A recent Op-Ed in the Pioneer Press: Kane, Quimby: Shift gears to ease traffic congestion in the Twin Cities mentions the Access to Destinations research.
By Matt Kane and Charlie Quimby Updated: 04/20/2011 06:30:48 PM CDT
Minnesota is shifting gears in its approach to Twin Cities traffic congestion — a smart move given the limited impact of road-building on congestion, public-sector budget constraints, and the area's surprisingly good travel times compared to other major metro areas.
State and metro-area transportation plans now aim less at free-flow traffic conditions at all times on busy highways and more at better access to where people want to be. This approach emphasizes alternatives beyond the traditional long drive to work - meaning, for example, that travelers may take a shorter car trip to a nearby destination, a smooth transit ride down the MnPASS freeway lane, a work commute timed for off-peak hours, or even virtual travel from home to work via the Internet.
The shift in emphasis lines up well with a number of realities.
The first reality is that congestion has grown worse despite the fact that the region is already home to more highway miles per capita than most comparable metro areas. This is due in large part to the iron law of congestion: An expanded highway reverts to its previous level of congestion as it attracts new travelers and those formerly discouraged from using the route. The added lanes can handle more travelers, but congestion continues.
The second is fiscal. A 2007 study from the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Met Council estimated that more than $40 billion in government funds would be needed to 'solve' metro-area congestion by 2030 through major roadway expansions and related improvements — an amount that would require a $2-a-gallon increase if the revenues were to come solely from the gas tax.
A third factor is that Twin Cities travel time on average is not so bad, when the goal is reframed away from congestion during the trip to reaching the trip's end point. When we crunched the numbers, we found that the 13-county Minneapolis-St. Paul region ranks second among the nation's 25 largest metropolitan areas for its short average travel time to work — a much better showing than expected given our population size.
And recent University of Minnesota research finds that despite congestion, the ease of reaching destinations in the Twin Cities has improved. Access can be easier despite clogged roadways if the target locations are close by and reachable via short commutes by car, transit, biking and walking.
The Metropolitan Council's recent transportation plan says flat out that, because of constraints, highway system expansion will not eliminate congestion in the Twin Cities area or even significantly reduce it. Consequently, that plan dropped mention of a dozen big-ticket highway expansion projects. And Mn/DOT's plan also moves the Twin Cities further away from 'attempting to build its way out of congestion by adding more highway lanes.'
This shift in our approach to congestion better aligns transportation policy with the ends (our destinations), rather than the means (the travel).
While congestion is annoying, it comes with the territory in successful metro areas. A large number of people going places is a sign of a vibrant economy.
Still, traffic delays cost the economy and undermine the public's return on investment from highways. So how can we slow the growth of congestion to get more out of our existing transportation infrastructure?
Here are four proven approaches that don't rely simply on laying more asphalt:
Managing the highway system using metered ramps at freeway entrances, rapid response to traffic accidents, real-time information on expressway signs, managed and priced highway lanes (used now for MnPASS lanes on I-394 and I-35W), and, when necessary, lower-cost but high-impact highway construction projects.
Easing demand by shifting away from solo commutes and travel during peak drive time or by getting out of the car altogether and working from home, for example. Both expected increases in gas prices and continued congestion will likely encourage these actions by travelers.
Banking more on transit, biking and walking to keep off our roads those cars that could otherwise push a crowded-but-flowing lane into gridlock. Transit carries more people per vehicle in less space and in this way increases thoroughfare capacity.
Smarter land use - More compact and mixed-use development allows people to reach destinations without driving cars for long distances or without driving at all. And the concentration of jobs sites in certain areas - think downtowns - makes cost-effective transit possible.
We can't let congestion throttle the region's productivity. Smarter investments in transportation help spur economic growth for the state and expand prosperity for Minnesotans.
Whatever we do will cost money - and require revenues. But we can better target construction projects and use these strategies to better manage, use and maintain the road system we have.
Matt Kane is the director of policy and research and Charlie Quimby is a communications fellow at Growth & Justice, a St. Paul-based progressive think tank, which recently released a report on 'Shifting Gears to Ease Congestion: Improving Travel and Travel Choices in the Twin Cities.'"