St. Louis Needs More Traffic Jams to Support Improved Public Transit and Sustainability

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St. Louis needs more traffic jams to support public transit and sustainability. At least that’s the conclusion one would reach by reading last Friday’s Wall Street Journal. The common perception is that idling traffic is bad for the environment, but the author makes a convincing case that a certain amount of inconvenience is needed if people are to use public transit, walk or ride their bicycles.

I can already here someone saying, “Why force inconvenience on someone so that they ride Metrolink. If Metrolink was better than driving they would ride it.” Absolutely. The issue is that each of us subsidize the roads and highways, their widening and expansion and endless parking lots for those who choose to drive. This is about lessening that subsidy and offering real choice.

Especially traffic crowded cities like New York have considered congestion pricing and smaller cities now use on-ramp traffic lights to optimize traffic flow. Neither of these options are meant to lessen the overall amount of traffic. They may be viable alternatives to widening roads that begin to resemble Walmart parking lots (vastly under capacity 95% of the time), but these measures actually disuade people from using public transit.

As reported in the story, entrance ramp lights have decreased travel times by up to 22% and increased traffic volume by almost 10%, leading to the consumption of an additional 5.5 million gallons of gas. That doesn’t sound environmentally friendly and making it easier to drive isn’t going to convince anyone to move to a more dense neighborhood or use public transit.

Among other information, the story states that 60 years ago only 3% of American families owned more than one car. By 2001 there were more cars than licensed drivers. The author also rightly claims that “congestion isn’t an environmental problem; it’s a driving problem.” People are, as a whole, rational actors. If driving in St. Louis remains the most convenient, and in many cases the only, option, people will drive.

This is one reason that putting a new MetroLink line down the center of the new I-64 as many proposed (and now rant about) would have been a terrible idea. The new Interstate has been widened from I-270 to I-170. At the worst of times before the reconstruction traffic would slow to a crawl for a very short period of time on I-64. So how would putting MetroLike down the middle of the Interstate where 90% of the time riders would see cars passing them at high speed on an uncongested freeway actually help mass transit? It wouldn’t.

I contend that we don’t need I-64. I generally ride MetroLink from the Central West station to to the Forsyth station, but I also drive on occassion. Forest Park Parkway has seen a big increase in traffic with the closure of I-64 and from about 4:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. each evening Metrolink speeds past the cars inching along the Parkway. This isn’t a problem. The Parkway is still drivable, though slower, and MetroLink ridership is up.

In the end, St. Louis isn’t fighting the same traffic issues as New York. Drivers, customers, workers and business owners have choices. When traffic became onerous in the central city in the 1950’s many left for the suburbs. Of course there were other factors, but even with relatively little traffic, “traffic” remains an issue for many who drive to or within our city. So what can St. Louis do? The one thing that’s clear is that we must act as a region and not 96 different communities if we’re to address the issue.

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