“Antidotes” column of May
9,2005, we explored useful remedies for the viruses that contribute to Geographic Illiteracy and collectively result in regional immobility. It is now time to examine the terminal state of growing metropolitan-wide mobility: Regional Rigor Mortis.
News on Traffic Congestion
The annual Urban Mobility report from the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) at Texas A&M University (TAMU) was released the same day as our “Antidotes” column was published. It contained very good news for S/PI: We do not have to rewrite our September
20, 2004, column “Spinning Wheels, Spinning
Data,” which reviewed last year's TTI/TAMU report on the expansion of metropolitan immobility.
The 2005 TTI at TAMU report presents the same grim picture as last year’s report, only worse. The “numbers” changed by a few percentage points here and there. The report is still the best measure roadway congestion in the intensively urban areas of the United States. And it is still misleading and incomplete for the reasons we spell out in our column on last year’s report.
The tragedy is that, while there is ample opportunity to easily improve the report, the authors could not even if they wanted
to because the annual study is paid for by the organizations that are responsible for creating the immobility problem in the first
U.S. Department of Transportation, state
departments of transportation, and those who profit
directly and indirectly from transport facility
construction support the work of TTI and every other major transportation research center in the US of A. As if
these linkages needed to be any clearer, the timing of the TTI report release highlights the political nature of this “research” effort. The TAMU press release notes the report was made public just as federal transportation re-authorization action was heating up. It turns out it was released the very same day as the Senate took up the $284-billion re-authorization bill.
While there has been incremental improvement in the federal transportation legislation over the last two re-authorization cycles, it is still fair to
characterize the federal transport bill as “highway pork barrel.” It will remain that way until there is a direct relationship mandated between transport facility capacity and the trip generation of the human settlement patterns which the systems are intended to serve. Neither the House nor the Senate version even attempt to do this. That does not stop TTI from lobbying for the legislation.
The press coverage of the TTI report (e.g. AP story carried by CNN and
The Washington Post) only obscure the
core realities. The first page of the TTI summary notes that there are three things that will improve mobility:
expand facility capacity, improve system management and change travel demand. The media coverage focuses on the first two. Almost all the quotes are from those who are paid directly or indirectly to expand or manage transport facilities. In other words the media quotes those who get paid directly or indirectly by “autonomobility” advocates. These “experts” talk about the need for more asphalt/rails and programs/equipment/ technology to improve traffic management.
These resources would be a necessary part of a comprehensive mobility solution but they are not sufficient to stem the growth in traffic congestion and regional immobility.
The TAMU staff notes in the study that
it does not evaluate some “strategies (i.e. Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns) that present opportunities for improving transportation.”
The media coverage acknowledges the need for “land-use
planning” but not Fundamental Change in the pattern of trip origins and destinations or balancing travel demand with transport system capacity, much less the imperative of
creating Balanced Communities in sustainable New Urban Regions.
For those who thought our column overstated
Antidote One, check out point two from “The Big Picture” summary at the end of the full TTI report: “Hours of delay, time of day and the miles of road that are congested have grown every year.” A slow economy in 2003 (the year the data was gathered by federal, state and municipal transportation agencies for this years report) cause slight decreases in some measures of congestion in some regions. But for prosperous places, such as the three New Urban Regions that fall all, or in part, in Virginia, the congestion and the pain grows apace.
Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance in a
follow-up “alert” spells out the details of the growing congestion problem in the National Capital Subregion. All the indicators of pain are up. But the Subregion did not go up in national ranking in most categories, indicating that immobility is growing in every other large, prosperous New Urban Region too.
Perhaps the most important point with respect to growing regional immobility is the
nationwide extent of the traffic congestion problem.
As noted in
Crisis,” there are “only” 55 regions and subregions
in the U.S. (out of 300 +/-) with hyper home price inflation. Hyperinflation of house prices impacts the most prosperous
regions--the most desirable regions with “More, Better Jobs.” The mobility crisis is more
widespread. It impacts every large urban agglomeration and the bigger the region, the greater the impact. This is why S/PI calls transport “the canary in the mine field of dysfunctional human settlement patterns.”
A Crater in the Roadway Ahead
The growing rate of travel congestion is well documented. Not only is traffic getting worse
nationwide, the existing infrastructure is falling apart.
[See “Virginia Roads: Nothing to Brag
About” on the Bacon's Rebellion blog.) It is universally agreed that if nothing is done (or the same things that have been done in the past are continued) congestion will continue to get worse and worse.
it is also very apparent that there is no agreement on what to do about congestion. In the
“avoid-all-the- relevant-issues” tradition of the current two-party dictatorship governance structure, it has been decided that the best chance of winning the next election is to propose no definitive action on mobility to which either party or any candidate can be tied. The “long range plan” is to just wait until the problem gets so bad that there is a default consensus on a solution.
“Not to worry, we are just sliding toward Gomorrah and when things get really bad, this great (state, country) will just fix it.”
The “wait-until-it-gets-really-bad” non-strategy will not work because economic, social and physical systems do not work that
way: They collapse in crashes, rebellions and avalanches. At an unpredictable point these systems are subject to cataclysmic failures as noted by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jared Diamond in
"Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or
End Note One.)
MIT economist Lester Thurow, who was writing about “human capital” in the 1960s and about the “Zero-Sum Society” in the 1970s, devoted the 1995/1996 Castle Lectures in Ethics, Politics, and Economics at Yale University to ideas that became
"The Future of Capitalism: How today’s Economic Forces Shape Tomorrow’s World." (See
End Note Two)
The messages in this book were lost in the euphoria of the post communist era, highlighted by the pay-down of the national debt and the grand tech boom. Most of the book
discusses the need to reconfigure capitalism in the light of the vacuum created by the demise of competition with communist societies. Thurow also makes an important contribution by pointing out that natural systems from tectonic plates (earthquakes) to ecosystem diversity do not change in
gradual, easily predicted processes. In economics (stock market crashes) and in human settlement patterns, one must be aware of the ubiquitous “punctuated equilibrium.”
As we note in
"The Shape of the Future":
Whether it is called ‘the age of discontinuity’
(Drucker) or a ‘period of punctuated equilibrium’
(Thurow) or a ‘great disruption’ (Fukuyama), society is in the midst of fundamental changes.
These fundamental changes foretell an era of stress and violence. As we document there and repeat here:
There is good evidence that society is rocketing toward Gomorrah and headed towards a crash, a paradigm shift--and region-wide immobility is the first indication.
and perhaps still, citizens had the resources to make Fundamental Changes for the better. If intelligent change is not made, then the fundamental shifts will be for the worse and not just for transport and housing but for economic prosperity, social stability and environmental sustainability. We will address these issues in future columns.
The Stop-Gap Measures
It is not that no one recognizes the problem of growing
regionwide immobility. Candidates for state office following the
the-votes-cast” leadership have proposed regional agencies, constitutional amendments, special legislative sessions, resource reallocations and “honest answers” to solve the mobility problem in the Commonwealth.
There are a number of groups who hope to force these candidates to commit to taking some action. Steve Haner’s column “The Transportation SOLs” in the
May 23, 2005 edition of Bacons Rebellion is a good example.
Mr. Haner and Virginians For Better Transportation are right on target concerning the need to put a fair burden on the cost of fuel.
Steve's column also provides useful data on the overall picture of funding for the current transport system in the Commonwealth.
everything Steve writes, however, is the unvarnished gospel. There are important reservations about the role and function of public-private partnerships as Pat McSweeney has pointed out in his columns in
Bacon's Rebellion. Also, there is the red herring that the Commonwealth has only increased the lane miles of asphalt by seven percent since 1986. Seven percent may not seem like much but Virginia has such a huge system--the third largest in the United
States--and was so overbuilt with four-lane roads from nowhere to no
place, that seven percent actually represents quite a lot of new roadway. Further, the TTI numbers indicate that regions
adding a lot of lane miles have not seen significant improvement in the measures of congestion. As we have noted, more roadways in some parts of Virginia are the
cause, not the cure for congestion. (See “The Shape of Richmond’s Future,” Feb.
While Steve Haner makes a number of good points, he misses half the transport equation by failing to note that more money with the same settlement patterns will make congestion worse, not better.
By avoiding the issue, he creates the impression
that he is trying to hide something -- no matter how fancy
the website. Citizens want more than swinging crane graphics, as documented by the voting on sales taxes for transport two years ago and the failure of any candidate save George Fitch from even discussing the core issues.
In fact, the most important thing to remember about regional congestion is that money alone will not help improve mobility. The candidates for state office and Senator
John Chichester’s “Statewide Transportation Analysis and Recommendation Task Force (START)” must come to understand the necessity of Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns and the imperative of balancing the capacity of the transport system with the travel demand generated by the distribution of land uses.
Does anyone want to wager that START will even mention creating a balance between transport system capacity and travel demand generated by existing and likely settlement patterns?
While transport interest groups pound the drum about more money for more asphalt/rails and for system management improvements, and while transport groupies pontificate about the “next Interstate system” (See “Interstate
Crime,” Feb. 28, 2005, there is a bigger problem: the prospect of Regional Rigor Mortis.
The Road From Congestion to Regional Rigor Mortis
The fact is that traffic congestion has continued to grow worse on a regional scale every year in every major urban region for the past 45 years. Over 80 percent of the population now live in these congested regions–in the US of A and in Virginia.
The vast majority of these citizens must rely on private automobiles for access and mobility. The spot-gap measures to improve private-vehicle mobility only make matters worse by giving hope that some painless solution to growing immobility is in the offing. (See
End Note Three.)
What is Regional Rigor Mortis and what is the connection between growing regional immobility and Regional Rigor Mortis?
Regional Rigor Mortis is the failure of a region’s vehicle mobility system–you cannot get there from here. Abusing a human body (eating and drinking the wrong things or ingesting the wrong drugs) results in digestive tract constipation. Trying to provide mobility with ineffective strategies has the same results
for a region’s transport system. Just as traffic congestion grows into “gridlock” in a corridor, a severe, region-wide case of mobility constipation becomes Regional Rigor Mortis.
SYNERGY/Planning, Inc. identified the potential for massive regional change due to travel constriction when considering the potential impact of Disney’s America
on mobility in the Virginia portion of the National Capital Subregion. (See
End Note Four.)
S/PI predicted that the result of building
Disney's America near Haymarket would be the evolution of a tri-cored New Urban Region. (Washington-Baltimore-West Prince William/Disney).
Disney's America and associated sucker development would
have been a large enough economic generator to overcome the isolation created by corridor gridlock.
Extrapolating from the experience in Orange County,
Calif., and Orange County, Fla., S/PI based this
assessment on the distance between existing subregional cores and the DA site. Polycentric urban systems are not new. A discussion of the dynamics of polycentric urban form is beyond the scope of this column. (See
End Note Five.)
Over the past decade without
Disney's America, isolation of the area served by the I-66 corridor west of Gainesville has evolved. Isolation–“I am not sure when or if I can get there”–is a daily fact of life in Warrenton-Fauquier. The causes are spelled out in the backgrounder “Anatomy of a Bottleneck: The US Route 29/Interstate 66 Interchange in Gainesville, VA.”
The isolation is occurring because of the scale of the scattered residential land uses that are agglomerating within 30 miles to the north-west, west and south-west of Gainesville/Haymarket.
Unlike the Disney’s America scenario of a decade ago, there is no major urban activity generator of sufficient scale to create a new subregional core. The impacted area is too far from the concentration of jobs in the core of the Subregion to provide efficient residential support for these jobs. (See “The Commuting Problem,”
Jan. 17, 2005, and “Where the Jobs Are,” May
24, 2004. At the same time, the new urban residential land uses are too far from existing development to be supported by service/recreation/amenity land uses inside the Clear Edge.
This geographic reality generates demand for new agglomerations of support/service urban uses. This is, by-and-large, a relocation of urban uses that already exist to the east in the I-66 corridor including those in the VA Route 234 Business corridor, in “downtown” Centreville and in Fairfax Center.
The 2000 Census data on commutation patterns in outlying jurisdictions of the National Capital Subregion (e.g. Shenandoah, County) cited in “Take Me Home, Congested, Nonurban Road,” April
11, 2005, indicate a series of tiered commuting rings, which is the first stage of Regional Rigor Mortis.
We know what severe traffic constipation looks like in a relatively compact New Urban Region. We noted in “Spinning Data, Spinning Wheels,”
Sept. 20, 2004. In the Brazilian New Urban Region of Sao Paulo:
But what about the National Capital Subregion that has one quarter of the population of Sao Paulo but stretches out 100 miles in three directions? Places such as Washington-Baltimore and Houston are an order of magnitude less compact than Sao Paulo and all the citizens expect access and mobility. In this case, the automobile is the only choice for most citizens. In fact, life as we know it is impossible without massive use of the automobile.
Under conditions where urban land use scatteration is extreme, the only source of mobility is the automobile and there is no balance at the neighborhood, village and community scales, the result is Regional Rigor Mortis.
Regional Rigor Mortis is the cumulative result of widespread belief in two myths: The Private Vehicle Mobility Myth explored in “From Myth to Law,” Nov.
29, 2004, and the Big Yard Myth explored in “A Yard Where Johnny Can Run and Play,” Dec.
To date we have heard of only one “solution:” In Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan when President Saparmurad Niyazov wants to go for a ride he has all other cars ordered off the streets. That will not work in a democracy where every voter owns a car.
Why is the potential for Regional Rigor Mortis so real? The failure to match travel demand with transport system capacity. Almost all agree that this balance is fundamental to creating and maintaining mobility. Some have silly ideas about ways to achieve the match-–like building roads through vacant land–-but most agree with the need for the match.
(See “Antidotes,” May
9, 2005, and End Note
Why has traffic congestion gotten so bad and getting worse? The same reasons that cause the crisis in shelter outlined in “The Shelter
Crisis,” (May 23, 2005):
As with housing, it is a chicken and egg situation as to which must come first. In preparation for work on PROPERTY DYNAMICS,
we have identified a taxonomy of the current economic spectrum in the Untied States:
What are the prospects of:
Not very good
a society, we have not found a way to create affordable and accessible housing in prosperous regions (places with More, Better Jobs) and no way to create More, Better Jobs in regions with affordable and accessible housing.
See “The Shelter Crisis” May
Mobility and access is eroding for most of the citizens in all three categories. As noted above, over 80 percent of the population now live in congested regions and the vast majority of these citizens must rely on private automobiles for access and mobility.
Add to these facts the following:
There is no fair allocation of the costs and impacts of location based decisions by citizens, families, enterprises, institutions or agencies
In the terminology of Lester Thurow, society is poised for a punctuation in the status-quo equilibrium of stupendous proportions, and Regional Rigor Mortis will give citizens lots of time to sit in their cars and contemplate the end of the road. Future columns will examine the ramifications
of energy and resource consumption concerning mobility, shelter, food, water and air.
June 6, 2005
Diamond, Jared; Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or
Succeed; New York; Viking 2005. Those who have read
The Shape of the Future know that theories spelled out in Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winning book
Guns, Germs and Steel (New York: Norton and Company 1997) support the overarching conceptual framework of human settlement patterns that have evolved over the past 10,000 years including the emergence of New Urban Regions. A future column will review Diamond’s new book.
Thurow, Lester C.; The Future of Capitalism: How Today’s Economic Forces Shape Tomorrow’s
World; New York; William Morrow and Company 1996.
For a summary of transport dysfunction causes and cures see the four-part series of columns: “Self Delusion and Fraud,” June
7, 2004; “Death and Taxes,” June
21, 2004; “The Perfect Storm,”
July 12, 2004; and “Out of Chaos,” July
26, 2004. Also see more recent columns addressing aspects of the transport issue: “Spinning Data, Spinning Wheels,”
Sept.. 20, 2004; “Dying Young in Traffic,”
Nov. 1, 2004; “The Skycar
Myth,” Nov. 15, 2004; “From Myth to Law,”
Nov. 29, 2004; “The Commuting Problem,”
Jan. 17, 2005; “Interstate Crime,”
Feb. 28, 2005; and “Take Me Home, Congested, Nonurban Road,” April
4. In the case of Disney’s America, S/PI considered the impact of a very large traffic generator and the induced land uses on 15,000 acres of vacant and underutilized land in West Prince William (30 + miles from core of the National Capital Subregion),
and concluded that no private vehicle system could provide access and mobility. The traffic volume generated by the West Prince William/Disney urban agglomeration would have overwhelmed the connections to the rest of the National Capital Subregion--I-66 and the parallel roadways. The origins and destinations of the travel demand were so dispersed that no shared-vehicle system could provide access and mobility. See references cited in “Chasing Out the Mouse,”
In considering the evolution of urban form at the regional scale, the key parameters are component scale, distance between centroids and the level of balance. If the cores are large enough and far enough apart (Washington-Baltimore or Dallas-Ft. Worth) they become New Urban Regions with two cores. Each core has a high level of balance of
amenity and, thus, there is a relatively low demand for interconnection.
If the “potential” core (e.g. Greater Tysons Corner) is in close proximity to an existing core, it will evolve to become a community-scale component within the larger subregional complex.
The difference between a Washington-Baltimore New Urban Region with two cores and a
Disney/West Prince William with three cores is the distance between the centroids of the cores. To spawn a new core with sufficient mass to be a subregional core requires an economic engine sufficient to create new core. More distant urban enclaves such as Winchester or Fredericksburg can function within the region or subregion as relatively
better balanced communities because of the distance and diversity/balance that existed before the New Urban Region system emerged following World War II. Disaggregated/Balanced Communities in the Countryside such as Warrenton/Fauquier exhibit similar characteristics. We will explore these issues farther in
"The Shape of Warrenton-Fauquier’s Future" and in future columns.
6. Tony Downs
of the Brookings Institution likes to say (e.g in
"Still Stuck in Traffic") that traffic congestion is the inevitable result of the lifestyles that citizens choose. The question is: Would they continue to take the same actions if they understood the cumulative impact of their actions? More important, what would they do if they had to pay the full cost of those actions?