A Six-Point Plan to Cut Traffic

Siting stores and other destinations within walking distance of where people live is one of the most powerful ways to reduce car traffic. Photo: Eric Fischer/Flickr
Siting stores and other destinations within walking distance of where people live is one of the most powerful ways to reduce car traffic. Photo: Eric Fischer/Flickr

Last year was the deadliest year on American roads in almost a decade — more than 40,000 people lost their lives in traffic crashes. Tens of thousands of lives could be saved each year if the U.S. achieved per capita fatality rates comparable to countries like Sweden, the UK, and even Canada.

If we’re going to create a safer transportation system — not to mention reduce vehicle emissions, which now account for more carbon pollution than electric power — we’re going to have to drive less.

A new study of travel and development patterns in Massachusetts sheds light on what can be done to cut down on traffic [PDF], Bill Holloway reports at the State Smart Transportation Initiative. The researchers identified six factors that affect the amount people drive in the state:

  1. Land use mix (average distance between homes and the nearest retail establishment)
  2. Household density (households per square mile of land area)
  3. Sidewalk coverage (percentage of road miles with a sidewalk at least 3 feet in width)
  4. Transit access (average distance between homes and the nearest transit stop)
  5. Intersection density (number of intersections per square mile)
  6. Managed parking (block groups with a single-use parking structure within 1 mile scored 1, others scored 0)

All of these factors were found to play a significant role in driving mileage, but two were especially important:

Among the built environment variables evaluated, land use mix (the average distance between homes and the nearest retail establishment) and household density had the largest impacts on passenger VMT. Other built environment variables found to exert significant influence on passenger VMT include sidewalk coverage, intersection density, managed parking, and the distance from homes to the nearest transit stop.

By enacting policies to change these built environment variables, Massachusetts could reduce statewide passenger VMT by 13.6% below the business-as-usual scenario by 2040. If policies to shift projected population gains in the state towards lower-VMT communities are enacted in addition to these built environment changes, VMT could be reduced by a total of more than 15%.

More recommended reading today: In light of the news that the Trump administration is withholding funds for Caltrain electrification, Pedestrian Observations looks at why electrification matters and where it should be implemented. Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space examines the Tampa region’s resistance to expanding transit. And Seattle Transit Blog reports that Sound Transit has countered a lawsuit that threatens a light rail expansion across Lake Washington.

28 thoughts on A Six-Point Plan to Cut Traffic

  1. I think you first need to decide whether you want to reduce travel or reduce car travel?

    I fly 50,000 miles a year and yet you don’t even mention that

  2. Angie appears to have failed to mention the #1 determinant of car driving: Infrastructure. A major city such as Vancouver that installed zero car expressways has a lot less car driving and a lot more walking, cycling and public transit use.

    The same is true for a city such as Toronto where the citizens rose up in revolt after the initial car expressways and where the downtown was never designed for the use of cars for transportation.

    Or a city such as Utrecht where the city center is entirely car-free. See the description and video at:


    I love the “before and after” photographs of the same street streets and plazas in the 1960’s and 1970’s vs. today. Can we imagine a New York that was improved in the same way with a car-free Island of Manhattan?

    Let me say it again: The #1 cause of car driving is the provision of car infrastructure. And the #1 determinant of bicycle use is cycling infrastructure.

  3. Yes, the headline of the article was poorly worded. It should be, “A six-point plan to cut car driving.”

  4. Yes, the good folks at SSTI are constrained by having to work with state DOTs. De-commissioning roads would be clearly be an effective way to reduce car travel, but that isn’t yet part of the DOT playbook.

  5. We completely agree. A reasonable question is whether Angie recognizes that she is misrepresenting what the study says. While she quotes the study’s abstract “Among the built environment variables evaluated, land use mix (the average distance between homes and the nearest retail establishment) and household density had the largest impacts on passenger VMT,” she writes “The researchers identified six factors that affect the amount people drive in the state.” For whatever reason, she doesn’t make clear that the study looked at built environment only factors.

  6. In none of the examples I cited were any roads decommissioned. Either car infrastructure was never built in the first place (Vancouver, Toronto) or the road use was merely changed to improve the modal split of the traffic using that road.

  7. There’s also the fact that driver’s don’t pay the costs of driving – they don’t pay for the road and thus we create induced demand.

  8. Blame the idiots who refuse to raise the gas tax. Every since cars started to get more efficient the tax should have been going up, but politicians don’t want to be known as the one who raised taxes.

  9. A gross number of deaths is really a poor indicator of safety. Death rate per capita is also a meaningless number. A better number is the number of deaths per million miles traveled. With the price of gas dropping people are driving more than before, so it is expected the number of deaths would go up. It also doesn’t help that the camera enforcement is going up. That means that for profit companies are running those programs and they do everything they can to make those profits go up no matter what the cost is to safety.

  10. Exactly. I would argue a more nuanced system of a gas tax, kilometer tax and congestion tax.

  11. I would argue against any KM tax or congestion tax. Both are a form of tracking citizens, especially troubling with our current government, and both are EXTREMELY inefficient when compared to a gas tax. A gas tax guarantees that more of the money raised actually goes to maintaining roads.

  12. Gas taxes are good, but inadequate, as they lose purchasing power as vehicles become more fuel-efficient. If electric cars and LNG Semi fleets become more prevalent, the gasoline tax will gradually become less effective over time. In my state, Louisiana, gas taxes haven’t gone up in over 20 years and now there’s a 13 billion dollar backlog of road projects.

  13. Your state is a perfect example of local politicians not wanting to do their job. The gas tax needs to be indexed on inflation as well as the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE). It’s simple and easy to do.

  14. First, Manhattan will NEVER be car free. Goods have to be brought into the island. Also, the ultra rich who live there will want to be able to drive their fancy cars out to the Hamptons every summer weekend.

    Cycling infrastructure that is currently being implemented in NYC is DUMB! They paint over potholes and then provide no maintenance. Then pedestrians use the bike lane as an extension of the sidewalk. Then you have left turning cars who NEVER look before cutting across the bike lane. There are also many places where the bike lane does not get swept regularly because there are no parking rules on the block. Before you get more useless infrastructure, how about making sure you can properly install and maintain it. It is obvious the people in charge now are only adding more so that they can say the added XX number of more miles of bike lanes. It’s a waste of money and leaves cyclist with a much more dangerous situation than before the lane was put in. I ride much more than the average cyclist and I have seen this all first hand. Given a choice I rather ride in traffic with cars who act more predictably and where I have more lanes to move around to avoid danger.

  15. Electric vehicles also wears down roads and congest.
    They would not be tracking where people go, just how far and when they drive and in what density level. Laws could be set up to make sure that the government protects people’s freedom.

  16. True, but they still don’t take into account hybrid, electric or natural gas-powered vehicles, which all contribute to congestion and wear and tear on the roads

  17. I agree. Tack on a tax to cars at charging stations. Problem solved. No, I don’t the government to keep tracking information private. History has shown us the government doesn’t follow the law all the time.

  18. LPG cars fill at LPG stations, you can easily tax them there. Hybrids fill up with gasoline too, they pay tax there. When they charge up, you can tax them there. For full electric cars, you can put a meter at their home charging station and tax there. Easy to do and non of those methods have privacy issues.

  19. Yes it’s a known government problem. So you should try to avoid getting into that situation. Don’t give them a reason or excuse to track your movements. Taxing at the pump and not a congestion or tax based on your travel where they track your movement will do that.

  20. But a gas tax dont take into account congestion – they dont provide an incentive to choose less congested times to drive. And the fact that cars have increasing negative externalities as they enter density.

  21. Those taxes might take care of the cost of road construction and maintenance (if they were high enough, of course) but they would do nothing towards reducing congestion.

  22. How does it benefit the rich? And how is a mileage or congestion tax any more a violation of privacy than an income tax, a capital gains tax or a property tax? Why is knowing how much or when someone drives a bigger deal than knowing how someone makes their money and where they live?

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