Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Oahu Traffic Congestion Problem Is on Highways, Not the City’s Streets, and There’s No App for That

The Star-Advertiser’s ThinkTech columnist today (subscription) recommends a technological “solution” to Honolulu traffic congestion in his weekly piece. But just like the leading anti-rail opponents, he manages to confuse the issues.

His column begins by declaring “rail is not the answer” to congestion that’s “clogging up our highways and economy.” He asks the 2012 mayoral candidates: “What are you doing to deal with the congestion?”

He provides his own solution to the congestion question: Just build an app, or application, and for proof that apps work, he cites Los Angeles, of all places. LA has solved congestion?

Not exactly. What the columnist describes is an app-based approach to traffic light control, not a “solution” to congestion.

“As congestion builds, the system re-times the signals to stay green for congested lanes. It also builds a database of traffic patterns to adapt its analysis and avoid overreacting to a given jam….”
Well and good, but timing traffic signals on surface streets is one thing. Dealing with congestion on freeways and highways – Oahu’s biggest traffic headache – is something else altogether.

Alt, Not App
There’s no reason to infer from the ThinkTech column that there’s an app for addressing highway congestion. But there is an alternative – alt for short: Elevated rail will be the alternative to sitting in congestion for those who choose to ride it, and this alt will save them both time and money.

By reducing daily car trips by 40,000 in 2030, rail also will beneficially lower congestion – measured in vehicle hours of delay – by about 18 percent in the urban core. That’s significantly better than the 11-percent traffic reduction we now appreciate during university and school holidays.

The columnist misleads his readers in suggesting congestion can be solved. It can’t, because as the population increases in our space-short island, congestion inevitably also will increase. Rail opponents led by Cliff Slater have been using congestion’s inevitable growth against rail, suggesting the project isn’t worth building if it won’t “solve” our traffic problem.

Rail proponents’ answer is disarmingly simple: Rail will avoid congestion entirely for scores of thousands of daily riders by being the traffic-bypassing piece of infrastructure that’s missing now.

No App for That
The city might adopt the columnist’s suggestion to develop signal-controlling apps that conceivably could help as the number of vehicles on our streets increases. But as a snap solution to congestion, there’s no app for that.

The columnist ends with a complaint that reveals his basic motivation: He wants to drive his car without the inconvenience congestion imposes. “We haven’t had any relief so far, so we need to vote for the candidate who has a solution, preferably tech…,” he says. “This is America, the land of GPS on the planet of the apps. Apps can do anything we want, so let’s see what they can do for traffic.”

They can manage traffic, but solve it they can’t. Honolulu's future computer-controlled driver-less elevated rail transit system will give its riders the relief the columnist seeks. It'll be about as high-tech as transportation can get on Oahu – maybe even enough for the columnist to eventually endorse and enjoy someday.

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