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Cutting commute times through smarter home building

For decades, transportation experts have told Twin Cities commuters that their traffic congestion delays were increasing faster than practically anyplace else in the country. This instilled a perverse local pride (We’re No. 1!) while affirming our righteous disgust over freeways turned to parking lots at rush hour.

And the solution seemed clear: Lay enough new pavement to give each of us an open road ahead. The cost would be enormous, but counterbalanced by economic gains from reducing wasted fuel and time. Minnesota tried this in the past decade, adding more than 500 lane-miles of freeways and arterial streets to the Twin Cities area.

But most congestion measures barely budged, and the cost attributed to traffic jams still rose. Meanwhile, with resources diverted from maintenance of existing roads to building new ones, vehicle repair costs soared. Commuting kept draining more and more of our time and money.

Maybe we’ve been looking at the problem the wrong way. A new study suggests that dysfunctional transportation is more a product of how and where we build our homes and workplaces than of how we build our roads. It turns conventional wisdom about congestion on its head, showing that a dense city such as Chicago has the nation’s shortest major metropolitan commuting times while sprawling Nashville has the longest.

Hours and miles
Chicagoans spend an average of 136 hours a year in peak-period travel, 41 of the hours in traffic delays. Commuters in Nashville put up with only 37 hours of delay a year, but their total time on the road is more than double Chicago’s — 286 hours. The reason is simple: The average Nashville commute is 25.2 miles, tops in the nation; Chicago’s is just 13.5 miles, longer only than New Orleans’ 12.6 miles. (Commuters in the Big Easy average 138 hours a year in traffic, 20 of them delayed.)

Minneapolis-St. Paul came in about the middle of the pack in the study issued by CEOs for Cities — 202 annual hours of peak-hour commuting, 39 of them in traffic delays, and an average travel distance of 20.1 miles.

The report, “Driven Apart: How Sprawl is Lengthening Our Commutes, and Why Misleading Mobility Measures Are Making Things Worse,” was written by economist Joseph Cortright, who earlier developed a nifty interactive walkability measure for any address in the United States.

In “Driven Apart,” Cortright notes that the average U.S. one-way commute lengthened from 8.8 miles in 1983 to 11.8 miles in 2001, increasing the time spent on the road from 18 minutes to 23 minutes. But, rather than congestion clamping down on average speeds, they increased from 29.3 miles per hour to 31 m.p.h. over the same 18 years.

That leads Cortright to a direct assault on the methodology and conclusions of the Texas Transportation Institute, whose Urban Mobility Reports have long been considered the gold standard in congestion analysis. He argues that TTI’s focus on commuting delays — the time spent in heavy traffic above what would occur in free-flowing conditions, 4.7 minutes more a day in 2001 than in 1983 — assumes a utopian world where traffic never backs up. Its emphasis on high traffic speeds, Cortright says, “rewards places where people can drive fast, even if they must drive much farther. It is a measure that gives credit for going nowhere, fast.”

Cortright also said TTI “ignores the role of land use and accessibility in shaping urban travel” and “misidentifies those metropolitan areas with the most costly and wasteful transportation systems.” He even says TTI’s estimates of fuel wasted in congestion use bad data and fail to account for greater fuel economy at reduced speeds in moderately heavy traffic.

Full disclosure: I’ve uncritically quoted TTI’s findings in the past to advocate more investment on highways. Fortunately, some Minnesota policymakers have been smarter than that. The state Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Council both have long-range plans that emphasize compact development, transit expansion and management of existing roads over building new ones.

Peak period travel distances decreased
Whatever the reasons — enlightened new public policies or just economic and demographic forces catching up with the high costs of sprawl — Cortright found that the Twin Cities and most other major metros actually decreased their peak period travel distances between 2001 and 2007. It wasn’t nearly enough to reverse two previous decades of increase in our area, but it’s a start.

Surprisingly, almost one-third of U.S. metros over 1 million population cut their commuting distances throughout the long economic expansion from 1982 to 2007. These winners in the quest for efficiency range from megalopolises like Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco to growth-restricting Portland, Ore., to seeming paradigms of Sunbelt sprawl such as Dallas, Jacksonville, Phoenix and San Diego. Also in this group is Pittsburgh, the biggest city in the country without an Interstate highway ring road.

The Twin Cities’ 27 percent increase in travel distances in the 1980s and ’90s followed by a small drop in the past decade more closely mimics the experience of second- and third-tier regions like Birmingham, Ala., Kansas City, Louisville and Orlando.

Met Council Chairman Peter Bell says our region is “re-densifying,” with housing growth in the core cities and developed suburbs (31 percent of the total over the past decade) running ahead of official goals. Whether the trend will continue with eventual easing of the Great Recession and exurbia’s foreclosure crisis remains to be seen.

Public policies can go only so far
Public policies that limit growth on the edge of the metro can go only so far to stifle Americans’ pioneer spirit and love of wide open spaces. Met Council spokesman Steve Dornfeld argues that clamping down too hard on sewer extensions and other infrastructure improvements in the far reaches of the council’s jurisdiction merely pushes growth to the exurban counties even further out.

According to the 2000 Census, 40 percent or more of workers living in those places traveled to jobs in the seven metro counties. Perhaps a lot of those exurban commuters were taking shorter trips to workplaces the council has allowed to proliferate on the metro’s edge. Critics say the Met Council has used too little of its authority to concentrate residential and job growth in efficient central clusters.

No matter what land use policies government adopts, some people will still “drive to qualify” for mortgages on cheaper acreage and bigger homesteads far from the metro core. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to subsidize that choice with multilane highways easily accessible to every exurban cul-de-sac.

Conrad deFiebre is a Transportation Fellow at Minnesota 2020, a nonpartisan, progressive think tank based in St. Paul. The article originally appeared on the organization’s website.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 11/02/2010 - 07:01 am.

    The analysis conveniently overlooks a couple of significant factors:

    – Rail transit. Take away the Metra Lines, the elevated trains and even Amtrak in the Chicago region and the congestion on the roadways would be unimaginable. Same for New York, D.C., Boston, etc.

    – Geography. Many of the cities listed have geographic constraints on development: Chicago has Lake Michigan, Seattle/Tacoma has Puget Sound, and so on. Minneapolis/St. Paul can sprawl 360 degrees without running into any natural obstacles.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 11/02/2010 - 08:12 am.

    Let us not forget that building new homes in ever-wider circles surrounding the core cities is NOT a natural pattern.

    It is man made.

    It was inadvertently created as an unintended consequence of seeking to maximize employment for returning WWII veterans.

    It was a simple thing to maximize employment in the home construction industry by establishing rules for the Veteran’s Housing Administration which REQUIRED that you could only buy a NEW house.

    In this way, the old tradition of extended families living in close proximity in the old neighborhoods was destroyed. Along with it went all the benefits of having newly-married couples, new parents, and their young children grow up surrounded by a collection of helpful, supportive people.

    It was in this “unintended consequence” that the “suburban nuclear family” was born, an isolated, unsupported family system which is largely responsible for America rapidly thereafter becoming the most addicted and addictive society on the face of the planet (the lack of having anyone else around to “love you up” and protect you when one or both of your parents are extremely dysfunctional being the cause).

    If we move back into the old, more natural traditions, with people living closer in, knowing their neighbors, settling in close proximity to family and old neighborhoods, we’re likely to find that we become a much healthier, happier, better-adjusted (less irrationally angry) society.

  3. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/02/2010 - 03:58 pm.

    The federal government is good at failing ot anticipate unintended consequences.

    The purchase of a new car was required by the federal government to qualify for the Cash-for-Clunkers program. It seemed like it would create more jobs, just like the VA requiring the purchase of a new house. The problem with new cars is they cost a lot more than used ones. This is not really a problem with houses. Cash-for-Clunkers participants have above average buyers remorse, payment delinquencies, and loan defaults. Like the VA home buyers, they would have been better off without the federal government’s “help”.

    Jobs created? Not so much; Michigan unemployment is 13%.

  4. Submitted by John Olson on 11/02/2010 - 05:03 pm.

    Steve, where is the reference to the federal government, let alone “cash for clunkers” in this piece?

    Planning is done primarily at the local level or regional level. The feds certainly provide funding for large projects, but they aren’t telling my neighbor what kind of landscaping and signage he can use at his place of business.

    Sure, MnDOT has a large role in major highway improvements and what-not, but the land use along those roads is decidely local. If you don’t believe me, go see your City Planner.

  5. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/02/2010 - 06:44 pm.


    Read comment #2. Greg accurately describes the unintended consequence of the VA (federal government)requiring post-WWII veterans to buy new homes to get government assistance to buy a home. This wasn’t done by the City Planner; it was done by the federal government.

    More recently the unintended consequences of cash-for-clunkers were the largest ones, and they were not good. They were foreseeable, as I noted in my Community Voices column of September 9, 2009, and reviewed in my Community Voices column of September 14, 2010.

  6. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/03/2010 - 07:35 pm.

    Create an attractive lawn grass that has a high fuel value. Mow your lawn and sell the cuttings! Finally a productive use for all that suburban acreage.

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