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Sick of traffic? Get cities to invest in bikes and mass transit, says report

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New data on congestion shows how complete streets and a multimodal approach helps every commuter

A cyclist in Portland, Oregon. A new report on traffic congestion suggests that the city’s investment in multimodal transit have helped lessen congestion and traffic jams.
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Drivers won’t be happy about the 2019 Traffic Index. In major U.S. cities, commuters are spending more time stuck behind the wheel. An in-depth analysis of road congestion in 403 cities in 56 countries found just 90 showed any kind of measurable decrease in gridlock, with many registering double digits gains in the amount of time spent stuck in gridlock. But behind the sobering data is a solution, and it doesn’t involve building more roads.

In major U.S. cities, according to the navigation company Tom Tom, commuters are spending an increasing amount of time stuck behind the wheel. The study looked at how much time was added to everyday commutes due to congestion, versus taking the same routes at a time when there isn’t any traffic. In Los Angeles, congestion adds 41 percent more time to everyday commutes. New York City drivers spend an extra 36 percent of their commute caught in traffic.

While the data, compiled by the company behind the Tom Tom navigation device, draws from a single data source, it’s safe to assume all cars, no matter the navigation system, suffer the same traffic frustration.

While news that traffic is getting worse sounds as incisive as pointing out the sun rises in the east, there was some good news buried within the tales of gridlock and traffic jams.

According to the study, two U.S. cities, Salt Lake City and Portland, Oregon, showed measurable progress in making traffic less frustrating. Both attacked the problem with a similar strategy, investing in sophisticated traffic light optimization, bike infrastructure, light rail, and reducing parking availability.

It’s a lesson all cities should take to heart. Make life easier for pedestrians, bikers, and mass transit users and encourage more commuters to shift modes and abandon their cars, and roads start to become unclogged.

Building better streets for every rider

Portland and Salt Lake City commuters didn’t see tremendous time savings: Congestion improved by 3 percent and 2 percent, respectively. But with both cities posting healthy population growth, especially Salt Lake City, efforts to maintain or reverse the growth in congestion is particularly impressive.

Salt Lake City’s success partially results from better technology. The city’s investment in an innovative traffic light system, which coordinates signals to reduce delays, has made a dent in congestion. But the overall improvement in traffic times also owes a substantial debt to the expansion of bike lanes and trails, investment in light rail and buses, as well as the city’s GREENBike rental program. Portland has also benefitted from similar investments in multimodal transit, including expanded cycling, new infrastructure such as the car-free Tilikum Bridge, and the long-term plans such as Central City in Action, an initiative to add bus and bike lanes to help ease downtown congestion.

These results underline how better overall infrastructure helps all commutes. A recent study about cycling infrastructure and safety by University of Colorado Denver researchers also found that cities that invest in safe bike infrastructure see safety benefits for all commuters, regardless of how they choose to get around.

The success in Salt Lake and Portland contradicts conventional wisdom around traffic reduction. Despite reams of evidence showing that adding more roads means adding more congestion, there are still calls for building more highways and car-centric infrastructure. In addition to creating more and more emissions, building more highways and streets leads to additional maintenance burdens on state and local governments.

Cities are embarking on massive construction projects with a similar focus on strengthening car-free transit. A billion-dollar plan in Portland will see four new pedestrian or bike-only bridges, new high-capacity transit options, and dozens of projects meant to improve bike safety or speed up buses. This new slate of projects also includes plenty of highway additions and repairs, but the suite of investments in multimodal transit should help alleviate at least some of the congestion on all that new asphalt.