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Friday Interview: Fighting Traffic Gridlock in North Carolina
Carolina Journal ^ | August 6, 2010 | CJ Staff

Posted on 08/06/2010 11:20:02 AM PDT by Tolerance Sucks Rocks

RALEIGH — North Carolina’s traffic congestion could double in the next couple of decades, with Charlotte drivers facing the same types of delays Chicago drivers face now. That was the conclusion of a 2007 John Locke Foundation report. It recommended $12 billion of spending to clear North Carolina’s congested urban roads and prepare for future traffic growth. Many traffic problems outlined three years ago continue to cause concerns today. Randal O’Toole, senior fellow with the Cato Institute, recently tackled the issue from a national perspective in the book Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It. O’Toole discussed the book in a presentation for the John Locke Foundation’s Shaftesbury Society. He shared some of its themes in an interview with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Kokai: First of all, why are we stuck in traffic?

O’Toole: An important reason why we’re stuck in traffic is because for the last 25 to 30 years, urban planners have decided that they should stop building highways. If they build highways, people are going to use them, and it’d be better to get people out of their cars and onto transit. So we’ve been spending billions of dollars on transit that people aren’t using and not building highways which have become more and more congested, and guess what? People are driving more and more even though there’s more congestion, and they’re just adjusting to that congestion in different ways.

Kokai: What should that tell us about what we should do going forward?

O’Toole: I think what it tells us is that the automobile is really a convenient form of travel, and any efforts to try to suppress auto driving are really suppressing personal freedom and economic freedom because the automobile is an important part of our economy. In fact, the automobile is not only more convenient than transit, it’s far less expensive than transit. Americans spend less than 25 cents a passenger mile getting around by car, whereas getting around on mass transit is closer to $1 a passenger mile. Four times as expensive, and rail transit is even much, much more expensive. For example, the light rail in Charlotte is $4 a passenger mile. So we’re talking about spending far more money to get people out of a convenient form of travel into an inconvenient and expensive form of travel.

Kokai: You mentioned that the planners are playing the biggest role in pushing this inconvenient, expensive form of travel. Why would they do that?

O’Toole: Planners just have this belief that cars are bad, and planners tend to follow fads. They don’t really understand urban economies very well, and so they follow fads, and one of the biggest fads has been started by my former hometown of Portland, Ore., which just spent $3 billion building rail transit, so far. Those rail lines carry less than 1 percent of all travel in the Portland area, and yet they crow to people all over the world that they’ve got a successful system. Well, it’s only successful in that they’ve successfully wasted a lot of money on it.

Kokai: Let’s get into some of the arguments that the planners seem to tend to make about this topic. One of them is that as we continue to grow, we can’t build our way out of the traffic jams by continuing to build more lanes. Are they right?

O’Toole: No, they’re absolutely wrong. Cities that have decided to build more roads have actually been able to relieve congestion, reduce the amount of time people waste sitting in traffic with those more roads. But what you have to understand is that an automobile-oriented society is not going to be a dense society. You’re not going to have high population densities. You’re not going to have a really dense downtown. You’re going to be spread out. Your densities are going to be rather even. A pre-automobile society will have a really dense downtown and then lower density residential areas around the downtown. A post-automobile society, the densities will be about the same everywhere. There won’t be a really dense downtown, but the densities will be much lower — less than 3,000 people per square mile.

So if we decide to try to maintain a really high-density downtown like some cities seem to want to do, then you’re going to have a difficult time serving that downtown with freeways. But if you realize that jobs are decentralizing, factories are decentralizing, offices are decentralizing, banks are decentralizing — everything in society is decentralizing — you don’t need to build a lot more roads to serve that. You just need to let the city be what it wants to be.

Kokai: One of the interesting arguments I’ve heard on this whole topic of the dense downtown versus the spread-out society is that one of the reasons so many older cities — European cities — are so dense is that when they were built, people were poor. They didn’t have these [transportation] options. Now that we are wealthier, we don’t need to have these dense downtowns.

O’Toole: Actually, I think people got that backward. The reason why people started driving is because driving was so much cheaper than other forms of travel. Once they started driving, then their incomes grew. Actually, we don’t drive because we’re rich; we’re rich because we drive. Automobiles give people access to more jobs. They give employers access to a more highly skilled work force. So [in] societies that have automobiles, people earn more money. They have more small business opportunities, more opportunities to go into business. They have access to lower-cost consumer goods. You couldn’t have things like Costcos and supercenters and supermarkets and so on without automobiles. The average supermarket today has more than 30,000 different products on its shelves, whereas the average grocery store 100 years ago had only 300 products on its shelves. So we have access to far more. We have access to much better and lower-cost things than we could get 100 years ago because of automobiles.

Kokai: Let’s tackle another argument. Some people may say, “OK, we admit that perhaps this type of living is more inconvenient, maybe it’s even more expensive, but because of the environmental challenges we face — global warming and other topics — we need to take these steps to reduce the emissions coming out of cars. We need to move more toward transit.” Is there any legitimacy to this argument?

O’Toole: Guess what? Buses burn foreign oil just like cars do. Trains use energy, too. Most of the energy from electric trains comes from burning coal, and that produces greenhouse gases and other pollutants. It turns out that transit uses about as much energy per passenger mile as driving a car. Most transit systems in this country, outside of the very big ones like New York City, actually use more energy and emit more pollution and more greenhouse gases for every passenger they carry than cars do — actually more than an SUV, for that matter. So if you want to save energy, if you want to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, the better solution is to encourage people to drive more fuel-efficient cars, not to try to get people out of their cars and onto an expensive, inconvenient form of travel that few people are going to be attracted to.

Kokai: The economic arguments are bogus. The environmental arguments are bogus. Are there any good reasons not to build more highways and [instead] divert more money to transit?

O’Toole: The only good reason is that Congress has given cities incentives to waste a lot of money on useless transit projects, and so the cities are scrambling to respond to those incentives to get some of those federal dollars. I don’t know if you could call that a good reason, but that’s why cities are doing it. The reality is that we need to look forward, not backward, and there are transportation solutions in the near future that are going to solve a lot of our congestion problems, pollution problems, and energy problems that we could adapt without any problem at all, and do far more to protect the environment, and save people money, and increase mobility than building 1930s-era light rail, 1890s-era street cars, or other obsolete forms of transportation.

Kokai: What’s one really promising example of this new type of technology?

O’Toole: One simple example is something called adaptive cruise control, which is now available on a lot of cars. That’s where, instead of setting your car to a fixed rate of speed, you set your car to a fixed distance behind the car in front of you, and as that car speeds up or slows down, your car will speed up and slow down to mimic that car. Because the computer’s reflexes are faster than your reflexes, you will reduce the amount of congestion. Once 20 percent of cars on the road are using adaptive cruise control, about half the congestion that our cities have is going to go away. So this simple thing that is being adapted without any government planning or any central direction is coming anyway. It is going to relieve a lot of congestion.

TOPICS: Business/Economy; Culture/Society; Government; News/Current Events; US: North Carolina; US: Oregon
KEYWORDS: autos; buses; cars; cato; choochoopushers; congestion; freeways; gridlock; highways; lightrail; masstransit; portland; publictransit; raleigh; randalotoole; subways; traffic

1 posted on 08/06/2010 11:20:07 AM PDT by Tolerance Sucks Rocks
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks

This is the major reason I chose to move to a semi-rural place in NC. I get paid a lot less, but I also have a lot less grief from these kinds of things. NC really feels inferior to places like CA and NY (there being so many expatriates from those places here) and desperately wants to look urbane and sophisticated.

Thing is, most Carolinians couldn’t care less: it’s totally a governing and chattering class thing. So, they push transit and trains nobody wants. Meanwhile, potholes accumulate faster than they can fill them and filling potholes is ridiculously cheap.

Building the freeways they’ve neglected is a bigger issue of course.

2 posted on 08/06/2010 11:23:35 AM PDT by BelegStrongbow (St. Joseph, patron of fathers, pray for us!)
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks

Interesting because there are other areas of NC with good roads and highways and light traffic. Farms make for lower population density and less traffic.

3 posted on 08/06/2010 11:45:51 AM PDT by luvbach1 (Stop Barry now. He can't help himself.)
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks

Um, maybe it’s the backward, little, po- dunk roads? Can’t wait to get out of here and back to Phoenix. Hell, our sides roads in Phoenix can handle more traffic than any highway here.

4 posted on 08/06/2010 11:48:36 AM PDT by riri
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks

Turns out that despite all the porkulus money and tax increases they’ve pulled in Durham over the years, the City of Durham is going to put a $20 million bond issue on the ballot in November for street repaving...the interest of which will add $11 a year to the property taxes of the average homeowner. That’s on top of the $38 extra a year from the property tax increase that council passed, without voter input, to cover mass transit expansion originally paid for by 2009 porkulus funds—no porkulus money in 2010, so they have to get it from the local taxpayer. But, they pinky-swear that after this, they’ll be able to set aside $5 million annually to keep the streets up once they get the county $20 million further in debt, really, cross their heart!

It never ends. They could’ve repaved every street in this town if they’d put the existing tax money toward things like that instead of “diversity programs” (read: reparations toward the large militant black community here) and “green space” and other liberal BS. As it is, the bond issue will probably pass, not just because this place is infested with tax-and-spend racist “gimme mine” liberals, but because the streets here truly are wretched and do need to be repaved. They’ve got us over a barrel.


5 posted on 08/06/2010 11:55:54 AM PDT by Moose4 (November 2, 2010--the day that "YES WE CAN" becomes "OH NO YOU DIN'T")
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To: Moose4

I think they’re still talking some light rail thing for Raleigh that won’t even go to the airport!

6 posted on 08/06/2010 12:28:19 PM PDT by Calm_Cool_and_Elected ("Stupidity is always astonishing, no matter how many times you may deal with it." - Jean Cocteau)
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To: luvbach1

Those other areas of NC that have the good roads also have the political clout and hate the Great State of Mecklenburg where all the heavy traffic is.

Also, Charlotte/Mecklenburg is “blessed” with politicians willing to increase taxes and grab beaucoup federal bucks to build light rail and streetcars (over $1B so far) that do virtually nothing to alleviate traffic. The latest boondoggle is $25M from the Feds and $12M of local money to build a 1.5 mile streetcar route that is easily served by buses (at no additional cost). Meanwhile, we are laying off several hundred teachers and closing libraries because of lack of revenue.

Needless to say, this Saturday Night routine is being orchestrated by Democrats. The Speaker of the House in NC went to jail for bribery. The former governor is facing a half-hearted investigation for corruption and the current governor is under a cloud of suspicion. We also boast the highest taxes anywhere in the region and a ballooning budget.

And that’s what’s buggin’ us, Bunky!

7 posted on 08/06/2010 12:46:50 PM PDT by DeFault User
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To: DeFault User

That’s what North Carolinians get for electing Democrat choo-choo pushers to office.

(Believe me, I’m in Maryland, I know the feeling.)

8 posted on 08/06/2010 1:56:26 PM PDT by Tolerance Sucks Rocks (Michelle Obama: the woman who ended "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.")
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks

Well, we would have a lot less traffic if all these Northeastern liberals quit moving here.....

9 posted on 08/06/2010 4:30:09 PM PDT by GenXteacher (He that hath no stomach for this fight, let him depart!)
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