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5 Lessons from Cities Trying to Fix Traffic

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To fight the gridlock that plagues American cities, some mayors and city councils are taking a new tack: Rather than adding more lanes and more pavement, they're trying to reduce car traffic, or even eliminate it entirely. What can urban leaders learn from city experiments in going carless? Five big lessons from cities across the country—and a surprise.

  1. More people doesn’t have to mean more cars.

Seattle, almost alone among American cities, has managed to grow without putting more cars on its roadways. Average daily traffic has stayed flat, and even declined a little, as its hot economy added 116,000 new residents. Other cities have added rail capacity but without seeing the same improvements. How did Seattle do it? By coordinating rail and bus systems so residents have real end-to-end choices that look more attractive than hopping in their cars.

  1. People will fund mass transit—when it works.

King County Metro, which serves Seattle and most of the region around it, was facing bus cuts because of a massive budget shortfall. Rather than accepting worse service, Seattle residents agreed to a $60 vehicle registration fee and bumped their sales tax by 0.1 percent, enabling transit officials to add more buses to the more popular routes.

  1. Transportation and housing are really the same issue.

People are much more likely to take public transit if they live within walking distance of a bus or train stop, and don’t have to wait long there. The solution is to build densely around transit hubs. To encourage this kind of transit-oriented development, Seattle allows developers to build housing without off-street parking if they're close to frequent transit service.

  1. This tax actually spurs productivity.

American cities have been loath to do what foreign cities embraced years ago—charge vehicles to enter the most congested parts of the city center. New York, after years of debate, just became the first American city to embrace the concept. Officials there are hoping for results like Singapore, which reduced traffic by 44 percent, and central London, which cut delays by a quarter.

  1. When in doubt, it’s possible to ban cars.

Beginning in the summer of 2020, San Francisco expects to kick cars off of more than two miles of Market Street, one of its busiest commercial boulevards. Cabbies and Uber drivers aren’t thrilled, but bus drivers love it.  And let’s not forget the civilians who were injured and sometimes killed in collisions with vehicles.