A challenge question for PT readers:
How should we start to limit congestion before it becomes unacceptable?
There’s a real-life experiment unfolding on our streets – one that will fundamentally affect our future – discussed here in “Our Real World Experiment in Traffic Congestion. “
As people switch from transit to cars, it won’t take much to fill up available road space. It may only take a 10-15 percent to reach a level of inefficiency and frustration where we reverse the gains we’ve made in this region, notably with transit, in the last half century. Without response, something has to break, even if we don’t yet know what that level is. Waiting until we get to a breaking point seems kinda stupid knowing how much more difficult it is to reverse something if instead we can limit it before it happens.
Knowing we will have to slow, stop and reverse a move to post-Covid motordom worse than pre-March, what steps should we take now?
I say we should start by treating congestion the way we do the weather: agree on what we will measure and how we will do it continually and consistently. Produce really slick graphics to make it understandable, provide regular reports – especially forecasts – and give names to the ugly stuff.
Engineers and planners know we measure what matters, and they are good at doing it scientifically. But that’s not enough. Every day we have to tell the ongoing story of our changing transportation patterns at this pandemic-shaping time. It’s essential if citizens and leaders are willing to go along with drastic actions – just as we have learned from the way we measure, report and proscribe our response to the virus itself.
Here’s an action plan:
(2) Report on these measures as they’re happening – hourly if not in real time. and provide forecasts as we do with weather, air quality, even Covid-19. Use highway signs, as with variable speed limits, to inform drivers on the road. After all, Google already gives us real-time indicators of congestion.
This is not a substitute for the A-F classification system, based on a false premise that anything less than the posted speed limit is a measure of congestion. This is telling the story of system failure when we depart from the strategies that actually work – notably transit and active transportation design to accommodate growth, not by building more motordom infrastructure that worsens the problem.
Then the most important step:
(3) Set the limits beyond which we do not wish to pass as a social target – the points at which congestion inefficiencies become too much. Sure, “too much” is subjective, but it won’t take long before people can see the relationship between the reported data and their experiences on the road. They then need to know at what rate it is going to get worse, and how unfortunate that would be.
We’re more likely to mobilize and respond as a society when we know the nature of the problem, a measure of its reality, and the choices we need to make in response that have and will work. We’ve already done that, haven’t we, with Covid. Now we need to do it with the problem created by the changes in the way we move.