3 traffic myths that just won’t die

Thanks to Smart Cities Council, I can share three traffic myths that just won’t go away, not matter how many times folks read the facts.

1. You can help the problem by building more roads
Just building more roads or running more buses are not traffic solutions by themselves. It’s about supply and demand. When traffic is bad, more people are trying to commute than the infrastructure was designed for. The solution, then, would be to increase the supply, but given limited space and the magnitude of the problem already, if it’s not impossible to do that with roads, it’s close to it.

For example, if people perceive that there’s more room on the road for them, they are more likely to drive. Capacity is certainly a key piece in the overall traffic puzzle, but it’s just a component.  It’s important that cities expand where they can, but it’s equally critical that they also make smarter use of their existing roads and transit systems. Information is also critical. Cities need to use data to determine where their biggest choke points are and concentrate first on removing or reducing those bottlenecks. New technology and creative solutions can also play an important role in getting more mileage out of existing infrastructure.

2. We can’t implement bike lanes because they slow down traffic (and its corollary, wider lanes area safer.)
People think that adding bike lanes to roads slows down the cars, but that’s often a myth. In some cases, adding a bike lane can actually allow cars to travel faster. Case in point: New York made room for bicycle lanes by narrowing some of the lanes for vehicles. There were the same number of lanes for cars; they were just a bit narrower. The result: in some cases, delays for drivers were cut by more than a third.

The project also speaks to a second myth about the safety of wider lanes. It turns out that wider lanes aren’t really safer. They just make drivers feel more comfortable and they try to drive faster.

3. It will take a massive, expensive, time-consuming project to improve traffic
Actually, a small effort can make a big difference. Planners and city managers may reject an idea because it won’t get many cars off the road. Yet you don’t have to change the behavior of many drivers to make an impact.

The relationship between the number of vehicles on the road and the amount of traffic congestion is not linear. It points out that some studies have shown that getting even 1% of the drivers to change their plans can reduce congestion for everyone by as much as 18%.

Ten Tired Traffic Myths

According to City Lab, here are some traffic myths that just refuse to die.

  1. The most enduring popular traffic myth holds that building more roads always leads to less congestion. Instead it causes induced demand so that that building more road eventually (if not always immediately) leads to more traffic, not less.

  2. More transit means less traffic can also be a myth.  Studies have shown that over the long-term, transit doesn’t decrease traffic.  However, transit does offer other benefits better quality of life to more economic might, and transit must still be part of any solution to traffic woes.

  3. One enduring myth holds that converting general road space into a bike lane is bad for traffic. But when bike lanes are well-designed, that’s just not the case. New York City proved as much with bike lanes recently installed on Columbus and Eighth avenues. By reducing the width of car lanes from 12 to 10 feet and adding protected left turns, the city was able to preserve vehicle volume and actually reduce travel times by 35 and 14 percent, respectively.

  4. It is commonly believed that wider lanes are a safer design since they give drivers a bit more room to maneuver. But what some new research published in 2015 showed quite clearly was that wider lanes also invite cars to drive faster—erasing whatever safety benefits might be gained by additional space, and actually leading to more dangerous streets.

  5. On average, drivers change lanes every 1.25 miles. While it might seem like the next lane over on the highway is always moving faster, the truth is that’s usually not the case.

  6. Traffic is not caused by the other guy, that jerk in the sports car car cutting people off or the lady constantly tapping on her brakes. It’s everyone’s inability to hold a steady speed and following distance that causes backups.

  7. You actually don’t need to have a lot of cars leave the roads, as many believe, to affect traffic. Traffic is non-linear so if you remove just 1 percent of commuters off the rush-hour road in especially high-traffic corridors, as some work has shown, you can reduce travel times by 18 percent. (Just think about how light traffic is in August even though only some people are on vacation.)

  8. Removing roads won’t necessarily causes nightmarish traffic. Drivers adapt extremely quickly to changes to the road network—a phenomenon that experts refer to as “disappearing traffic.” Some people shift their routes, travel times, or modes when an existing road closes; others simply decide not to make a trip at all. As the authors of one study put it, “predictions of traffic problems are often unnecessarily alarmist.”

  9. Cheap gas isn’t all good, it turns out. It’s bad for all the hidden social costs of driving, which have been estimated at some $3.3 trillion a year. Of that total, at least $1 trillion represents time lost to congestion both at home and at work.

  10. Gas taxes don’t cover the costs of roads, although most believe they do. In its early days, back in the 1960s, this road user fee did handle the vast majority of maintenance expenses. But since that time its powers have steadily eroded, with Americans now paying some of the lowest gas taxes in the world. We now have a significant infrastructure maintenance crisis with little end in sight.

5 Traffic Myths

The Washington Post wrote about traffic myths on Sunday, and many of the myths have relevance in our beloved Pike District.

The myths are:

1. More roads = less traffic. 

2. Faster roads are more efficient roads. 

3. Changing lanes will get you there faster.

4. Traffic jams can happen for no reason.

5. Memorial Day is an especially dangerous time to travel.

Hope you’re enjoying a marvelous Memorial Day weekend.

Why Narrower Travel Lanes Should be Required

Jeff Speck is one of our nation’s leaders in city planning and urban design. A month or two ago, he wrote the following:

the single best thing we can do for the health, wealth, and integrity of this great nation is to forbid the construction, ever again, of any traffic lane wider than 10 feet.

And, then, he backed this statement up with research, science and engineering.

Ten foot travel lanes frighten many folks – click here to better understand them, and understand why they’re right for White Flint moving forward.  Click here.

Why Not Build More Roads?

The traffic on Rockville Pike is only getting worse.  Just yesterday, BethesdaNow.com reported that our county’s second most congested intersection is where the Pike crosses Nicholson Lane (click here for that piece).

The White Flint Sector Plan includes a multi-pronged approach to improving our traffic, including building an actual street grid to diffuse it and beefing up transit options like Bus Rapid Transit.  But, I’m often asked “why not build more roads?”

The shortest answer to this question is that, aside from roads being incredibly expensive, “if you build it, they will come.”  What do I mean by that?  Wired Magazine has taken an in-depth look at this very concept, called induced demand:

[I]f there’s anything that traffic engineers have discovered in the last few decades it’s that you can’t build your way out of congestion. It’s the roads themselves that cause traffic.

The concept is called induced demand, which is economist-speak for when increasing the supply of something (like roads) makes people want that thing even more. Though some traffic engineers made note of this phenomenon at least as early as the 1960s, it is only in recent years that social scientists have collected enough data to show how this happens pretty much every time we build new roads. These findings imply that the ways we traditionally go about trying to mitigate jams are essentially fruitless, and that we’d all be spending a lot less time in traffic if we could just be a little more rational.

Read the full piece by Adam Mann, which includes more of the “why’s” and “what now’s” by clicking here.

Should Road Safety Be A Community Health Issue?

In recent years, many health professionals and community planners started focusing their attention on the connections between the built environment and health, especially the issue of obesity.

Robert Steuteville, a writer for Better Cities & Towns’ blog, recently discussed a report focused on health and urbanism completed by Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT). Steuteville believes that this report is missing a major issue that we all face everyday that can affect everyone’s health: car crashes. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), vehicle fatalities are the leading cause of death for people ages 5-34. As car fatalities happen more often among younger populations, it makes this issue more serious. We can see that car accidents are affecting our health but as of now, “vehicle crashes are not fully addressed as a community health issue because all Americans have been facing this danger their entire lives.” With the more recent trend in community development of updating or in some cases creating biking and pedestrian infrastructure throughout suburbs and urban areas, the public needs to take a serious look at how they approach road safety, and perhaps start considering it as a community health issue.

Steuteville’s most relevant point in his post for us here in White Flint is the reason for the higher number of car accidents occurring in suburbs versus cities. Suburbs are often seen as safer than cities but when it comes to road safety, that is whole other story. Suburbs often havesprawling and disconnected street networks,” providing more chances for accidents to occur. Residents in the White Flint area can completely understand this point, which is why creating a connected street grid is so essential for the Sector Plan.

Health professionals and community developers focus much of their attention and money on the built environment, since the built environment can help reduce health costs. Roads, streets, and transportation infrastructure can help reduce health costs if they are designed to be productive and safe. This brings us back to the model of complete streets, which works to incorporate both road/traffic safety and issues of health such as obesity. We deserve to have streets we feel safe and secure traveling on whether that be by foot, bicycle, car, or bus. In addition, we should have spaces that encourage physical activity such as walking and bicycling. To have a holistic approach towards redevelopment, both of these issues need to be considered. So yes, road safety is a community health issue and should be treated like one too, just like obesity.