Transportation

Can Cell Phone Data Cure North Texas’ Transportation Planning Madness?

A new report uses cell phone data to track how people really move around urban environments, offering evidence that it is better to invest in places, not roads.

There’s an intriguing new report from the Brookings Institution that puts some hard numbers to a transportation principle that anyone who has spent five minutes in North Texas knows all too well: for most Americans, the automobile is the only real method of transportation available.

Brookings analyzed data that revealed that, on average, Americans travel 21 miles a day, and most of that travel is done by car. The reason? Most places are designed so that the car is the only practical and feasible way to get around.

No news yet – but here’s what’s intriguing about the new study: Brookings’ report is based on new mobility data harvested from anonymous cell phone location information. Yes, those little surveillance devices we all carry in our pockets are helping transportation planners derive more accurate information about how we move around our cities than ever before. What they found is that the mobility directly correlates to land use, sometimes in surprising ways.

For example, Brookings found that, on average, every time a resident of one Chicago suburb needs to go somewhere, they spend about 20 minutes in a car to travel 9 miles. By contrast, in an urban Chicago neighborhood, the average resident trip was much shorter — about 4.4 miles — and there were also more trips of shorter lengths between 1 and 3 miles. The analysis gets more interesting when Brookings looked at older suburban towns with pockets of “walkable” style development.

The researchers found that in these suburban places, transportation behavior looked more like the Chicago neighborhood than the newer suburb. The report shows that even small pockets of dense, “walkable” environments can greatly influence transportation behavior. In these suburban places, town centers function as “transportation islands,” as the Brookings report terms it, “even though they’re surrounded by automobile-oriented land use patters.”

This level of analysis hasn’t been possible before because Brookings researchers used a data source – cell phones – that offers a much more accurate measure of behavior than methods transportation planners currently use to inform decisions around road development and infrastructure needs. That could be a game changer.

As Fast Company points out in its article about the study, cities and regions currently make planning decisions, which impact how massive amounts of public dollars are spent, based on a pseudo-science that doesn’t provide accurate information about how people actually move in urban and suburban environments:

Typically, transportation engineers rely on a standard known as level of service, or LOS: a letter grade that assesses whether a given road is meeting or exceeding its expected flow of traffic. Traffic flows are measured by small black tubes laid out on streets that count every car that drives over them. If traffic isn’t moving at the expected speeds, that has historically been interpreted as a problem. One way to solve it has been to divert traffic elsewhere. Another has been to simply build more car lanes.

In other words, traffic planners approach transportation planning as if they were designing a sewage system rather than a mobility network. If there isn’t enough traffic flow, traffic engineers believe they need to build bigger pipes. “It has not just been a preferred method of analysis, it has become dogmatic,” Brookings’ Adie Tomer tells Fast Company. “And because it has lasted for decades, we are seeing the full results of that approach, which is a dramatic increase in lane miles.”

But what this report offers is hard data that proves what urban advocates have been arguing for decades: transportation behavior is affected as much by land use as it is by road design. If you want to reduce the number of cars on overcrowded roads, you must build places where people don’t need cars.

When developers are building new communities of tract housing on tiny two lane country roads on the fringes of a growing region, transportation planners feel an imperative to improve those roads in order to safely accommodate the thousands of new people.

There are a litany of positive benefits for taking this approach to transportation planning. Not only does it slow or stop the endless cycle of infrastructure expansion that cities, suburbs, and regions cannot afford to maintain, but it helps build a stronger tax base, creates an environment more suitable for public transit, reduces carbon emissions, and offers residents more choices around how they live in and move about their communities. The Brookings report also offers more hard evidence that public policy around transportation needs to be designed in tandem with public policy around land use, which largely isn’t the case today.

This a key point that is often missed in conversations around transportation. Michael Morris, North Central Texas Council of Governments’ director of transportation, is often depicted as the poster child of the “build more roads” dogmatism that has driven the kind of sprawling, mono-mobility environment that defines much of North Texas. But as he explained to me a number of years ago, when developers are building new communities of tract housing on tiny two lane country roads on the fringes of a growing region, transportation planners feel an imperative to improve those roads in order to safely accommodate the thousands of new people who will be driven to use them because of the location of their new homes.

There is a public policy disconnect. Transportation engineers at TxDOT or the NCTCOG are designing regional road networks around land use patterns set by the local county and city governments. But no one, typically, is looking at those land use policies through the lens of transportation, or transportation policy through the lens of land use. And developers responding to the unfettered market forces that drive urban sprawl aren’t impact by the long-term costs of this dilemma.

So what should a region like North Texas do if it hopes to break the cycle that Strong Towns’ Charles Marohn has dubbed the “Growth Ponzi Scheme?”

One is a new-to-me idea raised in the Fast Company article called “impact fees.” Impact fees are a policy tool that attempts to make apparent to developers the hidden costs taxpayers shoulder down the road when new communities are built in places inadequately linked to the transportation network.

[Tomer] points to policies that states can adopt including requiring impact fees for new developments that shift some of the costs of transportation infrastructure to developers, thereby disincentivizing the kind of far-out exurban housing that leads to so much driving. Mobile phone data can also help make the case for imposing demand-based pricing on parking where its free availability may be leading more people to drive distances easily traveled on foot or by bike.

“This data should really create a new sense of urgency behind adopting many of the public policies that have had some friction politically to become adopted,” Tomer says. With more precise data explaining where and how far people are driving, policymakers and developers may be able to start building places that require less of it.

There are many challenges to implementing these kinds of new policies. For one, many of the local politicians in the cities and towns at the fringes of the region that should enact these kinds of new policies are tied to the building trade in one way or another. Also, cities that have attempted to adopt more forward-thinking land use guidelines – like Plano – have met stiff pushback from residents who often equate urban-style development (Brookings’ “transportation islands”) with degraded neighborhoods and overcrowded schools.

The opposition mounts. There a need to change the way transportation engineers think about long range mobility planning; a need for public officials to begin to craft policy with a more holistic view on the way transportation and land use influence each other; a need to create market mechanisms that makes apparent the hidden costs of sprawl that developers pass on to taxpayers; and a need to grow public awareness around how all of these issues play into the endless unsustainable cycle of growth that is felt most keenly by the perpetually increasing amount of time taxpayers are forced to spend in their cars.

Perhaps cell phone data can serve as the missing piece in this complicated argument. No matter where you might live in North Texas, if you are frustrated by your commute, stop believing that tax dollars should be spent on new or larger roads. Instead, invest in places.

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