If we’re headed in the wrong direction environmentally, one big reason is how we travel: mostly in cars and trucks, alone, through heavy traffic. Transportation accounts for 28 percent of total U.S. energy use, and a similar percentage of the emissions that cause climate change — not to mention its share of pollutants that make air unhealthy to breathe. Roadways and vast parking lots gobble valuable downtown real estate, pave countryside and let stormwater wash pollutants into our waters, even as the ease of travel they’re designed for dwindles, and congestion keeps rising.
For instance, while Pittsburgh isn’t unusually congested for a big city, according to Texas A&M University’s annual “Urban Mobility Scorecard,” commuters here spend an average of 39 hours a year stuck in traffic, costing each of them $889 in fuel and time. Nationally, we average 42 hours of staring at brake lights. That’s more than doubled since 1982, when the figure was just 18 hours.
“Congestion,” the report notes, “is also a type of tax.”
A new initiative here addresses the problem. The online survey Make My Trip Count focuses on commuters, particularly those in the employment centers of Downtown and Oakland. The joint effort of Mayor Peduto’s office and groups, including the Green Building Alliance, the Pittsburgh 2030 District and Envision Downtown, launched last week. One goal is to help Downtown and Oakland employers and building owners participating in the 2030 District cut energy and water use by half by the year 2030. A complementary goal, says Envision Pittsburgh’s Sean Luther, is to improve mobility and livability Downtown, with its growing residential population. Longer-term, says Green Building Alliance’s Aurora Sharrard, survey results could help policy-makers answer the question “How can we serve most people better?”
The question is somewhat urgent. According to a 2012 Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership survey, some 126,000 people commute to Downtown daily, and just over half of them take public transit. U.S. Census estimates indicate that Pittsburgh also has a pretty high percentage of commuters on foot (11 percent) and by bike (2 percent). But if you think congestion is bad now, wait until 2035: Business as usual, projects the GBA, would bring a 60 percent increase of vehicle-hours of delay over 2013 levels, to 5.1 million hours a year.
The survey, at www.makemytripcount.org, is up until Oct. 16 and takes about 10 minutes to complete. It asks how commuters travel, but also questions like, “What is the primary reason you would avoid driving?” Convenience? Cost? The survey also asks what would make commuters more likely to bike or take public transit to work.
Most observers would love to see more commuters leaving their cars home, and Make My Trip Count might improve things in Downtown and Oakland. But what if the root of our larger transportation problem isn’t so much about type of vehicle as it is about lifestyle?
Thank decades of surburban sprawl. According to a 2015 report by the nonprofit Brookings Institution, the average commute in most major metro areas is more than 7 miles. (In Pittsburgh, it’s 8.1 miles.) That’s further than most people care to walk or bike. And the figure suggests a populace so spread out that public transit will struggle to serve it. Indeed, nationally, according to Census estimates, only 5.2 percent of workers commute by transit. (The Pittsburgh metro proportion is 17.5 percent.) What’s more, says Brookings, our workplaces are continuing to suburbanize, and to get further from workers. And as noted in the Urban Mobility Scorecard, traffic in many places is congested almost around the clock, not just at rush hour.
What’s the solution? Public transit, biking and walking are all both most feasible and most widely used when people and their jobs (and other destinations) are closest together. A real transportation solution must curb sprawl and encourage denser development. Researchers like Fred Ducca, of the National Center for Smart Growth, in College Park, Md., say denser development means less congestion for all trips, not just for commuting.
It’s a fix that’s neither quick nor politically easy, especially in an era of still-cheap gas. But long term, it’s either that or meet you at the stoplight.