In 1992, Anthony Downs, now a senior fellow at the prestigious Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., wrote an influential book titled “Stuck in Traffic — Coping with peak-hour traffic congestion.” In it Downs draws on the concept of “induced demand” to explain why building new roads does not relieve traffic congestion. In simple terms, providing more of something can lead to increased consumption. With roads this has the counter-intuitive effect, in only a few years, of making congestion worse than it was before the new road was built.
Here’s how it works. Building new roads creates what Downs calls “triple convergence.” First they entice drivers, who because of the original congestion had given up rush-hour driving, back to old habits. Second, drivers using alternate routes are drawn to the new, faster roads. And third, new roads lure both old and new users away from public transit, which in this city can be a chore in itself.
So, not only do new roads not relieve traffic congestion but they further create a feedback loop that draws money away from the one kind of investment that does: public transit. More road users mean fewer transit users, which creates a temptation to reduce transit spending even further. Worsening matters, this downward spiral fosters, even promotes, the fiction that money spent on public transit is a “subsidy” to those too poor to drive, as though car-lessness were a disease searching for a cure.
“So what?” say free-marketers. “People make a rational choice to use their cars.” Right? Wrong! The truth is we lack real choice. How can a threadbare transit system compete with a lavishly endowed road network on even terms? It can’t. In fact, historically our city has spent three times as much on roads as on transit.
But, an efficient, well-appointed, properly planned transit network providing convenience, reliability and a radically expanded roster of destinations certainly could compete. In such a system, high user satisfaction rates and significant long-term savings to the city and to individuals offset the lack of garage-to-garage convenience.
Here are five suggestions to build a better Calgary transit system that breeds confidence and loyalty enough to be competitive with cars.
1. Provide seamless, citywide connectivity. The ability to get to (almost) anywhere from (almost) anywhere in a city is the hallmark of a great transit system. If people can’t get to where they need to be from where they are, they won’t choose transit no matter how user-friendly it is. Currently, Calgary’s system is centred downtown, leaving many major destinations difficult to reach via transit (Mount Royal University and the airport, for example). And, because everything passes through the core, quadrant-to-quadrant connectivity is poor at best. In previous articles we made a case that streetcars are an ideal means to supply such connectivity.
2. Provide reliable, timely travel information. Knowing with certainty when the next train, tram or bus is expected allows users to arrive at their stop “just in time” to make their connection. Many transit systems employ GPS-equipped transit vehicles, which transmit their real-time geographic co-ordinates to a central server. The updated information is displayed at transit stops and sent to wireless and Internet networks so travellers can access the information before they leave home. Such systems are relatively inexpensive and easy to install but have a very high payoff in terms of increasing user satisfaction.
3. Make ticketing friendlier. Many cities have convenient swipe cards that can be recharged online. Others pay using cellphone apps. We do it for parking, so why not for transit? Offer a variety of ticket packages to make the system more convenient for casual users, families and tourists. Reduce prices on weekends to build further ridership during non-peak periods. Very cheap prices for neighbourhood travel (one or two stops) help local businesses by providing extended access to nearby customers. Give change at ticket machines or take credit and debit cards. Or better yet — do both.
4. Integrate the system. Everything possible should be done to encourage ease of transfer between transit modes. If public transit can’t be the whole trip it can be part of it. Park-n-ride should be free, although a case could be made — in the name of easing congestion — for charging at inner-city lots. Provide secure bike parking too, and lots of it. Find more ways to have bike-friendly buses and trains for cyclists.
5. Get the language right. Urban transit is an essential element of sustainable world-class cities, not a charity. Removing the word “subsidy” from the transit conversation and replacing it with the word “investment” would be a good start.
In building a better transit system, the principle of induced demand should be applied in reverse: relieve congestion not by building new roads, but by creating a transit system people love. In 2010, for the first time in decades, the city spent more on transit than on roads. Let’s hope that’s the beginning of a long-lasting trend. We have a lot of catching up to do.
Next article: Johnny on the spot: Public toilets and social sustainability
Geoff Ghitter teaches Urban Studies at the University of Calgary. Links to the research used in this article and can be found on his blog at geeessgee.blogspot.com. Noel Keough is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary and is co-founder of Sustainable Calgary Society.