Friday, July 14, 2006

Tangled up in traffic

So much for clarity.

The recently released Town Center master plan traffic study – which, in deference to vehicular convenience, serves as a defining quantitative assessment of acceptable development levels – implies to the casual observer that current residential and commercial development projections either will or will not make traffic unbearable. Regardless of what it really says, however, some people still think the report is bogus, or at least irreparably flawed.

Of course, none of this is surprising. The results – namely, that more development will cause additional traffic such that existing intersections will reach a “failing” level of service – are straightforward and common sense to most, I’m sure.

The recommendations – that road improvements must be made in accordance with development, that even with road capacity enhancements traffic will increase, and that more mass transit or less development will make the overall traffic situation relatively more tenable – are, again, intuitive.

Finally, that some would object to the assumptions and framework of this analysis is, yes, to be expected.

Aside from being underwhelmed, I don’t have much of a reaction to the findings of the study. But then, to be honest, I’m less concerned about the impact of the master plan on traffic than I am the impact of traffic on the master plan.

Without questioning the need for them, placing too much importance on traffic analyses – indeed, by possibly allowing several components of the plan to be dictated almost solely by its findings – we marginalize walking, cycling and public transit as alternative means of access and transportation, to the detriment of the master plan and the future of our community.

Town Center, in my opinion, is already a great place to drive, with wide, speedy thoroughfares, (relatively) few traffic lights, and an overall lack of congestion, aside from, maybe, Christmas shopping season. It is not, however, a great place to walk or bike around, and (poorly) serves as the hub of our existing, woefully inadequate transit system.

An impetus for the whole master plan process – and a widely held belief by many who participated – was that we needed a downtown that was more pedestrian friendly, where walking was safe, enjoyable and desirable. Making it so requires sacrifice, and given an undoubtedly positive relationship between the viscosity, for lack of a better word, of vehicular traffic and walkability, we must invariably expect more congestion if our goal is to be realized. How much congestion depends entirely on our priorities.

To be sure, by weighting the needs of both equally, we can achieve a balance between pedestrians and drivers. Judging by the importance of the traffic study and the lack of a similar one for pedestrians (or even transit), however, this is not the case.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the traffic study in its entirety, but I certainly agree that any 30 year plan should incorporate a multimodal traffic study, not just one that considers cars.

And such a study should also include not just traffic congestion, but also environmental impacts caused by different forms of traffic:
- exhaust emissions (COx, NOx, SOx, etc.)
- urban heat island effect from road surfaces/parking lots/parked metal car exteriors,
- green space consumption,
- noise pollution,
- light pollution.

I still don't know why more of Columbia doesn't have pedestrian overpasses. Seems like a pretty simple (and relatively inexpensive) solution to a lot of the contention in town center between foot traffic and the comfortable multilane auto traffic.