How to Speed Up Urban Traffic

City traffic is one of those things that challenge our equanimity. There’s nothing quite like a twenty minute walk turned into an hour drive to make you forget your vows of nonviolence.

It happens in every city in the world: There’s a cash crisis, so the city cuts back on mass transit. Bus lines are discontinued. Subways come less often. Fares are increased. And what happens? People take to their cars, of course. Some, who didn’t have one, buy a car. More cars are on the road at the worst times, there are traffic jams, and parking becomes all but impossible. You sit through the same light three times, your BP noticeably elevated, and call to say you’ll be late. The cost to commerce is enormous.

The city cuts back on mass transit.
People takes to their cars, of course.

But there is a surefire way out of this. A way that maximizes the flow of people and unclogs traffic jams with the greatest efficiency. And it’s so simple in concept it’s hard to believe it actually works. The secret was discovered in London, a huge city long plagued by delays in the flow of people and cars. And what is this astonishing secret, something that almost magically optimizes the flow of traffic, and gets people home on time for their evening cocktail? It’s simplicity itself: adequate mass transit. Republicans are opposed, of course.

When you think about it, it’s obvious. What would it take for you to give up your car, especially for commuting? You’d want to be able to walk to a nearby transit line, be it bus, subway, or commuter train. Your ride would have to arrive in a few minutes. You don’t want to have to stand and hang onto a strap for a long time. You want your trip to be quick, no buses stopping every other corner to cram yet more people aboard. You’d want to get off near your destination. And you don’t want it to cost an arm and a leg.

The astonishing secret that magically optimizes
the flow of traffic: adequate mass transit.

Planners in London found out that the closer they came to this ideal, the more people used mass transit. When they did, street traffic became much more reasonable. The city moved huge numbers of people with a small fraction of the frustration previously experienced, mass transit and car traffic benignly balanced.

In the US we don’t approach mass transit quite the same way. Mass transit is often perceived as a way for those “left over” to get around, not the ones who count, the rich and affluent. Buses and subways are often infrequent, sometimes dirty, and late. One or two of the passengers are mentally ill, or alcoholic, sometimes unpleasantly loud. Leaving aside the fact that there are far too many such people who are not being treated for their infirmities, the whole mass transit setting easily becomes something that most people want to avoid.

It’s a constant battle. Managing a complex transit system for a big city is difficult and expensive, and there is always pressure to spend less. But we should not be spending less, we should be spending more. And we should be spending more tax money, not just boosting fare prices. The question is, will the moneyed class permit it? As we speak, Congress has stripped the 20% of a tax that has routinely gone for mass transit, thus making things worse for everyone.

Published in: on 2012/02/27 at 1:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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