Handing out A’s to C students: How we measure our transportation’s usefulness - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Handing out A’s to C students: How we measure our transportation’s usefulness

Flickr user Erin Nekervis (CC)

Buses carry many more people than cars, but proposed U.S. Dept. of Transportation rules would privilege cars over buses.

Do you ride your bike to work? Take the train? Perhaps you moved closer so you could walk. Well, according to draft rules released today by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, you don’t count.

Ok, that’s a little harsh, but the point is that our friends in the federal government are trying to develop new ways to measure the impact—or “performance”—of the dollars we spend on transportation in this country. Those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about what we get in return for our investment are underwhelmed after an initial review of the proposed rules.

We already know that the State of Illinois needs $43 billion over the next 10 years to make up for a lack of investment in the transportation system. What many of my friends (rightly) say is that they won’t give another dime to the government unless they can be assured it goes to projects that have a positive impact. They don’t want to see any more calls for tollways like the Illiana Expressway. It’s disheartening, then, that the federal rules would seem to support just such a project.

The rules focus primarily on the speed of traffic moving on a given road; the faster the traffic is moving, the better the road performs. This may make sense in vast swathes of the country where everything is moving by car. But in urban areas, with lots of traffic and where people have choices, this approach penalizes those of us who choose not to drive.

Ironically, it's urban areas where the majority of the population now lives and that trend is only expected to increase. So, as we build transportation infrastructure in Chicagoland today, that same infrastructure will be serving even more people in the future.

Rather than the speed of the vehicle, another approach to performance is to measure the number of people moving through a corridor. For example, if we are only concerned with the speed of traffic and every vehicle is a car carrying one person, then we will build more lanes for more cars. BUT, if every vehicle becomes a bus carrying 50 people we’ve dramatically increased the carrying capacity of the road without pouring another inch of concrete. Furthermore, if we are only focused on roadway congestion, we completely ignore the hundreds of thousands of people who avoid the roads altogether by getting on mass transit. Ideally, cities should be developing more mass transit, not less, so we need a system that values it.

I like living in Chicago because I get to choose how I get around. On any given day I take advantage of at least three different modes of travel and I’m not unique. We have an opportunity to led the Feds know that we count and that we should be valuing things other than speedy car travel. If you want to have your voice heard, you can email them your comments from their webpage. Transportation for America and Smart Growth America also have a comment option set up.

They’re waiting to hear from you for the next 120 days. Tell them you count.

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