NPR Story
2:56 pm
Wed March 5, 2014

The Good And Bad Of Terrible Traffic

Across the country, traffic is getting worse. That’s a good thing — at least in terms of economic indicators. More people on the roads means more people are headed to jobs and the economy is bouncing back.

One of the cities that has a major problem with traffic is Austin, Texas. Approximately 70 new cars hit the streets daily in Austin, making it one of the top five most congested cities in America, according to a new traffic scorecard by INRIX, a traffic research firm.

Robert Spillar, director of the Austin Transportation Department, joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss what the city is doing do deal with traffic.

Guest

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Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

And now for some good news about traffic congestion - it's getting worse. On average, drivers in cities like Honolulu, San Francisco, Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Seattle are spending more time - over a week's worth in one year - sitting in traffic. Boston has the largest increase in congestion in the country. Why is that good news? Well, because the traffic research firm INRIX looks at traffic congestion to gauge a city's economic health.

They say cities with increased traffic are bouncing back from the recession. But, of course, there's a downside. Austin was the fourth-most congested city in America this year. Robert Spillar is director of the Austin Transportation Department. Robert, woo-hoo. Congratulations.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERT SPILLAR: Yeah. Thank you.

YOUNG: Well, it is - as the researchers behind this report point out, it's the good news and the bad news. And they say the question is, how do you make congestion go from an indicator of economic health, with all these people coming to cities like Austin, to an inhibitor of economic growth? How bad is the traffic in Austin?

SPILLAR: Well, you know, it really is a balancing act. Like you said, you know, our congestion here in the Austin region is really caused by our red-hot economy right now. You know, we have an unemployment rate under 5 percent. Looking out my window right now, I can count between 12 and 20 tower cranes building new employment in our main activity center right now.

So, you know, the congestion really is a barometer of how successful our economy is right now. And you know, we're doing a range of things to deal with congestion. We are really focusing on giving folks the maximum number of travel choices. So we're investing in new transit...

YOUNG: Like what?

SPILLAR: Well, we're bringing in - we just launched a bus rapid transit through town. So we have smarter buses that speak to our signal system. The signals allow the buses to get through - if they're running late, get back onto schedule.

YOUNG: Just elaborate on that. It's fascinating. So these are smart buses...

SPILLAR: Yeah.

YOUNG: ...a new technology, they can make a light go green?

SPILLAR: Well, they can ask the light signal system to hold the green for a little bit. So it's not preemption, but what it does is if a bus is behind, the signal system will sense that and maybe hold that light green for just a little bit longer to get the bus through. But then in our downtown area, you know, we're giving transit its own lane to get through our most congested part of our urban street system.

The other thing we're investing in is express lanes on a number of our regional freeways. So those are lanes that will add reliability to the existing freeway system. A lot of our freeways - we only have two, really, coming into our central area. So we don't have like this grid of freeways like you see in Los Angeles and maybe New York. We have two that come into our downtown.

YOUNG: But you have gridlock. You do. I mean, people are spending 41.2 hours in their cars. That's more congestion that New York, where, of course, actually...

SPILLAR: Yeah.

YOUNG: That's actually kind of not fair because not as many people drive in and around Manhattan. But your mayor recently spoke and pointed out that you're getting 110 new people per day - that's fantastic - people coming in because of jobs - but that's 70 new cars. And he said rail or fail. When are you going to get more rail?

SPILLAR: Right now we have a commuter rail system that reaches out - a single line that reaches out about 27 - almost 30 miles out to one sector of our suburban community. We are actively debating building rail right now, and we may be going to the voters this November to have a conversation about the next investment.

This city really has experienced a growth here in the last 10 or 15 years, and so there was a period in time where our investment and our current transportation system was sufficient to meet our needs. And now we're facing these stresses in terms of new urban development, and so now is the time to start talking about higher orders of transportation. So this is really our time.

YOUNG: Well, you mentioned a vote. We're reading in the Community Impact online news, impactnews.com, that there was a vote in 2000 but it was a metro-wide vote and it failed. The mayor hopes that if it's just among Austin residents, who might be better seeing this influx of people and be more likely to vote, that this will pass. How do you convince people that they need more rail to lighten up the roads?

SPILLAR: Well, you know, here's what we're doing. We're giving people choices. And that's really what we are promoting in terms of dealing with congestion. And so we're having an active community discussion about the benefits of rail in addition to roadway investments. Our chamber of commerce here is fairly supportive because, you know, they say we need everything. And so it's not that we're focused only on rail. We're focused on bicycles. We're focused on new sidewalks. We're certainly focused on buses and rails, but we're also focused on completing the roadway network where we can.

There are no silver bullets in transportation anymore, especially in a fast-growing community like Austin. We need to invest in a lot of different transportation technologies.

YOUNG: Well, your mayor said in his state of the city address that it's a traffic crisis, and it could undermine everything Austin has done. It's not just an annoyance. It's a deadly, serious threat.

SPILLAR: It absolutely is. You know, we have not seen the number of vehicle trips per day increase in 20 years. It's been sort of constant. But what we haven't seen is the amount of construction going on that we see right now. And so the issue about congestion, it's really an economic issue. How do we get the next 10, 20, 30,000 employees to our central activity center? You know, sort of the ultimate freedom of travel is giving people choices. Austin, I think, is really on the forefront.

We're actively planning for, you know, when automated cars come to the marketplace. We're actively planning for that generation of folks that don't want to own their own car. They want to borrow a car or rent a car when they need it or share a car.

You know, I think about my kids. What's interesting is I have two kids, and one of them I had to pry out of the passenger seat because he just did not want to drive. That's so foreign for some us that are in our 40s that, you know, the first thing we wanted to do was get a car when we were 14 or 15 years old. A lot of young people today really don't really care about driving that much, or owning a car, you know?

YOUNG: Yeah. I've noticed - yeah. Yeah. They'll ride their bike.

SPILLAR: And so we're - yeah. Or, you know, or use a car share. You know, electricity and some of the new technology coming to the auto industry is going to dramatically change the transportation industry. I mean, it's really going to be sort of what they call disruptive technologies. It's going to force us to change. You know, the automated car is going to be great, but still, it's not going to meet, I don't think, the needs of moving lots of people all at once. So transit is still important.

Sometimes it's like back to the future. You know, sometimes the best solutions are older solutions that get modernized. So, you know, when we're talking about new urban rail, it really is the most modern European tram or light rail-type systems. They can move lots of people to where they want to go. We're really working hard to focus on not just today's mobility issues, but also tomorrow's.

YOUNG: Wow. You're doing so much in Austin. And still, you have a crisis in transportation.

SPILLAR: And still we have a crisis. That's right.

YOUNG: Robert Spillar, director of the Austin Transportation Department, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SPILLAR: Yeah. It's been a real pleasure. Thank you.

YOUNG: So in the INRIX survey, 61 of a hundred cities saw increased congestion. That's compared to 2012, when only six cities saw an increase. Are you feeling it in maybe an economic upturn where you are? Let us know at hereandnow.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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