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Tell Cornell — and Electeds — How You Want to Fix NYC Congestion

Want to tell elected officials what you think should be done about New York City traffic? Here’s a way to pool your policy suggestions with other New Yorkers and reach elected officials beyond your district.


Image via SmartParticipation

The Cornell eRulemaking Initiative, or CeRI, hosts a moderated forum called “SmartParticipation,” developed to make it easier for people to weigh in on obscure federal rules. Now researchers want to see if the platform can help shape broader public policy initiatives, and the first issue they decided to tackle is “how to solve NY’s congestion problem.”

The hook is a little off-putting — the experts have had their say, now let’s hear from real New Yorkers! — but the discussion so far is largely on-point. The moderators respond to individual commenters with facts and data, and the site features a good bit of background info, including a Move NY video explainer.

Cornell’s Joshua Brooks told WNBC the comments will be collected in a report and sent “to every lawmaker in New York.” With the window of opportunity still open for Move NY as Governor Cuomo searches for ways to make good on his MTA funding pledge, it wouldn’t hurt for Streetsblog readers to get in a word or two.

You can comment on the site through December 1.

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Planning for Less Driving, Not More, Would Lead to Big Savings


Chart: MassPIRG

What if, instead of basing policy around the presumption that people will drive more every year, transportation agencies started making decisions to reduce the volume of driving? And what if they succeed?

A new report from the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group quantifies what would happen in that state if driving rates come in one percentage point lower than the state DOT’s current annual projections. For instance, in a year that the DOT forecasts 0.49 percent growth in driving, MassPIRG hypothesizes a 0.51 percent decrease. MassPIRG estimates that the statewide effect from now until 2030 would add up to about $20 billion in savings and 23 million metric tons of carbon emissions avoided.

The effects grow as the decline compounds over time. In the first year, a one percentage point change in driving rates would save about $167 million in avoided costs of gas, road repairs, and traffic collisions. By 2030, the savings would rise to $2.3 billion per year.

Broken down by category, the state would save about $1.9 billion on road repairs over the 15-year period. Drivers would net $3.8 billion in savings on car repairs and another $7.7 billion on gas purchases. And auto collisions would cost $6.7 billion less to society, as people avoid medical expenses, property damage, and lost wages.

Read more…

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Why Creating Meaningful Transportation Change Is So Hard

Cross-posted from City Observatory.

At his blog, The Transport Politic, Yonah Freemark pushed back this week on the idea that we’re seeing a revolution in the way people get around cities and suburbs, largely thanks to new transit-and-bike-friendly Millennials.

In fact, he cites one of City Observatory’s posts as an example of a narrative he doesn’t think is quite right: that despite an uptick in driving as a result of dramatically cheaper gas prices, economic and preference-based fundamentals suggest that we are still in the midst of a historic decline in driving after generations of consistently rising car dependence.

Freemark, who also works at Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council, is an excellent commentator on transportation and urban development, and we are all very much on the same page in believing in diverse, inclusive cities whose transportation systems contribute to walkable, integrated, sustainable neighborhoods.

Moreover, the central point of his post is not just correct, but hugely important for all transit advocates and urbanists to understand. As we’ve written, changing preferences are not enough to change transportation behavior, because a person’s behavior heavily depends on their options. Those options, in turn, depend on available transit services and land use patterns.

If the only available public transit is a very slow bus that comes once every 30 minutes—or the only bike route is along a high-speed stroad without a bike lane — it’s likely that even the most car-hating Millennial will get behind the wheel to get to work. Land use is similarly important: if your job isn’t anywhere near a transit station, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll be able to avoid driving, even if you’d really like to. In effect, land use patterns lock in place the mode choice preferences of previous generations and changes in behavior can happen only slowly. We can’t have a transportation revolution without major improvements to transit services and road design, and major reforms to our land use laws.

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The End of Peak Driving?

Cross-posted from City Observatory

A little over a year ago, a gallon of regular gasoline cost $3.70. Since then, that price has plummeted, and remains more than a dollar cheaper than it was through most of 2014.

Over the same period, there’s been a small but noticeable uptick in driving in the US. After nearly a decade of steady declines in vehicle miles traveled per person, car use has suddenly pushed upwards. Average miles traveled per person, which were 25.7 a year ago, have jumped up to 26.4 in July—the first sustained increase in driving in more than a decade.

Some in the highway community have heralded the growth in driving in recent months as a sign that we need to invest much more in road construction.

The increase isn’t very big, however. In historic terms, Americans are now driving at about the same rate as they were in 2000. It would take nearly a decade of growth at the current rate of expansion just to get back to the level of driving of 2004. But there’s little reason to believe anything like that is in the cards.

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Pope Francis and the Flexibility of Our Streets


Add Pope Francis’s tour of New York to the long list of carmageddon scares that successfully frightened off would-be motorists. I grabbed these two shots of traffic from Google Maps, and despite all the alarming car detour icons, you can see that traffic was lighter during peak Francis than it normally is on a New York City weekday.

While the pope’s motorcade was wending through a crowd of 80,000 people in Central Park Friday afternoon, typical pre-weekend traffic bottlenecks were eerily quiet. The approach to the Holland Tunnel, usually a non-stop symphonic blast of car horns at that time of day, looked like this:

Meanwhile, if you were on the Upper West Side that afternoon, you could walk anywhere in the road on your way to see the pontiff, or learn to ride a bike on 72nd Street. There was a de facto bikeway down the middle of 57th Street for much of the pope’s visit, space cleared away for emergency access that people on two wheels gravitated to immediately, happy not to mix it up with 30-foot long flat-bed trailers.

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Without Transit, American Cities Would Take Up 37 Percent More Space

Even if you never set foot on a bus or a train, chances are transit is saving you time and money. The most obvious reason is that transit keeps cars off the road, but the full explanation is both less intuitive and more profound: Transit shrinks distances between destinations, putting everything within closer reach.

A new study published by the Transportation Research Board quantifies the spatial impact of transit in new ways [PDF]. Without transit, the researchers found, American cities would take up 37 percent more space.

Transit-oriented development in Portland's Pearl District. Photo:

Transit-oriented development in Portland’s Pearl District. Photo:

The research team from New York, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City modeled not just how many driving miles are directly averted by people riding transit, but how the availability of transit affects the way we build cities.

By allowing urban areas to be built more compactly, the “land use effect” of transit reduces driving much more than the substitution of car trips with transit trips. Total miles driven in American cities would be 8 percent higher without the land use effect of transit, the researchers concluded, compared to 2 percent higher if you forced everyone who rides transit to drive.

On average, the study found, the land use effect of transit is four times greater than the “ridership effect,” or the substitution of car trips with transit trips. But the land use effect of transit varies a great deal across urban areas. In places like Greenville, South Carolina, it’s responsible for reducing driving 3 percent, the researchers estimate, while in San Francisco and New York City, it’s 18 percent and 19 percent, respectively.

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Why Is There So Much Traffic in NYC? It’s the Free Roads, Stupid

Since the de Blasio administration attempted to cap for-hire cars this summer, the debate over Manhattan traffic has gotten louder, but not more productive. Uber claimed it definitely wasn’t the problem. Some council members wondered if bike lanes were slowing down cars. Amid all the noise, something important got lost.

When roads are free, traffic is clogged. Photo: Kevin Coles/Flickr

When New York streets are free, New York streets are clogged. Photo: Kevin Coles/Flickr

At a hearing about Manhattan traffic this morning convened by Borough President Gale Brewer, a simple consensus emerged: The fundamental issue is the limited amount of street space in the Manhattan core and the practically unlimited demand to use it. Unless New York puts a price on roads, traffic congestion is going to remain intense.

“We can’t unsnarl our streets unless vehicles that take up the space on the street are charged a price. Otherwise, the space that we clear out today — by capping tour buses or Uber cars or 18-wheelers — will be filled tomorrow by other vehicle owners,” said transportation economist Charles Komanoff. “And the price needs to apply to all vehicles… based on the space that they take up. Because space is a finite resource.”

“The least efficient mode of transportation is the single-occupant car,” said “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, who in addition to his Move New York toll reform proposal, backed the elimination of parking placards for most government employees. “There is no reason to be parking for free on the most valuable land possibly on Earth.”

Others proposed more aggressive ideas, like banning personal cars completely. “Private vehicles coming into Manhattan is insanity,” said Steve McLoughlin, an organizer with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 15, a union for black car drivers. “I don’t think that Manhattan can handle much more than the professional drivers, than the trucks that are necessary to supply our businesses, and the first responders.”

McLoughlin, who commutes from Monmouth County each day, backed Move New York toll reform as a step in the right direction for reducing congestion.

Uber also backed Move New York, which would include surcharges for taxi and for-hire vehicles below W. 110th and E. 96th streets. (The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, which represents medallion owners, backs the plan too.)

Read more…

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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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