Monkey-brained Musings

Monday, May 09, 2005
 
Urban Mobility and the Big Lie

The Texas Transportation Institute has released its 2005 Urban Mobility Study. This is the study that numerically confirms that traffic is getting worse and that is used to justify new road building and new toll roads. There is just one problem, the numbers don't jive with the conventional wisdom as expressed by the TTI's Tim Lomax: ''Austin didn't add transportation capacity in the '80s or '90s,'' and "The 'If you don't build it, they won't come' philosophy didn't work.''

First let's look at the numbers, then why Lomax's statement isn't supported by the numbers. Following are numbers from the 2005 Study for 2003 (the most recent year covered), 1992, and 1982 (the first year covered).

















Measure200319921982
Population850,000 (+109%)590,000 (+44%)410,000
Area445 sq miles (+48%)375 sq miles (+25%)300 sq miles
Density (people/sq mile)1,921 (+41%)1,573 (+15%)1,367
Peak Travelers459,000 (+162%)276,000 (+58%)175,000
Freeway VMT*9.2 million (+207%)6.1 million (+103%)3 million
Lane Miles740 (+147%)510 (+70%)300
Arterial Streets VMT5.24 million (+218%)3.39 million (+105%)1.64 million
Roadway VMT20.7 million (+192%)12.6 million (+78%)7.1 million
Centerline Miles3,320 (+114%)2,575 (+66%)1,555
Annual Delay23.2 million hours (+1189%)5.4 million hours (+200%)1.8 million hours
- Rank284237
Delay per Peak Traveler51 hours (+364%)20 hours (+82%)11 hours
- Rank133325
Annual Delay Saved by Public Transit2.95 million hours (+1080%)1.02 million hours (+308%)0.25 million hours
Hours per Peak Traveler6 (500%)4 (300%)1

* VMT = Vehicle Miles Traveled

These numbers clearly show that Austin did add capacity in the 80s and 90s. Freeway lane miles went up 147%, arterial streets were up 103%, and roadways were increased 114%. The construction of freeway and roadway miles actually exceeded the population growth between 1982 and 2003 (109%). In addition, due to the bust during the 80s, Austin's congestion actually grew at a rate slower than the national average. Between 1982 and 1992, Austin's congestion ranking fell from 37 in 1982 to 43 in 1992 even though the annual delay increased by more than 200% during that time.

The problem is that people have been driving further at rates ahead of roadbuilding. The miles traveled between 1982 and 2003 increased 207% for freeways, 218% for arterial streets, and 192% for roadways. The increase in miles traveled exceeded the rate of construction by 60% for freeways, 115% for arterial streets, and 78% for roadways.

That is the big lie that Mr. Lomax and the road lobby are perpetuating. It isn't that Austin didn't build roads in line with population growth; it is that people increased their driving distances at rates ahead of road construction. In addition, for the first 15 years of the study period, the road lobby spent much of its efforts pushing for roads to the southwest, into the Barton Creek Watershed and over the acquifer and into areas where the citizens of Austin have objected to development for more than 25 years. Had the road lobby pushed for construction of SH 130 during the 80s or if the Transportation Commission had approved funding for construction of the I-35 & Ben White interchange when the City first requested, our mobility statistics and our congestion ranking would be better today.
 

3 comments

Comments:
These studies are tailor-made to sell toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor. The fact that the TTI cites the corridor as "doing something" about congestion ought to give everyone a good idea of what their agenda is and their lack of credibility.

Certainly, Texas metropolitan areas have mobility challenges - but the TTC is not the solution by any stretch.
 
There are a few factors for why miles of travel have run so far ahead of population growth. The main reason is the rapid growth of women in the workforce over the last 20+ years. Now each household has two commuters instead of one. This trend has mostly played out, and future mileage growth should match much more closely to population growth.

We as a society have also gotten a lot wealthier, which means, rather than staying home and cooking a meal and watching TV, we'd rather go out to a restaurant and go to other types of entertainment and/or shopping - all of which requires more car trips and miles.

Finally, I don't know about Austin, but in a lot of cities, the school districts are substantially better in the suburban fringe than the core, and their child's education is much more important to families than it was 20 years ago, so people are willing to live farther away and tolerate longer commutes if it gets their kid into a better school district.
 
I think that education has always been an important factor. What is certain is that housing prices are significantly cheaper in the 'burbs and people have been willing to accept longer commutes in exchange for larger houses.
 
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The scattered musings of Jeb Boyt, Austin Texas. A collection of the random bits that scamper through my monkey brain. This blog is my personal record. The opinions expressed here are my own and are in no way associated with any employer, board, commission, organization, or other entity that I may be affiliated with. So there.

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