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Panos D. Prevedouros

Sunday, May 30, 2004


Don’t get jammed up
with fixed transit idea


Traffic congestion is evidence of social and economic vitality: Empty streets and roads are signs of failure."

"Automobiles are central to metropolitan life and efforts to manage congestion must accept this fact."

Brian Taylor, University of California at Los Angeles professor of urban planning and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies, advanced these ideas in his 1996 "Rethinking Traffic Congestion." I propose one more:

"Congestion is a self-limiting problem. Perennial paralyzing traffic gridlock is a myth."

Taylor's first proposition means that a congested transportation system is indicative of a city that is a major activity center where much economic and social interaction takes place. Busy streets are a byproduct of the high level of human interaction. We should be happy we live in such a vibrant city.

Taylor's second proposition means that automobiles are tools people use to participate in all the activities that large cities have to offer and their use is the result of rational decision-making. When a segment of the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, people switched to Bay Area Rapid Transit or other routes. Soon after its reopening, traffic levels on the bridge returned to previous levels. Calamity did not have a lasting benefit on fixed mass transit.

Most large American cities have street capacities and residential-area densities far different from those of European and Asian cities. Failure to understand this, as well as the utility of automobiles and the limitations of fixed transit, leads to ineffective attempts to improve a city's transportation system.

Honolulu is built around the use of flexible transportation. Government policies foster urban sprawl and low-density development in places such as Ewa Beach, Kapolei, Makakilo, Waikele, Mililani and Hawaii Kai. Most residential areas on Oahu depend on flexible modes such as private vehicles, buses and taxis for transportation.

The third proposition may go against short-term conventional wisdom, but it is historically indisputable. Modern American cities, many larger than Honolulu, were predicted to reach gridlock. That was in the 1970s. More than 30 years later, those cities have comparable congestion levels and in fact the congestion has decreased on corridors with new highways -- much like the reduction of congestion on Likelike Highway after the H-3 freeway opened.

Large cities have kept traffic congestion in check despite their marginal or failing fixed transit systems and growing populations. They did it by building highways and by using traffic engineering and demanding management solutions along with the development of bedrooms and jobs in the suburbs.

Census data show that in 1995 the number of vehicles became equal to the number of drivers in the United States and vehicles have exceeded drivers ever since. The United States reached automobile ownership saturation nearly 10 years ago. Automobile sales may be strong, but this only reflects the desire of people to own multiple personal vehicles tailored to their lifestyles. Each driver can drive only one vehicle at a time. The excess remain parked.

Plans for fixed mass transit projects as solutions to traffic congestion are unnecessary and threats of impending gridlock in Honolulu are improbable. They only help to divert efforts and resources from realistic and effective solutions.


Panos D. Prevedouros is associate professor of transportation engineering at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.

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