Saturday, April 28, 2018

Congestion Relief Task Force already Skews to a Preferred Outcome

Earlier this week the Congestion Relief Task Force met and if there was one image that encapsulated its perspective and its peril, the graph of traffic counts on the bridges is a strong candidate.

Terrible increases!!!
A reader already commented on the selection of end-points to make a case for a tremendous growth in traffic. The consultant team says that traffic "has increased 12% from 2011 to 2016, or an average of 2.3% per year."

Well, that's true enough. But is it just a kind of data-hacking to find the most convenient set of facts that supports a preferred outcome? Is there a different observation that is actually more meaningful?

But how should we interpret the data? What end-points to use?
Traffic engineering operates on this model with an assumption that car traffic is always and everywhere increasing.

It's seemingly the natural order of things and we must accommodate it.

The difference between ODOT's 2005 projections
and the new FHWA 2014 projections
But we saw just a couple of years ago that even the Federal government was changing the way they thought about traffic counts and traffic modeling. They were dialing back projections from assuming a 2% annual increase to a 1% annual increase.

The slide that the Congestion Relief Task Force was shown implies that we are back to 2% annual increase. "Whew! Everything is back to normal. We don't have to change a thing."

The story the Congestion Relief Task Force is getting is a reversion to the mid-century autoist model. It's old-school and business as usual.

But there are other ways to think about traffic.

The recent increase in VMT correlates strongly with gas price
via the Federal Reserve
One that has seemed very important is the way that the increase in traffic counts and miles traveled correlates strongly with cheap gas. Between 2014-2015 as gas went from $4 to $2 we saw a great increase in driving. It is unlikely that this increase in bridge traffic is "natural." (Our traffic models are insufficiently sensitive to changes in gas price - and energy inputs more generally.)

In Oregon driving correlates strongly with death
Another correlation the Task Force should see is the correlation with death. The annual count of traffic deaths tracks closely with the amount of driving we do. If we want less death and serious injury, we should work for less driving and slower driving. (Our traffic modeling should talk more about death and serious injury as well as the hospital and lifetime costs they imply.)

For each person who dies, eight are hospitalized
and 100 go to the ER (from the CDC, more here)
Less driving and slower driving is not consistent with the Congestion Relief Task Force charge to "improve traffic flow," however.

It's important that the Task Force understand that the more free-flowing traffic they work to create, the more drive-alone trips they induce, the more death and serious injury it all will entail. The choice for faster speeds and more flowing traffic is a choice for more death. The moral dimension of this choice is not appreciated sufficiently.

The choice is already being made silently, and less driving and slower driving are already essentially ruled out.

The evaluation criteria already puts safety as a "secondary" matter. It's all about the primary aim of "improving traffic flow" for people making drive-alone trips. (Even making explicit that "traffic" here means "drive-alone trips" and not other kinds of trips and other kinds of vehicles would be helpful.)

The slide on survey respondents echoes this.

It's all about "car, truck, or motorcycle"
Nobody takes the bus! Therefore we don't have to see improving bus service as a huge opportunity. Or improving things for people who walk and bike. Or doing anything other than speeding free-flow drive-alone trips.

So it's not surprising that the lead "solution ideas" are all road widening and "improved operations" for drive-alone trips. Improved operations for people on foot don't count, and in fact one of the ideas is "increase pedestrian delays" to make longer waits for those traveling on foot. But improved operations for whom? The conversation and analysis implies this, but we should make it explicit always. We propose to do things here for drive-alone trips.

The first slide is all about widening

Making things worse for people on foot and on bike
is "Improvement"!
One of the most important ideas is buried - because it's unpopular.

We should talk more about pricing and pricing signals
Over at City Observatory, Joe Cortright writes about parallels between the lines for free ice cream and congestion on free roads.

via Twitter
We have seen the foundational, fully peer-reviewed paper, "The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion," which concludes that new road capacity won't solve congestion, and that the best tool is decongestion pricing. (So there you go: a high-level academic study, and a folksy parable about free ice cream - they say the same thing!)

The New York Times just published an opinion piece, "Cars are Ruining our Cities" that talks about decongestion pricing.

Additionally, in Council testimony last Monday and supporting a goal in the RTSP to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Bob Cortright notes
  • Oregon has had an adopted GHG reduction goal since 2007. ORS 468A.205 calls for state to reduce GHG emissions to 75% below 1990 levels by the yar 2050.
  • SB 1059, adopted in 2010, and now codified as ORS 184.899, requires local "consider how regional transportation plans could be altered to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."
  • Planning for GHG reduction can help address outstanding compliance issues with the DLDC. The city is behind schedule in meeting requirements to plan for expanded transportation options in compliance with the Transportation Planning Rule...Additional work to reduce GHG reduction can help the city meet these obligations.
The Task Force is not "decreasing reliance on the SOV"
All our policy goals right now converge on the wisdom of driving fewer miles and driving less often. None of our policy goals say "we need to drive more."

So why is the Congestion Relief Task Force already being steered and is skewing towards driving more and a range of outcomes to support this?

1 comment:

Susann Kaltwasser said...

I have been trying to follow this Task Force by looking at what is put on the City web page. However, there are no minutes (something that I complained about, but got no answer) so it is not possible to tell if anyone from the community is attending. Does anyone know if people have come forward to comment?

I have been talking with a member of the Task Force and it seems there are things happening and begin discussed that are not included in the documents.

The audio tapes are not available either. I am about ready to complain that this violates the Oregon Open Meeting Laws in a more formal way.

This is such an important ( and hotly discussed) issue that it bothers me that we are not seeing any informational press releases or open houses, yet they anticipate being done in June.

June is just a bad time to engage the public too. Everyone is in vacation mode. Several neighborhood associations don't even meet in July or August.

Thank you for raising this topic up for some discussion.