Traffic isn't the problem, but our transportation is - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Traffic isn't the problem, but our transportation is

Photo by ThinkStock/Getty Images. Courtesy of Crain's Chicago Business.

This article first appeared in Crain's Chicago Business on April 04, 2018. 

Mark Guarino's recent article, "What's making traffic worse in Chicago? Signs point to Uber, Lyft" raised a number of issues the transportation sector is grappling with, yet asks the wrong question.

Instead, we need to be asking ourselves: How do we create a transportation system that works for the people that live in, work in and visit Chicago? It's time to pivot from obsessing about traffic and focus on how to get people where they want to go conveniently, safely, quickly, cost-effectively and with the least environmental impacts.

The least efficient mode is private motor vehicles, which move 600 to 1,600 people per hour.

Transportation is becoming more complex, driven by consumer demand for more choices and more information. That's a good trend. But let's remember that our streets are owned by all the taxpayers and are a finite resource that needs to be managed for greatest efficiency. Think of streets as transportation corridors to move the maximum number of people, whether on foot, on buses, on bikes, in cars or driven in a Lyft, Uber or taxi.

And consider this compelling math: According to the National Association for City Transportation Officials, a sidewalk can accommodate 9,000 people per hour. A dedicated bus lane can transport 4,000 to 8,000 people per hour. More than 7,000 people can traverse a two-way protected bike lane per hour. A CTA or Metra train is the most efficient and can move 15,000 riders or more per hour. The least efficient mode is private motor vehicles, which move 600 to 1,600 people per hour. Incentives to shift trips to more efficient travel modes are essential to enhancing the performance of limited street space—and they cost less than big-ticket infrastructure upgrades.

Two solutions are flexible street design and demand pricing. Smart street design is simultaneously efficient, green, safe and low-cost for users, and promotes physical activity. The Chicago Department of Transportation got it right in its 2013 "Complete Streets Chicago Design Guidelines," which establishes a hierarchy for users of our roads: 1. Pedestrians. 2. Transit. 3. Bicycles. 4. Cars. A commitment to implement this will also help meet the city's goal, known as Vision Zero, to eliminate all traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2026. Pricing that rewards the most efficient modes with the lowest costs is another tool the Chicago region should embrace. The new shared mobility tax that will fund transit is a great start.

And what about the hottest emerging real estate: The curb? It's a safe bet that you've seen Lyft and Uber drop-offs interfering with bus operations and blocking bike lanes, or UPS and Fedex trucks double parked at rush hour. Cities of the future will adopt a curb management plan with varying pricing at different types of day for different types of uses, from transit to deliveries to sidewalk cafes.

If we design our streets for greatest "person throughput" we can let go of outdated view that managing "car throughput" will solve our traffic woes. The world is evolving from auto-dominated to multimodal. Innovative roadway design, technology tools like camera enforcement, and market mechanisms such as pricing will make the most efficient and safest forms of transportation. Then we'll have the city we want: dense, thriving, economically vibrant and easy to get around.

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