Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Futile Search for “Achievable Alternatives”: What Urbanism Offers Instead

In my last two posts, I’ve tried to respond to a question from a correspondent.  His query was about a vexing traffic problem in Petaluma, the town we both call home, but the response applies to traffic issues in many towns across the U.S.

His question pertained to congestion on E. Washington Street and the traffic relief that the Rainier Connector was purported to offer.  (As a further bit of background, funding of the Rainier Connector was a key element in a tax measure on which Petalumans voted, and soundly defeated, last week.)

In my first post on the subject, I noted the reasons why arterials often become congested.  In the second, I explained why new road capacity is often sucked up by “induced demand”, so that new road construction often provides less traffic relief than hoped.  I offered a campground analogy in an effort to explain the induced traffic phenomenon, which many find non-intuitive.

The reader’s initial question had been about “achievable alternatives” to the Rainier Connector.  Having established, to my satisfaction and hopefully to his, that there no achievable alternatives and also that even the Rainier Connector wouldn’t have provided the promised benefits, I’ll close by noting the insights that urbanism provides on the subject.

The urbanism thinking falls into three categories: acceptance, alleviation, and avoidance.

Acceptance: Urbanism argues that traffic congestion, while perhaps unpleasant, is a sign of economic vitality and should be tolerated as such.  The only communities that solved traffic problems were those that managed to tank their economies.  (I haven’t visited either extensively, but have encountered few traffic problems in either Detroit or Stockton.)

The quote often put forth by urbanists regarding traffic congestion is “If you have an economically vital district with a traffic problem and manage to solve the traffic problem, you’ve probably killed the economic life.”

Alleviation: But even if traffic congestion can’t be solved, it can still be better managed.

In my last post, I offered a hypothetical example of a free campground on the valley floor of Yosemite.  It was my way to explain induced traffic.  The campground can now offer further insights.

If we decide that the campground is worth continuing, but wish to reduce the overcrowding without instituting a reservation or lottery system, what would be the best tool to reduce the number of campers?  Pricing.  Bump up the cost of an overnight stay until the demand drops to the desired level. 

Similarly, pricing is the obvious tool for managing road usage.  However, we don’t use pricing at all.  Urban streets are generally built with property tax revenues, so local residents pay the same amount whether they use Main Street through downtown once a month or five times a day.

There are three mechanisms generally available as pay-per-use models, vehicle mileage tax (VMT), congestion fees, and gasoline taxes.  All have worth, but all also have downsides.

VMT is a flat rate per mile traveled.  Car owners might report odometer readings once per  month, with the resulting mileage charge then assessed.  It’s a simple system to manage, but charges the same for a mile driven on a county road at 5am as for a mile in a congested downtown core at 3pm.  (Oregon has implemented a pilot VMT program.)

Congestion fees are daily fees for entering into districts with established traffic problems.  A fee of perhaps $10 is charged to all cars entering the district during business hours.  Charges are assessed from license plates collected by automated readers.  The logic behind congestion fees is valid, but the cost of administration generally matches the revenue generated, so there is little net revenue to address traffic improvements.  (I believe the City of London has implemented congestion pricing and several American urban cores, such as lower Manhattan and the financial district in San Francisco have begun considering it.)

Which brings us to the most significant tool available, gasoline taxes.  I’ve long advocated significantly higher gasoline taxes so the costs related to the use of gasoline, such as the geopolitical and environmental costs, can be covered by gasoline taxes rather than general fund dollars.  But higher gasoline taxes would also reduce driving and thereby reduce congestion.  Plus, higher gasoline taxes would encourage behavioral changes such as downtown living and transit use, which would also reduce congestion.

Like VMT, a higher gasoline tax wouldn’t be able to differentiate between miles driven on empty country roads and miles driven in downtown setting, but overall justification for higher gasoline taxes is sufficiently strong that this objection seems relatively minor.

Others have presented reasonable arguments that the “correct” cost of gasoline should be at least $10 per gallon, which would mean taxes in the range of $6 to $7 per gallon.  Admittedly, imposing a tax of that amount would cause significant economic dislocations, but a gradually increasing tax, perhaps at the rate of 25 cents per year, would allow a period of adjustment.

A higher gasoline tax is an idea that has come.  Indeed, its time came ten years ago but we’ve managed to ignore it thus far.  But we should ignore it no longer.

Avoidance: This is the point when urbanism truly shines.  Don’t like spending a good part of your day stuck in traffic?  Live in a walkable urban setting where much of your daily life can be accomplished on foot or on bike and where transit is readily available for longer outings.  Living in an urban setting doesn’t necessarily mean living without a car, but it might mean putting one’s car in a garage and not thinking about it for a week or more.

Admittedly, there are still too few urban residences where this kind of life can be lived.  And the ones that do exist are often expensive.  But following the alleviation steps above can begin to remedy those deficiencies.  Indeed, that’s the central thrust of urbanism.

Okay, this subject has been well and fully covered.  Next up, I’ll return to the topic of incrementalism versus vision, offering a few illustrative examples.  And then I’ll summarize the successful Urban Chat meeting on the re-use of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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