Social Engineering

by Virgil Soule. 0 Comments

The most persistent congestion problems occur at the bottom of I-270 where morning traffic must queue up to get on to the Beltway and in the afternoon where traffic must queue up to get off the Beltway on to I-270. Another occurs at the three-to-two lane bottleneck at MD121 in the afternoon. The MMCS upgrade plan will not address these long-standing congestion problems apparently by design based on traffic management philosophy that is foreign to American attitudes and tradition.   The fundamental question in Transportation Planning is its basis: Should transportation facilities be designed to meet the disparate needs of the tax-paying public, or should they be structures imposed by the state on the people based on some current fad or ideology, e.g., environmentalism? Should Transportation Planning be based on objective realities or subjective political or economic beliefs? Should it be based on Capitalist or Socialist principles? Transportation Planning in the UK and Europe and, increasingly, in the USA is based on the latter.   The automobile was an instant hit with Americans raised up with horses and buggies. Henry Ford’s Model T made automobiles cheap and accessible to almost everybody.   Roads, however, lagged behind. Streets and roads in and around cities were paved but, in the country, they were dirt lanes that turned into rutted quagmires in wet weather. Some farm-to-market roads were paved but mostly they were surfaced with gravel. In the 1930s the Federal Government began financing the US highway system (of which, US15 is a small part). In the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower as President initiated construction of the Interstate Highway System.   Financing these highways and finding land for them, however, have always been contentious issues. Today new highway construction has reached a point of diminishing returns. The Interstate Highway System is viewed as complete and very few – if any – new highways will be built in the future.   Nevertheless, the world’s population is increasing inexorably and the number of automobiles with it. People need homes and jobs. Understandably, many move to the suburbs to escape city crowding, noise, and heat – and to have their own space. Unfortunately, their work places remain behind close to airports and other city amenities. This turns suburbanites into commuters. Commuters need highways – like I-270.   One problem for commuters is that everything in this country is so spread out. Until you’ve actually driven it, you really can’t appreciate how big this country is: 3000 miles coast-to-coast, 2000 north-to-south. It’s huge. Urban areas are spread out and tough to reach without an automobile.   If need be, many destinations in the DC metro area can be reached by public transportation. It’s possible to get to Dulles Airport from, say, Rockville via Metrorail and Metrobus. You take the Red Line downtown, switch to the Orange Line to Northern Virginia, and then catch a Metrobus to Dulles. It might take four hours to get there but it is possible.   The real bummer is the return trip. You get off your airplane at, say, eight PM after an eight-hour trip from LA and you’re still faced with a four-hour bus and train trip back to Rockville. That’s why travelers drive to the airport and park their cars there. When you get to your car you feel like you’re already home – and you only have an hour’s drive back to Rockville.   The pesky thing is that Americans are free to drive their automobiles wherever they like. Furthermore, they are free to go SOV (Single-Occupant Vehicle) if they wish. Fully 90% of the passenger vehicles driven on U. S. Highways carry only one occupant. From a productivity standpoint this practice is extremely wasteful. Vehicles are being operated at 25% or less of their capacity.   Nevertheless, American drivers operate their vehicles this way because they can. Not even 4-dollar-per-gallon gasoline was strong enough to drag them out and into car pools. High-Occupancy-Vehicle lanes have been in use for twenty years now and they likewise have failed to extract SOV drivers from their vehicles. American commuters prefer the freedom and convenience that going solo provides.   All of this brings commuters into conflict with transportation planners. These are the people who must find money and land for new lane space. It isn’t easy. The Cross-County Connector in Montgomery County has been in gestation for thirty years and is still years from completion.   Not surprisingly, transportation planners have come to view commuters as adversaries – almost as enemies. Some view our automobile use as a dependency or even addiction. It’s understandable that this point of view should come from Europe where open spaces are much more jealously guarded. That it should be adopted by US highway designers is surprising. The European point of view is simply not applicable to US commuters.   Economically, the European point of view is socialist: The State provides the highways and commuters are expected to conform to the State’s rules for their use. Rather than basing highway design on engineering principles, transportation planners must rely on social, and political means including use of behavioral psychology to achieve the State’s goals for highway use.   High-Occupancy-Vehicle and Express Toll lanes are a manifestation of the behavioral psychology approach. HOV lanes are a carrot-on-a-stick attempt to lure commuters into car pools. The expectation is that, since the HOV lanes are lightly used, they will run faster than the adjacent general purpose lanes and attract car-poolers. If the HOV lanes are successful and begin to fill up, the planners will feel justified in taking over more GP lanes and converting them to HOV use.   It hasn’t worked. HOV lanes today are not significantly more heavily used than twenty years ago. ET/HOT lanes are financial failures wherever they’ve been built. These behavioral psychology experiments should be abandoned.   We get it. Americans understand that something is happening to the environment and that we are at least in part responsible for it. We understand the need to become energy independent. Americans are buying Prius hybrids as fast as Toyota can assemble them. As Ford and GM hybrids and Tesla electrics become available, we will buy them too. Americans have been engaging in revolutions for four hundred years without government guidance or coercion and we will continue doing so.   Frederick County commuters do use MARC, Metrorail, and commuter buses. But each has its own problems and limitations. Metrorail, for example, has its own version of a traffic jam every day during commuting hours.   In the case of highways like I-270, we want governments to recognize that tax-paying users are the highway’s customers – a Capitalist concept. We want governments to make them as efficient and accessible as possible and then get out of the way and let us use them.


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