Measure 2022: congestion relief – ha!

A group calling themselves A Committee for a Better Sacramento is sponsoring a citizen-initiated ballot measure for the November election, titled “Sacramento County Transportation Maintenance, Safety, and Congestion Relief Act of 2022—Retail Transactions and Use Tax”. (Note: Some people are referring to this as Measure A, but measure letters are assigned by county elections, not by the sponsors. I’ll continue to refer to it as Measure 2022, for now.)

As pointed out in Measure 2022: words have meaning, the word congestion or the term congestion relief is used 24 times in the proposal. It is in fact the major theme of the Transportation Expenditure Plan. 22.4% of the measure is set aside specifically for major congestion relief categories. Since most projects are not individually costed, it can’t be determined how much of the 47.3% for local roads and streets is for congestion relief, but Citrus Heights has two and Elk Grove four called out. The 3.7% for Capital Southeast Connector is also congestion relief.

Not acknowledged, but likely true, is that many of the projects could be considered ‘congestion prevention’, meaning that if roadways and freeways and interchanges are expanded now, future congestion can be prevented.

The committee and supporters seem to have bought into the falsehood that capacity expansion solves congestion. It does not, or rather, solves it for a short period of time, then induced travel returns congestion to previous levels, or higher. It is a never ending cycle. Congestion is not a major contributor to air pollution. It does have an effect, but the effect is very limited in time and space. The big contributor to air pollution, and of course greenhouse gas emissions, is vehicle miles traveled. The measure will increase, not decrease, VMT.

Twenty-eight lanes on the Katy Freeway in Texas have not solved congestion, nor reduced air pollution in Houston. The 405 freeway over the Sepulveda Pass in southern California was widened to the tune of $1 billion dollars in 2011-2012. Traffic is now much worse on the freeway than it was before the widening, and air quality is of course also worse.

Induced travel or induced demand is broadly accepted by researchers in transportation both on a theoretical basis and with many, many case studies, but there is still resistance among some traffic engineers and politicians. The question for me is why those who resist the obvious are writing transportation sales tax measures.

Induced travel says that after spending billions to try to reduce congestion, our roadways will be as congested, or more congested, than they were before.

But over many years of observation and analysis, we have learned that adding supply has a paradoxical outcome. It generates more driving, which is both costly to personal budgets and the environment, and which often re-congests the very roadways we built or expanded.

Caltrans, Rethinking How We Build So Californians Can Drive Less, https://dot.ca.gov/programs/sustainability/sb-743

Empirical research shows that expanded roadway capacity attracts more vehicles. However, environmental impact assesments of roadway expansion projects often ignore, underestimate, or mis-estimate this induced travel effect and overestimate potential congestion relief benefits.

National Center for Sustainable Transportation, https://ncst.ucdavis.edu/tags/induced-travel

Induced demand is “the great intellectual black hole in city planning, the one professional certainty that everyone thoughtful seems to acknowledge, yet almost no one is willing to act upon.”

Speck, Jeff (2012). Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. New York: North Point Press. ISBN 978-0-86547-772-8.

Induced traffic occurs when new automobile trips are generated. This can occur when people choose to travel by car instead of public transport, or decide to travel when they otherwise would not have.

Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Induced_demand?wprov=sfti1

Search for category Measure 2022 to see posts as they are added.

HOV lanes

HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes have been in the news over the last few years, and will be so more and more often. They are the preferred option by Caltrans and other transportation agencies (which often have to fund these largely on their own dime) for increasing highway capacity. Notice that I said increasing capacity rather than reducing congestion. Caltrans claims that they reduce congestion (see Caltrans HOV page), but there is no evidence to support that, and much to controvert it. Though Caltrans officially acknowledges the concept of induced demand, it is not used in their highway planning. The mid-level engineers in Caltrans, who largely determine the actual projects selected and the design of those projects, don’t believe in induced demand. They say so regularly. But induced demand is a proven effect, and any project planned without that in mind is going to be mis-designed. 

Communities have grown increasingly resistant to the expansion of freeways, which largely or entirely benefit long distance commuters and provide almost no benefit, and often strong negatives, to the neighborhood, and little benefit to productive freight traffic. The era of the freeway is over, and many exiting freeways will be torn down eventually, but Caltrans is still on a building jag. Knowing the resistance, however, Caltrans rarely proposes new general purpose lanes (lanes which any one can drive in, without restriction), instead proposing HOV lanes. Somehow, these seem to get a pass from communities and environmentalists, figuring that a HOV lane expansion is better than a general purpose lane expansion. Well, yes, but the question is, should there be any expansion at all?

If some high capacity vehicles are diverted out of general purpose lanes, that provides a more open lane, and that more open lane will be filled with additional traffic. The HOV lane itself, being more open than adjacent lanes, will create additional traffic. Drivers respond to their perception of crowding and delay. If they see more space, they will drive more. Induced demand, simple as that. So a HOV lane increases overall traffic. Cost is an issue, as most of our transportation dollars at the state and regional level go to these projects, instead of projects that would actually reduce private vehicle use and vehicle miles traveled. Environmental and social impacts increase. And the lanes fill up, creating a demand for yet more lanes in a never-ending cycle. 

A $133M project called 80 Across the Top has been completed, which added HOV lanes to Interstate 80 from the river to Watt Ave. Note that cost does not include loss of productivity during construction, which if the news media is to be believed, was considerable, nor the elevated crash rate during the project. Now Caltrans is well underway with a $187M project to add HOV lanes to Hwy 50, and is out selling the idea of adding HOV lanes to Business 80 (Capital City Freeway). Meanwhile, a number of people have proposed tearing down the Capital City Freeway, including this blog. The river bridge would not be torn down, but the transportation facility north and south of the bridge would be a surface roadway rather than elevated freeway, and capacity on the bridge could be made available for other modes. Or maybe the bridge should be torn down and replaced with an appropriately scaled neighborhood bridge (similar to what is being talked about for the Broadway extension bridge over the Sacramento River). 

Next up: the solution for HOV