I’ve been trying to get my head around our continued, if not love affair with, our prioritization of, car travel. We know our auto dependency skews and hobbles entire transportation networks. We know that. We know the least efficient, most expensive way to move the greatest number of people around a heavily populated region is with single-occupant vehicles. We know the high environmental and social costs of driving, and driving, and driving.
But in our hearts, the car commercials promise us freedom behind the wheel. Wide open roads. Wind in our hair. Where are the open roads?
A status quo bias also figures into this. It’s always more difficult to dethrone the king. You have to knockout the champ to earn the title not win on points. Imagining a future that’s different from the past takes work, especially if it’s a past we lionize in golden hues, a past we need to return to get out from under our present woes.
And did I mention the car ads? Their relentless assault on our faculties of reasoning. Zoom, zoom. I want my zoom, zoom.
But there could be something else at work here, helping to keep our entrenched views entrenched. How we measure congestion, commuting and mobility may tilt decision-making in favour of auto use. A heavy thumb on the scale, the question is always framed: How can we make car travel faster?
Or call it, ‘roadway delay’. Over the past week or so, the Transportation 4 America blog has been writing about it, anticipating the release of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s rules regulating use for federal funds for road and bridges upkeep, congestion, emissions, etc., etc., the whole transportation shebang. Reading through it, a couple huge ideas jumped out at me. In no particular order:
Because there’s a direct connection between how we decide to measure congestion and the resulting strategies for addressing it.
The report’s touchstone metric is a blunt measure of peak-hour speeds compared to an empty road in the middle of the night.
The report focuses only on drivers — not commuters as a whole.
Let me go back a bit. The report being referred to here is the annual publication, Travel Time Index, issued by an entity called the Texas Transportation Institute. It’s nothing official but gets a lot of press coverage and appears to unduly influence how certain jurisdictions apportion their transportation dollars.
TTI completely ignores the actual time and distance of commutes. If you have a 20-minute commute home but move at a lower speed, your commute scores worse than the person driving 80 minutes at a higher speed.
[Roadway] Delay is also blind to how many people a corridor is actually moving — it only looks at the number of vehicles.
So to recap, an influential report on congestion 1) uses a traffic measurement for driving essentially on an empty freeway as a baseline; 2) judges those driving shorter distances at slower speeds as having ‘worse’ commutes than those travelling greater distances at higher speeds; 3) counts vehicles’ movements not people’s movements; 4) tabulates data on driving and driving only.
To re-recap: influential report on congestion makes like we only travel around cities individually in our cars, the longer time spent driving the better, and we should demand absolute car commercial ease while behind the wheel, not another soul on the road, zoom zoom.
Is it any wonder we think car travel is, realistically, the only viable way to get around, and believe that anything that gets in their way, threatens a smooth ride from point A to point B, must be dealt with expeditiously and decisively? No money spared to keep the wheels a-rolling, no cost too steep to ensure unhampered mobility. Who’s to blame for this slowdown? Beep beep. I’ve got places to go. Why are you all using my road now?
Imagine determining public transit congestion in a similar fashion. The baseline being a subway stop in your basement that is just waiting for you whenever you want to ride it. It doesn’t stop until you get to where you’re going, always travelling at top speed. The longer you ride it, the further and faster you go, is considered a more desirable commute than if you were stuck going a fraction of the distance and speed. Anything other than those optimal conditions would be considered congestion and some sort of expensive fix would be called for.
That’s ridiculous, you’d say. Completely unrealistic. And you’d be right, too, but it seems such ludicrously automobile-friendly studies carry actual weight with decision-makers and dictate how public money and resources, lots and lots of money and resources, get spent on transportation. Slanted and skewed out of any sensible proportion. Zoom zoom.
Besides, public transit congestion studies? What’re you on about? Just be thankful there’s public transit to not study.
In responding to criticism that the Texas Transportation Institute is too focused on the driver piece of the congestion puzzle, the author of the 2015 report, Tim Lomax responded.
We have backed away from trying to make estimates of what is happening on the transit side because we don’t have very good transit data. We don’t have good data about how people are walking. So we concentrated on where we have the data.
We concentrate on where we have data. Where there’s no data, existence is questionable. Yeah, I think I might’ve seen one or two people on foot out there through my windshield. Yield to a bus? Come on. There’s no such thing.
We study it (regardless of how flawed the methodology), therefore it is.
I don’t know if the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Reports are extreme cases of unbalanced bias adversely affecting public infrastructure choices, something of an outlier. Here in Toronto, headline grabbing discussion papers, like this one from the Board of Trade in 2013, talk of commute times in terms of a mix of drivers and public transit users but, I’ll be damned if I can find the exact ratios. 70% of commutes in the GTHA are made by car, 5% by rail (GO and the subway), leaving a substantial 25% unexplained gap. Bus riders? Cyclists? Walkers? No data. Of no consequence.
We learn that commute times throughout the GTHA had risen to 66 minutes each way. Nowhere could I find, however, how that time was arrived at. Were drivers spending less time getting to work and back than those using public transit? Probably, because outside of parts of the downtown core of Toronto (maybe), it’s always faster to take a car than it is public transit.
What we do discover is that Toronto drivers spend 40 days of every year driving and:
Most emblematic of congestion in the Toronto Region is the 401 highway, declared “officially the busiest stretch of freeway anywhere in North America” by none other than the US Department of Transportation.
Really? The most emblematic? Not that person, stuck out in some transit desert (part of the missing 25%), unable to drive, praying for the bus to come soon, so they don’t miss their connection to the next bus?
To be fair to the Board of Trade, they’ve been consistently beating the drum for massive investment in public transit, paid for, largely, by drivers. Yet, when your emphasis and highlights focus on the plight of drivers, it’s a tough sell to then ask them to cough up more cash for something they’re not in the habit of using. What’s in it for me?
Unsurprisingly, 3 years on, a couple election campaigns later, no new transit funding is in place, grand plans remain very much theoretical. Money has been found, though, to widen one highway, speed up repairs on a second and keep another portion elevated to save minutes for an infinitesimally small percentage of drivers. Why? Because there’s ample data to support such decision, if you’re used to looking at it a certain way. Because that’s just how it’s been forever or, at least, the past 70 years or so. Because zoom zoom.
— wonderingly submitted by Cityslikr