Traffic: It’s Not a Problem

I started to think that traffic should be added to the list of the unavoidable and un-enjoyable along with death and taxes.  Based upon my recent discovery that there is nothing that can ever be done to win the war on traffic. The discovery for me started with the denial phase after reading “More Roads = More Traffic” from daily.sightline.org.  The article was short and basically said that if you build more roads or lanes they will return to an equal level of congested after a brief period of relief, which seemed reasonable to me.  However the statement that “public transportation has virtually no effect on traffic volumes” is what I did not want to believe to be true.  Because if this were true then that would mean that we are doomed to ever increasing gridlock and durations listening to talk radio.  There were no facts presented in the Sightline Daily post because it was just a synopsis of the study “The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from US cities” by Duranton and Turner from the University of Toronto Department of Economics, so of course I had to read the study to make sure that it was wrong.

I found the study to be like most pure academic papers unbiased, opinion free and mostly a presentation of the methodology.  The information was presented for the reader to do what they choose with the results.  Before reaching the end of the study I picked up and held on to the note “these data do not allow us to investigate other forms of public transportation, such as light rail, independently of buses”, because this way I would not have to give up the hope that public transportation could fix traffic.  I could concede pretty easily that buses would not fix traffic, because in my mind if buses can get stuck in traffic of course they cannot fix traffic. But light rail, the great traffic proof frequent stopping train, could still potentially fix traffic if we add more of it.

Then I suddenly realized that fixing traffic should not be the point or the goal.  For example even if light rail does not fix traffic it does not mean that light rail would not be serving a successful purpose.  Trying to directly fix traffic is a futile endeavor, which the study makes quite clear. Traffic is just a result or consequence of other societal choices and behaviors. The still currently predominant societal choices and behaviors that fuel the demand for highway car and truck travel are what need to be fixed.  I am not going to go on further about the choices or behaviors, which fall into broad categories like sprawl, cheap fixes and lazy shortsighted convenience. Most people reading this will already be aware of these type of statements and maybe even agree that societal choices and behaviors need to be changed because we are not currently setup for sustainability across many fronts.  The thing that bothers me is that I already knew or believed this stuff, but for some reason I still had a disconnect in thinking of traffic as a problem that needed to be directly addressed.  Perhaps it was a lingering bit of wishful self-centered ignorance that I could one day drive a car through Seattle at any time of day going the speed limit.  I hope I don’t have too much more lingering ignorance, but the more I learn the more I find.

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