Transit Doesn’t Reduce Congestion

Voting ‘YES’ on MARTA in Gwinnett to reduce congestion?  If so, you’ll need to find a different solution than mass transit.

It seems logical that adding buses and rail would reduce congestion by taking cars off the road, and it is understandable how many people would jump to that conclusion.  But in fact, experts like public transit consultant Jarrett Walker are not at all convinced.  In an article on humantransit.org he makes the following surprising statement:

“To my knowledge, and correct me if I’m wrong, no transit project or service has ever been the clear direct cause of a substantial drop in traffic congestion. So claiming that a project you favor will reduce congestion is unwise; the data just don’t support that claim.”

If you are a pro-MARTA person, I ask you to please take four minutes and look at some of these reports (not editorials) from traffic professionals and public transportation advocates.  Each summary includes a link to the original article.

Public Transportation Does More Than Reduce Traffic Congestion – In this misleadingly titled post from a group called EfficientGov out of California, they make the following statement:

“Despite the continued promise of traffic reduction, many public transportation projects fail to make a significant impact on congestion once the initiative is complete. Some communities report slight congestion improvements or mileage declines, as well as long-term expectations for drops in car-dependency. The limited results for public transit projects reducing congestion can be attributed to a variety of factors such as more ridership does not always mean less traffic.”

Will Better Public Transit Reduce Traffic Congestion? This is really a fascinating read, where a pro-transit author tries to keep transportation advocates from getting into a debate they cannot win.  Here are a few lines from the post:

“It is quite common for advocates of transit to argue that such improvements will reduce traffic congestion.  But advocates must be very careful when stating this.

I therefore believe that it is strategically problematic to claim in a debate with those who oppose improvements for transit (and who instead want to spend money to make motor vehicle travel easier) that transit reduces congestion. The motor vehicle advocates are placed in a strong debate position when the argument is framed in such a way as to suggest transit reduces congestion, because almost no one is able to point to a single community where transit has noticeably reduced congestion, even where there is good transit.”

Even the Pro-MARTA group MartaForGwinnett (run by the Georgia Sierra Club) is up front admitting this.  Here is actual text from their FAQ:

“• Will transit solve our traffic problems?
No, sadly. The point of transit is not to fix traffic nor reduce congestion.”

Using Regional Archived Multimodal Transportation System Data for Policy Analysis: A Case Study of the LA Metro Expo Line – A study published in
Journal of Planning Education and Research looks specifically at what happened with the Expo light rail line in Los Angeles.  This is not light reading, but one of the most revealing sentences is in the first paragraph – “Our results suggest a net increase in transit ridership, but few effects on roadway traffic system performance. “

The Only Hope for Reducing Traffic – CityLab comes to the conclusion that the best way to reduce congestion is congestion pricing, similar to what we do along I-85 in the Peach Pass lanes.  They make this statement:

“The next logical solution is to increase public transportation capacity, but the Toronto researchers found “no evidence” that this impacts road congestion either. There is such an enormous latent demand for road space, they believe, that whenever a driver shifts onto public transportation, another one quickly grabs the open lane.”

Public Transit Investment and Traffic Congestion is a scholarly work that attempts to create a model to measure the effects of money spent on public transportation.  Not an easy read, but they agree with the CityLab report that congestion pricing is the best way to go:

“The user equilibrium is the manifestation of the ‘fundamental law of traffic congestion’: with the user equilibrium, any capacity expansion that decreases travel costs will subsequently induce additional travel that eliminates any (short-run) benefits from reduced congestion as equilibrium is reached. The absence of a tax on the congestion externality yields an open access congestible resource, with the equilibrium outcome failing to maximize the net social benefits of travel.”

If you like numbers and graphs, have we got a paper for you – The Impact of Urban Spatial Structure on Travel Demand in the United States.  These researchers looked at transit supply in 114 urbanized areas in the US and one of the conclusions they reached was important for our discussion – “The results suggest that attempts to reduce auto dependence by altering and increasing the supply of public transit are likely to have modest effects.”

I could go on, but I would like to end with this from a report by the Brookings Institute titled “Traffic: Why It’s Getting Worse, What Government Can Do” the author makes the following statements:

“Even if America’s existing [public] transit capacity were tripled and fully utilized, morning peak-hour transit travel would rise to 11.0 percent of all morning trips. But that would reduce all morning private vehicle trips by only 8.0 percent—certainly progress, but hardly enough to end congestion—and tripling public transit capacity would be extremely costly. There are many good reasons to expand the nation’s public transit systems to aid mobility, but doing so will not notably reduce either existing or future peak-hour traffic congestion.”

Please do your own Google search.  Type in “mass transit reduces congestion” and see what you find.  I expect that you will be surprised – almost every reference will be admitting that it doesn’t.

The County is fully aware that joining MARTA will not reduce congestion

If you read any of the information put out by official sanctioned pro-MARTA groups you will not actually find the claim that the takeover will reduce congestion.  Instead, they usually imply it and leave it up to the careless reader to reach the conclusion themselves.  The most interesting admission of this is in the actual Gwinnett County Comprehensive Transit Development Plan which outlines the plan we will vote on this Tuesday.  The word “congestion” appears three times in the document, and in each case, it is talking about routing buses to avoid congestion:

The connection between New Peachtree Road and Buford Highway is changed from Oakcliff Road to McElroy Road (to avoid congestion at New Peachtree Road/Oakcliff Road).

These corridors will include exclusive bus lanes along significant portions of the alignments to allow the buses to bypass congestion.

Route 701’s corridor includes exclusive bus lanes to allow the buses to bypass congestion.

The only place I could find even the word ‘congestion’ on the GoGwinnett website was in quoted form politicians.

The “Fact Sheet” about the Gwinnett takeover on the MARTA site does not even mention the word ‘congestion.’

I encourage you to do your own research.  If you feel you want to vote YES for MARTA, and pay extra taxes until after you are dead, I can’t stop you.  But just don’t say that you are voting to reduce congestion because that is really being dishonest.

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