Tuesday, October 11, 2011

On "Congestion" and TTI

The latest TTI report is out. That is, the Texas Transportation Institute released their gargantuan annual mobility report on what they deem the problems of and solutions to "congestion." If you want it, here is a link to all of Dallas's data.

They do this for every major city. It is the illusion of diligence. Fill it with all sorts of objectively measured numbers then come to the exact same conclusion every single time: Need Moar Lane Miles. Such a smart boy. He's going places. Lotsa $$ in road building (for the very few), so we're going to need an awful lot of gobblety gook nonsense that no one in their right mind will delve into to make it look like it's worth something. There's numbers. It must be right.

Unfortunately, TTI has basically been the be-all and say-all for how transportation is measured, planned, financed, and constructed across the country. How's that working out for you? As transpo expert Tod Litman points out there are flaws. TTI has been without significant critic until CEOs for Cities released there scathing indictment of TTI's methodology last year, Driven Apart.

Here is what you need to know about TTI and subsequently how cities, states, and DOTs think about. In other words, how we get it all wrong:

Mobility only means speed. They base the summation of their conclusions on a simple statistic, how fast are the cars going? Not as fast as others? Going to need more highways. As we know, what do highways do? They're 1) expensive 2)only paid for by taxpayers 3)road builders get a mint 4)make land around them undesirable, while 5) making exurban land viable and 6) are unsafe. The faster we're moving the less safe we are. And isn't any public entity's first and foremost goal public safety? Maslow would say so (perhaps unless clean water/air are no longer givens).

However, we still have a need to get places. That is what cities are anyway. They are a medium for social and economic exchange. They allow us to achieve our wants and needs while being the cauldron of foment for human progress, incubators of innovation, metabolizers of ideas: chewing up the rest while spitting out the best.

Are cars a part of that equation of getting between want and need? Of course they are one part of the equation. But then why are transportation dollars so badly shifted towards car and car-based infrastructure. You mean aside from corruption?

The reality is that imbalance of spending on transportation infrastucture towards a goal of free, easy, efficient movement and misses it completely. Once everybody is in a car, there is always the opportunity for a traffic jam. Because the road system is dendritic, funneling everybody towards certain, few routes, there is no choice, whereas a grid is more flexible. Because the entire city is in a car and everything spreads out (so we can move faster)

But if I can walk to all my needs, but do so slower than Plano mom speeding down the freeway, does that mean I'm less mobile? According to TTI, yes. I need a highway between my mixed-use building and the corner store (and it has been delivered, in effect, see: Elm Street).

They say congestion is bad. But what kind of congestion? That is never answered. Because it is an entirely car based report, it doesn't make the distinction between good congestion and bad congestion. Bad congestion is when movement comes to a standstill, ie a traffic jam. Good congestion is where lots of people are in one place but can still move. This can't happen via automobile. It can happen however through mass transit, but even more so pedestrian networks. The most valuable places in the world are highly congested by pedestrians. If TTI had their way, there would be no pedestrians. They're simply speedbumps impeding cars from moving as fast as humanly possible, yet with entirely arbitrarily and only occasionally enforced speed limitations.

Yet the places where you drive the slowest, bad says TTI, are those we love the most (and most valuable): Champs Elysees, Times Square, etc. These places are congested with pedestrians, who freely decide to be there. Unlike any highway TTI recommends building. Very few WANT to be there, but have to because of the transportation network of TTI's dreams.

But the worst part of the matter, is there is no connection between movement and value/investment, particularly the kind that is permanent, that creates a return for cities long into the future. So that each generation isn't paying to build and rebuild every other decade an entirely new city. Instead, that platform already exists. Spain may be in debt to some extent because of their public investments in high speed rail and subways, but they'll pay off long into the future while we have to pay to disassemble some of these freeways in order to build a highly operational city of the future.

Value is created at points of intersection, whether this be two likes forms of transportation (a crossroads), two unlike forms (rail stop meeting pedestrian network), or the convergence of two previously seeming opposing ideas.

A city is best thought of in two planes, the first, is the hierarchical intersection of nodes, what you might call the central nervous system of a city. The crossroads of the network. Value is in relation to the order on the hierarchy of the node/nerve center/convergence point. Value is determined by desirability and manifested by density.

The other plane is the flesh. The residential body that nestles up against the nerve centers as amenities and their interconnections as means to live each and everybody's own lives according to their means, needs, and wants. Except that TTI says you NEED to have a car, your MEANS will have to be spent on gasoline, maintenance, insurance, and the inevitable medical bills when you wreck travelling happily at 120mph, and they don't give a damn what you WANT because those financing TTI do WANT bigger and bigger roads.

TTI is effectively telling us to drive a hatchet (highway) through the patient's nerve center. It seemed like an effective means of curing cancer when cavemen practiced medicine. So why let cavemen play doctor to our cities?

For another metaphor, it is the equivalent of using leaches to cure the patient. Sucking the lifeblood from a city, pedestrians at the nerve centers, and placing them in cars at the edge, in automatonic trudgery down the conveyor belt of life. To work, from work. Stare at bumper. Communicate via monosyllabic honks. Might this be the zombie phase before the ultimate finality? The cannibalistic ponzi scheme ends with the patient dead.