3 ways we can fight congestion in our city cores

January 22, 2015 7 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Since the automobile became king of the road in modern civilization, traffic congestion has been a problem in cities around the globe. 103 years after Ford’s first Tin Lizzie found a parking spot, we still struggle with the increasing demands of the automobile.

Article by John Cruz,Editor-In-Chief at The Urbanist Dispatch

Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t by any stretch an anti-car rant. Here in Detroit, we have a special bond with our cars – it’s just part of our culture and who we are. Instead, these are proposed solutions for how to move from one place to another for various methods of motorized transportation.

The Parking Reformation

This bizarre term “Parking Reformation” does not really exist in the sense that words such as “mustard”, “stiletto” and “pioneer” exist in our language and nomenclature.  Instead it exists in a place in my head under “perhaps one day, this will be real”. The root problem here is that studies consistant from 1927 – 2008 show that 36% of cars causing congestion in downtown areas are looking for curbside parking.

That’s right, a little over 1/3 of all cars slowing down our downtowns are just looking for a place to park.

That statistic comes from Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking,  in this month’s Planning Magazine. It seems today that you can’t mention the word “parking” in a planning sense without mentioning Shoup; as this has been a longtime white elephant in terms of siteplanning and transportation planning: parking lots take up more real estate than they need to, curbside parking is a battlefield, and all the while we drive around looking for places to roost. Shoup notes that in a 15-block Manhattan neighborhood that was studied, cruising for parking causes 366,000 excess miles driven in 1 year.
While there are seemingly endless ways that we can fix the parking war, many of the ideas are simple:

- Increase or decrease the price of parking based on market demand.

- Put parking revenue back into local neighborhoods for improvements and ease the municipal tax burden.

- Figure out the right amount of parking spaces for what you are building / rehabbing. Go against conventional wisdom and lower parking options, this includes getting rid of minimum parking requirements.

- Consider new parking technologies, such as what San Francisco has done with SF Park.

Parking rates are typically static, despite changing demand. While we are used to typical prices for items plus taxes and inflation as time goes on, we seem to forget that there are lots of items which change prices daily based on market demand. Gasoline is a more common example, but so are seasonal prices on fruits and vegetables. Even certain menu items at a restaurant may have a note that their prices are set daily.
Parking can be done in a smart and effective way, and different communities can implement parking changes in different ways. It’s time to start experimenting and seeing what works.Edit: Check out Christopher Meyer’s article End parking lot socialism for another look at why right-priced parking is important.

Easier ways to drive from Point A to Point B

Cities around the globe were laid out by planners, politicians, engineers, lawyers with the best intentions of how to create a street layout that works well. Despite even their best efforts, the future is a hard thing to predict. Many older cities were built long before the invention of the automobile, and even those with new modern road layouts struggle to make the demand work.

A potential solution for urban mobility comes from an unlikely source: Yu Zheng. You probably don’t know Mr. Zheng by name. He doesn’t make planning conference engagements, nor does he have a book that sits on the shelves of planners across the country like Mr. Shoup does. He’s not a planner, politician, engineer or laywer. Instead, he’s a researcher for Microsoft Research Asia.

What Zheng has, is a study and some amazing data to back it up. Last month he presented the results of his study “Urban Computing with Taxicabs” in a way to show how we can use technology to detect flaws in urban planning and fix them. The idea was to put GPS units in 30,000 Beijing taxicabs from March – May in 2009 and 2010 and see how people commute within the city. The results of the study were shown a month ago and have already got people talking about how we can put this to work in other cities worldwide.

What Zheng discovered is that in a tale of two areas, one being the destination and the other being the place of departure, that traffic congestion was being caused in a third area lying between the place of origin and the intended destination. Meaning traffic in that area was not even caused by people who needed to be in that area!

Using the GPS taxi data, we can see where people are going and where they  come from, which can allow planners to tweak their city designs and road works in order to represent the real world traffic patterns. This is much better than say, a traffic study which can only tell us traffic loads and correlating times. This gps allows us to see where we’re going and how to better get there, something a traffic study in the traditional sense can never do.

The result? Places where we can clearly see where we should add new roads, subway lines, increase transportation options, alter speed limits and road widths, and so fourth. In order to do many of these things in the past, the ideas would have to be implemented based on a planner’s assumptions or the notion that “If we do X, we think that Y should happen” and in many cases that proves not to be true. This gives us real world data to support and tell people “this is how we know can make it work”. While the methods are not without flaws, this kind of thinking is going to bring new planning tools into the fold for years to come, and hopefully better cities as well!

Transit done right

One of the advantages of Zheng’s research is that we can see where transit lines can go instad of making changes to the roads. If there are no subway lines in a certain part of town, naturally we can’t know that a demand would exist for a subway extension out that way unless of course there was an obvious draw for people, such as a new shopping district or sporting arena. Choosing where to add subway lines is an expensive pitch to make, and it is difficult to justify at times. New data will aide us in deciding where new lines should go.

Yet in many places, the system is insufficient to serve the needs of the people, if one even exists. It’s sad that here in Detroit the most exciting transit development is the promise of a light rail that goes down the main divider line of the city, an area that is already accessible by bus. The idea here is that more people will take to the train idea than they will to the bus idea, connecting new people with the downtown experience.

Like everything transit related, there is the residual question of “Where do we want to be, and how do we get there”. This applies not just in instances of getting from point A to point B, but in regard to the city as a whole. What kind of city do you want to be, and how do you become that city? Over time we have answered these questions with a vast Amtrak and freight rail network, a nationwide highway system, and in many places now carpool and bike lanes on the road, while in some places light and heavy rail transit systems have increased here and there, it is not enough in most cases. And if it is, it won’t always be.

The catch 22 of transit is the expense. We need to plan for the world 10, 20, and 40 years from now. With populations increasing and traffic congestion becoming more and more of a problem, real transit is a necessary solution. Yet up front cash is difficult. Like roads, trains are expensive and suck away subsidy dollars. It can be difficult to argue that we need to pour money into rail infrastructure when our roads look as poorly as they do (at least in Michigan).

The question remains: do we want to pay more for train systems to be built now, or deal with how bad traffic is going to be in 20 years from now?

Additional Reading

Yu Zhen’s report on Urban Computing with Taxicabs (full report PDF and Powerpoint are available for download!)


Article by John Cruz,Editor-In-Chief at The Urbanist Dispatch. John Cruz, MUP, is an urbanist, photographer, and city planner. Originally from Detroit, he now lives in Montreal. This article originally appeared in the Urbanist Dispatch. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.