Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Solution To Traffic Problems

There is an interesting discussion going on over at City-Data about solutions to Lexington’s traffic problems.  The suggestions listed there are hardly unique and run the gamut from possible to outlandish.  While none of these folks making the proposals are professional transportation people, I wonder just how much can be done in this (and the foreseeable economic climate).

The forum folks are like the general public, long on ideas that would tend to benefit their particular need or desire but yet willing to concede the usefulness of concepts based on mutual sacrifice (mass transit).  It just looks like the non-personal vehicular travel modes are best suited for “those people” who feel the need for them.

The impetus for this forum thread stems from one of the typical “young professional” that this community is trying so hard to attract.  One who attended school here, then left for the greener pastures of paying back the student loans but returns for the more stable employment reality of a fairly diversified community.  The hurdle that they have a problem with is the difference in scale between the metropolis that they left and the still evolving, small town which hasn't reached what they would like it to be.

Lexington's traffic problem almost always seems worse than the previous, larger cities woes. The roads are not as wide, the traffic lights are out of sync and the commercial concentrations are just too densely packed. 

A very common theme is that we don't have an Interstate or freeway which can get us into or out of town in a hurry. This is a very Robert Moses form of thinking, slashing a wide freeway through existing neighborhoods, which many major cities are now spending huge amounts of either local or highway funds to remove. Lexington did flirt with such a notion in the 1960s -it even lasted until the '70s- but this New York style building was too out of place in a city which paled in comparison to their suburbs.

Another common area is the perceived need to widen New Circle Rd to the width and speeds of something akin to the Watterson in Louisville.  While they both were built around the same time, they were designed to perform very different functions beyond creating an alternate to driving directly through the downtown areas.  Louisville chose to have the Interstates bisect their community and although I-64 took the river hugging waterfront route, the scar like slice that the ever widening roadways leave on the urban fabric is something that we in Lexington don't need.

Traffic in Lexington is usually not quite as bad as some of us make it out to be and honestly if gas is going to get to over $4 a gallon, many more of us will be using mass transit.  Several years ago a local TV station began reporting the morning traffic status with the aid of a county wide map.  The major streets contained indicators of which areas wee backed up and which were free flowing.  I can remember seeing a congested indication only once or twice it was always free flowing traffic.  Now they only use the same limited number of the city's traffic cameras, which really show very little. My conclusion can only be that there is so little to actually report that would really make a difference.

I am becoming more and more of the opinion that widening roads is unsustainable in the long run.  The expense of construction materials, whether they be concrete or the more popular asphalt, and the cost to properly place them is not going to decline.  Their upkeep and the yearly effort to keep them clear of snow and ice will only grow with time.

The yearly repaving efforts facing the Urban County Council was a topic during their March meeting of the Planning Committee.  At least one council member had asked about the increasingly deplorable conditions on a number of our main thoroughfares.  In a number of cases, the very base of the roads is failing and simply applying a new coat of blacktop does nothing to help.  Thorough milling before paving still will fail in a few years.  What needs to be done is what happened on S. Limestone two years ago – a complete rebuilding.  From where will that money come?

Beyond that, the simple dividing of the repaving pot of money is, again seeming to cause problems.  Splitting the pot 15 ways will not adequately (nor proportionately) pave the streets that really need it.  The current method of paving the lowest (or highest) ranked streets of need has left many highly traveled roads still waiting for relief.  What I think they have not tried is a VMT, or vehicle miles traveled, method of calculating street wear and tear.  The majority of districts 3, 4 & 5 are within New Circle Rd and the main roads there carry all the traffic from all other districts plus those visiting or passing through.

I once conversed with a resident of Madison Co., who thought it quicker and easier to travel through downtown on his way to Lawrenceburg than to take either New Circle or the Interstate.  The conversation began when he said that the traffic lights on Main St. were so ill-timed that it slowed his twice daily commute. My solution was to either live in Anderson Co. or find a job in Madison Co. - it did not go over well.

What we should be taking away from all of this is, what can we foresee for the future of traffic and traffic planning both locally and nationally?  How are we going to build and maintain an aging transportation infrastructure in an era when gasoline consumption is down, fuel efficiency is up, the Baby Boom generation is entering its “drive-less” years and many young consumers that, today, just don't care that much about cars.  I don’t think that anybody saw this coming.

When planning for our future traffic needs, do we look at the recent statistics?  In a major shift from the days of my youth, when have a car was just about everything to a teenager, forty-six percent of drivers ages 18 to 24 said they would choose Internet access over owning a car.   Of potential drivers 19 and younger, only 46.3% held licenses in 2008 compared to 64.4% a decade earlier.  And drivers aged 21 to 30 drove 12 percent fewer miles in 2009 than they did in 1995.  If we are driving less, should we be building so much more?  If we cannot maintain what we have, should we encumber our children with more?

In conclusion I will ask you, the reader, do we have a solution to the traffic problem?  Is there a traffic problem?  Can we solve the problem with land use solutions?  Clearly the solution is not to just throw money at infrastructure and technology.  I don’t think that the “experts” have all the answers, but doing “what experience has taught us” solutions of the past will not work in our present situation.

4 comments:

Alison said...

I read through that forum thread, and it made me very glad to live in Mt. Vernon/Hollywood.

While I can see the need for better (should I say, quicker) access to the interstates, building such roads would displace a whole lot of people, and for what? Nay on that.

As for traffic lights, I find that if I'm able to get up to speed on Nicholasville or Richmond Roads, I can sail through several green lights in a row. The key is being able to actually drive the speed limit -- not always easy. I don't have to travel on those roads too often, though, but I used to take N-ville Road to work (during non-rush hour times, and always in the opposite direction as everyone else). Sometimes I could get from Cooper Drive to Southland with all green lights, but I had to be able to reach 40 mph.

And I've probably commented here that I'd love to see a few more roundabouts in town. When they're properly constructed, they really do clear congestion. But that would involve a massive public education campaign, so I don't see it happening any time soon.

Again, I feel fortunate to live in a neighborhood where I can walk to the businesses I patronize. Now if the trolley comes to Chevy Chase, I will totally use that to go downtown rather than driving.

You are right to raise these questions. Widening roads seems like a bad idea to me as well. I think we do need to see a swing back toward public transportation and rail (and bike lanes and sidewalks) rather than bow to the almighty automobile.

Unknown said...

With all due respect, if you don't think Lexington has a traffic problem then I suspect perhaps you don't drive very much, especially around rush hour. I'm pretty sure I'm not imagining the daily backup on New Circle near Versailles Road, to name one of many examples. I'd love to have statistics on how many productive hours and gallons of gas are wasted due to traffic congestion; I suspect it would put road investments in a different light.

Streetsweeper said...

Unknown, you are mostly correct, I try to not drive more than I have to and especially around the "rush hour" (that really is an oxymoron isn't it).

Check out the latest post for more on the wasted gas and time question and then tell me who you want to pay for it and how.

Nick said...

How actively do people in Lexington use the crowdsourced traffic app, Waze? When I was in San Francisco earlier this year, there was a significant user base, and it helped me better understand when/where/why traffic occurred on road like The 101, and offered alternative routes based on real-time traffic feedback.

As a low-hanging-fruit solution, maybe we could encourage more Lexingtoninans to try Waze?