Fewer roads for more people

Posted: May 29, 2005 12:00 AM

What does Beijing have in common with Portland, Oregon? Urban congestion. It's much worse in Beijing, but Portland's traffic congestion isn't getting any better. Further, both cities' traffic is worsened by bad government. In Beijing, the problem is corruption, with bureaucrats skimming millions from funds meant for roads. In Portland, the problem is ideology.

Nearly every former bicyclist in Beijing knows that one important solution to traffic congestion is more roads. In Portland, on the other hand, lots of influential people think roads are the wrong way to go. Oregon politicians want, instead, to go back to what Beijing once was, a centralized city with buses and bikes and pedestrians. They see cars and more roads and decentralized sprawl as the enemy.

Fortunately, several Oregon groups are fighting the nonsense that's making Oregon less and less livable and more and more expensive. Quoting a recently released study, Cascade Policy Institute President John A. Charles, Jr., sets the record straight: "Urban planners have long claimed that you 'can't build your way out of congestion,' but the data clearly show that new roads make a difference."

The new study, Charles explains, "divided cities into three categories: those with low, medium and high levels of road-building relative to increases in daily miles traveled. Only the cities that aggressively built roads during the past 20 years were able to keep congestion levels down." Portland wasn't one of those cities.

The study? The Texas Transportation Institute's 2005 Urban Mobility Study. The report's scope is national, but it singles out Portland. Figured in terms of the additional time traveled during peak hours, traffic in "Portland grew faster from 1982 to 2003 than it has for the majority of the other areas" in the city's size category. Traffic congestion in Portland has put the city in the Big Leagues.

Charles, who works in Portland, would like to see the city's traffic problem cut down to size. He emphasizes the study's conclusion that "Roads are part of the solution" ? and not the living embodiment of evil. The report reminds the reader that "More than 90 percent of urban peak-period person travel is on roads, and a significant amount of freight moves on roads." Charles adds a relevant local fact: "Portland public officials have proudly limited new highway supply ever since I-205 opened 25 years ago." So, in this bureaucratic environment, of course Portland's congestion has increased.

Charles also argues that the planners' favorite solution ? siphoning off public funds from road-building to the building of new light rail lines ? will do little to solve traffic congestion. It's simply the case that roads can handle a lot more people than rails can.

Roads are more efficient because roads go nearly everywhere. Everywhere roads go, cars can go. Buses are more limited, by the number of established routes. And trains are stuck to capital-intensive lines. The superiority of cars to other modes of transportation, then, is pretty basic.

This is all common sense, but, when it comes to traffic planning, common sense has gone out of fashion (a point I often make about other areas of public policy, in my Common Sense e-letter).

The 2005 Urban Mobility Study tries to steer away from any radical conclusion. After stressing the importance of roads, it then insists that "roads cannot be the only solution in most cities." And Charles agrees that technical solutions such as better traffic signal operations and peak-travel pricing would work wonders; he's written about such things at length. But roads still have their place:

In dense urban areas it's difficult to build new highways. But that's a good reason to expand the road system outwards, where rural land is cheap. Such development is often criticized as "suburban sprawl", but the fact is, suburbanization is an important solution to urban traffic congestion.

In other words, much-maligned sprawl is a solution to a problem, and should be seen as such.

But a lot of people refuse to see that, as another Oregonian, Randal O'Toole, will gladly explain. O'Toole, president of The Thoreau Institute, identifies a network of planners at the root of the anti-car, anti-road agenda: they call themselves the "New Urbanists," and their policies, "Smart Growth." O'Toole regards the powers they have accumulated as dictatorial, and their agenda as patently idiotic. His recounting of the tale of Metro ? the greater Portland area's government transportation district ? is instructive:

Metro convinced Portland-area voters to give it dictatorial planning powers in 1992 by promising to save Portland from turning into L.A. Two years later, Metro planners compared fifty American cities to see which one was most like its vision for Portland. They learned that a single American city simultaneously has the highest population density, the lowest number of miles of freeway per capita, and is spending the most on building a new rail system.
What city was it? Los Angeles.

The New Urbanism's internal contradictions are droll and amusing, as were those of the communists and socialists in days of yore. But they don't seem so funny when you yourself have to pay the price in terms of lost time, increased taxes and expenses for home and travel, and even (cough) more pollution.

Meanwhile, back in Beijing, China's new prosperity has led to more automobiles and quite horrible traffic. The Communists may be corrupt, but at least there's hope: they realize they have to build roads, and are no longer as enthusiastic as they once were about grand-scale central planning.

Too bad we can't say that for our planners back here in America.