Tag Archives: traffic

The Law of Induced Demand

The long term impact of Saskatoon’s planning and development path

I GREW UP in Los Angeles, the city by the freeway by the sea. And if there’s one thing I’ve known ever since I could sit up in my car seat, it’s that you should expect to run into traffic at any point of the day. Yes, commute hours are the worst, but I’ve run into dead-stop bumper-to-bumper cars on the 405 at 2 a.m.

As a kid, I used to ask my parents why they couldn’t just build more lanes on the freeway. Maybe transform them all into double-decker highways with cars zooming on the upper and lower levels.

Except, as it turns out, that wouldn’t work. Because if there’s anything that traffic engineers have discovered in the last few decades it’s that you can’t build your way out of congestion. It’s the roads themselves that cause traffic.

The concept is called induced demand, which is economist-speak for when increasing the supply of something (like roads) makes people want that thing even more. Though some traffic engineers made note of this phenomenon at least as early as the 1960s, it is only in recent years that social scientists have collected enough data to show how this happens pretty much every time we build new roads. These findings imply that the ways we traditionally go about trying to mitigate jams are essentially fruitless, and that we’d all be spending a lot less time in traffic if we could just be a little more rational.

But before we get to the solutions, we have to take a closer look at the problem. In 2009, two economists—Matthew Turner of the University of Toronto and Gilles Duranton of the University of Pennsylvania—decided to compare the amount of new roads and highways built in different U.S. cities between 1980 and 2000, and the total number of miles driven in those cities over the same period.

“We found that there’s this perfect one-to-one relationship,” said Turner.

If a city had increased its road capacity by 10 percent between 1980 and 1990, then the amount of driving in that city went up by 10 percent. If the amount of roads in the same city then went up by 11 percent between 1990 and 2000, the total number of miles driven also went up by 11 percent. It’s like the two figures were moving in perfect lockstep, changing at the same exact rate.

Now, correlation doesn’t mean causation. Maybe traffic engineers in U.S. cities happen to know exactly the right amount of roads to build to satisfy driving demand. But Turner and Duranton think that’s unlikely. The modern interstate network mostly follows the plan originally conceived by the federal government in 1947, and it seems incredibly coincidental that road engineers at the time could have successfully predicted driving demand more than half a century in the future.

A more likely explanation, Turner and Duranton argue, is what they call the fundamental law of road congestion: New roads will create new drivers, resulting in the intensity of traffic staying the same.

Intuitively, I would expect the opposite: that expanding a road network works like replacing a small pipe with a bigger one, allowing the water (or cars) to flow better. Instead, it’s like the larger pipe is drawing more water into itself. The first thing you wonder here is where all these extra drivers are coming from. I mean, are they just popping out of the asphalt as engineers lay down new roads?

The answer has to do with what roads allow people to do: move around. As it turns out, we humans love moving around. And if you expand people’s ability to travel, they will do it more, living farther away from where they work and therefore being forced to drive into town. Making driving easier also means that people take more trips in the car than they otherwise would. Finally, businesses that rely on roads will swoop into cities with many of them, bringing trucking and shipments. The problem is that all these things together erode any extra capacity you’ve built into your street network, meaning traffic levels stay pretty much constant. As long as driving on the roads remains easy and cheap, people have an almost unlimited desire to use them.

You might think that increasing investment in public transit could ease this mess. Many railway and bus projects are sold on this basis, with politicians promising that traffic will decrease once ridership grows. But the data showed that even in cities that expanded public transit, road congestion stayed exactly the same. Add a new subway line and some drivers will switch to transit. But new drivers replace them. It’s the same effect as adding a new lane to the highway: congestion remains constant. (That’s not to say that public transit doesn’t do good, it also allows more people to move around. These projects just shouldn’t be hyped up as traffic decongestants, say Turner and Duranton.)

Interestingly, the effect works in reverse, too. Whenever some city proposes taking lanes away from a road, residents scream that they’re going to create a huge traffic snarl. But the data shows that nothing truly terrible happens. The amount of traffic on the road simply readjusts and overall congestion doesn’t really increase.

Of course the last paragraph is exactly how downtown Saskatoon will survive University Bridge being shut down and Better Bike Lanes.  It is also why road diets will work.

Invest in transit now or suffer severe consequences

Same thing could be said about any city that has inferior transit (ahem Saskatoon)

Last week, the Premier of Ontario’s Transit Panel — comprising 13 citizens from across the region and the political spectrum — unanimously recommended a strategy to fund transit in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. The report’s title, Making the Move: Choices and Consequences, highlights the urgency of investing in transit expansion today, failing which there will be severe consequences tomorrow.

Road congestion and transit crowding in the GTHA have already reached a tipping point. With 2.5 million people and one million more cars expected to come into the GTHA in the next 18 years, the existing severe state of congestion will become intolerable.

We have come up with a revenue plan that works. Our recommendations call for a fair and balanced contribution from all stakeholders, without asking too much of any one group. Because new transit infrastructure benefits all of society, costs should be shared — by business, drivers, and transit users. Since riders contribute through fares that rise regularly with inflation, the panel chose not to ask more of them. We have asked the government to redeploy the HST revenue it earns on gas and fuel taxes.

As for the tools, our report outlines two variations on a new funding model. The first combines a phased increase of gasoline and fuel taxes starting with 3 cents per litre in year one, a modest increase of 0.5 per cent to the general corporate income tax, and a redeployment of the GTHA portion of the HST charged on gasoline and fuel taxes. The second option is almost the same, but proposes less from gas and fuel, and more from HST.

Taken together, the combined increases would raise between $1.7 billion and $1.8 billion annually for transit in the GTHA. This revenue stream would then lever the additional borrowing to build three-quarters of the Next Wave sooner than expected. People would see the benefits from this investment, thereby generating support for The Big Move in its entirety. This revenue strategy also provides enough money to pay for local transportation improvements and to retire the debt over time.

We researched the possible options rigorously. We favour the gas and fuel taxes because they match usage, affect travel behaviour, are simple to administer, raise a lot of money, and haven’t been raised in more than 20 years. Even with the increase, the GTHA would be below Montreal or consistent with Vancouver.

The impact on households is very tolerable — about $80 per household in year one, just $260 per household after eight years. Compare that to the cost of the gasoline wasted due to stop-and-start commuting for 32 minutes on a daily round trip if we don’t remedy the situation. This amounts to $16 every week or $700 per year. The choice is obvious.
The most common and forceful message that emerged from all of our public meetings and consultations is that the public has very little trust in how transit decisions are made, how money is managed, and how projects are delivered. When it comes to funding transit, the public told us: “Dedicate it or forget it.”

We address these concerns head-on. Our recommendations, when enacted, will ensure that new revenue will be held in a segregated Fund to be spent solely on transit expansion in the GTHA. And they will guarantee accountability and transparency for how funds are spent and reported on.

We emphasize the importance of comprehensive, publicly available business case analysis prior to project approvals. We cannot afford to waste billions of dollars on projects that result in low ridership and huge operating subsidies.

We also cannot afford more congestion and more gridlock. We cannot afford continued losses in productivity and missed opportunities to create more jobs. We cannot afford more pollution and commuting stress. Above all, we cannot afford to wait.

Moscow execs hire ambulances to beat the traffic

Not sure if I am appalled or am thinking of a new business opportunity

Police in Moscow are to carry out checks on ambulances after reports that emergency vehicles have been fitted with plush interiors and are being rented out to VIP commuters hoping to dodge the city’s appalling traffic jams.

They face random checks after companies advertising rides in “ambulance-taxis” for upwards of 6000 roubles ($185) an hour appeared on the internet.

The vehicles are said to use their sirens to scatter traffic and deliver harried businessman to meetings on time.

A law enforcement source told Izvestiya that one such vehicle had already been identified. “During a patrol, a medical car was stopped because it was breaking traffic rules,” the source said.

“The driver appeared strange, and did not resemble an ambulance driver at all.

“Police officers opened the automobile to check it and saw that the interior was fitted out like a high-class limousine with comfortable seats for transporting VIP passengers.”

Inside the ambulance were “not medical personnel but some people in civilian clothes who refused to identify themselves”, the source said.

Moscow’s boulevards and ring roads are often at a standstill because of badly parked cars and a lack of restrictions on driving in the city centre.

City of Saskatoon Updates

The City of Saskatoon sends out a daily email that includes road updates.  The result of these emails are:

  • I ignore the email and then am upset when I am stuck in traffic gridlock and I realized that this could have been prevented.
  • I read the email, not process it as important and am upset when I am stuck in traffic gridlock and I realize that I had dedicated a little extra energy to this, I would have been okay.
  • I read the email and very occasionally make the right decision in avoiding the construction zone.  I am still upset because I think of all of the other times when I have been stuck and think, “If I had done this, I would have been okay”.

Either way I find myself upset and it is my fault.  Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Bill Ford: A future beyond traffic gridlock

Bill Ford is a car guy — his great-grandfather was Henry Ford, and he grew up inside the massive Ford Motor Co. So when he worries about cars’ impact on the environment, and about our growing global gridlock problem, it’s worth a listen. His vision for the future of mobility includes "smart roads," even smarter public transport and going green like never before.

Charlie Clark wants to lower city speed limits to what I thought they already were

I was a little surprised by this article in today’s StarPhoenix for the simple reason that I would have said under oath that I was absolutely sure that side street speed limits were already 40 km/h.  I was wrong, they are 50 km/h.  Charlie Clark wants to lower them back to 40 km/h.

A city councillor wants to rein in speeding drivers on side streets by lowering the limit in residential areas to 40 km/h from 50 km/h.

"I’d invite anyone to drive down our narrow streets that have parking on both sides at 50 km/h and feel if that (is) speeding," said Coun. Charlie Clark. "On arterials, 50 km/h is an appropriate speed, but on residential streets it’s not."

Clark has asked the city’s administration for a report on lowering the posted speed limits on residential streets to 40 km/h and wants a pilot project to test the idea. The default speed limit in Saskatoon, set by the city, is 50 km/h unless otherwise posted. School zones have 30 km/h limits.

As congestion in Saskatoon has increased in the last five years, the number of people using local streets as shortcuts has grown alongside a culture of aggressive driving, he said.

"Cutting through neighbourhoods is a different type of traffic and it moves more quickly," said Clark, who represents older neighbourhoods surrounding Nutana on the east side of the river. "I’m having complaints from almost every street and every section of the ward I represent. I think it’s widespread."

I totally agree although I am a little concerned that the reason I was driving slower was because I am getting older.  I fear that is Saskatoon drops the speed limit to 40 km/h, I may start driving 30 km/h.   As for his statement that people are cutting through neighbourhoods to beat traffic jams, he is accurate, at least for me.  I take Avenue C all of the time to avoid Idylwyld (and drop Mark off at school) or I take Avenue H.  Lower speed limits on those streets make a lot of sense.