Los Angeles planning chief Michael LoGrande told the recent Congress for the New Urbanism in Salt Lake City that gridlock in one’s city is not always a bad thing. He may have been referring to eyeballs, but new numbers show clogged U.S. roadways may mean good news for another reason as well.
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According to a recent article in Forbes, more congestion may be a sign the economy is on the move. Bruce Upbin cites data from the Inrix Gridlock Index, which shows American road congestion jumped 9.4 percent in April, marking the second largest yearly increase since January 2010, when Inrix began recording these numbers.
That spike in congestion stands out, according to Upbin, because Inrix’s numbers have shown much lower congestion levels in previous years:
“Traffic congestion data is supposed to indicate that more businesses are buying, workers are commuting and shoppers are shopping, but one might also think too much traffic would be counterproductive to a metro area’s economy. Turns out not to be the case. A couple of years ago economist Eric Dumbaugh of Florida Atlantic University found that congestion, is nicely correlated to per-capita GDP growth in that area.”
Upbin notes that it’s not a perfect measurement—questions remain as to why the congestion index is still half of what it was in January 2010, in the midst of the decade’s economic turmoil. Still, relationships between traffic and cities remain relevant to planners, government officials and businesses, who often rely on traffic data to make decisions.
At the same time, incomplete traffic models can yield the wrong results in some cases, according to a post from Angie Schmitt at DC Streetsblog, putting a direct damper on walkability.
Schmitt cites the Environmental Protection Agency’s assertion that the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ traffic generation model consistently overestimates motor vehicle traffic produced by mixed-use development:
“Research has consistently shown that neighborhoods that mix land uses, make walking safe and convenient, and are near other development allow residents and workers to drive significantly less if they choose.” — EPA Office of Policy.
However, this, also from the EPA:
“The technical methods to estimate how much traffic a new development will create, known as trip generation analysis… are generally based on data collected from single-use, automobile-dependent, suburban sites.”
In essence: transportation planners are overestimating just how many cars will crop up from a new mixed use project.
“This often increases the cost of building mixed-use projects, because the developers are asked to take steps to compensate for the added traffic,” wrote Schmitt.
The EPA worked with researchers, including Reid Ewing, University of Utah professor of Transportation Engineering, to develop a new model to better forecast traffic generated by walkable development. Ewing notes the state of Virginia has adopted the new method, as has the Utah Transit authority.
Over at Slate, Matthew Yglesias wrote a post on a subject similar to walkable neighborhoods and traffic counts. Citing Wall Street Journal editorial board member Dorothy Rabinowitz’s criticism that New York CIty’s new bike share program amounts to “transportation authoritarianism,” Yglesias countered that the allocation of public space to private automobiles is, in fact, the real boondoggle.
Yglesias points to 13th Street in Washington, D.C., outside his home:
“You can see that roughly twice as much space is dedicated to the movement (traffic lanes) and storage (parking lanes) of private automobiles as is dedicated to pedestrian pursuits on the sidewalk. And that’s not a particularly large street. One block over, 14th Street, offers a 50 percent increase in car lane traffic offset by a tiny increase in sidewalk width and the addition of desultory bicycle lanes.”
A majority of the public thoroughfare is dedicated to car lane traffic, Yglesias writes, offset by relatively small sidewalks and bike lanes.
“Why would a city like Washington (or New York), most of whose residents don’t [emphasis his] commute to work in a car on a daily basis, want to allocate its space in that manner?” wrote Yglesias.
Over at NPR’s special series on cities, Morning Edition’s Lauren Frayer looks at how thousands of high-tech sensors embedded all over Santander, Spain, may mark the future of “smart cities.”
“The sensors measure everything from air pollution to where there are free parking spaces. They can even tell garbage collectors which dumpsters are full, and automatically dim street lights when no one is around.”
The SmartSantander concept is designed to create a “city-scale experimental research facility” which can be leveraged to test a wide variety of applications, according to researchers. Data from Santander could help future “smart cities” save millions on utility bills, and improve services for their citizens.
Rich data visualizations are also targeting transit in Boston, pulled from GPS location data from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and mapped by the cartography-minded bloggers at Bostonography.com.
Mapper Andy Woodruff compiled time-stamped, georeferenced data to reveal the locations of MBTA’s buses at any given time, providing a color-coded map of bus speeds across the city. Intuitively, red streaks denote speeds less than 10 miles per hour, yellow 10-25 mph, and green reveals speeds more than 25 mph.
“The cool thing about the existence of such a map in the first place is that the data behind it are live and constantly published. It’s the same data that has helped you catch the bus on time thanks to apps built around it. Every minute it’s something new, so why limit mapping to a single snapshot in time? I’ve learned better ways to automate this mapping since making that first map, so with a bit of code we can sit back and let the maps draw themselves as time goes on.” wrote Woodruff.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.