News & Views » Citizen Servatius

Coming Soon: Even More Congestion

Our Half-Baked Transit Plan

If national trends are any indication, so far our mass transit plan is right on track. We haven't even broken ground yet, and we're already $5 billion over the projected $1 billion cost of the project local leaders gave voters in 1998, when they approved the half-cent sales tax. In honor of our progress so far, I thought it would be helpful to review exactly what we'll be getting for our $6 billion, because I don't think most people really understand.

See, if we wanted to, we could connect the entire region with a world-class, practically luxurious bus system and save billions of dollars. But buses aren't sexy, and middle and upper class people aren't likely to ride them, so in some areas, we're going to build light rail instead. When they think of rail, most people probably picture the subway in New York or the Metro in DC, both of which will take you to within a few blocks of where you need to be.

Our system won't work like that. Like the line planned for South Boulevard, light rail will run in a single, straight line toward uptown. If you want to go anywhere but in that straight line -- and because the bulk of this county is already developed, most destinations won't be along the rail line -- you'll have to ride rail to a bus station, then take a bus to get where you're going. Even with the heavy construction of multi-family housing along the rail lines, most people still won't live and work along a rail line. So if the rest of us want to use rail, we'll have to walk or drive to a bus station, take a bus to the rail line, ride rail to another bus station, then get back on another bus if wherever we're going isn't on the rail line.

That's probably why even in supposedly "model" transit markets like Atlanta and Portland, only two to three percent of commuters use transit, which has virtually no impact on traffic congestion. So, essentially, we'll be spending billions to transport two to three percent of the population. Since light rail will chew up so much money, we won't be expanding roads or building new ones to accommodate the traffic, so traffic will only get worse, a situation our leaders refuse to acknowledge, much less discuss. That means that the other 97 percent of commuters, those for whom the travel scenario described above is inconvenient at best and unfeasible at worst, will just have to sit in traffic. And that, folks, is our long-term, $6 billion plan for dealing with congestion.

If it succeeds, we'll end up like Portland, which now has some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation. Despite the supposed success of its "model" light rail system, Portland experienced the largest per capita increase in vehicle miles traveled in the nation between 1990 and 1999.

Portland's worsening situation is consistent with both international and national data on the relationship between traffic volumes and density.

Widely ignored data from the US Department of Transportation and the Texas Transportation Institute shows a growing relationship between housing density and traffic volumes. At the 1,500 to 3,500 per square mile population densities typical of US urbanized areas, traffic volumes tend to increase approximately 0.8 percent for each 1.0 percent increase in density.

Because rail will only move in a straight line, folks packed in dense developments along the transit corridors will also have to use their cars, choking roads not build for the density.

You've also got to wonder exactly who is going to live along these rail lines. To build a lot of housing units in one place, you've got to stack them on top of each other and build parking decks to accommodate cars. This "pedestrian friendly" environment would be hell on the elderly, who we can eliminate right off the bat as potential residents. Most families with children want backyards, not dense units with a little open space. That pretty much leaves the young, single and those without children as the target market for this housing. If the development along the transit lines fails to catch on with this narrow segment of the market, as has been the case in other cities, the whole experiment falls apart.

And as far as decreasing sprawl, as usual our leaders are about 20 years too late. We've already sprawled. We can limit sprawl in what little undeveloped land is left that hasn't already been zoned for residential and commercial development, but we can't stop folks from moving over the county line and driving in to work.

Unlike rail, buses are cheaper, more practical and can travel in more than one direction to accommodate changing development patterns. So if light rail doesn't decrease traffic congestion, has been shown to have no measurable impact on air quality and will only be used by the two to three percent of the population willing to live along the transit lines and reorder their lives to use it, why are we spending billions on it?

I'm still waiting for an answer that makes sense.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.ser [email protected].

Add a comment