The Urban Transportation Issue: Minimizing Travel Times

The Atlanta metropolitan region is plagued with some of the nation’s worst traffic congestion. The principal problem is that the roadway system is not sufficient to handle the traffic. Part of the problem is that the area is poorly served by a sparse network of freeways. However, the lack of a viable arterial street system is probably an even more significant barrier, as indicated in our report with Alan Pisarski (Blueprint 2030: Better Transportation for Atlanta).

A campaign is now underway to improve transportation in Atlanta. The plan, however, would provide disproportionately large amounts of funding to transit projects that would simply do nothing to reduce traffic congestion, while failing to provide for the added roadway capacity required to handle the traffic demand.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution invited me to author a commentary piece, which was published on November 21. It is republished here, because the transportation problems in Atlanta are similar to those in other large metropolitan areas both in the United States and Canada.

The Real Issue is Travel Times

Those joining the chorus of criticism of the roundtable’s transportation plan have plenty of reason to be disappointed. At a time when metro Atlanta needs economic growth more than ever, the plan would spend little of the proposed higher taxes on programs that would better position the area competitively.

The principal benefits of transportation in an urban economy occur from minimizing travel times. Atlanta is one of only four major metropolitan areas with a one-way work trip travel time of more than 30 minutes. This is primarily the result of metro Atlanta’s less-than-robust freeway system and a low-capacity arterial street system. If Atlanta is to become more competitive, it will be necessary to speed up car travel.
Yet, transit has an important role, especially in providing mobility to the downtown area. Transit also provides mobility for low-income households, though most of their travel is by car. However, transit is incapable of providing competitive travel times to most of the metro area, which is why people travel by car. Few places make the case better than Atlanta.

For more than 30 years, Atlanta has been expanding its transit system and has built one of the largest new rail systems in the world. What’s more, MARTA is a world-class metro (subway) similar in design and capacity to the Paris Metro or the London Underground, rather than the lower-capacity trolley systems built in Portland, Dallas and elsewhere, using the catchy marketing name “light rail.” Yet, since 1970, transit’s share of travel to work has fallen nearly two-thirds in the metro area and by nearly one-half in the city of Atlanta.

A recent Brookings Institution report highlights the scarcity of competitive service. Only 3.4 percent of metropolitan area jobs can be reached by transit in 45 minutes by the average employee. “This is an astounding figure, since the average single occupant automobile commuter spends one-third less time traveling to work.”

Even the most effective transit systems — New York, San Francisco and Boston — provide access to only around 10 percent of jobs. And, unless transit agencies are permitted to print money, there never will be enough to do much more.

In Europe, where cars carry the largest share of commuting in major urban areas, the European Conference of Ministers of Transport has characterized attracting people out of cars to transit as comparatively ineffective. If it were possible to reduce travel times with transit, local planners would have long ago proposed such a system; they haven’t anywhere. The reality is that transit, on average, takes 70 percent longer than commuting by car in the metro area and the roundtable plan will not change that.

Transit accounts for barely 1 percent of metropolitan travel. Yet the roundtable plan would commit more than 30 times that on transit. Nearly a quarter of this would be spent on repairing the MARTA system which, if it were sustainable, would have no need of new taxes.
Metro Atlanta needs a vision that focuses on objectives. This means one that reduces peak-hour travel delays as much as possible per million dollars of new taxation. How much is spent on transit or highways is not the issue. The issue is reducing metro Atlanta’s travel times to encourage greater economic growth, job creation and poverty elimination.

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  1. Brian says:

    Atlanta is in such a geographically desirable area for a number of firms that it’s a shame that they haven’t been able to improve and build more freeways. They are losing firms to other cities party because of that, probably.

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