Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A New Congestion Paradigm in LA

I don't get why we continue to focus on congestion in cities as something we need to "fix".  Repeatedly we focus on congestion as if when it were solved our problems would be over.  But congestion is the sign of a successful city, and curing it as Detroit has doesn't seem to be the right answer either. 

But that doesn't really matter if we have created a better system of mobility and access.  Back in 2011 CNU was in Madison and Joe Cortright was having a discussion with Tim Lomax of TTI about their mobility report which measures hours of delay.  Confused by how they measured delay and thinking about my own situation, I noted out loud that I didn't count.  I never saw any of the congestion on the roads because as a BART rider, I wasn't a part of it...yet we had one of the WORST ratings.  It's because we as a society are often only talking about congestion on roads, and I wasn't on the road, but I had more reliable access to my job than anyone on the road.

This is partially why "congestion" in its current use is bad metric for deciding transportation investment.  We don't account for moving people around more efficiently, just cars.  And there are a lot of people that don't seem to count.

But this new plan being discussed in Los Angeles is going to show the benefits to thinking about mobility in a different way.  The old way of "congestion" would increase according to the environmental report.  The Level of Service Standard that has been used for environmental reporting would increase intersections receiving an E or F congestion score from 18% to 36% under this plan that includes increasing dedicated lanes for buses and bikes.  

In most places this is a red alert to widen the roads and speed up the cars. But under the newer more mobility focused measure of average vehicle miles traveled the plan would increase VMT to 35 million miles per day instead of 38 million which would come if the plan were not implemented.   

3 million miles per day means a lot when we're talking about emissions and mobility, showing that just because a few more interesections are more congested, providing mobility for more people has great benefits.

Of course the opposition still lives in the old paradigm and is upset. Richard Katz, a former member of the MTA board still worries about "congestion". 
"Taking away lanes, which creates congestion, to try and force people to choose a different method of transportation other than the car, is a horrible way to solve a congestion problem," he said. "Why? It creates more congestion … and people don't respond well to being forced to do things."
I would argue that we're forced to drive cars.  Our system should give us opportunities that don't involve driving.  But we know how that works in most places.  LA doesn't have more room to expand the roads, so there has to be another way.

Others are also upset at not being able to focus on congestion anymore.
"Cars are just going to sit there," said Don Parker, a board member with Fix the City, an advocacy group fighting the plan. "So labeling it a mobility plan is just not reflective of what the plan actually does."
Of course what he doesn't mention is that if cars just sit there, it's less likely they can hurt people in collisions at high speed.  Or that they aren't creating greenhouse gasses.  Or that people are finding more sustainable means of mobility.

While we don't know where the plan will eventually end up, this is an exciting move that we'll hopefully start to see in other cities over time.  Thinking less about "congestion" which we've been trying hard to fix since we started building freeways over 60 years ago will benefit everyone more.  Instead, let's think of how we can get the most people to the places they want to go.  Car optional.

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