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traffic congestion is sooo 2007

By enelson
Monday, June 16th, 2008 at 5:27 pm in 511, AC Transit, Altamont Commuter Express, Amtrak, Buses, driving, Environment, Fare systems, Freeways, fuel, global warming, Transit vs. driving.

After three weeks of on-again-off-again vacation and quality time with my intercontinental marriage, I am back and promise to keep the blog from getting stale. I am also somewhat ashamed that when my colleague next door is writing haikus and quoting Lao-tzu for his blog, I’m doing the sound of one hand clapping.

And as luck would have it, my overflowing e-mail box contained a pitch for me to talk to a company that provides traffic data for navigation services.

It said that San Francisco/Oakland area has the nation’s ?-worst traffic congestion and seemed to imply that this should make me stand up and take notice. (I can’t tell you what it said because it’s embargoed until tomorrow. It should then be available at www.inrix.com.)

Since we’re usually the nation’s second-worst-congested metropolitan area, no such survey results could be that earth-shattering, unless it found we were worse than the LA area. And no, we aren’t.

But I did discover an amusing recent USA Today story that mentioned a new project that Inrix, the traffic data provider, is involved with:

The most ambitious use of technology to combat traffic congestion debuts next month along one of the nation’s most clogged arteries and could become a model duplicated throughout the USA.

Drivers on Interstate 95 from New Jersey to North Carolina will have access to real-time information on traffic flows, crashes and travel time to help them anticipate delays.

The system reminded me of one that I wrote about that was tested down in Fremont on I-880 that uses GPS-equipped mobile phones to track vehicles’ progress and feed it into a central computer to provide info to the next group of motorists to come down the pike.

Except that this system uses delivery trucks, taxis and other institutional fleets that are today equipped with GPS devices that feed data back to the home office. The cell phone thing is still a few years off.

Of course, if you’re just trying to get from Fairfield to Oakland International Airport, as I am every day, we already have a fine system to do just that, and you can find it at 511.org or by calling 511 on your mobile.

A companion story to the USA Today piece has a really funny example of reality and the newsosphere colliding:

Even Tim Lomax — one of the nation’s foremost experts on highway snarls as co-author of the annual report on U.S. traffic congestion by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) — is not immune. On a Fourth of July visit with his family to Washington, D.C., in 2006, he was stuck in traffic on Interstate 95 as they tried to visit a Civil War battlefield.

“It took us two hours to go 17 miles,” says Lomax, a research engineer at TTI. “I didn’t really want to spend time in traffic on my vacation. My wife and son were like, ‘Oh, you’re the traffic expert?’ “

I get that all the time. Whenever transportation doesn’t work as I expect it to, people blame me. And if I’m alone, I blame myself.

One of the things that occurred to me about all of this was that traffic congestion, while it hasn’t gone away, it has practically vanished as a factor in the urban transportation debate.

Two years ago, we were talking about extra “Spare the Air” free transit days to introduce people to the idea that they didn’t need a car to get to work. The guy who runs the railroad I like to commute on was talking about traffic congestion as his best friend when it came to attracting new riders.

While all the coverage about gas prices climbing past $4.50-a-gallon in the Bay Area seem obligated to make reference to the environment and traffic congestion as part of the reason more people are moving to alternatives to solo vehicle commuting, I don’t buy it. I hear that same refrain when I go out to talk to people on the trains and buses, but let’s face it. Those factors were around before gas got this high, and transit agencies had to beg people got use their services.

That’s why I’m going to be somewhat skeptical tomorrow when I go to the Sacramento Senior Center in Berkeley, where up to 1,900 residents are going to be eligible for free transit rides for a year. The idea is that these “transit-oriented development” residents will be more likely to go car-less if they have free transit available.

I’m it helps to have clogged roads and cheaper transit, but not nearly as much as really expensive gas.

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3 Responses to “traffic congestion is sooo 2007”

  1. murphstahoe Says:

    Now if there was only room on board transit systems.

    25 cyclists were denied boarding on Caltrain 226 this morning along the way from SF to San Jose.

    72x bus at 5:52 AM from Santa Rosa to San Francisco left 7 passengers standing at the bus stop in Rohnert Park.

    I don’t ride BART at rush hour and from what I heard, I don’t want to.

    Yet Arnold cuts funding for transit.

  2. Robert Cruickshank Says:

    It really does come down to money.

    It was all about cheap oil. California, like the rest of the country, chose to rely on that for its transportation, even after the 1970s ought to have taught us otherwise. That combined with another product of the 1970s – the right-wing tax revolt, which taught Californians it’s evil and wrong to tax someone to subsidize a service, even if that helps the overall economy.

    The rationale was that low taxes wouldn’t cripple the state’s economy thanks to low oil prices. Folks can drive everywhere they need to go, things are cheap, why waste tax money on transit?

    Now we see the folly of that thinking. Cheap oil wasn’t going to last forever, and when it began to give out, we ought to have had alternatives in place. But to do so would require taxes to be raised and spent and god forbid we do that. So now we have a transit system wilting under the weight of soaring ridership and no political will – at least among the media-legislature axis – to raise taxes to deal with the crisis, even though the tax increases would be cheaper to the average Californian than the cost of driving.

    As long as we had cheap oil we could avoid that core issue. Now that we don’t, there is no avoiding it.

  3. Capricious Commuter Says:

    I think you’ll find that in the media and even the legislature, there’s plenty of support for tax increases. The problem is that if a third of the legislature — or the governor — won’t go along with it, it won’t happen.

    I’ve wondered lately if California’s current system of requiring two-thirds approval for budgets and tax increase is even constitutional. I mean, isn’t our system roughly based on majority rule?

    Then again, I’m not a Constitutional scholar.

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