more substantially over the last hundred years.

As Hirt discusses, residents can have their own private homes – the largest new single-family homes in the world – but that comes at a cost of traffic and commuting, worse pollution and using more land, and worse health as well as some unrealized dreams of zoning including reduced crime. Some would argue that the privacy is overrated as well: compared to many other countries, Americans have given up on public life.

While it is easier to imagine mixed uses in dense urban neighborhoods – imagine Jane Jacobs’ vision of a bustling mixed use New York neighborhood – it is harder to imagine mixed use or zoning throughout the vast expanses of American suburbs. Even New Urbanists have tended to design neighborhoods or shopping centers dropped into suburban settings rather than the whole fabric of suburban communities. From the beginning of American suburbs, there was the idea that the urban dweller was escaping to a cottage in nature. The home out there offered refuge from people, dirt, and bustle. Today, this legacy lives on when suburban residents oppose certain land uses near their homes for fear of a lower quality of life and subsequently reduced property values.

Ultimately, would the American suburbs even exist without the fundamental desire for privacy?

Atlanta bridge collapses, traffic isn’t that bad

Urban highways are often very busy but when they are completely out of commission, it doesn’t necessarily lead to horrific traffic:

You’ll forgive our excessively clinical attitude about this damage—and it’s going to cost tens of millions to fix—but what we have here is a classic “natural experiment” of the kind economists and students of public policy relish. So what happens when we take a major urban freeway out of service for a couple of months? Are Atlanta commuters in for hours of gridlock every day and grisly commutes? Will the region’s economy grind to a halt as a result? We’ll be watching over the next several months to see.

So far, the results are consistent with what we’ve seen in Los Angeles and Minneapolis. Monday morning came, and something funny happened: traffic wasn’t so bad

So what’s going on here? Arguably, our mental model of traffic is just wrong. We tend to think of traffic volumes, and trip-making generally as inexorable forces of nature. The diurnal flow of 250,000 vehicles a day on an urban freeway like I-85 is just as regular and predictable as the tides. What this misses is that there’s a deep behavioral basis to travel. Human beings will shift their behavior in response to changing circumstances. If road capacity is impaired, many people can decide not to travel, change when they travel, change where they travel, or even change their mode of travel. The fact that Carmageddon almost never comes is powerful evidence of induced demand: people travel on roadways because the capacity is available for their trips, and when the capacity goes away, so does much of the trip making.

If Atlanta can survive for a month or two without a major chunk of its freeway, that’s a powerful indication that more modest steps to alter road capacity don’t really mean the end of the world. If we recognize that traffic will tend to adjust to available capacity, we then end up taking a different view of how to balance transportation against other objectives. For example, this ought to be a signal that road diets, which have been shown to greatly improve safety and encourage walking and cycling, don’t have anything approaching the kinds of adverse effects on travel that highway engineers usually predict.

I do think that this suggests drivers will adjust their behaviors based on what roads are available. At the same time, there is probably a tipping point where reducing too much traffic capacity would make a big difference. This might be especially true in car-driven places like Atlanta and Los Angeles that are known for sprawl. Presumably, places where traffic capacity could be picked up by other transportation options (such as closing the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco where driving is already a hassle and other options include BART, Muni, etc.) would fare better. Or, perhaps road capacity has to be reduced gradually so that people have time to adjust and make new choices about travel and where they live and work.

See earlier posts about what happened with Carmageddon I and Carmageddon II in Los Angeles

Better software to reduce traffic

Adaptive traffic software has helped reduce congestion in Ann Arbor:

Ann Arbor’s adaptive traffic signal control system has been playing god for more than a decade, but fiddling engineers continue to tweak its inputs and algorithms. Now it reduces weekday travel times on affected corridors by 12 percent, and weekend travel time by 21 percent. A trip along one busy corridor that took under three minutes just 15 percent of the time in 2005 now comes in under that mark 70 percent of the time. That’s enough to convince Ann Arbor’s traffic engineers, who just announced they’ll extend this system to all its downtown traffic lights and its most trafficked corridors.

To combat congestion, each hopped-up signal uses pavement-embedded sensors or cameras to spot cars waiting at red lights. The signals send that information via fiber network to the Big Computer back at traffic management base, which compiles the data.

This stuff works on a macro and micro level: If there are four cars lined up to go one way through an intersection, and zero cars lined up to move perpendicular to them, the light might turn green for the four. But a network of connected lights—like in Ann Arbor—will analyze the entire grid, and figure out who to prioritize to get the most people to their destinations the fastest. Advanced traffic control systems can even predict delays and congestion build-up before they happen, based on the ebb and flow of commutes…

The system knows when to lay off the change. “People kind of freak out if the signal is really different from yesterday or different from what it was five years ago,” says Richard Wallace, who directs the Center for Automotive Research’s transportation systems analysis group. For the most part, the system looks to tweak light patterns, not reshape the whole shebang from one hour to the next.

As we wait for the complete takeover by driverless cars, this could help ease our troubles. Small but consistent improvements like this could make a big difference to many commuters. Of course, it could also have the effect of encouraging more drivers who see that the commute is not so bad. Perhaps this is why the lights should be somewhat haphazard; it might unnerve a few of those drivers.

I assume there are some costs associated with putting in sensors and cameras as well as in developing the software and having employees to set up and run the system. How do these costs compare to the money saved in shorter driving trips? Or, what if this money had been put into opportunities like mass transit that would remove drivers from the roads?

Will he or won’t he tunnel under Los Angeles?

Few tunnels get as much public attention as just the idea Elon Musk has to tunnel under Los Angeles to avoid traffic:

After being stuck in heavy traffic in December, the billionaire came up with a plan to create a giant tunnel under Los Angeles to ease congestion.

‘Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging…’, he tweeted…

Excavators working for the entrepreneur have already dug a test trench at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Los Angeles, Wired reported last week…

‘If you think of tunnels going 10, 20, 30 layers deep (or more), it is obvious that going 3D down will encompass the needs of any city’s transport of arbitrary size,’ he told Wired last week in a Twitter direct message.

I have a hard time envisioning how this could become useful for the general public. Musk would have to figure out something pretty spectacular to get the cost and time down. Or, one tunnel could open but it would be prohibitively expensive to use.

And isn’t there also an issue of freeing up land for entrances and exits from these deep tunnels? (Los Angeles might be a bit different if the tunnels are primarily for going through mountain passes.)

Could bad traffic in Manhattan lead to fewer cars on the road?

One way to reduce traffic might be to make it so unpleasant that people stop driving so much:

City officials have intentionally ground Midtown to a halt with the hidden purpose of making drivers so miserable that they leave their cars at home and turn to mass transit or bicycles, high-level sources told The Post.

Today’s gridlock is the result of an effort by the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations over more than a decade of redesigning streets and ramping up police efforts, the sources said…

The goal of the jammed traffic is to shift as many drivers as possible to public transit or bicycles.

An added benefit was supposed to be safer streets, but city officials have said that while 45,000 fewer cars and trucks now come into Midtown daily than in 2010, pedestrian deaths are on the uptick this year.

The city denies such efforts with the mayor’s spokesperson saying, “The notion that we want or are somehow ‘engineering’ traffic congestion is absurd.” But, there is little argument that the city has tried now for over a decade to introduce additional transit options beyond people driving cars.

The real question we should ask is whether such efforts can reduce congestion. Even though the public may not like it or believe it, there is some evidence from road diets and closing highways (in places like San Francisco or Seoul) that traffic is not static: limiting roads can affect the choices people make regarding how to get around. In other words, build more highway lanes and more people will drive.

Perhaps Manhattan itself is simply too crowded for the transportation options Americans currently have. Even the sidewalks are supposedly overrun. Could this be remedied with a new, innovative regional transit plan that would work on ways to get people in and out of Manhattan more efficiently? Would affordable housing help so fewer people have to make long commutes to Manhattan?

Successful: reversing highway lanes to evacuate people ahead of a hurricane

As Hurricane Matthew approached, officials used all the lanes of highways:

Across swaths of Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina, half the highway lanes have reversed. Traffic engineers call this “contraflow,” the volte-face of normal traffic. Now, on both sides of these roads, vehicles only run one way—away from Hurricane Matthew

To select the exit routes months or even years before hurricane season, transportation planners turn to flood maps and atmospheric modeling. They predict hazards: wind, storm surge, freshwater flooding. They rely on traffic counts and experience to predict if and when residents will decide to finally leave their homes, and how…

The planners build computer simulations of their predictions, and tinker with the variables—down to specific intersections’ traffic signals—to speed up the process. With a few days notice, some regions choose to evacuate in waves, asking those living at low elevations to depart hours or even days before inland residents.

Rural regions often direct their residents toward one major highway, physically blocking off smaller roads. This undoubtedly results in jams, but some officials would rather have their populations—with their attendant gas, medical, and food needs—bunched together than spread throughout the hinterlands. Metropolitan areas are more likely to shut down an entire stretch of interstate, forcing cars onto side roads until they converge on bumper-to-bumper congestion miles from a flood zone.

It makes sense to use all available lanes going away from the hurricane, especially toward the end when few people would want to go the other direction. I would still be intrigued to see how many police such an effort requires and how drivers navigate on and off ramps going the opposite direction than normal. Even with all the lanes open one way, I imagine the traffic is not moving too fast.

If I remember correctly, reversing the lanes of highways was also on the table during the Cold War to quickly evacuate a major city. You can read a current-day guide to preparing for a nuclear blast here – there is no mention of highways. However, it does suggest more scenarios when people might be asked to evacuate:

Evacuations are more common than many people realize. Fires and floods cause evacuations most frequently across the U.S. and almost every year, people along coastlines evacuate as hurricanes approach. In addition, hundreds of times a year, transportation and industrial accidents release harmful substances, forcing many people to leave their homes.

While people may not think about evacuations much, I don’t think the highway lane reversals are common at all.

Highway sign fonts and other fixes for American roads

The use of Clearview font on highway signs is ending:

In a notice posted in the Federal Register on Monday, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration announced a small change that has huge implications for the nation. The agency terminated an order it had issued back in 2004 approving the use of a new font in highway signs. Now those signs are going to change. Again…

Clearview was made to improve upon its predecessor, a 1940s font called Highway Gothic, at a time when an aging Baby Boomer generation meant lots of older drivers on the road. Certain letters appeared to pose visibility problems, especially those with tight interstices (or internal spacing)—namely lowercase e, a, and s. At night, any of these reflective letters might appear to be a lowercase o in the glare of headlights…

Officials in Canada and Indonesia have promoted Clearview as a standard. Transport, which was designed for U.K. roads by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert, is the most famous example of a systemic transportation font standard. Clearview evolved as an outside recommendation, a best-practices approach from the private sphere, not as a regulatory shift. In the U.S., Meeker says, institutional interest in better standardization is tepid.“Traffic design is the greatest public manifestation of government on any given day,” Meeker says, “and yet it’s the most dreadful, tired, unresearched, undesigned part of the public interface with government.”

For a country that emphasizes driving, Americans can be oddly disinterested in best practices for road design. Perhaps that love of the freedom that driving offers carries over to thinking about roads: every driver for themselves. Beyond this story about moving away from an easier-to-read font, here are some other ways American roads could be improved:

Road diets – limiting or taking away lanes – would actually help limit traffic and can improve safety.

-Encouraging mass transit use (though often difficult) can help reduce congestion.

Zipper merges are more efficient for drivers.

-Paying for road maintenance now may not be thrilling or seem as pressing as other concerns but it can pay off down the road.

Synchronizing traffic signals can reduce congestion and save time.

-Certain road signs, such as those asking drivers to slow down for children, do not necessarily help. In fact, they may be ignored or even distract.