Here are six reasons why the Center of the American Experiment report on Twin Cities traffic congestion should not concern you.
1. Contrary to conventional thinking, congestion can be a sign of success. The center’s commentary (“The sad truth behind our congested mess,” June 9) and report cast traffic as a drag on the economy. But congestion is more accurately described as an expression of the economy. There is a tipping point with diminishing returns, but the Twin Cities is not there yet (not even Los Angeles is there yet). The center’s report neglects to understand the growth of the Twin Cities economy when it describes how congestion has worsened since 1984. The peak congestion moment in 2015 is also the point where statewide unemployment was at its lowest — 3.7 percent.
What is more desirable in an economy: fewer people in the workforce or more people enduring some traffic?
2. By focusing on the idea that congestion costs $4 billion, the authors ignore the economic benefit of travel. You can’t focus on the costs without balancing it against the benefits. Congested roads are a sign of people going to their jobs, out to eat at restaurants, to the movies and participating in the regional economy.
3. The Twin Cities should (and probably do) aspire to be more like the economies of Chicago, New York and Los Angeles than like Indianapolis and Kansas City, the center’s comparisons. A strong economy, larger in scale than our region, may mean that our traffic patterns feel out of scale for the population. But this also means new technologies, innovations and other good future-looking business developments will outpace a comparable region. And this is a good thing.
4. As in most places in the U.S., Twin Cities roads are congested because most roads are free. The things we don’t charge for are the things we run out of. Since space on roads is free, we regularly run out of it. Yet the Twin Cities is home to successful examples of this concept — the high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on Interstate 35W and I-394. Pricing is one of the only proven ways to reduce the burden of traffic on the individual.
I know what you’re thinking: HOT lanes are Lexus Lanes. But this problem is solvable through subsidized transponders and returning funds to the local area. We can’t build our way out of congestion. But the Twin Cities can keep using pricing to better manage traffic.
5. Preparing the Twin Cities for the future requires investing in travel beyond the automobile. A more predictable transportation system is a priced transportation system. The region should provide real options for people who do not want to pay that price. Transit needs to go where people want to go, and it needs to go (and come) often. Protection from cars is necessary for people who are riding bicycles. Kids need sidewalks to get to school. A transportation funding package that only provides money for “congestion relief” by expanding the roadway network will only make the problem worse.
6. Strategies that will change behavior are necessary. Nearly every city in the U.S. must get past the idea of whether or not to change their urban fabric and rather put energy on how they will change. More people will be living in the Twin Cities in the years to come, and this is a good thing. Accommodating this growth will require a behavioral change from current residents, coupled with strong land use policies to guide behavior for future residents. Policies that can nudge behavior toward less driving are a good and necessary step now.
Madeline Brozen is associate director at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies (firstname.lastname@example.org). She lives in Los Angeles and follows transportation happenings in Minneapolis, where she grew up.