Comment of the Day: Wait, So ‘Keep Adding Freeways’ Was the Long-Term Fix?

COMMENT OF THE DAY: WAIT, SO ‘KEEP ADDING FREEWAYS’ WAS THE LONG-TERM FIX? loops“The Chronicle article made a fairly big deal out of the following H-GAC quote: ‘Future growth and the resulting travel is expected to surpass our ability to meet regional mobility needs by relying solely on increased roadway capacity.’ I question the significance of this excerpt. Is that not the case at the present time? Has that ever not been the case?” [TheNiche, commenting on Houston #1 in Sublease Office Space; Downtown Getting a WeWork] Illustration: Lulu

11 Comment

  • Hey, if we eliminate the buildings downtown, we could fit wider roads into downtown allowing more cars to reach their destinations. It just might work!

  • Freeways: the only type of infrastructure project that is considered unsuccessful when used by lots and lots of people.

  • Ango, that’s why I call them jamways… And commute by helicopter

  • Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big proponent of big flat smooth ribbons of pavement. You can put lots of stuff on pavement, and all at the same time.
    For example, the ability of METRO’s Park & Ride buses to fill the same role as commuter trains while using the same precious right-of-way as high-occupancy vehicles — then being able to charge variable tolls to private vehicles on any excess capacity on that right-of-way — this is brilliantly efficient. METRO’s vanpooling services have likewise been successful. We’re going to need more of this kind of infrastructure and service, and not only along radial routes serving downtown. It will prepare us for a medium-term future when driverless jitney services start coming online and disrupting the traditional operational model of transit agencies.

  • TheNiche,

    While I think you’re right about that multi-purpose aspect of the freeways and their efficiency in their pricing and use of high-occupancy vehicles, the Metro bus system certainly does not fill the role of commuter trains.

    The issue there is volume. Trains are an independent system that can be controlled, while trying to share lanes with other cars cannot. Trains move (or at least *can* move) huge volumes of people at a much more efficient rate due not only to that ability to regulate the system (being a more attractive method of travel because they can actually promise scheduled arrivals where buses cannot), but also because of physics–steel to steel involves a lot less friction than rubber to concrete (and that’s not counting the stopping, slowing, speeding up, and all the other things that waste fuel when dealing with traffic).

    Autonomous vehicles are definitely going to change the paradigm for transit. However, it doesn’t really matter who is driving, we’re still going to have this same problem of too many vehicles. If we had an efficient network of commuter for the long distances, autonomous cars would easily fill that role for the short trips from those rail stations.

  • Would it help if they appended, “…and we really mean it this time”?

  • @ Jay: The Park & Ride/HOV/HOT system works as a substitute for commuter rail as a result of variable congestion pricing. Where things can get messy is where there are offramps, and there certainly exists some room for improvement. However, any capacity issues are easily resolved by adding buses — which results in reduced headways and more efficient transfers. The other things that P&R can do that commuter rail cannot are that P&R buses can branch off of the HOV/HOT lanes to serve numerous destinations and then circulate around a little bit near their final destination.
    The beauty of autonomous jitneys is that it’ll reduce labor costs and enable METRO (or more likely a private service provider) to use more numerous smaller vehicles and directly serve even obscure destinations door-to-door without the need for very many transfers or stops along the way. If trip costs are made sufficiently low and that’s apparent from menu pricing, then it’ll induce a lot more carpooling as a substitute for private single-occupancy vehicles; on net that should mean fewer vehicles on the road. Traffic management software also opens up possibilities such that our existing system of roadways is used more efficiently. If there is still a congestion problem after all of that…go back to what works. And that is: variable congestion pricing. Make congested roads more expensive to use. Do that and you might ought to expect efficient detouring (if available), vehicle sizes to rise slightly in the affected areas, or for higher prices to quash some trips. In any case, pavement will offer waaaay more value and flexibility than fixed-guideway technologies.

  • Great. As I spend the next few years in grinding traffic, I can take comfort in knowing that no new mass commuting options will be initiated in our region because we are waiting on futuristic autonomous cars to solve all of our problems. People will give up the comfort of their own private transportation for the luxury of riding in a glorified Uber but without a driver to keep it clean or compensate for Navigation errors.

    From an urban planning perspective, that’s like meeting a beautiful woman with a great personality but never asking her out because you are just certain that if you ever meet Kate Upton, she will find you infinitely attractive and satisfy you forever. It will be our folly.

  • @TheNiche,

    The autonomous jitneys will be a really exciting development in transportation. Private autonomous vehicles, however, will congest that pavement we have in the same way private cars do (with efficiency increasing, potentially, if we were entirely autonomous…another exciting feature, but one that is a bit down the road). Shared autonomous vehicles, though, could really improve the street grid’s load (then there’s that traffic management software). Still, we’d need to encourage short trips to be on foot as much as possible (which can be done through design, of course), to free up extra space for those cars to make longer trips. Congestion pricing is a great way to make those long trips happen efficiently.

    Buses are great for their flexibility, but they really cannot compete with the efficiency of commuter rail if it’s grade separated–particularly when you’re sharing the road. I do love how buses can be redirected to different areas, which is great in areas that are still building up and changing. Major centers with lots of traffic between them, however, really should be connected with a grade-separated fixed guideway that can essentially guarantee travel time on a schedule between the most travelled-between areas of town. Trains just carry more people for less energy. They can then be jumping off points for those autonomous taxis to take people on.

  • @ Shmoo: I don’t really think that you’ve posed a strong analogy. If the autonomous jitney revolution fails to take root very quickly or at all, even then, our preparations for it would not have been useless. As I mentioned, METRO’s HOV/HOT/P&R system is already brilliant and their vanpooling program has been successful; to build upon that infrastructure and expand it just happens to also prepare us for future tech.

    @ Jay Farris: The cost of energy is only necessarily lower with trains if you are comparing energy use as a function of nameplate capacity, and that is only ever likely to be relevant during certain hours of the day. Autonomous jitney services, however, can scale their operational fleet at any given time of day according to demand. If the jitney services wholly undermine the business case for commuter rail during off-peak hours, then the commuter rail likely would sit idle for most of a 24-hour period, and that’s a problem. When transportation is primarily capital-intensive, capital utilization becomes a very very high priority.
    As such, I think that there will be some cities and corridors where regular high-speed commuter rail will integrate well with autonomous jitneys and make a lot of sense. The northeast corridor, southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area, southern Florida. Yes, yes, yes. Maybe the I-35 corridor in Texas. Fixed-guideway rail-based services should be evaluated anywhere that there is vast linear development, concentrated employment/activity centers, and a geographic constraint. I’m a lot less clear how that’s going to make a whole lot of sense in a city like Houston.