Friday, April 6, 2012

Land Use Commission Testimony Offers Insight on Why Traffic Congestion Simply Won’t Go Away; It Also Amounts to Rebuke of Anti-Railers’ Rhetoric

Professor Peter Flachshart of the University of Hawaii’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning testified at the Land Use Commission yesterday on the proposed designation of Koa Ridge for urban use. His testimony was relevant to the debate on Honolulu rail.

According to the Star-Advertiser’s story (subscription), Dr. Flachshart said “…the commission shouldn’t count on reduced congestion even with major road improvements…” and that “added capacity will entice more freeway use by people who avoid peak congestion in ways that include driving to work at 4:30 a.m.”

In other words, the new lanes and temporarily reduced congestion would entice today’s early risers to adjust their start time and restore congestion to previous levels. “If you double-deck H-1, you simply allow people to sleep in later,” he said. "The traffic will return.”

Relevance to Rail
If you’ve been paying attention to the rail debate over the years, you’ve read and heard a stream of rhetoric from anti-railer-in-chief Cliff Slater and his followers, including a certain mayoral candidate, that goes like this:

“Traffic congestion with rail in the future will be worse than it is today.” That’s a quote from his July 2010 Civil Beat interview, and he’s used virtually the exact same words before the City Council and in his many public speeches, including the Rotary Club of Honolulu.

It’s clear from his repeated use of this phrase that he believes it’s a “gotcha” accusation against rail that works in his favor. But it works only if his audiences – including the media – are unaware of what many transportation and urban planners call “the fundamental law of road congestion.”

In plain terms, congestion will be worse in the future no matter what, as Dr. Flachshart testified. Build rail or don’t build it; build more highways or don’t build them. Numerous studies add up to the came conclusion: Traffic will continue to grow along with the population, and no matter how many more highway lanes are built, congestion will get worse.

It’s the Law
One of those studies is in fact titled “The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from US Cities” by the University of Toronto. The study found that the number of vehicle miles (kilometers) traveled increases with the increase in highway capacity.

Adding those extra lanes results in increased driving by current residents and new residents who add to the traffic over time. One of the studies cited by the Toronto team concluded:“…without congestion pricing (tolls), increasing road or public transit supply is unlikely to relieve congestion….”

Another study – “Generated Traffic and Induced Travel; Implications for Transport Planning” – reached a similar conclusion:

“Traffic congestion tends to maintain equilibrium. Congestion reaches a point at which it constrains further growth in peak-period trips. If road capacity increases, the number of peak-period trips also increases until congestion again limits future traffic growth…. Research indicates that (additional travel) often fills a significant portion of capacity added to congested urban road(s).”
Need To Know
Reading two lengthy reports isn’t how most of us want to spend our weekend, but this information is critical to an understanding of the issues surrounding the Honolulu rail project. That’s especially true since Mr. Slater and other anti-railers resort so often to what we’re calling dumbed-down anti-rail rhetoric that implies rail shouldn’t be built.

Blaming rail for not accomplishing the impossible says something about the opposition: They’re either ignorant about congestion issues or they’re deliberately misleading the public.
Since Mr. Slater claims to possess a fair amount of expertise on transportation issues, we’re left to conclude he's being less than forthright with Oahu residents.

And that says a lot.

This post has been added to our "aggregation site" under the Mr. Cliff Slater (and Friends) heading.


R. Hogue said...

"Special note: As candidates remark on Honolulu's elevated rail system or their proposed alternative transit plans during the 2012 election season, we'll cover their remarks without taking a position on their candidacies."

I'm not seeing comments on any proposed alternatives. I'm seeing quotes you say are misleading to the public. Really. So your accusation is that the anti-rail folks are using factual information to support their argument, but they are putting a spin on the truth to make it sound better for their cause. No one else does that in a election year do they? Fact. Traffic will increase no matter if we build more lanes or not. So by not building them, we damn ourselves to worse gridlock than we have now. Fact. Currently if something closes down sections of the highway we have few if any options to reroute traffic around the area in several choke points. Fact. Light Rail addresses neither of these problems with our current roadways. Now, let's look at your side. Will Light Rail offer a way to at least slow down the increase in traffic on Oahu's highways? Possibly. It all depends on how many people would actually use the train, if it were available as an option. The FACT here, is that you can take data from a number of other cities and compare them to Oahu based on things like population, average age of drivers on the road, total amount of traffic volume, expected traffic growth rates, whatever you want. In the end, you are still speculating. For every success story you can show for Light Rail in one city, I can name at least one failure in a similar city, and when I say similar i mean based on whatever data you wish to use. The FACT here is, Honolulu is very different than most mainland cities, and what works there may not work here. Lastly, you are totally ignoring the FACT that a good number of the anti-rail group are not actually anti-rail. They simply do not like the system that has been approved for use here. How many educated people think steel wheels on a steel rail system is a good idea this close to the ocean? Not only is there the salt issues to worry about, Vog is like Hawaii's version of Acid Rain. The maintenance costs of a steel on steel system are going to be astronomical here, and may eventually even cripple it. If you want to meet even your decidedly biased, stated purpose, you need to broaden your scope.

Doug Carlson said...

It took me nearly a year to notice the above comment, and in the intervening time, Honolulu's project has received its Full Funding Grant Agreement from the FTA, a group that knows a thing or two about these issues.

You say light rail (not what's happening in Honolulu) has failed in some cities. I guess that depends on how you define "failure." If you, like Cliff Slater, think rail will be a failure if it doesn't reduce traffic congestion, then I guess it indeed has failed. But as we've noted here and many times elsewhere, that's a bogus definition.

Without question, rail will reduce the growth of congestion. How could it not? By implying that Oahu commuters won't take to the train as they do all over the planet, you're concluding that Oahu residents are fundamentally different somehow -- less interested in saving money and time than their mainland brothers and sisters. That's preposterous in a community with some of the nation's worst congestion and highest gas and parking costs.

The authors of these congestion studies aren't making stuff up. Even Mr. Slater had to admit that the growth of traffic congestion will be slower with rail than without it.

But what we're arguing at this point is about how many commuters will ride the train (or dance on the head of a pin). Honolulu's system is well on its way to completion; the train hasn't quite left the station, but commuters can count the number of years on one hand that will pass before they can climb aboard.