Don’t Judge Transit By the Gridlock on Nearby Roads

Transit does not exist to make gridlock disappear for drivers. Image: Sound Transit
Transit does not exist to make gridlock disappear for drivers. Image: Sound Transit

Sound Transit is beginning to build a light rail line between downtown Seattle and its booming eastern suburbs. It’s expected to eventually carry 50,000 riders each day. Parts of the route will run on highways, and the expectation is that the rail line will “[cut] down on the volume of motor traffic,” as Linda Poon wrote in a recent story on CityLab.

This is often how transit projects are framed — as congestion reducers — and that’s a problem, says The Urbanist’s Doug Trumm: “Congestion relief is how someone who does not actually ride light rail would likely define success, but the primary job of light rail is to serve transit users, not motorists.”

Instead, Trumm proposes five criteria for evaluating transit projects:

1. Does it save existing transit users time and improve the experience?
2. Does it attract new riders?
3. Does it empower better land use decisions and encourage walkability?
4. Does it reduce car dependency?
5. Does it create resiliency in the network?

Building light rail between downtown Seattle and its eastern suburbs does all of these things, he writes. It offers a massive speed upgrade to transit riders and provides an alternative to taking a car or bus across Lake Washington. Plus, the light rail line will encourage walkable development in the growing downtowns of Redmond and Bellevue.

Transit can be a success without making car trips faster. After all, even places with frequent, reliable, high-ridership transit systems still struggle with traffic, Trumm says. Unless the roads are priced to manage demand, traffic congestion won’t go away, with or without good transit.

More recommended reading today: Curbed has the latest on a plan for wider sidewalks and a protected bike lane on a mile-long street in Midtown Atlanta. BikePortland looks at how bicycle safety efforts take a wrong turn when they place the burden on bike riders, rather than fixing the dangerous streets that prevent more people from biking in the first place. And Stop and Move finds that Fresno’s promised “high-frequency” overnight bus service is leaving riders stranded.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Right. If enough people want to drive, driving will increase to the point where congestion makes it intolerable. Transit is a way to avoid it, not a way to stop it.

  • Kevin Love

    Here is my criteria for the success of a transit project:

    Does the project result in public transit being the fastest, easiest and most convenient way of safely travelling from A to B for places that people want to go?

  • Kevin Love

    I agree. The way to eliminate congestion is to engineer it out of the transportation system. It is very rare for Amsterdam or any other Dutch city to experience congestion. That is because congestion has been engineered out. For example, see these two videos about Utrecht:
    https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2014/11/06/car-free-city-centre-in-utrecht/

    https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2016/04/19/utrecht-cycling-city-of-the-netherlands/

    People move freely in this city, which is part of the Randstad conurbation of 7.1 million people. I have been there, and can attest from my own observation that congestion is rare to non-existent.

  • bolwerk

    I don’t think they should be ruled out completely, but transit medians along highways should raise major red flags. Not directly addressed by those criteria is that people need to live near transit to make it really successful, and people try not to live near highways.

    It’s also a fallacy to view highway crowding as a crowd for transit. 50 cars is a lot of cars taking up a lot of space, and the occupants (somewhere between 1.2-1.6 people per vehicle, generally) could maybe fill a commuter bus with some overflow onto a second one.

  • war_on_hugs

    Good point. Urbanists (rightly) invoke the law of induced demand when it comes to highways, and that has to include recognizing that taking people off the road (even onto transit) will just result in other drivers taking their place – especially in the absence of other options and incentives.

    So, overall good for mobility – moving more people through the same corridor more efficiently – but congestion will always exist as long as a critical mass of people all want to drive (alone) to the same place at the same time.

  • J

    Yes! The same can be said for ped/bike infrastructure. Even in the most progressive cities, the metrics for success are still mostly car centric. Does a project maintain car parking? Does it maintain vehicle flow (LOS)? There is very little measurement of the effect on the ped and bike environment beyond injuries and deaths.

  • Richard

    But where you pick A and B determines what is fastest.

    For example picking A and B both on the same interstate highway, and a car speeding along at 75mph and never stopping is likely going to beat any form of transit. Picking a downtown core to suburban town center with a grade separated direct rail link will likely beat any car. But There are an infinite number of points on the plane of a city and they create an infinite number of routes.

    Who you are determines easiest/most convenient.

    If you own a car, own a parking space at your home, and have free parking provided by your employer at your office/destination then a car becomes much easier. Without any one of those transit starts getting much easier/more convenient by comparison.

    Transit will almost always be safer than driving, even if you are a perfect driver(not everyone on the road is)

  • Bryon Mulligan

    I agree with Kevin Love on his criteria for the success of a
    transit project.

    With that being said, because transit systems are “systems”, I think it is problematic to evaluate the effectiveness of a single transit project because it is highly interactive with the rest of the transit system – if the project is not successful, the problem may lie in other parts of the system. At the end of the day, transit needs to be frequent, reliable, inexpensive to use and move people from wherever they are to wherever they need to go in a reasonable amount of time.

    If a transit system doesn’t do this, it is a crippled system and will not be desirable relative to car transportation, which is why most transit systems in the U.S. only attract (or mostly attract) riders who do not have a choice.

    We have greatly underfunded our transit systems (relative to other places in the world that have world-class transit) in our prioritization of transportation funding for cars, and, as a result, they do not provide the level of service that is necessary to be a viable alternative to car transportation. Of course people are going to choose (if they have a choice) car transportation over crappy transit, but this is not a real choice. We have
    to give people a real choice.

  • There is most certainly congestion in the Randstad because I’ve personally sat in it on several occasions and witnessed it many more times. What’s seen on the BicycleDutch blog is a poor indicator of how driving conditions are because the bike network is so well-separated from the road network, but there are also dozens of road projects going on all around the country to widen freeways to deal with congestion, including the ongoing decade-long initiative to rebuild the freeway between Schipol airport, through Amsterdam, and into Almere. Of course, there is a parallel rail project to improve train service in the same corridor. But all over The NLs, roads continue to be widened to deal with congestion.

  • Kevin Love

    If you seek out congestion by trying to drive a motorcar… A wiser man than I said, “Seek and you will find.”

    I can only testify to what I have seen with my own two eyes. I have been all over The Netherlands, travelling during peak and off-peak hours. Even during peak hours in the very center of the largest cities, congestion is quite rare. People are able to freely move wherever they want to go. And they do.

  • Kevin Love

    Yes, this is exactly right. One has to look at all the origins and destinations, all the A’s and B’s for travel demand. That number may be large, but it is not infinite.

    Which is why projects for highway removal or development of car parking craters may be key parts of an overall transportation plan. Which, of course may (and should!) be about more than public transit. An overall transportation plan should result in walking, cycling or public transit being the fastest, easiest and most convenient way of going from A to B for the places that people want to go.

  • Kevin Love

    The flip side of induced demand is demand evaporation. In other words, the sky does not fall when there is a highway removal project. A recent example being in Paris.

    And large cities that never built automobile highways in the first place, such as Vancouver, BC, have a very high quality of life for their people.

  • Jason

    I’ve been banging on about this for a while. It seems pretty straightforward that in terms of induced demand, building a new lane for a highway is functionally equivalent to advertising a new transit line as “solving traffic” or “taking cars off the road” or whatever. It’s the same message either way—”there’s now more space on the road for you”.

    The reason I care so much about this point is that transit agencies LOVE to sell transit projects that way, which is just dumb because you’re shooting yourself in the foot by making an inherently unkeepable promise. You saw a lot of this advertising in LA leading up to the Expo extension, for example.

    Now I’ll grant that maybe it can take the load off at the extremes. For example, in Manhattan the afternoon rush hour is about 4-7 PM, while in LA you’re talking more like 2-8 PM. So sure, the better transit situation in NYC is probably contributing to keeping the worst parts of rush hour more compact time-wise, but the gridlock at 5:30 PM in Manhattan is just as bad is it is in LA.

  • davistrain

    Just curious–does anyone outside the Streetsblog realm use the term “parking crater”?

  • Greg Costikyan

    Also note that Seattle is beginning work on the “city center connector,” which will link the city’s two streetcar lines, which are currently disconnected.

  • SDGreg

    I think one of the reasons it’s sold that way is the threshold for tax increases to fund transit and other transportation projects in California is two-thirds. Meeting that threshold would most likely be harder if it were just sold on the merits of improving the transit network given the current share of transit versus auto for commutes. The challenge is usually assembling a mix of projects that can meet the two-thirds threshold, even if some of the projects in the mix are less than optimal.

    But projects to increase capacity on highways don’t reduce congestion either, at least for any length of time. But transit projects can point to whether or not they’re meeting ridership projections and sidestep the auto congestion issues.

  • uniblab_2.0

    It’s fascinating that the project is even getting built considering the recent history up there. The original Sound Transit plan was defeated at the polls in 1995 thanks to a stew of racist appeals that raised the spectre of the “wrong people” coming to neighborhoods etc. To see the eastside of King County now begging for rail like they are after being the engine driving watered down or outright anti transit proposals signifies a big change in attitudes there.

    Then there’s that tunnel machine in Seattle we’re not supposed to talk about….

  • Andrew

    If anything, the gridlock in much of Manhattan lasts for much of the day – but if you can get where you’re going by subway, who cares?

    The problem comes when you can’t – maybe you need to ride a bus along a crowded street, or you’re making or awaiting a delivery by truck, or you’re walking or cycling and the impatient drivers decide to take unnecessary risks with your life.