Sunday, July 17, 2011

Fewer roads, less traffic

Almost a full day early, Metro Los Angeles re-opened the 405 freeway, after a much-hyped weekend closure for the purpose of demolishing part of the Mulholland Drive Bridge.  Though predictions of disaster have been trumpeted through the media for weeks, the whole thing all turned out to be a non-event. And that should be the real story. Because we proved this weekend, in this most car-dependent of cities, that we don't really need so many cars, and we don't need so many freeways. What we need is to drive less. This weekend we made a collective decision to drive less. And guess what? The result was a much more pleasant weekend for everyone. Those who needed to get somewhere by car could do so with even less traffic than usual. The rest of us found excuses to stay closer to home. We enjoyed cleaner air, and avoided the stresses of being stuck in traffic.

Many years ago, Jane Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, about how the closure of a thoroughfare through Washington Square Park failed to generate additional traffic in the surrounding streets.  It seemed that the traffic that used to use that route just vanished. I wrote a post last year about  similar results from freeway closures in other cities such as Milwaukee. The same thing happened this weekend in Los Angeles. We closed a ten mile stretch of a major freeway that usually carries a half-million vehicles during a typical weekend. Everyone predicted that all those vehicles would choose alternative routes, thus choking canyon roads and other freeways. Instead, all that traffic simply failed to materialize.

My preoccupation with this topic probably results from living most of my life in major cities. That has forced me to be a student and a victim of (and contributor to) traffic. I also think that the issues of improved urban living, transportation, and the environment are important political issues. It's amazing how many of those issues  can be addressed by figuring out how to get people to drive less. Figuring that out also presents an opportunity for promoting bi-partisan and post-partisan solutions to these problems. The problem of traffic in particular is one that should cross ideological lines. I've never met anyone, liberal or conservative, who enjoys traffic, or who thinks we should have more of it.

Conservatives who rail against big government, and want to increase the scope of the private sector, should applaud all efforts to reduce the amount of acreage we turn over to public streets and freeways. If we narrow the roads, we reduce the size of government, and we also increase the sphere of private development. Conservatives should also be interested in market-based solutions, such as the increased use of toll roads, to alleviate traffic, and compel users to pay the cost of their use of public facilities. 

Liberals, who are generally more concerned about environmentalism, and who are also in favor of improving public facilities including public transportation, should also favor reducing the space we turn over to automobiles.  That might also enable us to devote more of the government's budget to trains and buses. Liberals might favor increased gas taxes and parking taxes to collect what the public is due from private use of so much space.

One thing we all need to get over is the notion that the way to reduce traffic is to keep building more roads and freeways. Every time we try that, we find out that we just encourage more people to drive. It's time to move in a different direction.

(LA Times photo)

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