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Moving beyond simplistic transportation thinking

One of the tensions common today in so many facets of life is the growing complexity of our world vs our desire for simplicity. We like and are used to simple solutions to problems. Traffic is bad? Simple: build bigger, wider roads. Parking is hard to find? Simple: create more parking. Housing is getting expensive? Simple: build more housing. The only thing is, most of those "simple" solutions have unintended consequences and very often don't solve the issue. The problems turn out to be much more complex and deserve complex answers.

And, we don't like complex answers. It's much easier to embrace singular ideas and move on to the next problem. X is good and Y is bad. Therefore, let's do X. Next!

This is especially true when we observe societal issues that are outside our own personal area of expertise. As a non-attorney, it's quite easy for me to say come up with simple, obvious fixes to our judicial system that will correct today's abuses. Except, when I actually take the time to educate myself about the system and the issues, it turns out to not be so simple. That makes my head hurt, so I come back to the simple idea to seek comfort. Ah, that's better - back to the folksy, obvious idea that I just know will work.

There's probably no area of life where this simple/complex dilemma is more apparent than in transportation. Since all of us move around virtually every day, we all have opinions. Most of us drive, many use public transportation and we all walk at some point during the day. It's an essential part of daily life. That makes it ripe for simplistic solutions. 

Fortunately, more and more people are diving into the reality of how we get around. We've been finding for quite some time that simple ideas don't often work. For example, the mantra for decades has been to add more road capacity (bigger, wider roads) in order to handle traffic and growth. One problem: it doesn't actually work. Adam Mann writes in Wired magazine about how wider, bigger roads actually make traffic worse:

The concept is called induced demand, which is economist-speak for when increasing the supply of something (like roads) makes people want that thing even more. Though some traffic engineers made note of this phenomenon at least as early as the 1960s, it is only in recent years that social scientists have collected enough data to show how this happens pretty much every time we build new roads. These findings imply that the ways we traditionally go about trying to mitigate jams are essentially fruitless, and that we’d all be spending a lot less time in traffic if we could just be a little more rational.
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The answer has to do with what roads allow people to do: move around. As it turns out, we humans love moving around. And if you expand people’s ability to travel, they will do it more, living farther away from where they work and therefore being forced to drive into town. Making driving easier also means that people take more trips in the car than they otherwise would. Finally, businesses that rely on roads will swoop into cities with many of them, bringing trucking and shipments. The problem is that all these things together erode any extra capacity you’ve built into your street network, meaning traffic levels stay pretty much constant. As long as driving on the roads remains easy and cheap, people have an almost unlimited desire to use them.

Or as is often said, if you plan for cars and traffic, you'll get cars and traffic. Noted engineer Walter Kulash also used to say, "widening roads to solve a traffic problem is like loosening your belt to solve an obesity problem."

So what's the solution, then? As always, there's no singular solution - it's just not that simple. But people are starting to get much more creative in their approach. One example: the Town of Huntington, New York is experimenting with free valet parking in its downtown as opposed to the usual notion of buying land and building expensive garages:

One thing's for sure: it's important to know first and foremost what your goals are. Then, experiment and try out inexpensive ideas first. Many won't work, but those that will may prove more effective than the "simple" ideas that we are so used to.

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