Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Case for a Six Lane Moratorium

The last two years have brought unprecedented change to the nation and to Central Florida. The financial crisis virtually dried up credit. This caused the housing bubble to burst putting Florida's housing industry sales into free fall. Unemployment, foreclosures and outmigration rippled through the economy. And for the first time since the end of World War II, Florida's population declined. Oil and gasoline prices fluctuated wildly which caused drivers to cut back driving, to stop buying gas guzzling trucks and SUVs, and to create long waiting lists for fuel sipping hybrids.

Traffic on our roads, interstates and toll roads declined. Money available for transportation improvements became scarcer as revenue from gas taxes declined. The federal government pumped massive amounts of money into the system to keep the economy from collapsing, with only a small portion making it to local transportation infrastructure improvements. Global climate change caused by man's activity, primarily the combustion of hydrocarbon fuels, became a reality for the majority of citizens who in turn looked to their political leaders for solutions. And the Greater Orlando area was cited in a national report as being the most pedestrian unfriendly metro area in the country. All these events and their repercussions created new and difficult issues for Central Florida transportation planners.

But these events have also fostered unique opportunities to improve transportation in Central Florida. Consider the positive aspects:
  1. Declines in road usage and miles traveled have altered the need for additional road capacity. Projected traffic increases are not being realized causing at the least, postponement of capacity needs, and, depending on future events, perhaps elimination of some.
  2. The long and much anticipated Metro Orlando transit system with north-south commuter rail as its backbone is approved and construction will start soon. This new system will create opportunities to offer commuters viable alternatives to single passenger vehicle use previously unavailable.
  3. Increased awareness of Greater Orlando's position as the most pedestrian unfriendly metro area has created demands for changes to the system to increase pedestrian convenience and safety.

With less travel on our roads, more viable transportation alternatives, and public pressure to give the pedestrian a better break, transportation planners have the ability and franchise to devote more resources to more walkable streets and pedestrian safety.

Transportation planners and researchers have found out much about the relationship between the type of roads we build and pedestrian safety.

  1. Most of the urban/suburban pedestrian crashes occur on multi-lane, high speed roads that are difficult and dangerous for pedestrians to use and cross. These roads were built to move vehicles quickly and making them safe for pedestrians was not a priority.
  2. Studies have also shown that increasing a road from four to six lanes doubles the pedestrian crash rate on the road, and there are indications widening increases the vehicle crash rate as well.
  3. The process of making existing urban roads safer will be expensive, time consuming and will involve making choices among trade offs between pedestrian safety and vehicular convenience and travel speed.

And the need to resort to widening roads as a routine response to congestion is being increasingly scrutinized as planners have found that:

  • There are proven ways to increase traffic flow without resorting to widening roads, including better signalization to achieve maximum throughput, eliminating bottlenecks, improving intersection turning movements, and improving intersection stacking and throughput capacity.
  • Many transportation planners have come to believe that increasing road capacity does little to change peak time congestion on any given road. Once the road is widened, traffic increases to fill the additional road capacity and congestion reaches equilibrium at the old level.

The Metroplan Orlando 2030 Long Range Transportation Plan has as a desired outcome less growth in vehicle miles traveled by cars and trucks on our road system, and more use of transit and other alternative means of transportation. To accomplish this some of each of the following is required:

  1. Smart Growth planning and growth management to create more walkable, transit-friendly communities.
  2. Providing viable alternatives to vehicle/road use.
  3. Making vehicle/road use relatively more expensive than alternatives in terms of cost, time and convenience.
  4. Providing education to change motorist's expectations through use of media and public relations.

In response to these challenges and opportunities a moratorium should be placed on construction of six lane roads. Such a moratorium would stop the construction of, or widening to, all roads of six lanes or more. Limited access interstates and toll roads would be excluded.

The immediate benefits of a moratorium would:

  1. Allow the reallocation of funds committed to such six-lane construction and widening to alternative forms of transportation such as transit – bus, rail, car pooling, and paratransit - bicycles, and walking.
  2. Promote the evaluation and use of alternatives to six lane roads such as increased connectivity, use of grid road systems, increased efficiency of existing roads through better traffic management, and use of incentives for drivers to use alternative transportation.
  3. Provide an opportunity to increase pedestrian safety on the existing road system without the addition of more six lane roads that increase the pedestrian crash rate, negating any safety improvements on existing roads.
  4. A moratorium will provide base data points from which the pedestrian danger index can go down rather than stay the same or go up.

Turning challenges into opportunities frequently involves changing the paradigm or shifting emphasis to cause people to consider things in a new way. If the desired change features a common goal or focal point that the public can identify with and rally around, then change becomes easier to communicate and put into effect.

A moratorium on six lane roads in the Metro Orlando area would provide such a rallying point. The word moratorium itself communicates urgency and action. In this context it means to stop doing something in order to halt its deleterious effects, and to examine closely the tradeoffs between the benefits and harmful effects of the activity in order to determine whether to continue it in the future.

A moratorium on six lane roads will focus a spotlight on issues that heretofore have not had much public exposure and debate:

  • Issues of excessive single occupant vehicle use
  • Never ending spending on roads that are always full
  • Lack of alternative travel modes
  • Wasteful and emissions-producing combustion of hydrocarbon fuels
  • The effects of urban sprawl on lifestyles, productivity and energy use
  • The danger to pedestrians caused by multi-lane, high speed roads in urban and suburban areas

As with any rule there will be exceptions. Projects already underway that cannot be reasonably stopped would be allowed to continue. Projects in the pipeline that are deemed to be absolutely critical would be allowed to go forward. But the very act of examining and approving these exceptional projects will give greater insight into alternatives and to the criteria that should be used to evaluate future projects. The previous concept of build and ask questions later will be replaced with careful evaluation of need and alternatives before building.

The current environment of economic hardship, shortage of infrastructure funds, unconscionable pedestrian accident rate, global climate change, and the dawn of a new era for transit in Central Florida calls for bold and imaginative leadership. Imposing a six-lane moratorium now is one way to show such leadership, and will demonstrate that the leaders in Metro Orlando are serious about achieving Metroplan Orlando's transportation goals.