More Roads Won't Solve Traffic Problems

THERE'S an old saying: "When all you've got is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."

Well, for years now, we've been hammering away at our worsening transportation problems with the same tired answer: build more roads. Where has it gotten us? Recent headlines pretty much spell it out: "Seattle-area traffic jams among nation's worst."

That's right, a newly released study by the esteemed Texas Transportation Institute has shown that no city in America has worse rush-hour traffic than we do. Not L.A., not San Francisco, not Denver, not Atlanta.

But while media all around our region picked up the story of the Transportation Institute's ranking, much less attention was paid to the other major recently released study, that of the Washington, D.C.-based Surface Transportation Policy Project.

Using the Texas Transportation Institute's data, the study compared 70 cities nationwide and found that there was no difference in traffic congestion between cities that added extensive new road capacity and those that did not. A recent University of California study of 30 urban counties found that every 1 percent increase in lane miles generates a 0.9 percent increase in traffic within five years. These studies prove that while building new roads is incredibly expensive, it provides at best a temporary relief from traffic.

To make it simple, you can't build your way out of gridlock.

What can we do then, to ease the traffic trauma we're feeling here? We need a three-step approach:

-- Stop sprawl, strengthen our existing communities, and reduce our need to drive so much;

-- Invest in transportation choices that help the most people for the least money;

-- Be strategic about how and where we lay down new blacktop.

The first thing we should do is stop suburban sprawl. Sprawl jams traffic. When tract houses and mini-malls are scattered all over the place, and when the folks living there have no way to pick up a quart of milk without hopping in their cars, they, not suprisingly, drive more. Add the longer commute times from homes out on the suburban fringe to jobs in our existing communities, and you get instant congestion.

The answer is not to build bigger freeways and farther-flung subdivisions. Instead, we should be working to make our existing communities better by strengthening our Main Streets and neighborhood centers, and focusing growth into what urban design wonks call "transit-friendly development."

Transit-friendly communities are a lot like the neighborhoods our grandparents built: residential neighborhoods that have at their heart a Main Street where there are shops, businesses and apartments for retirees and young couples; neighborhoods where it's easy for the 40 percent of us who don't drive (kids, seniors and the disabled) to get around on their own, and where sidewalks, bike lanes and street trees make them feel safe and welcome; and finally, communities that are compact enough so that transit like trains and buses can serve them without losing money. Go to older neighborhoods around our region, from Kirkland to West Seattle, and that's what you'll find.

These neighborhoods work for one simple reason: the things you need, from groceries to the community center, are all close by. Instead of people driving to the store, good neighborhoods bring the stores to the people.

This isn't rocket science. Nearly every neighborhood can provide easier access to shopping, safer streets and a stronger sense of community, if we just become smarter with the investments we make.

But if stopping sprawl and building stronger communities is half the answer, the other half is giving people more choices about how they get where they want to go.

We should start by cutting incentives for driving alone. One innovative example is the "parking cash-out," where a company pays its employees the cost of parking, rather than just giving them a free space. Employees are then free to choose to continue driving alone and parking, or they can use take transit, carpool, bike or walk to work and pocket the savings.

Another example is the concept of "location-efficient mortgages." These lending programs offer better deals to families in urban areas with good transit and walkable neighborhoods who give up one of their cars. Recognizing that a family with only one car spends significantly less than it would on car payments, gas, insurance and repairs, this program provides a direct incentive in the form of better credit to those who commit to driving less.

We should also be investing in projects that move more people, not just more cars. This means inter-city rail and bus; convenient and reliable transit service; safe bikeways; and good connections between trains, buses and cars. Our commitment to regional transit through the Sound Transit project is a good first step here, but we have much farther to go.

Generally, new roads are not the answer. In certain cases, though, such as in some Eastside suburban communities, strategic road expansion makes sense. However, we must still focus on our ultimate goal, which is helping the most people get where they need to go for the least possible expenditure of taxpayer dollars. That means we need to put the priority on improvements like converting general-purpose lanes to HOV lanes, using the best available technology to improve traffic flow and safety, and turning wide shoulders into driving lanes before we build any new general-purpose lanes.

Investing in solutions that move the most people per dollar is a particularly important rule of thumb as our state Legislature considers how to spend the money voters dedicated to transportation by approving Referendum 49. This is a huge package, with spending that will put us in debt for years. Let's not fumble the ball by funding roads to nowhere and highways that won't help.

We need to get serious about our transportation woes. Bankrupting ourselves so that more people can sit in traffic isn't the answer. Stopping sprawl and investing in transportation choices are solutions we can live with. David Allen is policy director for Transportation Choices Coalition (formerly ALT-TRANS), which promotes a balanced transportation system for the people, environment and economy of Washington State. Alex Steffen is director of urban development for 1000 Friends of Washington, which fosters vital communities and protects Washington's natural heritage by managing growth and stopping sprawl.