Champaign-Urbana has a car problem.
For a generation, our traffic engineers have responded to the problem of congestion and slow-moving traffic with the intuitive fix: add more lanes, remove obstructions, and encourage drivers to speed up. As the population has grown, roads that were formerly low-traffic neighborhood streets have been transformed into arterials, tasked with carrying — in the case of Florida Avenue — over 10,000 vehicles per day. Meanwhile, former dirt roads have been built to highway standards. Staley Road adjacent to Carle at the Fields has dedicated turning lanes 300 feet long, and Windsor Road is built for travel at 60 miles an hour.
The rebuild of Florida Avenue is another such “fix”. Current four-way stops at Florida/Race and Florida/Vine are to be replaced with new signals. New parking is proposed for the north side, and updated signaling will allow drivers to move as quickly as they’d like (on smooth new pavement) to their destination.
These choices seem reasonable when considered alone, admirable, even. Reducing confusion is good. Rebuilding pavement is good. In isolation, the goal is to reduce the confusion at intersections, and it will do that. Unfortunately, the project will also succeed at its primary, unstated goal: to increase the number of vehicles on our roads.
The only fiscally and environmentally responsible choice is to design Florida Avenue for fewer cars. Rather than making travel easier for 10,000 vehicles a day, the objective should be to remove cars from the road. The constant stream of vehicles down Florida Avenue is not just a problem for the traffic engineers or the urban planners. It’s an environmental and societal disaster for our community. When driving is the easiest choice, it is also the default choice. Transportation accounts for one-third of the carbon footprint of an average American. Forget the plastic-free shampoo and reusable shopping bags. The single choice of not driving gets us 85% of the way to avoiding climate disaster. (Transportation accounts for one-third of average emissions, and emissions must be reduced by half.) Put it another way: The number of vehicles on our roads must be cut, and urgently. Planning for anything short of this is a deliberate, conscious choice to wave away global warming.
(What about electric cars? Electric cars emit about a third of the greenhouse gases of conventional cars, but they shed more microplastics (via tire and brake dust) into the environment because of their heavy batteries. And even if we all switched to electric cars tomorrow, we would still be far short of the approximately 50% reduction needed to prevent climate catastrophe.)
Fortunately for transportation planners everywhere, the mode of travel chosen by an individual is subject to something called induced demand. In layman’s terms, demand increases when you lower the price. The “price” of a car trip is the time spent traveling, the stress of looking out for obstacles or sitting in traffic jams, looking for parking at the end, and the literal costs of gas and parking. When the price of driving increases — whether literally, as in gas prices or increased parking fees, or figuratively, as in longer waits and slower speeds — individuals start looking for alternatives.
When paired with a network of protected cycling lanes (thus reducing the figurative cost of biking), increasing the cost of driving can result in a doubling or tripling of the number of bike trips. When bus rapid transit is implemented (running frequent buses on high-traffic routes, while giving buses priority over private vehicles), double digit increases in ridership along those routes have been observed. This is all to say, some individuals will always drive. Some individuals will always walk. But in between, the majority of individuals are simply choosing the “cheapest” mode. The changes proposed for Florida Avenue seek to reduce the cost of driving by reducing frustration and decreasing travel time. The only possible result of such changes is more vehicles, moving faster.
Defenders of the new Florida Avenue configuration and its 10,000 vehicles may protest that the new plan encourages bike and pedestrian travel, via a new multiuse path between Lincoln and Race. However, what looks great behind a windshield is in fact complicated and stressful once outside of the car. A cyclist traveling west through Race/Florida must navigate a complicated and multistep process when the build is complete, as summarized in the image below. Using the path requires merging into a lane with cars (A), check seven lanes of car traffic to make sure it’s safe to proceed (B1-B7), navigate into a left turn box (C), avoid getting struck by a right-turning vehicle at two separate points (D1, D2), and finally ride onto the multiuse path, only to have to cross Florida again half a mile later, if they are headed north to campus. God forbid a driver choose the wrong moment to roll through the red light turning right, a maneuver I see no less than three times a week. And god forbid they choose to do it when you have your child with you.
The proposed new configuration is admittedly better than the existing state, which is a bike lane which abruptly ends midblock, and a sidewalk that vanishes at the intersection. It is not good enough. Urbana’s own Bicycle Master Plan cites a study from Portland, Oregon suggesting that around 60% of individuals are “interested, but concerned” about biking. For these individuals, the safety risk of this single intersection is enough to reach for the car keys.
Reducing car dependency and the cost of private vehicle travel to our community requires aggressive implementation of induced demand in the opposite direction. Trips by car must have a higher cost than the corresponding trip by another mode. The proposed changes to Florida Avenue ease the way for faster car travel with only marginal improvements for foot and bike travel. The result will be exactly as intended: more cars, more pollution, high pavement repair costs and a further slide into the status quo of transportation.
Deliberately engineering to disincentivize driving requires a certain level of imagination, and actually implementing such changes would require vision and courage. Fortunately, the governments of Champaign-Urbana have plenty of examples to follow. We can eliminate cars from urban centers. We can give buses travel priority on busy roads. We can start building protected bike lanes, reduced crossing distances, smaller intersections, and narrower roads. But we can also start small, very small. We can start by thinking that maybe, just maybe, it’s okay for drivers to have to wait a little.
Deborah Liu rides her bike and advocates for fun, safe, car-free transportation options. Folllow her on Twitter @take_your_bike.