The three all have made note of how nationally-recognized walkability consultant and author Jeff Speck is part of the planning process for the controversial new downtown boulevard set to replace the old alignment of Interstate 40.
Listening to the folks in charge at the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, planning will move forward on rebuilding five blocks of the boulevard as an elevated roadway unless they are told to put a halt to such plans by the city. ODOT Director Gary Ridley has made it clear that when he says “the city,” he means either Couch, Clowers or Eric Wenger, and a not the Oklahoma City Council.
Jeff Speck has indeed had a lot of influence on the current makeover of downtown streets as part of Project 180, and was the final push needed to end decades of six-lane wide one-way streets like Hudson Avenue. In my lifetime, in this past decade, city engineers argued that one-way streets like Hudson and Walker Avenues could not be converted to two-way traffic. Chaos would follow, they warned. So when a streetscape was planned for Walker Avenue a decade ago, then Public Works Director Paul Brum insisted adding a two-way conversion to the project was unthinkable.
Speck, invited by Mayor Mick Cornett to share his gospel of promoting walkable streets and curbing sprawl, was quick to argue the city engineers got it all wrong:
“The jaw dropper for me is the city’s traffic count map,” Speck said at the end of a 2009 study of downtown streets. “If you walk the city, and you look at the streets, you would think because of the size of the streets that traffic is two to three times what is actually experienced. There is a shocking disconnect between the size and speediness of all of your downtown streets with a few rare exceptions. ‘It’s ridiculous.”
The conversion of Hudson and Walker Avenues to two-way traffic are almost complete. But now a debate is raging over the boulevard design. Couch, Clowers and Wenger are clearly sympathetic to the elevated design being pursued by state highway engineers. To have an at-grade intersection at Western, Reno and Classen with traffic lights every 100 feet, Wenger said in a recent interview, “goes against every sound engineering judgment.”
We now know Brum was wrong in his conclusions that converting Walker and Hudson Avenues to two-way traffic was unthinkable. What if Wenger is wrong? Is it possible that by designing a road to handle 94,000 vehicles a day in what is intended to be a pedestrian-friendly corridor, the process of creating that road is the actual cause of the eventual traffic? Or what if this the 2012 equivalent of designing a six-lane-wide one-way Hudson Avenue?
I’m not sure if Couch, Clowers or Wenger have read Speck’s book, “Suburban Nation.” I’m not sure if downtown’s civic leadership and developers have read it either. But if they haven’t, they might want to take a few minutes to read the following passage:
There is, however, a much deeper problem than the way highways are placed and managed. It raises the question of why we are still building highways at all. The simple truth is that building more highways and widening existing roads, almost always motivated by concern over traffic, does nothing to reduce traffic. In the long run, in fact, it increases traffic. This revelation is so counterintuitive that it bears repeating: adding lanes makes traffic worse. This paradox was suspected as early as 1942 by Robert Moses, who noticed that the highways he had built around New York City in 1939 were somehow generating greater traffic problems than had existed previously. Since then, the phenomenon has been well documented, most notably in 1989, when the Southern California Association of Governments concluded that traffic-assistance measures, be they adding lanes, or even double-decking the roadways, would have no more than a cosmetic effect on Los Angeles’ traffic problems. The best it could offer was to tell people to work closer to home, which is precisely what highway building mitigates against.
Across the Atlantic, the British government reached a similar conclusion. Its studies showed that increased traffic capacity causes people to drive more–a lot more–such that half of any driving-time savings generated by new roadways are lost in the short run. In the long run, potentially all savings are expected to be lost. In the words of the Transport Minister, “The fact of the matter is that we cannot tackle our traffic problems by building more roads.”2 While the British have responded to this discovery by drastically cutting their road-building budgets, no such thing can be said about Americans.
There is no shortage of hard data. A recent University of California at Berkeley study covering thirty California counties between 1973 and 1990 found that, for every 10 percent increase in roadway capacity, traffic increased 9 percent within four years’ time. For anecdotal evidence, one need only look at commuting patterns in those cities with expensive new highway systems. USA Today published the following report on Atlanta: “For years, Atlanta tried to ward off traffic problems by building more miles of highways per capita than any other urban area except Kansas City…As a result of the area’s sprawl, Atlantans now drive an average of 35 miles a day, more than residents of any other city.”· This phenomenon, which is now well known to those members of the transportation industry who wish to acknowledge it, has come to be called induced traffic.
The mechanism at work behind induced traffic is elegantly explained by an aphorism gaining popularity among traffic engineers: “Trying to cure traffic congestion by adding more capacity is like trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt.” Increased traffic capacity makes longer commutes less burdensome, and as a result, people are willing to live farther and farther from their workplace. As increasing numbers of people make similar decisions, the long-distance commute grows as crowded as the inner city, commuters clamor for additional lanes, and the cycle repeats itself. This problem is compounded by the hierarchical organization of the new roadways, which concentrate through traffic on as few streets as possible.
The phenomenon of induced traffic works in reverse as well. When New York’s West Side Highway collapsed in 1973, an NYDOT study showed that 93 percent of the car trips lost did not reappear elsewhere; people simply stopped driving. A similar result accompanied the destruction of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway in the 1989 earthquake. Citizens voted to remove the freeway entirely despite the apocalyptic warnings of traffic engineers. Surprisingly, a recent British study found that downtown road removals tend to boost local economies, while new roads lead to higher urban unemployment. So much for road-building as a way to spur the economy.·
If traffic is to be discussed responsibly, it must first be made clear that the level of traffic which drivers experience daily, and which they bemoan so vehemently, is only as high as they are willing to countenance. If it were not, they would adjust their behavior and move, carpool, take transit, or just stay at home, as some choose to do. How crowded a roadway is at any given moment represents a condition of equilibrium between people’s desire to drive and their reluctance to fight traffic. Because people are willing to suffer inordinately in traffic before seeking alternatives–other than clamoring for more highways–the state of equilibrium of all busy roads is to have stop-and-go traffic. The question is not how many lanes must be built to ease congestion but how many lanes of congestion would you want? Do you favor four lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic at rush hour, or sixteen?
This condition is best explained by what specialists call latent demand. Since the real constraint on driving is traffic, not cost, people are always ready to make more trips when the traffic goes away. The number of latent trips is huge–perhaps 30 percent of existing traffic. Because of latent demand, adding lanes is futile, since drivers are already poised to use them up.
While the befuddling fact of induced traffic is well understood by sophisticated traffic engineers, it might as well be a secret, so poorly has it been disseminated. The computer models that transportation consultants use do not even consider it, and most local public works directors have never heard of it at all. As a result, from Maine to Hawaii, city, county, and even state engineering departments continue to build more roadways in anticipation of increased traffic, and, in doing, create that traffic. The most irksome aspect of this situation is that these road-builders are never proved wrong; in fact, they are always proved ‘right’: “You see,” they say, “I told you that traffic was coming.”·