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Another Tall Tale About Congestion From the Texas Transportation Institute

Crossposted from City Observatory.

Everything is bigger in Texas — which must be why, for the past 30 years, the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) has basically cornered the market for telling whoppers about the supposed toll that traffic congestion takes on the nation’s economy. Today, they’re back with a new report, “The Urban Mobility Scorecard,” which purports to measure congestion and its costs in U.S. cities.

The numbers (and from time to time, the methodology) change, but the story remains the same. Traffic is bad, traffic is costing Americans lots of money, and traffic is getting worse. Here’s the press release: “Traffic Gridlock Sets New Records for Traveler Misery: Action Needed to Reduce Traffic Congestion’s Impact on Drivers, Businesses and Local Economies.”

The trouble with TTI’s work is that, to put it bluntly, it’s simply wrong. For one, their core measure of congestion costs — the “travel time index” — only looks at how fast people can travel, and completely ignores how far they have to go. As a result, it makes sprawling cities with fast roads between far-flung destinations look good, while penalizing more compact cities where people actually spend less time — and money — traveling from place to place. These and other problems, discussed below, mean that the TTI report is not a useful guide to policy.

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FHWA Gleefully Reports That Driving Is Rising Again

Chart: Doug Short

Chart: Doug Short

After flatlining for nearly a decade, the mileage driven by Americans is rising once again. That means more traffic overwhelming city streets, slowing down buses, and spewing pollutants into the air. But to the Federal Highway Administration, it’s a development to report with barely contained glee.

This June, Americans drove 8.7 billion more miles than last June, according to FHWA, a 3.5 percent increase. Total mileage in 2015 is on pace for a new high — finally “beating the previous record” of 1.5 trillion vehicle miles set 2007, the agency reports, as if the further entrenchment of America’s car-dependence is some sort of achievement.

Low gas prices, population growth, and an expanding economy are three factors nudging traffic back onto an upward trajectory, not to mention a transportation policy regime that remains tilted overwhelmingly toward highway construction.

The recent growth in traffic, however, does not negate lasting signs of a long-term shift away from driving. Economist Doug Short gets into more detail about the nuances in the trends, pointing out that on a per-capita basis, Americans are now driving about as much as we did in 1997.

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Why Traffic Congestion Has Rebounded in the CBD

Traffic congestion in the Manhattan core is rebounding. Travel-speed data culled from taxicab GPS and released last month by City transportation and taxi officials suggest that average motor vehicle travel speeds in the Central Business District fell by 8.5 percent from 2012 to 2014. The slowdown follows years of flat or even rising speeds — a phenomenon that predated the 2008 financial collapse and undermined congestion pricing proposals by making car, bus, truck and taxi travel in the heart of the city a little more efficient and predictable.

The speed data were issued during the recent Uber controversy, but they bear on a host of other policy issues including Vision Zero, cycle infrastructure, and bus priority signals and lanes. To inject some rigor into these discussions, I’ve created a special section of my Balanced Transportation Analyzer spreadsheet to approximate various factors’ roles in re-congesting the CBD. My preliminary findings are summarized in the graphic. (Readers interested in a deep dive should download the BTA and navigate to the new tab, CBD Congestion.)

Table of Congestion Causation _ 28 July 2015

Graph: Screen shot from the Balanced Transportation Analyzer

The task is to account for an “adjusted” 10.5 percent drop in CBD travel speeds. That figure tacks 2 percentage points on top of the observed 8.5 percent reduction to reflect the fact that the 20,000 a day decrease in motor vehicle entries from 2012 to 2014 also reported by DOT should have increased CBD travel speeds by 2.0 percent. Here are details:

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Hey Brian Lehrer — Traffic Congestion Is Not a Vision Zero Tactic

This morning on WNYC Brian Lehrer said he didn’t understand why Mayor de Blasio would want to penalize Uber for making traffic congestion worse, since the mayor is “causing congestion purposely” to make streets safer for walking and biking.

The speed limit is not why this is happening. Photo: @BrooklynSpoke

The speed limit is not why this is happening. Photo: @BrooklynSpoke

Here’s an excerpt:

They want to make driving in the city as unpalatable as possible so people switch to mass transit, which is more in the public interest for a host of reasons. And I tend to support that, that’s a good idea. Also the de Blasio administration has made Vision Zero a central policy — something else I support. But again the goal is to make traffic go slower, not to make it easier on cars. They’ve reduced the official speed limit too. And congestion accomplishes the same goal — that is, fewer pedestrian fatalities — by other means. Traffic means less speed, which means more pedestrian safety.

Like a lot of people who weighed in during the Uber debate, Lehrer confuses speed limits and average speeds.

Lowering the maximum speed people are allowed to drive has nothing to do with a grinding crush of cars inching along at a few miles per hour. An easy way to grasp the difference: The citywide speed limit is 25 miles per hour, while last year the average speed in the Manhattan core was 8.51 mph. Congestion is a symptom of too many motorists trying to use scarce street space at the same time, not a tactic to make drivers travel at a safe speed.

Put another way, in the early 1980s motor vehicle traffic was moving at an average speed of 9.8 mph on midtown avenues and 6.4 mph on crosstown streets. Though congestion was about the same as it is now, more than twice as many people were dying in traffic.

Lehrer also said taking cars out of Central Park was de Blasio’s way of creating congestion on the avenues. Instead of propagating tabloid-worthy conspiracy theories, we liked it better when Lehrer was calling for “bike lanes everywhere, separated from traffic.”

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The Real Reason Uber Traffic Matters in NYC

concourse_redesign

Where traffic is worse, the politics of turning a wide, car-centric street into a safe, efficient street are tougher. Rendering by the Street Plans Collaborative and Carly Clark via Transportation Alternatives

For a moment yesterday, it seemed like the big clash between the taxi medallion industry and app-based car services, framed in terms of Uber’s effect on snarled Manhattan traffic, might veer into unexpectedly brilliant territory. There was Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris in the Daily News, telling the MTA that City Hall would consider the Move NY traffic reduction plan to fund transit investment. Finally, a sign that some of the big players are getting serious about a comprehensive fix for the city’s congestion problem.

But the moment didn’t last long, with Governor Cuomo extinguishing the road pricing talk right away. Soon after, Mayor de Blasio beat a sudden retreat from his proposed cap on for-hire vehicle licenses, getting a few concessions from Uber, and now the whole episode will fade from the news cycle, at least for the time being.

The Uber fight was a rare case where transportation issues became front-page news, but the arguments about streets and traffic tended to descend into stupid talking points really fast. Uber NYC General Manager Josh Mohrer was hardly the only person who tried to blame bike lanes and other safety measures for the recent downturn in average Manhattan traffic speeds. Council Member Dan Garodnick, someone who generally gets how streets work and chooses his words carefully, was the first public figure on record to toss around that theory.

When you’re talking about the downsides of congestion, it’s tough to avoid framing the problem like an old-school traffic engineer, placing paramount importance on the movement of cars. Even on Streetsblog, we’ve run plenty of posts talking about the effect of Uber in terms of average traffic speeds. The trouble is that when you focus on how easily people can drive around the city, you create an opening for people to point their finger at anything that might slow down cars — like bike lanes, or a lower speed limit.

You can try to reason with these people and explain the difference between peak speed and average speed, or show the data about bike lane redesigns that had no discernible effect on traffic. And that might win some arguments. But if you want streets where bus riders have swift trips, where people of all ages feel safe walking and biking, you’re going to have to make some changes that — at least for a while, before a new equilibrium sets in — slow down cars.

We need to come at the problem from a different angle. So how about this: Traffic congestion in New York is terrible because it’s an obstacle to designing streets that work best for our city.

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Uber’s Own Numbers Show It’s Making Traffic Worse

Uber blasted out an Excel spreadsheet to reporters this morning, accompanied by a story and editorial in the Daily News, with data providing a snapshot of how many Uber vehicles are on Manhattan streets south of 59th Street, New York’s central business district. While Uber claims the data shows its vehicles aren’t responsible for congestion in the city core, transportation analyst Charles Komanoff has crunched Uber’s own numbers and estimates that the service has actually reduced traffic speeds in the central business district by about 8 percent.

Photo: Wikipedia

Uber’s data dump [XLS] released hourly information on the number of pickups and drivers below 59th Street and in the rest of the city between May 31 and July 19. It used that data to calculate the number of Uber vehicles in the central business district, where half of the company’s trips originate. Between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., there were an average of 1,904 Uber cars on the road below 59th Street.

That seems like a small number at first glance, and Uber highlights that fact by proclaiming it “is not the source of Manhattan congestion.” But the question isn’t whether Uber is the root cause of all congestion — it’s whether Uber is making the current traffic situation worse.

So how do 1,904 for-hire cars circulating the congested Manhattan core actually affect traffic? To answer the question, Streetsblog turned to Komanoff, whose “Balanced Transportation Analyzer” [XLS] models the impact of toll proposals and other changes to city traffic. Uber’s data release provides more detailed information than what was previously available to the public.

The volume of Ubers is similar to the 2,000 yellow taxi medallions the Bloomberg administration proposed to auction off in 2012, which Komanoff calculated would make average traffic speeds 12 percent worse. To understand what happens to Manhattan traffic with 1,900 Ubers in the mix, Komanoff adjusted his model in a couple of key ways to account for the fact that each Uber vehicle likely affects Manhattan traffic less than each yellow cab.

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Uber and Manhattan Gridlock Are Rising Together

How responsible is Uber for the 9 percent drop in Manhattan travel speeds that New York City transportation officials reported last month? The answer appears to be: quite a lot. 

Photo: Wikipedia

If — and it’s a big if — the surge in use of Uber and other app-based car services is not offset by a decline in use of yellow cabs and private autos, then three-quarters of the speed reduction can be laid at the feet of Uber, Lyft, et al. That’s according to my “Balanced Transportation Analyzer” (BTA) traffic model that calculates benefits from toll plans like Move NY, but can also assess the impact of almost any traffic-related change in NYC, especially Manhattan.

The finding about Uber’s traffic impact runs counter to the Daily News’ bald assertion in an editorial last Sunday: “From a traffic perspective, a few thousand new cars in Midtown and downtown (where 72 percent of the app cars make pickups) is a tablespoon in a lake.” 

The News would be right if we were only talking about another two or three thousand private autos joining the three-quarters of a million motor vehicles that are driven daily to or through Manhattan’s Central Business District, which would worsen CBD traffic speeds by a minuscule 0.2 percent, according to the BTA. But as the News itself pointed out, Uber now commands some 19,500 cars in the city, a figure that is growing by up to 2,000 a month. Compounding this, each Uber vehicle racks up five to six times as many CBD miles as one private car.

Even allowing that a third of Uber cars are inactive on a typical day, according to the News, that still means the remaining two-thirds are traveling approximately 190,000 miles daily in Manhattan south of 60th Street. (This assumes the average Uber trip consists of two miles with the passenger and half a mile without.) These miles are enough to add 5.7 percent to the 3,385,000 daily CBD “baseline” miles covered by cars, cabs, trucks and buses.

It would take an awful lot of private cars to gum up CBD traffic to the same extent. Indeed, based on my estimate that a typical auto driven into the Manhattan core covers about 2.7 miles before leaving the area, the extra number required would be 72,000 a day. When that number of additional daily cars is run through the BTA, the result is a projected 6.7 percent slowing of vehicular travel averaged across the entire Central Business District.

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Team de Blasio Makes Its Case for a One-Year “Uber Cap”

The scene at today's transportation committee hearing. Photo: Stephen Miller

The scene at today’s transportation committee hearing. Photo: Stephen Miller

The de Blasio administration made its case for temporarily restricting the growth of licenses for ride-hailing services like Uber at a City Council hearing this morning. With congestion in Manhattan getting worse, City Hall’s plan is to cap the number of new for-hire vehicles on city streets for the next year while it studies the impact of the industry on traffic.

Today, the city splits most car services into two categories: medallion yellow taxis and for-hire vehicles (FHVs), which include green boro taxis, livery services, limousines, and drivers for companies like Uber and Lyft. Each has different rules and regulations.

Yellow cabs, which are the only service subject to a surcharge that helps fund the MTA, are limited by the number of medallions. The number of boro taxis, which are supposed to pick up passengers outside the central areas of the city, is capped by state law. But the city has no mechanism to limit the number of black cars, hence City Hall’s need for legislation introduced in the City Council by Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez and Steve Levin.

Since the advent of Uber and other app-based services, the number of FHVs on city streets has boomed, growing 63 percent since 2011. Nearly three-quarters of trips made by the new FHVs originate in Manhattan south of 60th Street, according to DOT, and the city is worried that these trips are a major factor behind the recent increase in congestion in the center of the city, which in turn may explain why bus ridership is dropping faster in Manhattan than in the outer boroughs.

“This decrease in traffic speeds is happening at the same time that overall traffic into the Manhattan CBD has fallen,” said Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. While traffic in 2014 was 9 percent slower in the Manhattan central business district than it was in 2010, the number of vehicles entering the CBD each day had dropped 6 percent over the same period. The implication: The spike in for-hire cars circulating Manhattan has more than offset the reduction in other vehicles driving into the city center.

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With Congestion Getting Worse, City Wants to Stem Flood of Uber Licenses

The de Blasio administration and the City Council want to slow the growth in new black car licenses over the next year. With companies like Uber adding tens of thousands of black cars to the mix over the past few years, mainly in the most congested parts of Manhattan, the city wants to get a better handle on how the industry is affecting traffic.

Are for-hire vehicles like Uber making Manhattan traffic worse? The city thinks so, and wants to slow down new licenses to study the issue. Photo: Clemens v. Vogelsang/Flickr

Are for-hire vehicles like Uber making Manhattan traffic worse? The city wants to slow down new licenses to study the issue. Photo: Clemens v. Vogelsang/Flickr

“The rate at which new cars are coming on the road is tremendous. I think it’s something we all see traveling around the streets of Manhattan,” Taxi and Limousine Commissioner Meera Joshi said on a conference call this afternoon [PDF].

The for-hire vehicle fleet, which includes Uber and other black cars but not yellow or green taxis, has grown 63 percent since 2011. Over the past year, the city issued 2,000 new for-hire vehicle licenses each month, 64 per day. The surge has swelled the for-hire fleet from 38,000 to 63,000 vehicles since 2011. That’s 25,000 more vehicles in constant circulation.

Joshi said new app-based services have increased overall demand for car travel, with the growth of for-hire trips outpacing a drop in trips by medallion taxis. “The pie has grown,” she said. “The number of people that want to take for-hire vehicles from place A to place B has grown.”

While TLC has collected trip data from the city’s 13,587 yellow taxis for years, it only began collecting less-detailed information on for-hire trips last year. Crunching the new numbers, the city found that the fastest-growing for-hire companies do 72 percent of their business in Manhattan south of 60th Street.

“What happens to congestion in Manhattan when you start adding lots of new vehicles to the fleet, and they do most of their work in Manhattan?” Joshi asked. “It highlighted some of the negative externalities when we have a concentration of traffic in an already-dense area.”

There are early indications that this crop of black cars is making congestion worse. After seeing average speeds on Manhattan streets creep upward in recent years, traffic speeds dropped to 8.51 mph last year, DOT said, a 9 percent decline from 2010. Rush hour MTA buses were also 5 percent slower last year than they were in 2013, DOT said. Manhattan bus ridership has also suffered, dropping 5.8 percent last year.

To get a better handle on the data, the city is proposing to cut down on new for-hire vehicle licenses over the next year while it prepares recommendations to deal with the industry’s growth, including potential long-term restrictions on the number of licenses.

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It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

Broadway, New York, NY. Photo: Clarence Eckerson

Quick thought experiment…

Imagine for a moment that New York City has a toll system where there are no free rides. No reason for drivers to toll shop, clogging up the routes to free bridges. There is, effectively, a uniform fare for every car trip into the incredibly crowded center of town, revenue from which is plowed into the transit system.

Now imagine scrambling the tolls so some crossings are free and others are not, bringing about all this horrible stuff:

  • Massive traffic jams every morning and evening in some of the city’s most densely-populated neighborhoods
  • Heavy trucks barreling through neighborhood streets, killing several people every year, to avoid paying the one-way toll on the Verrazano
  • Severe and immediate slowdowns on dozens of bus lines, with hundreds of thousands of passengers losing time stewing in traffic
  • Transit fares backed by tens of billions of dollars in debt, guaranteeing future fare hikes and constraining the capacity to operate more service
  • Pressure to design streets to handle peak-hour car volumes, to the detriment of safe walking and biking

No governor in his right mind would choose to switch to this completely messed up arrangement.

End of thought experiment, back to reality: It looks like Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature are not going to plug the gap in the MTA capital plan, and by extension, they’re going to condemn New York to at least a few more years of epic traffic dysfunction.