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3 traffic myths that just won't die (ignore them at your city's peril)

Submitted by kevin ebi on January 8, 2016

Traffic congestion is getting worse in most places and it’s a huge drain on the economy. Not to mention a huge source of discontent amongst voters. Yet cities keep falling for the same stupid traffic myths. And when they make those same mistakes, they delay real progress for years.

So if improving traffic is on your agenda, please be sure that your city doesn’t fall for any of these myths. Yes, there are ways to improve traffic 20-30%. But these three will fail. — Jesse Berst

Over the course of a year, the typical American commuter spends more than an entire work week stuck in traffic jams. Traffic congestion equals wasted time, wasted fuel and more carbon in the air. And the problem is only getting worse according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute Urban Mobility Scorecard.

Frustrated commuters want their cities to do something — but what? As you work on your transportation strategy, check out 10 traffic myths compiled by The Atlantic’s CityLab. The list contains some surprises. Some tools you might have immediately dismissed can actually prove effective, while others may not be as helpful as they seem at first glance. Here are three myths to avoid:

1. You can help the problem by building more roads
We’ve written about this before, but just building more roads or running more buses are not traffic solutions by themselves. It’s about supply and demand.

For example, if people perceive that there’s more room on the road for them, they are more likely to drive. Capacity is certainly a key piece in the overall traffic puzzle, but it’s just a component. Check out our previous story for ideas that Council partners are putting to work to make roads and transit more effective.

2. We can’t implement bike lanes because they slow down traffic
People think that adding bike lanes to roads slows down the cars, but that’s often a myth. In some cases, adding a bike lane can actually allow cars to travel faster. Case in point: New York made room for bicycle lanes by narrowing some of the lanes for vehicles. There were the same number of lanes for cars; they were just a bit narrower. The result: in some cases, delays for drivers were cut by more than a third.

The project also speaks to a second myth about the safety of wider lanes. It turns out that wider lanes aren’t really safer. They just make drivers feel more comfortable and they try to drive faster.

3. It will take a massive, expensive, time-consuming project to improve traffic
Actually, a small effort can make a big difference. Planners and city managers may reject an idea because it won’t get many cars off the road. Yet tou don’t have to change the behavior of many drivers to make an impact.

CityLab used the example of the Pope’s visit to the U.S. last fall to show what a difference even a small group of people can make. Commuters were warned his visit would trigger massive traffic delays. Some changed their travel accordingly, and overall traffic wasn’t that bad.

The relationship between the number of vehicles on the road and the amount of traffic congestion is not linear. It points out that some studies have shown that getting even 1% of the drivers to change their plans can reduce congestion for everyone by as much as 18%.

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