How Traffic Jams Are Made In City Hall

The bad logic and failed policies of transportation planners

If you want to know why so few people use mass transit, meet Sue, a college administrator in Minneapolis. If anyone would use transit, Sue would. She's single, she lives in a condominium, and she can afford any additional out-of-pocket expense. She could use her city's Hiawatha Line, a light rail route newly completed at a cost of $715 million. But she doesn't, although she feels guilty about it. That's because her car gets her where she needs to go. Faster.


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the typical driver in America's metropolitan areas takes 21 minutes to get from home to work. If you take public transit, the average commute stretches to 36 minutes. That's 71 percent longer. Workers in the New York metropolitan area have the longest commute: There it takes an average of 52 minutes to get to work, even though the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut mass transit systems are among the most extensive in the nation.


Minneapolis-St. Paul is about average. The typical commuter takes 21 minutes to get to work by car or 32 minutes by public transit. Congestion can be pretty bad: The average driver in the Twin Cities spends 43 hours-more than an entire work week-stuck in traffic every year. According to the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University, that costs Twin Cities drivers almost $1 billion in wasted time and fuel. But mass transit takes even longer, and it isn't as flexible as a car when it comes to picking where and when you'd like to go. Is it any wonder Sue drives to work rather than taking the bus or train?


The U.S. Department of Transportation puts the yearly cost of congestion at $168 billion. But the planning gurus who are supposed to solve our transportation problems are in the grip of transitphilia and autophobia; their beliefs about how cities and transportation work are grounded more in nostalgia than in a realistic view of the world we live in now. The public policies they design and try to enforce make it harder for us to get to work, pick up our kids from school, or go shopping. They are deliberately fostering congestion. In the words of David Solow, head of the Metrolink commuter rail in Southern California, congestion is "actually good" because "it drives people out of their cars."


Keeping Minneapolis Congested

Every major urban area in the country has an official bureaucracy responsible for planning roads, highways, and mass transit. It has to; it's required by federal law.


Minneapolis has one of the more competent planning agencies. The Metropolitan Council-or Met Council, as locals call it-has at least acknowledged the importance of congestion and has tried a few innovative ways to address it. Unfortunately, its solutions will have minimal impact on the problem. It provides an instructive example of how poorly even our better regional planning agencies are addressing one of the most important policy problems they face.


The Met Council has some extraordinary powers. Established by the Minnesota legislature in 1967, it has legal responsibility for managing the Twin Cities' sewers, parks, transportation, aviation, and land use planning. But the primary focus of its huge organizational bureaucracy is transportation. Of its 3,718 employees, 73 percent do transportation-related work, spending three-quarters of the agency's annual budget.


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