By Dom Nozzi
June 5, 2002
Which comes first? Transportation choice and compact, walkable urbanism, or traffic congestion?
I continue to insist that we will NEVER find the political motivation to require the private sector to provide transportation choices, or the motivation to obtain public dollars to create such choices, UNLESS we create the material conditions that force LARGE numbers of citizens to DEMAND that such choices be created.
Congestion in America MUST precede the creation of transportation choices, as we have seen in so many of our bigger cities. We will never be able to create transportation choices in advance of congestion, because without congestion or the pricing of parking (or roads), it is absolutely rational for everyone to drive a car, even if there are quality alternatives available.
It happened at the University of Florida in Gainesville with parking shortages and priced parking. We would have NEVER seen such a big increase in student bus use if we tried to demand transit improvements from private developers, or fought to have public dollars be used for more transit (in other words, if we fought to have good transit in place before on-campus congestion occurred).
Since it is unrealistic for local government to create toll roads or establish priced parking or create parking supply shortages, we only have one option to create that political will: Not letting roads crowded with motor vehicles compel us to add road capacity or otherwise widen roads.
It is the price we MUST pay to pay for the road-widening, car-subsidizing sins of our predecessors. I do not have a worry that not widening a crowded road will, later on, create the political pressure to widen. I am confident that we will soon be unable to afford widenings. Even if the state and federal dollars could somehow be found (increasingly unlikely), it would still require a LONG time to do the construction, and the longer it takes, the more likely we’ll have a change in politics.
I’m quite willing to take the risk that being passive about congestion will deliver us transit and compact urbanism, not widenings. Even the road-happy California DOT now says widenings are over as a congestion-fighting tool.
Frankly, I don’t believe we should stop walkable projects in our urban area if it will further congest an already congested road. Or if transit is not available to serve the infill. We must keep in mind that congestion is a fundamental, helpful part of a healthy, walkable city rich in transportation choice. Fighting a walkable, mixed-use project for fear of congestion is therefore anti-city and pro-sprawl.
The WORST thing we can do about a proposed mega-project is to demand bigger roads and bigger intersections to deal with expected increases in car trips. Congestion is our friend, and if we fight against it by using the “bigger road capacity” tool, we are digging our own grave and ensuring a south Florida future. Bigger roads at larger proposed projects simply means more auto dependence and more sprawl. Why spend a bunch of public dollars for THAT?
It makes perfect sense that the sprawl and auto lobbies fight planned congestion. I don’t understand why conservationists sometimes seem to join them in that fight.
Our leverage in getting transportation choices should come from congestion, NOT from the threat of withholding approval of a project — particularly a walkable project.