Out of Control Policy Blog

Inside the Smart Growth Playbook: Traffic Calming

Rachel DiCarlo has a great piece in the Weekly Standard on one of the smart growth social engineers' latest pursuits: traffic calming...

PROPONENTS OF TRAFFIC CALMING--mostly government planners--not only oppose new highway construction and, in some instances, highway maintenance, but want to reduce mobility by installing roadway barriers and traffic-slowing devices that clog up the roads. In other words, rather than alleviate congestion, traffic calming aims to induce it.

Why create congestion? The goal is to make driving as undesirable as possible, thereby discouraging sprawl and encouraging people to live in high-density areas, where they will either ride mass transportation or walk. Since most cities have trouble filling seats on their money-losing transit systems, traffic calming is also another way to try to make these systems more financially justifiable.

. . . .

There's no firm data on how many cities and municipalities have invested in traffic calming, but it's difficult to find one that hasn't. (The FHWA has a partial list here.) Portland, Oregon, the birthplace of smart growth, spends over $2 million a year on traffic calming. Transportation expert Randal O'Toole notes in his book The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths that the Port of Portland, which helped fund the light rail line to the city's airport, claimed in a slideshow presentation that the key to successful airport rail is a "congested highway and roadway access system." Ten years ago, Portland predicted that its traffic-calming plan would triple local congestion, and concluded that "congestion signals positive urban development." The good news for the city council is that they're on target: In 2003 (the last year for which data is available), Portland's total delay had risen to 33,387,000 hours a year from 25,066,000 in 1996, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.

In Austin, to support a $15 million program that would change one-way streets into two-way streets, the city passed a "transportation hierarchy" resolution that would give first priority to pedestrians, second to public transit, third to bicycles, and last to private vehicles. Officials conceded that their plan would cause a 23 percent increase in traffic delays, but went ahead with it anyway. In 2002, San Jose spent $15.4 million converting 10 one-way streets into two-way streets.

Drive down a main thoroughfare in the busy Northern Virginia suburbs of Arlington and Alexandria and you'll find any combination of traffic-calming devices, which federal tax dollars helped fund. In 2005 alone the federal government gave $8 million to Northern Virginia's Loudon County for its traffic-calming programs.

Aside from purposefully-induced congestion and high costs, DiCarlo notes other significant downsides to traffic calming:

  • Reduced safety: Studies show that converting one-way streets to two-way streets--leads to an increase in car accidents. One study found that changing streets from one-way to two-way increases the accident rate by an average of 30 to 40 percent. Accidents declined by the same rate when streets were converted from two-way to one-way.
  • Increased fire/EMS response time: Each speed bump an ambulance or fire truck has to cross creates an additional 10 seconds of delay. Over the course of a trip, this can add up to precious time lost, unnecessarily increasing the risks to lives and homes
  • Increased pollution: Cars pollute most when accelerating and when traveling at slower speeds, both an inevitable byproduct of traffic calming measures. And there's no evidence that traffic calming actually keeps cars off the road.
  • Increased fuel consumption: DiCarlo notes that the time spent idling in traffic costs Americans $63.1 billion in wasted fuel annually, the equivalent of 2.3 million gallons of gasoline.

All of this in the supposedly noble pursuit of density and increased mass transit usage...only in the bizarro world of smart growth would this sort of policy make sense.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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