Traffic is terrible, so we all need to vote to raise bridge tolls, right? That’s what The Press Democrat editorial board, elected officials and business leaders say. However, from the environmental perspective, they’ve got it wrong. What the supporters of Regional Measure 3 on the June 5 ballot are missing is that the world has changed in two critical ways.
Highway widening, the go-to solution of the past, is now recognized as only a short-term fix. What started as an offhand observation that widened highways eventually fill back up with traffic has now been confirmed as an inherent characteristic of traffic.
Transportation researchers have intensively studied this counterintuitive phenomenon, known as induced demand. Their conclusion is that road widening leads to increased traffic that results in a return to the prior level of congestion. In other words, widening highways produces no long-term mobility gain.
The other profound change in the world of transportation is the widespread acknowledgment of the contribution of greenhouse gases to climate change. More than 60 percent of Sonoma County’s greenhouse gases come from motor vehicles. As the population grows under current plans, new residents will add more cars to already jammed highways. That will increase greenhouse gases at the very time the state is committed to reducing them.
While a shift to zero-emission vehicles will make a difference with greenhouse gases, it will have no effect on the increased congestion. A different approach to mobility is needed. Sonoma County needs to change its long-term planning in response to the dual concerns of congestion and greenhouse gases.
The root cause of traffic congestion is the excessive percentage of solo drivers: too many cars fill up the available roadway space. The only way to avoid gridlock is a substantial shift away from driving alone to shared travel.
That shift is going to require attractive alternatives, including conveniently picking up a passenger using a smartphone app (enabling use of free-flowing HOV lanes), a network of convenient bus lines and protected bike lanes. The heavy promotion of ridesharing via smartphone apps will do far more for long-term mobility than the projects promised in Regional Measure 3, with no construction costs whatsoever.
On our website OccupyMTC.org we show how Seattle’s voters approved a comprehensive bus network and achieved a major shift away from solo driving. Bay Area residents could make a similar choice to have a brighter future. That can’t happen, however, if Regional Measure 3 is approved.
The ballot arguments supporting Regional Measure 3 admit that traffic is heading toward gridlock: “This is our chance to reduce traffic BEFORE it brings Sonoma County to a standstill.” The measure is aimed at desperate commuters, claiming it will “reduce traffic.” Those claims, however, are false. Nothing in Regional Measure 3 is going to change the trend toward gridlock.
The sponsor of the measure, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, sets the Bay Area’s transportation priorities. Traffic conditions in the Bay Area have steadily worsened over the last few decades, despite the many billions of dollars spent by MTC. If MTC knew how to cut traffic, it would have done so by now. MTC has zero documentation or history demonstrating it can make good on promises to reduce traffic.
MTC’s own projections for 2040 show a million more cars, with total driving increasing by 21 percent and congestion delays increasing by 44 percent. Despite investing many billions in transit projects, there will be 2.5 million more daily solo driving trips than now. It’s clear the projects in Regional Measure 3 aren’t going to “reduce traffic.”