Real-World Solutions to Solve Traffic Issues

Traffic planning is one of the core responsibilities we give to government, yet it is rarely discussed outside of the realm of two poles of thought: build more roads or run more busses. Each pole is heavily invested in their preferred solution with a preference to play the losing game of attempting to build capacity to meet demand. The problem with transportation is that there is no such thing as a single solution. Instead, we need to break out of this mold and start using every tool in the box.

The number of vehicle miles driven by Utahns has been rising faster than population, sometimes as much as double. This makes it highly impractical to attempt to play the capacity game, especially since motorists have a limited tolerance for long construction projects. The problem with solutions designed to decrease or spread out demand is that each of them doesn't have a large effect on their own. Combined, however, we could see some major progress.

So what kind of tools do we have at our disposal to decrease demand? The state could work with employers get staggered work times for their employees to help spread demand. Employers can also offer 4-day workweeks (with either Monday or Friday off) as well as enhanced telecommuting options. Mass transit options also need to have more widespread Internet access available. One of my co-workers hops onto FrontRunner in Clearfield and works during the entire train ride. He opted to get a data card to plug the gap when transferring to Trax, an option not many of us would be willing to pay for. By expanding WiFi to support these long-haul transit users, it turns what would be an extra hour of ride time into work time, thus encouraging more ridership.

Individually, these options don't do a lot on their own. It is only when combined that we see the big benefits. If an employee chose to switch to a 4-day workweek, telecommute from home one day and telecommute on the way to the office the remaining days, we'd instantly eliminate at least 2 trips to the office, convert 3 more trips into mass transit and, because that travel time is now work time, push the demand for capacity later into the morning and earlier into the evening. Not only were vehicle miles cut, but so was peak demand.

And isn't that why we're in a mess? Freeways are not clogged all day long in an endless parking lot. It's only during the morning and afternoon commutes on weekdays that we see freeway capacity hitting the maximum. It doesn't make sense to try and build any road to meet the demand of, at most 4 hours each day. By spreading the commute over a longer period, it pushes traffic to underutilized times and can reduce the need for expansion.

This isn't to say we can get away with just decreasing demand. At best, these solutions will slow down the rate of growth so that we can plan without the sense of urgency that comes from angry motorists. (Rarely are good decisions made under pressure.) We should still be planning on smart ways to increase capacity to reduce commute times and alleviate congestion. This capacity needs to be a mix of new arterial roads, controlled-access highways, light and commuter rail and busses. Mass transit, for all of its detractors, is an expected amenity in any urbanized area and the high utilization of our current rail lines seems to bear out its popularity as well. The trick, it seems, is striking the right balance between the two. That seems to be where things go downhill.

One thing that mass transit proponents must understand is that "build it and they will come" does not work. Mass transit must make a value proposition. My wife took Trax from Sandy to the 1300 S stop for work for a while, driving to the station and walking the other portion. Because she missed the morning rush due to her start time, she rarely got caught in traffic on the way there and the total commute time ended up being a wash. Comparing the cost of fuel and maintenance versus a rail pass also ended up producing a wash. It came down to a matter of convenience. She liked being being able to read on the train during the morning commute, but on the way home, all of the seats had been taken by downtown riders. She also had to walk several blocks each way to and from her office. In the end, mass transit didn't present value for her. Had there been a significant cost or time savings, Trax would have made a lot more sense.

This is one of the reasons why bus routes continue to be eliminated: there is limited utility. In Las Vegas, a bus route ran from one end of a major road to another, sometimes encompassing over 20 miles of road. This wasn't optimal in terms of packing every bus to the brim, but it was optimal in that it greatly increased the usefulness of the system as a whole. After all, it rarely took more than a single transfer to go from one end of town to another. UTA should consider moving back to this model and using east-west routes to feed downtown commuters into trains.

As we seek ways to expand freeway and arterial capacity, we need to have started yesterday. Many western cities have had the benefit of reserving large right-of-ways, often producing 6- and 7-lane roads throughout the city. While much of the Wasatch Front is already built with little we can to in existing areas, we can certainly not make the same mistake twice. Preserving enough space for major roads to be expanded is a critical part of avoiding gridlock. Certainly plans should be rapidly finalized for the path of the Mountain View Corridor so that space for this vital roadway can be reserved now instead of later. It's also vitally important to plan for and develop better east-west routes, even if it takes going so far as to use elevated lanes for express travel.

Even tolling and congestion pricing can play a role in all of this. Let me qualify this by saying that I do not and probably will never support a road with nothing but toll lanes. Providing public roadways without a direct per-use cost is, I believe, a reasonable expectation. Even so, we already see a limited and successful use of tolling with the HOT lanes on I-15. I believe these to be a very important part of reducing demand, especially if we can use them smartly. We can also utilize HOV lanes to great effect. In Houston, there are dedicated on and off ramps for all HOV lanes that lead to local park-and-ride lots. HOV lanes in the Bay Area often have dedicated left exit ramps spaced throughout the route providing easy access on and off of the freeway. In Virginia, HOV lanes on I-95 are reversible, changing from northbound lanes in the morning to southbound lanes in the evening. If all of these HOV lanes could also be HOT lanes with congestion pricing and thus allowing for hurried motorists to pay a small fee to bypass the traffic, they would be more fully utilized and provide additional income to expand the roads.

In the end, solving traffic problems is no single-faceted solution. It will take a multi-discipline approach and borrowing of good traffic ideas from around the country to produce a solution tailored uniquely for our state.

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4 Responses

  1. Cameron says:

    “The number of vehicle miles driven by Utahns has been rising faster than population, sometimes as much as double.”

    I thought I had recently heard that Utah miles had stagnated, if not dropped?

    I think cost reality is beginning to force everyone to a more telecommuting system. My company’s lease is up next May, and we will be doing some major restructuring in order to move people off site. It will reduce overhead costs, and offers an additional benefit to employees without actually costing the company much to do it.

    One anecdotal note. It seems that the FrontRunner didn’t have nearly the impact on traffic that Legacy did.

  2. Reach Upward says:

    Thanks for the review of the various avenues that must be pursued to resolve our transportation issues. As you say, there is no single solution. And it would be foolish to take any of these items off the table.

  3. jeremy says:

    nice work, Houston has the same reversible HOV lanes. I have looked at getting a pass to work, but like you mentioned the cost was slightly less.

    However the times do not work well and I dont feel it is worth it to save $30 a month to wake up an extra 90 minutes to 2 hours every day

  4. Jarrod says:

    I’ve always wondered what might be done to encourage people to live where they work. Maybe some truck only lanes and zone more high density housing near work centers.

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