Traffic Study Comes Under Fire for Being Too ‘Pro-Car’

Critics say the latest Urban Mobility Report ignores the new realities of multi-modal transport.

Los Angeles has the worst congestion in the country with drivers sitting in traffic an average of 119 hours in 2017.
Los Angeles has the worst congestion in the country with drivers sitting in traffic an average of 119 hours in 2017.

A landmark report that analyzes traffic congestion and its costs is coming under fire from transportation experts who say its methodology and findings are biased toward cars.

The Urban Mobility Report “is a throwback to an earlier age” that “reflects an outdated transport planning paradigm which assumed that ‘transportation’ means automobile travel and ‘transportation problem’ means traffic delay,” wrote Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, a Canadian organization.

This pro-car bias, according to Litman, means that the UMR, published by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, promotes highway expansion at the expense of other transportation solutions. The latest iteration of the UMR was published in August.

“Since planning decisions often involve trade-offs between congestion reductions and other objectives, these practices tend to overvalue roadway expansions and undervalue other congestion-reduction strategies, resulting in a transport system that is more automobile-dependent, costly, dangerous and polluting than residents want,” Litman wrote.

Moreover, because decision-makers and journalists around the country depend on the UMR as a baseline for their analyses, the report’s pro-car biases “can skew planning decisions to underinvest in other goals such as safety, affordability or independent mobility for non-drivers,” Litman argued.

Litman and others, such as Bruce Schaller in CityLab, Daniel Herriges in Strong Towns, Joe Cortright in City Observatory, and David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington, criticized the UMR for overestimating the cost of congestion, omitting the effects of “induced demand” (i.e., how highways incentivize people to drive on them), and ignoring commuters who don’t rely on automobiles to get to work.

UMR’s authors defended their conclusions.

“Almost every solution strategy works somewhere in some situation and almost every strategy is the wrong treatment in some places and times,” the study’s authors, Tim Lomax, David Schrank, Bill Eisele, write in the 2019 Urban Mobility Report. “Anyone who tells you there is a single solution that can solve congestion, be supported and implemented everywhere (or even in most locations) is exaggerating the effect of their idea.”

Whatever the controversy, the mainstream media jumped at the report’s finding, such as that the average driver sat in traffic for 54 hours in 2017 — a 26 percent rise over the past 10 years — while commuters in the 15 most congested cities sat behind their wheels for 83 extra hours that year.

The report’s ranking of major cities’ congestion woes also received attention. Traffic-plagued Los Angeles topped their list with the country’s worst rush-hour commuter delays in 2017 with drivers frittering away 119 hours in gridlock; followed by San Francisco-Oakland with 103 hours; Washington, D.C., (102 hours); greater New York (92 hours), and San Jose (81 hours).

Yet even those figures are flawed. It ranked compact, transit-friendly cities like Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., as having worst congestion than sprawling, car-dependent metropolises like Atlanta, Houston, and Miami, even though drivers might spend less time in bumper-to-bumper traffic but more hours speeding down endless freeways for their commute.

Schaller argues in City Lab that commuters are not actually spending more time getting to work because jobs are coming to suburbs where people live. According to Census data he analyzed, average commutes have grown over the past decade by less than 10 percent, with most travel times only one or two minutes longer. Schaller recommends building denser cities, with work concentrated in downtown commercial districts and new housing built nearby.

So what is there to take away from a misleading traffic study?

The authors do recommend some progressive policy solutions, such as making public transit systems more efficient, staggering commuting times, and encouraging mixed-use development in neighborhoods to make them more walkable.

But many of their recommendations, such as programming traffic signals to give motorists a string of green lights, fielding more Artificial Intelligence-driven cars, and widening streets and highways, will get a thumbs-down from safe-streets activists.


9 thoughts on Traffic Study Comes Under Fire for Being Too ‘Pro-Car’

  1. I used to be an anonymous functionary at TTI. What could you possibly expect from this outfit? It’s in the middle of nowhere, car-bound as can possibly be. Their HQ is an exurban office park in the “new” part of campus, surrounded by its own parking lots and then a much larger general parking lot. That setting is within the greater tragedy of Brazos County, where “highway 6 runs both ways” but don’t try bicycling on it.

  2. The report is based on sound, proven traffic engineering. Right now vision zero is an experiment being foisted on cities throughout the USA. Vision zero might have worked on some small to medium European cities, but it is not working in larger USA cities.

  3. Vision Zero isn’t working in American cities because American cities aren’t willing to commit to street redesigns or changing car culture, the way European cities are.

  4. Why doesn’t induced demand work for transit? So, the “experts” criticize the UMR for omitting the effects of “induced demand?” Maybe, because there is no such thing! TTI and true experts would call it “induced traffic,” resulting from capacity increases reducing the price of travel and thus inducing (consumption) traffic, not demand. Anti-roads people please talk to an economist.

  5. The Vision Zero initiative seeks to reduce traffic deaths to zero–certainly a worthy goal. However, I looked throughout its web site and couldn’t find anything about how they propose to achieve that goal. Instead, there is a lot of mumbo jumbo along with a few poorly chosen statistics about how safe roads are in Sweden. The lack of specific recommendations combined with the misuse of data leads me to believe that this initiative is no better than a cult trying to get money out of gullible government officials with the promise that, if they pay enough, they’ll get a magic formula to safer streets.
    The statistic they most commonly use is number of traffic deaths per 100,000 residents. The problem with this is that this number is bound to be higher in countries where people drive the most. Considering that commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, you could just as well argue that countries that have totally destroyed their fisheries due to overfishing have superior policies to ones that still have healthy fisheries. However, there are better ways of improving safety than destroying the utility of whatever it is that might be dangerous.
    Only by searching other web sites, including Wikipedia, do we learn Vision Zero’s secret: they make streets safer by slowing traffic down to a crawl. In other words, they greatly reduce the utility of the automobile. We know from various research that slower speeds means lower economic productivity.
    Yet there are better ways of making streets safer without reducing people’s mobility and income. The Vision Zero people brag that, since adopting the policy in 1997, fatality rates in Sweden have dramatically declined. Yet, in that same period, U.S. fatality rates per billion vehicle miles (a better measure than per 100,000 residents) declined by more than a third.
    Far from being some new Swedish discovery, safety has, in fact, been a high priority for traffic engineers ever since the profession began. Fatality rates in the United States fell by 50 percent between 1910 and 1922; another 50 percent by 1939; another 50 percent by 1958; another 50 percent by 1986; another 50 percent by 2008; and 15 percent more since then. There are many reasons for this steady decline, but slowing down traffic isn’t one of them. Instead, the reduction in fatalities is mainly attributable to safer road and automobile designs.
    There are many cases where faster is actually safer. The safest roads in our cities are the interstate freeways (4.1 deaths per billion vehicle miles), followed closely by other freeways (4.7), while the most dangerous are local streets where traffic is slowest (11.3). Despite faster average speeds, one way streets are safer than two-way, even for pedestrians.
    One of the biggest one year declines in traffic fatalities in American history was in 2008, when fatalities fell by 10 percent. One of the most important factors in this decline was the 1.9 percent decline in driving due to the recession. According to the Texas Transportation Institute , this resulted in 10 percent fewer hours of congested traffic per day and 15 percent less fuel wasted in traffic. Less congestion meant faster traffic speeds and fewer fatalities. (The other big declines were in 1932 and 1942 for similar reasons: less driving, less congestion, faster speeds, fewer fatalities.)
    Contrary to the hoopla, even slowing down cars is not going to reduce traffic deaths to zero unless, of course, cities reduce speed limits to zero. But the real point of the “Vision Zero” name is not to set a realistic goal but to silence potential opponents: “If you are not for Vision Zero, you must want to see people die in traffic.” While there’s nothing wrong with seeking to make roads safer, there is something wrong with following a cult that treats its prescription as a religious dogma and demonizes anyone who disagrees.
    Despite the questionable assumptions, the Vision Zero cult has attracted a lot of followers. Portland has joined, of course. So has Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington. Officials in many of these cities spout off about the zero-fatality goal without mentioning that this goal is unattainable and the real effect of their policies will be to reduce people’s mobility.
    Let’s make roads safer. But let’s do it cost-effectively in a way that doesn’t reduce mobility.

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