The Blog

A Desire Named Streetcar

Desperate to get citizens to move to the city and ride mass transportation, local governments embrace "traffic calming."

12:00 AM, Jun 23, 2006 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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PICTURE THE STANDARD CONGESTED AMERICAN CITY. Traffic backs up on city blocks each day during rush hour as cars creep along, catching every red light. A half-mile trip takes half-an-hour. The forced on-and-off of the gas and brake pedals spends more gas--and creates more pollution--than if cars were traveling at consistent speeds. Emergency vehicles have a difficult time cutting through the gridlock.

New data from the Texas Transportation Institute's 2005 mobility report helps illuminate the big picture: Since 1982, the annual average traffic delay per commuter has risen from 16 hours per year to 47 hours per year, with a total 3.7 billion hours lost every year in traffic jams. The number of urban areas with more than 20 hours of annual traffic delay has jumped from 5 to 51. And the daily rush hour periods, where the likelihood of encountering congestion is highest, have grown from an average of 4.5 hours to a 7.1 hour expanse, covering nearly a third of every day.

One cause of this gridlock is a practice that sprang from the increasingly powerful "smart growth" movement, and has been implemented in almost every American city and in many suburbs: traffic calming.

PROPONENTS OF TRAFFIC CALMING--mostly government planners--not only oppose new highway construction and, in some instances, highway maintenance, but want to reduce mobility by installing roadway barriers and traffic-slowing devices that clog up the roads. In other words, rather than alleviate congestion, traffic calming aims to induce it.

Why create congestion? The goal is to make driving as undesirable as possible, thereby discouraging sprawl and encouraging people to live in high-density areas, where they will either ride mass transportation or walk. Since most cities have trouble filling seats on their money-losing transit systems, traffic calming is also another way to try to make these systems more financially justifiable.

Traffic calming can be achieved in a number of ways. For instance, there are devices, such as speed bumps, small traffic circles, cul-de-sacs, and chicanes (which change a street's orientation from straight to winding), which help prevent cars from speeding through suburban neighborhoods. The most common practice is signal disruption--which guarantees that a driver who is obeying the speed limit will have to stop at almost every red light.

There are also choke points, which suddenly narrow a street to one travel lane; curb extensions, which eliminate right-turn lanes (so anyone who slows down to turn right slows down the cars behind her); median barriers, which reduce traffic volume (when located mid-block, median barriers do not help pedestrian safety, and, incidentally, have devastated some small roadside businesses by hindering access); orientation shifts, which change a one-way street into a two-way street; and vehicle exclusion lanes, among others. "Boulevarding" is the urban planning term used to describe when a variety of traffic-calming devices are used in conjunction with one another.

There's no firm data on how many cities and municipalities have invested in traffic calming, but it's difficult to find one that hasn't. (The FHWA has a partial list here.) Portland, Oregon, the birthplace of smart growth, spends over $2 million a year on traffic calming. Transportation expert Randal O'Toole notes in his book The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths that the Port of Portland, which helped fund the light rail line to the city's airport, claimed in a slideshow presentation that the key to successful airport rail is a "congested highway and roadway access system." Ten years ago, Portland predicted that its traffic-calming plan would triple local congestion, and concluded that "congestion signals positive urban development." The good news for the city council is that they're on target: In 2003 (the last year for which data is available), Portland's total delay had risen to 33,387,000 hours a year from 25,066,000 in 1996, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.

In Austin, to support a $15 million program that would change one-way streets into two-way streets, the city passed a "transportation hierarchy" resolution that would give first priority to pedestrians, second to public transit, third to bicycles, and last to private vehicles. Officials conceded that their plan would cause a 23 percent increase in traffic delays, but went ahead with it anyway. In 2002, San Jose spent $15.4 million converting 10 one-way streets into two-way streets.

Drive down a main thoroughfare in the busy Northern Virginia suburbs of Arlington and Alexandria and you'll find any combination of traffic-calming devices, which federal tax dollars helped fund. In 2005 alone the federal government gave $8 million to Northern Virginia's Loudon County for its traffic-calming programs.

IN MOST PLACES, citizens don't get to vote on whether or not they want traffic calming. Planners simply decide which devices they want and have them installed. (There have been a few instances in which citizens were successful in getting anti-traffic-calming measures included on local ballots. In Auburn, California, residents voted to make the installation of speed bumps illegal, but in Boulder, Colorado, citizens voted down a measure to remove speed bumps after city officials claimed it would cost $1 million.)

Suburban neighborhoods--if they get to vote at all--often use what Heritage Foundation transportation scholar Ronald Utt calls " a sloppy democratic process" to decide on traffic calming. A petition might be sent around or the local civic association might hold a debate.

In addition the costs, irritation, and anti-democratic nature of traffic calming, it creates real problems for communities. At least one traffic-calming practice--converting one-way streets to two-way streets--leads to an increase in car accidents. Transportation planner Michael Cunneen has found that when cities change some streets to two-way from one-way, accidents increase by an average of 30 to 40 percent. Likewise, his study showed, when cities turn two-way streets to one-way, accidents decline by 30 to 40 percent.

In Denver, according to a report by Cunneen and O'Toole for the Independence Institute, planners have measured the number of accidents before and after the conversion of downtown streets from one-way to two-way, and found a 37 percent increase in accidents. When Indianapolis planners changed a major route from a one- to two-way operation, accidents went up by 33 percent. Pedestrians and cyclists also face increased risks on two-way streets.

Emergency vehicle workers, in particular, tend to disapprove of traffic calming. Besides the minutes spent cutting through traffic jams, each speed bump an ambulance or fire truck has to cross creates an additional 10 seconds of delay.

Ronald Bowman, a scientist in Boulder, Colorado, calculates that traffic-calming devices in his city--especially speed bumps and traffic circles--have a 10-year risk ratio of 85-1 for every minute emergency vehicles lose to traffic calming. That means that over a 10-year period there would be a probability of 85 additional deaths from a one-minute increase in emergency response time.

Les Bunte, a former assistant fire chief in Austin, Texas, conducted a similar study, which predicted that victims of cardiac arrest in Austin had an increased risk factor of 35-1 for every 30 seconds of delay.

"It has been statistically shown that even minor delays to emergency response caused by delay-inducing traffic-calming devices create far more risk to a community than vehicles--speeding or not," says activist Kathleen Calongne, who runs a traffic-calming education website.

ANOTHER PROBLEM WITH TRAFFIC CALMING--one that government planners might be expected to care about--is pollution. "Cars pollute least going at steady speeds of 45 to 55 mph. They pollute most when accelerating and at slower speeds. So by slowing traffic down and forcing repeated slowdowns and accelerations, traffic calming makes pollution worse," O'Toole says. "If traffic calming convinced people not to drive, that might make up for it, but I have seen no evidence that it does." By this standard, the installation of traffic-calming devices might even be a violation of the Clean Air Act, which requires municipalities to do what they can to reduce toxic emissions.

There's also the matter of extra fuel consumption. Each year, the time spent idling in traffic costs Americans $63.1 billion a year and 2.3 billion gallons of wasted
fuel.

As always with transportation and urban topics, hostility to roads and cars comes chiefly from central planners whose lifestyles differ greatly from the drivers they try to punish. Major cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, can, to some extent, get away with their onerous traffic policies because their major industries can't realistically relocate. What about other areas?

There is no way to solve all of America's traffic problems. But elected officials should take seriously their obligation to use transportation tax dollars to improve, not hinder, mobility for taxpayers.

Rachel DiCarlo is a Phillips Foundation fellow.