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Is North Korea Bush's Poland? Is Traffic Improving?

By Frank Gruber

What impressed me about Thursday night's debate was that although you expect the candidates to prepare for a debate, to "rehearse" if you will, it was clear that to Bush this meant practicing his red meat lines from the stump, but for Kerry it was a chance actually to "study up."

It wasn't Kerry's ability to put aside the doubts about whether he's had a consistent view about Iraq that won the debate, but his broadening of the discussion, bringing up issues and places that are just as important as catching Osama bin Laden or Iraq. Issues and places like nuclear proliferation, North Korea, Iran, and the fissile material in Russia.

When it came to North Korea, I confess that I had not paid particular attention to the subtleties of the six-party or bilateral talks question. But after the debate I learned that Bush was flat wrong when he said that if we talked directly to North Korea, we would wreck the multilateral talks. It turns out that all the other friendly countries in those talks, particularly the Chinese, have been pleading with us to reopen direct talks with North Korea, at the same time that the six-party talks continue.

It's the equivalent of Gerald Ford not knowing that Poland was not independent of the Soviet Union.

With all the news from Iraq, will the electorate take a broader look at the international situation? The conventional wisdom is that chaos in Iraq is good for Kerry, but the bombings, the deaths of our soldiers, in Iraq, however, just make Americans angrier. Bush is the candidate for those who want to lash out, but cooler heads know that you don't defeat a guerilla uprising with air to ground missiles.

If Iraq were peaceful, this election would be about the economy, healthcare, and international issues that Bush has ignored.

Kerry would be winning in a walk.

* * *

Two weeks ago I attended the Rail-Volution conference in Hollywood.

Rail-Volution is the premier get-together for people interested in "building livable communities with transit." This year's was the 10th annual conference.

Santa Monica played a big part. Mayor Richard Bloom gave the keynote speeches at one of the lunchtime plenary sessions, on "Community Building, Transit, and Global Sustainability," staff members such as Sustainable Program Coordinator Dean Kubani participated in workshops, and the city was the destination for one of the conference's mobile workshops.

Sandy Grant, from the City's Task Force for the Environment, was omnipresent,

I attended workshops with names like "Thinking Outside the Box to Make Housing Affordable" or "Sustainable Mobility as a Means to Sustainable Development." I took a tour of Pasadena.

I met people from all over the country, from Santa Clarita to Norfolk, Virginia. I thought I would meet more big-city types, but it seemed that everyone was from the suburbs, or in mid-sized cities, and they were all interested in solutions to traffic congestion that might also enhance their quality of life.

At these conferences one can meet people who actually know something. One such person I met at a Rail-Volution party was Richard Stanger.

In the early 90s, Mr. Stanger became the first executive director, and in effect the "father," of Metrolink, Southern California's commuter rail service that now has 512 miles of routes.

Metrolink serves roughly 40,000 passengers each weekday, a nine percent increase over 2003; while that is only two percent of all transit users in the region, Metrolink provides 13 percent of all transit passenger-miles in the region. The reason is that the average Metrolink passenger's trip is long, 36.4 miles.

Most significant, for all those people (you know who you are) who say they could never use transit themselves, and are stuck in their cars, in only about ten years Metrolink has reduced traffic on parallel freeways by 2.9 percent; that's a significant number when you consider that even small increases on already crowded roads can drastically slow traffic and make driving less reliable.

I got to talking with Mr. Stanger, who is now a consultant. One thing on his mind was a recent (Sept. 8) L.A. Times story on the 2004 "Urban Mobility Report" issued by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI).

Every year, TTI releases a report quantifying the level of traffic congestion, and its costs, in 85 metropolitan areas.

Newspapers love the TTI reports because they provide the occasion for scary headlines, the gist being that we are pushing the pedal to the metal toward traffic doom. The heading of TTI's press release announcing this year's report was "Annual study shows cities losing the race against traffic gridlock growth."

Predictably, the headline of the Times' article was "Inland Empire Traffic is 5th Worst; Population growth and more trucks raise the region's U.S. ranking."

That was the headline, but the real news in the report, certainly in the "man bites dog" category (but which the Times buried deep in the article), was that average annual per peak period commuter congestion delay in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana region decreased nearly 25 percent between 1990 and 2002 (from 123 hours to 93), and the average annual delay in the Inland Empire remained largely stable between 1992 and 2002 (55 hours in 1992, 57 in 2002).

Huh? Traffic is getting better; or at least not worse?

Okay, before we go crazy here, what does TTI measure?

TTI uses several measures, but perhaps the best known is its calculation of the amount of time the average driver during peak traffic hours loses because of congestion. TTI determines "annual delay per peak traveler" by contrasting the actual length of commutes with how long they would take in an idealized universe without congestion.

For instance, TTI says the non-congested speed on a freeway should be 60 miles per hour. If you commute 20 miles over a freeway, and congestion reduces the freeway speed to 30 mph, the trip will take you 40 minutes instead of 20. Multiply those lost 20 minutes by the number of workdays in a year, and you get your annual figure for delay.

Keep in mind there are a number of variables. Your delay will go up or down not only because of changes in traffic speed (i.e., because of congestion), but also because of the length of your trip. A shorter commute will mean less time lost to congestion.

For instance, according to census data, the average commute in Riverside is a couple minutes longer than the average commute in Los Angeles, yet the amount of time lost to congestion in L.A. is 63 percent more; obviously, the average distance of a commute must be less in L.A.

So what caused the reduction in traffic misery in the L.A. region?

What piqued Richard Stanger's curiosity was that the decline in time lost to congestion in L.A. and the stabilization inland coincided with the region's beginning to invest in rail. The region clearly crossed a crucial threshold in the early 90s. In 1982 L.A. commuters lost an average of 47 hours to traffic congestion. That number then hit its peak of 123 in 1990. The figure has been declining, with ups and downs, ever since.

The same goes for the Inland Empire. In 1982 drivers there lost a negligible nine hours a year to congestion. In 1992 that number was 55, a more than 500 percent increase. But between 1992 and 2002, the number only increased two hours, to 57.

Metrolink, light rail, and the Red Line subway have all gone into service since 1990 when per traveler delay peaked. Nearly 300,000 people now use these systems every working day, and as discussed above, many of them travel long distances.

The investment in rail is paying off; the TTI report concludes that if it weren't for all forms of transit in the L.A. region, the total number of additional hours lost to congestion would be about 20 percent higher.

But as important as the investment in rail has been, and as promising as it is, it probably does not explain the entire decline in average hours lost to traffic delay.

I spoke to David Schrank, one of the authors of the TTI report, who said that traffic in L.A. is such a complicated subject that, frankly, it defies analysis. For instance, the best explanation of the decline in peak period traffic delay might be that congestion is so bad in the peak periods, that people are adjusting their schedules to drive at other times. This lowers the peak period delay by spreading delay around.

My theory is that the decline in average delay has something to do with increasing density.

Population in the five-county Southern California region increased 13.6 percent in the 90s, from 14.5 million to 16.5 million. The most dramatic percentage increases have been in the Inland Empire; the population of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties increased by 660,000 people, or 26 percent.

But the biggest increases in numbers of people occurred in the more highly developed core counties of Los Angeles and Orange; 1.1 million people, or 58 percent of the total five-county increase.

So what causes traffic congestion, sprawl or density? You swap dairy farms for people in Riverside and San Bernardino, and the average annual congestion delay increases from nine hours to 57 in two decades, mostly in the first decade when population made the first jump from rural to urban. Then jobs start moving to where the people are (i.e., more density, more development), commute distances decline, and so does average delay per commute.

You add many more people to already urbanized counties, and average traffic delay increases more slowly and then declines.

It gets back to the TTI formula. TTI measures the impact of congestion on the average individual commuter. That means TTI divides total number of hours lost, which is a function of speed and distance, by the number of commuters.

If you increase population, you increase the denominator. And if you shorten commutes, you decrease the numerator.

What does density do? Obviously, it increases the number of travelers. But it also decreases the average length of commute, because "things are closer to each other."

The effect is cumulative. If your car trip is shorter, because density has made the destination closer, i.e., more convenient, then not only do you lose less time to congestion, but also, by not driving those additional miles, you reduce congestion for everyone else who is driving.

So let's make things closer.

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