U.S. Department of Transportation traffic formula stuck in the 1950s
© Getty Images

For the first time in its history, the U.S. Department of Transportation is considering new requirements for how states and metro areas will have to measure traffic congestion. 

Finally taking steps to measure what we get out of our transportation investments is a great idea, and one that every responsible taxpayer should support. But the Department of Transportation’s proposed rule as it’s currently written has some serious problems.

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The proposed rule defines success as keeping traffic moving at high speeds at all times of day on all types of roads and streets. This approach rewards roads that move the most vehicles rather than the most people. That might work well for interstate highways, but it quickly breaks down when applied to streets within cities, towns, or neighborhoods.
The formula being considered ignores pedestrians, cyclist, telecommuters, transit riders and those who carpool. In Washington D.C, and other dense and transit rich metropolitan areas, the Department of Transportation’s method for measuring traffic congestion overlooks the commutes of hundreds of thousands of people each day and in doing so, the proposal would fail to reward places that address congestion by investing in these options.

Second, the measure would fail to reward places that use existing streets more efficiently — particularly in urban areas where space is at a premium.

Take for example the 16th Street NW corridor in Washington DC. The street is often clogged at rush hour but, since it’s in the middle of the city, it can’t be widened. So how should transportation engineers address the congestion? One solution would be to add priority lanes for buses, which carry more than half of all rush hour trips along the corridor. Prioritizing 50-passenger buses over single-occupant cars would vastly increase the carrying capacity of the street and allow it to move even more people per hour than it does today. But under the Department of Transportation’s proposed rule, if this strategy succeeded in moving more people but had an even slightly negative impact on average travel speed per vehicle, it would get low marks.

And third, this measure would fail to recognize the benefits of shorter commutes, even if they occur on congested streets. Most people would agree that a 10-minute commute at 10 miles per hour is better than a 50-minute commute at 50 miles per hour, but the proposed rule disagrees. At the very least the Department of Transportation should not penalize the places that help people live close to where they work.

All of this undermines Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony Renard FoxxBig Dem names show little interest in Senate Lyft sues New York over new driver minimum pay law Lyft confidentially files for IPO MORE’s laudable effort to reconnect divided communities and ensure that transportation investments expand people’s access to economic opportunity. Foxx has taken a bold and incredibly admirable stand against poorly designed infrastructure that physically divides communities and cuts people off from jobs and opportunity, especially in low-income communities and communities of color. Prioritizing high traffic speeds at all times of day on all types of roads—regardless of the impact these decisions might have on communities more broadly—flies in the face of Secretary Foxx’s own efforts.

There’s a direct connection between what we measure—how we define “success”—and our future decisions about how to invest in transportation. By prioritizing vehicles over people, this proposed rule would fail both commuters and communities.

The good news is that public comments are currently being accepted on this rule, which means there’s still a chance to change it. Comments close on August 20. If you support more innovative solutions for solving congestion, tell Foxx to change the proposed rule today.

Dodds is a the director of communication for Smart Growth America, which advocates for sustainable neighborhoods. Follow Smart Growth America on Twitter @SmartGrowthUSA


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