The dominance of parking has devastated once-vibrant downtowns by turning large areas into uninviting paved spaces that contribute to urban heating and stormwater runoff. It has driven up housing costs, since developers pass on the cost of providing parking to tenants and homebuyers. And it has perpetuated people’s reliance on driving by making walking, biking and public transit far less attractive, even for the shortest trips. Why, then, does the U.S. have so much of it?
As cities grow and traffic increases, road capacity investments offer diminishing returns and even make traffic worse, according to a recent international study. Looking at 24 cities across the globe, researchers found that for every one-percent increase in road capacity, average traffic speeds drop 0.014 percent. Public transportation doesn’t suffer the same consequences.
Conventional thinking holds that congestion stifles the economy. Sitting in traffic or having it take longer to get someplace important would seem to be a drain on productivity. On the contrary, a group of Texas researchers looking at travel survey data from the Puget Sound area of Washington State found that travelers exposed to traffic congestion and travel delay will simply find a means of getting from point A to point B that doesn’t rely on driving. Their novel approach incorporates data on whether people choose to live in places that support their preferred travel options or way of life, addressing the question of residential self-selection.
Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the U.S. totaled 3.17 trillion last year, according to preliminary estimates from FHWA. That is a one percent increase from 2021 and a nine percent increase from 2020—the height of the pandemic—but still nearly three percent lower than VMT in 2019. After accounting for population growth, the average American drove four percent less in 2022 than in 2019 and six percent less than the highest point in 2004.
High-income travelers pay the bulk of congestion pricing fees, according to a new UK study. Others tend to change their travel behavior and would benefit from better travel options.
In California, during the stay-at-home period of COVID-19, people drove less and the total number of crashes went down; but the frequency of fatal crashes increased due to drivers driving faster on open roads. New research leverages pandemic-era speed, volume, and crash data in that state to show that in an urban setting adding lanes to relieve congestion and decrease the number of fender benders can make room for risky behavior and higher speeds that increase the severity of crashes.
Congestion pricing seeks to better manage the capacity of urban highways by shifting some travel away from peak periods in order to improve traffic flow. For drivers who are low-income, have no alternative but to drive at peak times, and would be financially burdened by paying tolls, this has the potential to be regressive and inequitable. However, a new report from the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA suggests that the establishment of congestion pricing affords an opportunity to design the system from the ground up in an equitable way. The authors state that, “Congestion pricing can be introduced with a mechanism in place to protect the most vulnerable drivers.”
Induced demand. It’s a concept that used to be popular only among the wonkiest transportation experts, and now gets covered by outlets ranging from the Washington Post to the Wall Street Journal. Governing calls it “the almost universally accepted concept” that almost no one understands, while Strong Towns calls ignorance of the concept “professional malpractice.” With new tools and a better understanding emerging, some transportation agencies are now beginning to wrestle with the implications.
Transportation agencies historically have sought to cut congestion by adding capacity. Alternatively, modest pricing signals could be more cost effective and efficient at managing demand, saving public agencies much more in the long run.
A new ENO report on congestion pricing and recent webinar suggests that having a clear purpose and vision in place before implementation is the key to success. In addition, revenue as a goal and sent to general funds is largely unsustainable; equity goals and community leadership will help with implementation road pricing has been shown to control congestion, and the main barriers at this point are political and poor communication.