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Planning an unsustainable transportation system

Our current transportation system didn’t happen by accident. It was well planned over the past 50 years by an army of public agencies, engineers, and contractors. They were all following a broad, public consensus to develop an American landscape that maximized mobility by automobile.

I-71 in Medina County being widened

This consensus assumed that nearly all people would travel around Northeast Ohio by car – now and in the future. And it assumed that the endless expansion of mobility by car was good for our quality of life and good for the economy, especially because so much of the economy was related to the auto and oil industries. (Go here for the changes that are undermining these assumptions.)

The transportation planning process reflected these assumptions in four critical ways:

Goals — The overriding goal of transportation was to move more vehicles farther and faster. The mantra was: reduce congestion to facilitate the “free flow of traffic.”
Metrics — The dominant measure of success was “level of service,” or LOS, which measures how well vehicles move between two points. If LOS dropped below an acceptable level on a stretch of road, steps were taken to improve service, usually by adding lanes to increase the road’s capacity.
Process — The main activity of transportation planning was to forecast where traffic congestion would appear in the future. The resulting transportation plan was a list of projects (shaped by local politics) that would reduce congestion and allow people to drive more.
Funding — Most funding for ground transportation came from user fees, such as fuel taxes, which could be used only for building more roads (this is such an important principle that state gas taxes are restricted for roads by a special provision in the Ohio Constitution). Thus, the funding system reinforced the circularity of the process: More driving produced more revenue to build more roads to promote more driving.

The public agency that coordinates transportation projects in much of the region, the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA), has described its process as follows:

To develop the Transportation Plan, NOACA needs to know where people live and work, and how they commute. Regional population, work trip, job location and traffic congestion data, gathered from the U.S. Census Bureau, State of Ohio and NOACA studies, provide basic information for forecasting future needs. Combining population data and work trip data through computer modeling allows planners to forecast travel patterns and predict high-volume traffic areas. NOACA analyzes these results and determines where improvements may be practical and beneficial.

This certainly sounds like a rational process. It makes sense to try to analyze trends, forecast where demand will be in the future, and allocate resources appropriately to meet those demands. This helps prevent money from being spent on infrastructure that won’t be used.

The problem with following trends

But what if we don’t like the current trends? What if we want to change the direction of our region? For instance, what if we want to stop suburban sprawl and rebuild Cleveland? How can we reprogram our transportation investments to help produce that result?

It has been really hard to do this. The process of transportation planning — from the goals to the metrics to process requirements to the funding restrictions — has been very good at perpetuating the status quo. But it has not been good at thinking strategically about how to implement a new vision.

A good example of this failure occurred several years ago during the planning process for the Cleveland Innerbelt, the massive project to rebuild Interstate highway connections through downtown. Although there was substantial interest among members of the project’s community advisory committee to leverage the transportation investment to revitalize adjacent neighborhoods, it was hard for ODOT staff and engineering consultants to think in terms of urban revitalization. They viewed the project through the lens of traffic throughput. The main goal was to increase the flow of traffic through the city of Cleveland, and the only ways to accomplish this were to increase the capacity of the highway and surrounding roads by adding lanes and removing bottlenecks. The whole project became an exercise in computer modeling of traffic flows. In effect, the city was not a place for people; it was a barrier to the free flow of traffic.

As an alternative, a number of advisory committee members tried to reframe the problem in terms of demand management — with solutions to be found in land-use planning and downtown housing. Since the big problem with Innerbelt traffic is rush-hour congestion, the goal should be to provide more opportunities for people to live close to downtown jobs. Housing studies have shown that a large percentage of downtown residents work there and walk to work. Thus, one of the best ways — and the most sustainable way — to reduce traffic congestion is to promote downtown housing. This also would be one of the best investments for the long-term health and vitality of the city.

Transportation funds could support such housing development in many creative ways, such as land assembly, city street improvements, and the building of parking structures. The concept would be to view these investments as transportation control measures that help meet the region’s transportation goals. The result would be a transportation solution for the highway with multiple benefits, including urban revitalization, economic development, improved air quality, better public health, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the potential benefits, this concept was never studied by the ODOT project team. It was hard for them to imagine it, given the rigid constraints of the planning framework in which they operated. But this is the type of thinking we need if we are to create sustainable transportation solutions for the 21st century.

Local transportation agencies
Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency
Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study
Eastgate Regional Council of Governments

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