I was reading a rather famous attack on the notion of transit, and wanted to set the record straight on a couple of things about transit.
The Texas Transportation Institute released its latest in a continuous and rigorous series on metropolitan congestion last month.
It is somewhat of a misnomer, as it is not focused on mobility, but congestion. It is also not focused on mobility as a whole, but traffic. They can be forgiven, as traffic is more meticulously measured than biking or walking The only thing better measured is transit, which receives larger public subsidies per passenger trip and involves larger vehicles. We measure expensive and dangerous things, because the affordable and small things are cheap and safe. So we wind up managing for the expensive and dangerous things, forgetting that “mobility” just means moving from where we are to where we want to be. If we can do that on a bike, there is no need to involve a car.
On my first cut of the data (which is quite good and accessible), I looked at the percent of trips in the “urban areas of the study that did not involve traffic. A study of traffic congestion should be humble to the possibility that people may be getting around by other means. At the multi-county, census-designated “Urban Areas” level that the TTI study uses, however, the users of other modes are not plentiful. In the 2010 Census (ACS really), most metros had over 90% of commutes in traffic.
However, the data is revelatory. Those metros with the highest congestion are also the largest and have the highest transit use. Its almost like lots of people live and work in rage cities. It is also almost like transit has always been a response to congestion and busy routes, even unto 1662, 1828, or 1832.
What is even more delicious about the TTI data is that they publish the numbers behind their index. Particularly % of time congested and % of lane miles congested. They can measure this now (via Inrix), using the same technology that allows Google maps to tell you about traffic congestion around the city. All but the most congested cities have the majority of their roads and the majority of there time uncontested. The percentage of time that our roads are not congested ranges from 85-40%. The percentage of road miles that are not congested ranges from 48-97%. It is remarkably easy to avoid congestion in these (largest, most congested) American cities, as long as you don’t need to be on a certain foolish highway at a certain dumb time. Of course, congested corridors are that way because they connect a lot of people to where they want to go. Congratulations.
The TTI makes no recommendation with its report, but it doesn’t have to. The primary datum that traffic engineers use to decide whether a road is good enough is congestion. If a road gets up to 40% of capacity, it warrants another lane. The ideal is that the same number of cars will have a much easier time traveling down the “improved” arterial. The reality is that when you decrease the time cost of driving on an arterial, you attract new vehicles to that arterial. DOTs should not reach out to the “public” living along an arterial slated for “improvement”, they should reach out to those over a mile away who will enjoy calmer roads as a result of the newly crowded arterial to come. When you live next to a successful arterial, be prepared for repeated seizures of your property and rising traffic noise. They will never widen your road enough to reduce congestion.
I was putting together a presentation and needed an image of a rail transit parking garage. So I went to what I know.
The North Parking garage at the Vienna/Fairfax Station at the end of WMATA’s Orange line is pleasingly rectangular, and most usably, closest to the walk bridge across I-66. Bing Maps has long provided a nice feature: oblique maps form four cardinal directions. These are useful for understanding the massing and facade of buildings better than mere overhead or street view shots.
So, here it is.
This 9 AM summer shot is hilarious.
The 2,000 space garage is obviously full. Beyond full, as we can see from the couple of crd packed in the striped areas at the corners of the parking garage. As this is a garbage off a traffic exit for mode switching, the number of transit passengers deliver daily by this garage is not much above 2,000, or the capacity of two Metro trains. I don’t know how many families can agree on a commute into the city, a time to do it and a return time back, but I suspect it’s not that many.
The two cars circling the lanes are not going to find a space, as we can see. There are probably two more like them on the levels below, spiraling hopelessly to the top. Note the SUV at the lower left entering the garage, in the hopes there ill be a space for its berth. There will not, as we can see.
However, they will find is that a certain block of reserved spaces opens at 10 AM, and can hold a few dozen desperate cars long after their work shifts began, in a pinch. Its a clever overflow, but the fact is that most of these cars are just being stored for the day. Once the garage is full, it is full. The only way transit passenger can reach the station after that is to arrive by bus, be dropped off, bike, or walk to the station. Pity the station is surrounded by full parking spaces and single family homes.
A common refrain this last Memorial Day was that “Freedom Isn’t Free”. Men, and recently women, have sacrificed themselves in pursuit of America’s freedom, goals, and ambitions. Either drafted or volunteered soldiers have sacrificed all in wars foreign and domestic to enable and enforce America’s global power. This is made all the more tragic when they perish in wars that were fabricated (Spanish-American War), or lost (Vietnam War). Over 1.3 million American soldiers have been killed in our wars since 1775.
This number is shockingly high, and yet comparable with a few other numbers. The federal military and state militaries have called Americans to fight and die for them for over twelve score years, mostly using guns. The second amendment was written to prevent the kind of oppression we rejected in the 1780s. Though clumsily constructed, the second amendment has generally been seen as wide permission to own firearms. It has even been interpreted variable in time and different states to mean that people have wide latitude to carry those firearms in public places. Places we would not imagine shooting someone would be a polite or appropriate activity, like the grocery store or church. Conversely, the right to carry guns in public has been curtailed by states and private businesses throughout history. R. Reagan supported wide gun control regulations in California as governor, and the “Wild West” used guns on the lawless frontier but strictly controlled their possession in towns.
Guns are dangerous, but they are also freeing. The reason we give violent movies a PG-13 rating and sexual movies an NC-17 rating is that guns solve problems, but sex causes them. Everyone enjoys the justice of seeing the bad guys get blown away. Many assault victims and burgled households wishes they had a gun after the fact. The function of a gun is injury and even death. Little wonder that the majority of killings by guns in America are suicides*. They are convenient as well as powerful.
We only talk about gun control when a mass hooting happens, but the suicides, homicides and accidents are far more diffuse than that. Since 1968, 1.3 million Americans have lost their lives to guns, the same number as those who died in all our wars since 1775. I could not find a full history of death rates from 1775 onward. But extrapolating from this rate, we can see that the right to bear arms has killed more Americans than fighting for our freedom. Less spectacularly though, one ruined day after another, all over the nation**.
Another dangerous machine with the power to ruin and liberate lives is the automobile in traffic. In a traffic network with an average speed the same as the 50/50 kill speed for walkers, and with many highways and freeways designed for twice that speed, it is understood and excused that people are going to die. This is the cost of doing business in traffic. I regularly commute in the early morning and late afternoon on a 4 lane highway at the design speed of a 4 lane road with sidewalks and a grassed median. The design speed is about 50 MPH. If I collide with anyone in a crosswalk or another car, someone is going to the hospital or the morgue. Like the gun, this death toll does not make the national news. It is not a campaign with battles, budgets and victories. It , like the gun, is made of thousands of tragedies every year. Unlike the gun, none of the killings in traffic are a victory for anyone, ever. Since 1899, 3.6 million Americans have lost their lives in traffic.
The graph below shows that the rate of death in traffic and by guns is roughly equivalent, and the rate of military death is sporadic, and thankfully slower. The left scale is the number of deaths annually, the right scale is the cumulative number of deaths over time.
My high school civics teacher, Tom Pearce, put the Vietnam War in perspective when he reminded us that the number of Americans who die in traffic every year is greater than the number of young Americans who died in the entire 20 year conflict. Vietnam, the national tragedy that were were still recovering from in the 1980s, was eclipsed by the more everyday tragedy of traffic.
* But Americans are nowhere near the top in suicides, even if we are near the top in homicides. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_suicide_rate
** Note that I am not against gun ownership or for gun control. Some freedoms have costs, though.
This is actually the older of the two articles, but I was more excited about the mapping for part 1.
I wanted to prove to myself that traffic was getting safer over the years, and that transit was even safer than that. So I hunted for all the dta I could find from sites run by the FHWA, FTA, DOT, BTS, and APTA. I’ll provide link at the end of this.
I found some very long run data, which showed that the death toll from traffic has far exceeded the death toll form our wars , with a constant pile of stilled souls behind their wheels, on the curbs, and in the ditches. On the other hand, we’ve been driving a lot more. Cumulatively, Americans drive half the speed of light every year (half a light year, in one year). To host all that dirving, We’ve built over half of our 4.5 million miles of roads in the 20th century, and paved almost all of it
It is an easy matter to divide these things to obtain the probability of dying in traffic. By the measure of mile traveled or even trips traveled, it has gotten a lot safer. The safety effect of building more roads is at best equivocal. We build roads to address congestion, not safety. And the faster people can go, the more of a problem it becomes when they hit something.
So, until very recently, the more roads we built, the more we died in traffic. The relationship was nearly direct between 1994 and 2004. Despite the recent drop in fatalities, it hasn’t gotten significantly better that it was during road rationing during WW2. Ask your state highway engineers about this when they propose new routes and bypasses in your area.
In looking at the data last week, I noticed the number of fatal collisions wasn’t much different between 2006 and 2012. Was the number of collisions staying constant while the number of death fell?
What was the chance of dying if you were a driver versus a passenger. The average occupancy of cars is 1.6 peopl, so I’d expect this to be 10 drivers for every six passengers. Its actually a little lower than this.
It looks like its getting safer for passengers, a little safer for drivers and a lot less safer for “others”. The natural tendency is to assume that this means bikers and walkers, but in fact they are genreally safer than ever.
The problem with this is that I can’t give a good rate over time for biking and walking, as no one is taking a nationwide survey of how much we bike and walk. Biking and walking are scrunched up on the bottom of the scale here, so I wanted to expand it with the real victim in the “other” category: motorcyclists
By the way, in case you think transit is a poor alternative, below is the per passenger mile fatality rate for bus, rail transit, and traffic vehicle occupants. If I included those killed by traffic outside the car, the fatality rates for traffic would be even higher.
When we were in India, I was impressed by the way the traffic moved. No one was moving very fast, and there were very few signals that anyone heeded, but drivers, bikers and walkers made it through. 10 auto-rickshaws would crowd through an intersection, and then, when their number abated even a little, 10 would push through in the other direction. Turning was a negotiation of patience and assertion. The rest would have to acquiesce to your demands. Honking was the accepted method of announcing your presence to all that you encountered on the road. Bikers, carts and horse moved ij their own streams, not much slower than the traffic, and therefore fitting right in with it.
I was getting off at a metro stop when it occurred to me that the modern rail transit station Is a petty good metaphor for America’s transportation choices.
Passengers arriving at a heavy rail station have to pass from the street level to the track level, often via a concourse. As these are each usually at separate levels, they have to move up or down to reach the transit platform and their desired ride. For systems built before the transit revival of the 1960s, this was unanimously via stairs, with some expensive retrofits for electric elevators and escalators. For the systems planned in the 1960s and built in the 1970s and 1980s, this usually included at least some elevators and escalators. After the 1992 Americans with Disabilities act, elevators became mandatory for all new stations, and strongly suggested for all of the old ones. Most of our heavy rail stations were built before the revival, and mechanized mouthed of getting to the track platform are an afterthought.
Stairs, the oldest way of moving up and down, invented with larger architecture 8,000 years ago, call for walkers, developed 6 million years ago. Many opt to take the stairs after the escalators are full, or when they are in the mood for a bit of exercise.
Escalators, invented in 1898, can be used while walking or standing. They deliver passengers to the same places as the stairs with the same or greater speed. They make exercise at the station optional. The important distinction of the escalator is that they are continuously moving. Passengers can use them whenever they want, and then relax for five seconds while they are delivered effortlessly to the next platform. Since they are continuously moving , they use the most energy of the three, much like automobiles in traffic.
Elevators, invented in 300 BC but perfected in 1852, offer vertical movement of a flat platform from one level to the next. The important thing about them is that you have to wait for them, and then move on their schedule. Much like transit.
This was just a thought I had, I figured I’d share it with you while it was still in my head.
I’ve been traveling and posting from Asia for about a month now, and its time for that to wind down. I’m going to post one more photolog of what we saw in Delhi, though the time in Delhi was far more “family event” and far less “sightseeing. We would not have made the trip if not to wish our uncle and aunt a happy 50th anniversary, but I am not going to blog about that.
This weekend, I’ll post those pictures from Delhi, and Monday I’ll post about the spatial aspects of Washington, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Istanbul, Mumbai, and Delhi.
It occurred to me while sitting 9n traffic a month ago that I wished they would open up that other side. The one without any cars coming in the other direction. All that pavement was doing was getting wet and jettisoning “stormwater” that rainy morning, ruining the local stream anew. Of course traffic would move better with two extra lanes. The meager traffic moving in the opposite direction could easily fit in the one extra lane.
This is of course lunacy. We can’t just add and subtract lanes form directional traffic without a very clear message that everyone understands. I’ve only seen this in a few places, and only for a single reversible lane. The burden of traffic has to be dramatic for this switch to work. The first rules for motorized traffic were strict about lane enforcement and square turns at intersections.
In 1903, if America was going to survive the car, we had to accept some basic rules. Driving on the right had been in place for over a century. If a horse drawn again moving at 3 or 4 miles walking speed headed over to the left curb for a delivery few would complain as long as they watched their way. Driving on the wrong side of the road was not yet an allergy. It had to become one.
And that was almost two decades before the first traffic light.
Traffic is not the only culprit of wasteful overuse for the sake of safety. Transit is even worse. The commute share for transit is over 60%, while the commute share for traffic is around 20% Many buses and trains are going to be full in the morning, while at the same time their counterparts in the opposite direction are going to be nearly empty. Later, in the middle of the day, transit vehicles almost all run well below their break even capacity, to provide rides to the few who have irregular schedules. Commuter rail and commuter buses do not even bother with this. They send a fleet of transit into the city in the morning, discharge their passengers, and send the same fleet back out in the evening. Great for getting into work if you work downtown, terrible for anything else.
In traffic, the peak traffic (or rather, the 30th highest hourly volume in a typical year) is called the k-factor. This is the volume that traffic engineers try to design for, to manage congestion. This means that the ideally sized road is oversized for 8,736 hours hours of the year. Sometimes dangerously so. Of course traffic will move over 35 MPH* on the clear roads that result. Of course more stormwater will jettison into the local streams**. Of course, people won’t want to walk or bike anywhere near this torrent.
The solution is simple: build to enable as much traffic in one direction as the other, and build to enable round the clock travel needs. This is not what transit is generally built for, but heavily travelled arterials still exist with those kinds of schedules. Sth suburbs are actually better at this than the city, and a lot of commutes are switching from the 50s stereotype of the job in the city to the job in another suburb.
More than ever, the lanes and directions can’t reverse, but it doesn’t matter as much.
* The LS50 : the traffic speed that is lethal for 50% of the walkers or bikers that get hit by it
** Many unprotected as a matter of traffic safety and highway budgets
Since starting the new commute, I’ve had the opportunity to experience a seasonal delight. Before dawn and after dusk, in the shrinking chill of Standard Time, I get a spectacle like none I’ve ever seen before.
Hundreds of twinkling red and white lights, in the official colors of Father Christmas himself.
It has been hard to get a picture of this from my own point of view, so overwhelmed with the responsibility listed in each red glare. When I looked up this wondrous sight at the library, I couldn’t find the magic that I had seen that morning. Everyone wanted to keep looking at Christmas until lit was all a blur, without crediting each and every box of moving, rushing joy.
Then I found it, the picture that captured my newfound seasonal joy, from a little bird that everyone knew. Tis very week people have come together to let their voices be heard, sometimes in some unexpected ways. They made a lot of people stop and think. Only a few thought of the same things as the protesters. For this tale, it didn’t matter. I had my picture of Christmas Joy.
The topology of transportation modes is important as to how they are going to be used, and the how well our transportation network fits with their needs.
A good way to think of this might be to use a theoretical arterial and looking at how commuters might using walking, biking, traffic, or transit travel along this arterial in their commute. Even though the commute is not the majority of the miles or trips that we take, it is the travel most of us notice the most. Our roads, and transit are sized for the peak use during that commute. Even though the commute peak use happens a couple of hours a day, we have to deal with its artifacts around the clock.
Starting with the median and modal distances for commutes in 2009, consider a dozen commuters living in the same neighborhood with a nearby arterial. What routes would they take?
For traffic, the arterial connects to a network of other arterials, which offer unsurpassed choices of destinations.
For transit, passengers using transit are not going to use transit unless it gets near where they want to go. Their destinations will hew to the arterial more faithfully than any other mode. Sufficiently wide arterials endanger transit passengers in their return journeys. Crossing six lanes of traffic to get to a transit stop can be dangerous, especially with left and right turns, especially after dark.
For walking and biking the arterial is more of an obstacle than a conduit. The traffic arterials, with high speed vehicles or blockades or inattentive, harried commuters, lined by curb cutes to expanses of parking with destinations behind. Walkers and bikers get the signal, and their routes only use the arterial where they have to.
Of course, walk and bike trips have to take the route network that is available to them. If the scale of the blocks is not walkable or bikable, people will walk or bike less.