Thursday, March 29, 2012

Wasted Time In Traffic?

According to a Treasury Department report, we Americans are wasting 1.9 billion gallons of gasoline annually in traffic, mostly in typical highway congestion. That does not include whatever may be wasted just idling while waiting for moments at a time which then stretch into much longer time periods. Just think about what fuel is wasted while waiting for your kids to get out of school. At $3.75 a gallon, that adds up to a lot of dough. Traffic congestion costs drivers more than $100 billion annually in wasted fuel and lost time.

It just seems to be an awful lot of money to be spending to have the freedom to go across town whenever you want to, then find that everyone else has the same idea. They are not going to the same place that you are, but enough are going in the same basic direction or crossing over your path to make it annoying and time consuming. That is the joy of retail begetting retail in ever expanding commercial areas. Is it any wonder that online retail has grown so rapidly?

There was a time when we planned on how long it would take us to get to the other side of town. There were not so many of us then and the other side of town was just not as far away as it is now, yet we feel that we should be able to get there in the same amount of time. If only the roads could carry more traffic or maybe some of those other folks should just stay home.

America invests less in transportation infrastructure than most other countries at just about about 2% of the gross domestic product. Compare that to Europe at 5% and China at 9% of GDP. Congress is bickering about passing a transportation budget while our infrastructure continues to age and erode and the Highway Trust Fund limps along due to an inadequate gas tax or more fuel efficient cars, take your pick.

Still, we can't seem to get out of our cars. This far in the future we were supposed to have the little “Sprockets” like George Jetson had, that would speed us anywhere we wanted to go and then fold up into a briefcase for storage. That, of course, has not happened.

If anything, our cars have become more like a part of the family or and extension of the house in which we let it reside. They are pampered almost as much as our pets, just more expensive.

The average American family spends more than $7,600 annually on transportation — more than it spends on food and twice what it spends on out-of-pocket health care costs. Is it any wonder that we are always looking for that extra mile per gallon or the free parking space? Yet we will drive that extra mile or two to find a food bargain or shop where there is no metered parking.

There are those of us who say that we care about the environment, so we drive a Prius because of the fantastic gas mileage and crow about the reduced carbon footprint. But when we park it in a surface lot, we are really no better that a Hummer or Lincoln Navigator when it comes to an overall environmental footprint. The pollutants that it took/takes to build and maintain the 9' x 18' space and the increased precipitation runoff is going to be the same whether you are driving a motorcycle or a Winnebago.

Can you believe that there are an estimated three nonresidential parking spaces for every car in the United States. Enough to cover about 4,360 square miles or 15.2 times the size of Fayette County. So, does that mean that you have a place for your car at home, at work and at the shopping center? Sure, you let others use it when you aren't there but they had better be out of it when you get there. I mean, you car is in one of them about 95% of the time, and because it doesn't fold up like the Jetsons', it has to go somewhere.

For all of its faults, the parking lot may well be the most regularly used outdoor space in America. Where else do cars and pedestrians peacefully coexist for the most part? Yet I can't help but think that some of these spaces could be used for better outdoor and possibly beneficial environmental types of uses. If we could just let our imagination go, I am sure that we can come up with something

Or, maybe we can just leave the car at home and eliminate the need for most parking lots.

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.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Is A Boutique Hotel Closer Than We Think?

As I was leaving the EOP presentation on CentrePointe recently, I struck up a conversation with Tom Eblen – actually introduced myself to him – and we spoke of our reactions. We were both fairly positive about the whole thing, yet Tom still feels that a 21c type boutique hotel is more needed than the convention style which is proposed. Maybe we can both get our wishes.

A consistent rumor going around is that there is extreme interest in a boutique hotel and it centers on the Main and Upper intersection. The First National building, the McKim, Meade & White building, has long been marketed but with few nibbles. As of now, the leases are not being renewed and many believe that a sale is in the air. Speculation, including that on my part, is growing that this will be the conversion of a lifetime and we get our 21c type hotel. Right in the middle of all the downtown action.

If anyone has more to share, I have time to listen.