Challenges with Cars: Traffic Conjestion and Single Occupancy Vehicles

I recently finished my Master’s Thesis in which I explored bringing a trip planning program to Albuquerque NM. This post is about the problems Albuquerque is facing in its future if traffic congestion is not addressed.

The City of Albuquerque is facing a transportation problem similar to that of many cities around the United States: an imbalance between where people live and where they work. This problem has primarily resulted from the increase in distance between homes and places of employment.[1] The result of this imbalance is the increase in traffic congestion, which has the potential to continue to increase in the future if individuals continue to spend valuable time stuck in traffic commuting back and forth from home and work.[2]

The impact of traffic congestion goes beyond motorists spending a substantial amount of time in their vehicles. It is common knowledge that traffic congestion affects environmental health by increasing air and noise pollution. There also is an understanding that traffic congestion affects the health and well-being of automobile drivers by increasing their stress levels and susceptibility to road rage.[3] Less is known about the effects traffic congestion has on one’s weight. In a study conducted by the Victoria State government, they found that “each additional hour per day spent in a motor vehicle increases the chance of being obese by six percent.[4]

Traffic congestion not only compromises the health of the automobile driver and the environment, it also affects the health of local economy. The economic costs associated with traffic congestion include, but are not limited to, an increase in fuel and repair cost and a decrease in profitability of businesses along these congested roadways.[5] Businesses may then decide to recoup their losses by passing these costs along to the individual. In 2007, the average American household spent approximately 18 percent of its annual income on transportation, and in low-income families, this cost was as much as 33 percent.[6]

Removing traffic congestion entirely is not possible. If everyone gave up their cars today and started to ride bikes everywhere they went, this would cause traffic congestion in the form of bicycle gridlock. However, it would be a healthier gridlock for the driver and the economy in general. Businesses depend on drivers to pass by them on their way home and make a note of that business for a later date. However, a general reduction in traffic congestion is a positive for businesses, not a negative, as this can lead to lower operating cost.[7]

One of the biggest reasons American cities experienced a significant rise in traffic congestion is the increase in Single Occupancy Vehicle (SOV) trips. According to data obtained from the 2010 American Communities Survey, 78% of Bernalillo County residents’ trips to work are SOV trips.[8] This is slightly above the national average for SOV commuters of 76%.[9] Getting more Americans out of their cars and using other modes of transportation is the only way to reduce traffic congestion levels. This reduction will ultimately make the roads safer for all users, including automobile owners.

Most trips are three miles or less, and many individuals can easily makes these trips by other active modes of transportation instead of the automobile.[10]

So why do more individuals not make three miles or less trips in a mode other than the automobile? Many Americans have developed a pattern of turning to their automobile first when they want and need to go somewhere. The prime reason for this has to do with the built environment. The built environment “influences physical activity participation, including recreational walking and walking to and from transit”, and communities that “feature compact development and mixed land uses encourage” active transportation.[11]

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Robert Cervero and Roger Gorham argue that since the Highway Act of 1956, road development has taken on a hierarchical road network, were limited-access highways are at the top and local streets at the bottom. Highway design focuses on safely allowing the “greatest volume of traffic to pass at the highest speeds possible”, whereas the cul-de-sac is about keeping traffic low and slow.[12] This type of hierarchy places a greater importance on efficiently moving automobile, while almost forgetting about the pedestrian, as seen in the land use maps of the three cities studied for this project. Albuquerque, and Austin suffer from hierarchical road networks to a greater extent than Portland does.

The cul-de-sac is a way to protect neighborhood children at play from automobiles. However, it also poses challenges for efficient pedestrian movement. For example, the cul-de-sac cuts off direct paths and forces pedestrians to walk long distances to get to places that are geographically a five-minute walk from the pedestrians’ homes. Cervero and Gorham go on to say that, “many modern suburbs limit travel choice by physically designing out all but the automobile option.”[13]

Map of Albuquerque Land Use Austin Land UsePortland Land Use

[1] Hanson, S. (1995) Getting There: Urban Transportation in Context, p. 23.

[2] Mid-Region Council of Governments (2011). UNM/CNM Travel Demand Management Study. MRCOG pp 10-12.

[3] SKM Consulting (2011). Understanding the Relationship between Cyclists and Drivers, p.48.

[4] Victoria State Government (2012). Victoria’s Cycling Strategy: Cycling Into the Future 2013-2023, p. 9.

[5] Transportation Research Center (2007). Managing Urban Traffic Congestion. Paris, France: OECD p.16.

[6] FTA-HUD Affordable Housing Transit Plan (2008). Better Coordination of Transportation and Housing Programs, pg. 3.

[7] Mid-Region Planning Organization (2012). 2035 Metropolitan Transportation Plan, p. (6)13.

[8] United States Census Bureau.

[9] Parker, H., & Fields (AICP), D. (2012). Campus Controls. Planning , 78 (2), 7-11.

[10] Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center. (n.d.). Portland SmartTrips

[11] Besser, L.M.,and Dannenberg A.L. Walking to Public Transit: Steps to Meet Physical Activity Recommendations, pp 1-2.

[12] Cervero, R. and Gorham, R. Commuting in Transit Versus Automobile Neighborhoods, pp. 210-212.

[13] Cervero, R. and Gorham, R. Commuting in Transit Versus Automobile Neighborhoods, pp. 210-212.


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