Associate Professor of Urban Planning Michael Manville spoke to the Boston Globe about an uptick in traffic as the Boston metropolitan area reopens. Transit officials view the increased congestion as a real-time experiment to determine how much traffic the region’s highways can take before hitting their tipping points. Manville explained that, once a road nears capacity, each additional vehicle gums things up exponentially. “In ‘The Three Stooges,’ the classic trope is they all try and go through a door at once and they get stuck. If they had just walked through individually, not only could all of them have gone through the door but an almost infinite number of people could have gone in behind them,” he said. “You can have an incredibly high flow going through a door, or on a road, as long as a critical mass isn’t trying to do so at once.”
Associate Professor of Urban Planning Michael Manville was featured in a KCRW segment on the resurgence of Los Angeles traffic congestion as the car-centric county reopens. “It’s some combination of businesses and recreation areas reopening, combined with quarantine fatigue,” explained Manville to Press Play program host Madeleine Brand. “It’s still well below what we would be experiencing in non-COVID times … but it’s up a bit from the absolute valley it fell to right after the stay-at-home orders were first put into place,” he said. Once the county reopens completely, Manville predicted that traffic will return to what it was like before the pandemic. “Yes, the numbers are creeping up, and I think we just notice that because they had been so low.” Manville also noted that traffic congestion is the biggest constraint on driving speeds; during the pandemic shutdown, driving speeds increased and the overall number of high-speed collisions remained fairly consistent.
Martin Wachs, distinguished professor emeritus of urban planning, was featured in a Los Angeles Times column discussing the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on traffic levels in Los Angeles. During the pandemic, vehicle volume has been reduced by 40% and more in parts of the city, air quality has improved, and traffic is moving 12% to 30% faster. Nevertheless, urban planning experts doubt the roads will stay empty when the economy reopens. Wachs pointed to congestion pricing as the only proven way to get people to drive less. ”The only strategy that works 100% of the time is charging people more money,” he said. “Charge more to park, charge to drive, quadruple the cost of gasoline, impose congestion pricing.” Traffic jams in the Sepulveda Pass could be eliminated by charging people $10 to make the trip, he said. However, many politicians are hesitant to embrace congestion pricing because they don’t believe their constituents want it.
Associate Professor of Urban Planning Michael Manville spoke to NBC LA about the record low number of car accidents following state and local “stay at home” orders in Southern California. With fewer drivers behind the wheel and the closure of all non-essential businesses to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, traffic crashes in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura counties dropped 73% last month compared to March 2019. The total number of crashes causing fatalities, injury and property damage went from 21,270 in March 2019 to 5,827 last month. “The amount of travel that’s happening has fallen as close to zero as maybe we’ve ever seen in the modern era,” Manville said. The coronavirus traffic data is being used to inform discussions not only about the high toll that driving takes, but the environmental, social and economic impacts as well, such as how companies handle working from home.
Associate Professor of Urban Planning Michael Manville spoke to the Guardian about Angelenos’ road habits during the time of coronavirus. Even when just a few businesses asked workers to stay home, congestion was down quite a bit, demonstrating how relatively small reductions in cars can generate big increases in road performance, Manville said. “That has lessons for us, because it does remind us that when things get back to normal, policies that nudge just a few people away from a trip at a busy time can have a huge impact,” he said. However, Manville doubted the current health emergency would reshape Angelenos’ long-term relationship to the road. “It would be one thing if we were under an order to still go to places, but not in cars — some of us would find we like walking or biking,” he said. “But there’s no reason to think we will develop a different travel habit while we’re sitting on our couches.”
Juan Matute, deputy director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the COVID-19 outbreak’s effect on L.A. freeway traffic. As reported cases of COVID-19 surge in Los Angeles County, residents are following recommendations to stay at home and avoid public spaces, resulting in strangely empty freeways. Urban planning experts explain that reducing the number of vehicles on the road by a small amount can greatly reduce freeway traffic. “Pretty much every freeway lane in L.A. experiences some degree of this phenomenon: Everything is going fine, then suddenly it all slows down,” said Matute, an urban planning lecturer at the Luskin School. Freeway lanes have the capacity to support between 2,000 and 2,400 vehicles per lane per hour, but traffic grinds to a halt when lanes hit their capacity. On some freeways, reducing the number of cars by 5% could cut rush hour travel time in half, experts say.
Martin Wachs, distinguished professor emeritus of urban planning, was featured in a Los Angeles Times article discussing the potential long-term impact of COVID-19 on Los Angeles residents. Commonly crowded public spaces and freeways have been unusually empty due to the spread of COVID-19 in accordance with public health experts’ recommendations to stay home and practice social distancing. Wachs expressed hope that this temporary situation will have positive long-term effects, including lowering the volume of cars on the road even after the crisis passes if workers are able to permanently switch to telecommuting. Instead of spending billions of dollars on transportation projects that take years to complete, Wachs recommends “using [that money] to incentivize companies and people to allow more telecommuting.” While some employers don’t trust the efficiency of telecommuting and some workers, such as restaurant employees, are unable to telecommute, Wachs explained that even “small changes in traffic volumes can make large changes in travel times.”
Martin Wachs, distinguished professor emeritus of urban planning, spoke to Mashable about the effectiveness of car bans on selected urban thoroughfares. Cities such as New York, San Francisco and Seattle, as well as Oslo, Norway, and Barcelona, Spain, have banned cars from certain roads at certain times, with positive results. Wachs spoke about the growing support for people-friendly streets and unpolluted surroundings. “We are in a period of awakening over safety, quality of life and the nature of our physical environment,” he said. The article also quoted Jacob Wasserman, senior research manager at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin. A century ago, Los Angeles boasted the nation’s largest electric railway, but city planners abandoned the transit system to launch a system of concrete freeways, the article noted. “I’m a scholar of public transit, but I would never blame someone for taking a car to work because designers designed our city this way,” Wasserman said.
Associate Professor of Urban Planning Michael Manville spoke to the Economist about the limited success of recent efforts to improve public transit in Los Angeles. While voters have approved ballot initiatives such as Measure M that have increased funding for public transit, the number of people actually using public transportation has declined. Manville describes public transit as a “safety net for the poor, not a service for most people.” According to Manville, the proportion of households without access to a car has fallen from 10% in 2000 to 7% in 2015, with an even sharper fall among immigrant households. He explained that in order to persuade Angelenos to get out of their cars, “trains and buses must be almost as fast and convenient as driving.” At the recommendation of urban planning experts, the city is now planning a congestion pricing pilot program.
Q&A: Getting to know our new editor-in-chief
By Transfers Staff | February 5, 2020
We rang in the New Year at Transfers with a brand new editor-in-chief — Michael Manville. Manville is an associate professor of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, and he’s no stranger to Transfers. We recently sat down with him to ask about his views on transportation today as well as his hopes for Transfers in the future.
Q: Tell us a little more about your research interests.
MM: In essence, I study the fact that driving is too cheap and housing is too expensive. So one part of my research focuses on the mispricing of vehicle travel: this includes the study of our decisions to underprice roads and curb parking. In the other part, I examine how land use regulations that are inspired and impacted by travel behavior actually distort the housing market. For example, cities everywhere require parking spaces with new developments. At least on paper, these rules are supposed to make the transportation system work better, by providing more parking. In reality, they probably exacerbate congestion and make it harder to build more housing, which of course drives up housing prices.
Q: You are constantly sought after as an expert on congestion pricing. Why do you think now is the time to discuss and continue forward on this issue?
MM: I think a lot of city governments in very congested places have concluded that they both need a lot of money, and they have already tapped most of the obvious sources for that money. For example, New York City needs an incredible amount to repair its subway system, and — in the minds of its leaders, at least — it cannot go back to more conventional tax instruments to raise that money. So it has turned to congestion pricing, which not long ago would’ve been off the table. Adding to that is the fact that congestion is now, by most metrics, as bad as it’s ever been, and may be at its worst. Cities do feel pressure to deal with that, and more officials are realizing that what they’ve tried in the past — whether that’s widening roads, building more transit or hoping people telecommute — isn’t very effective. So there’s more openness to pricing as a result.
The fact that people are even talking about pricing is undeniable progress. If you’re someone like me, I think there’s a lot of cause for optimism because 10 years ago barely anyone outside of academia would discuss it. However, it remains to be seen how much of this emerging conversation will lead to implementation.
Q: If there’s one misconception about traffic that you wish you could set straight, what would it be?
MM: Do I have to pick one? Congestion as a concept comes pretty loaded with misunderstanding. But here is one. Any car can cause traffic, including yours. So if you are suffering from congestion, you are also probably causing it. Now, that’s not always true. There are some people who suffer from congestion because they breathe pollution from it because they live near a busy road, and some people get slowed down by traffic even as they are doing something socially positive like riding a bus. But for the most part, if you’re in congestion, you are congestion. That’s pretty obvious when I say it, but it’s not something that people or policy readily internalizes. As a result, we often want solutions to congestion that don’t require anyone who is currently on the road to drive less or change behavior in any way.
A great example of this is the tendency to blame increased congestion on Uber. Anytime you read about the share of traffic caused by Uber, you should ask yourself what share is caused by Toyota or Ford. Is that Uber slowing you down? Guess what? You are slowing the Uber down, too. You were here first? How do you know that, and why on earth should that matter? If every Uber on a congested road switched off its app, the road would still be congested, because the vehicle, not the app, takes up space. Even if every vehicle with an Uber driver vanished, do we really think, in growing places like LA or New York, that no other cars would fill in that space? Congestion isn’t about where the car is going or who the driver is or works for. It’s a product of our failure to manage our valuable roads.
Q: What do you think will be the most important transportation issue of this next decade?
MM: It’s hard to give any answer other than the carbon footprint of how we move around. I think that transportation remains a bit of a third rail in climate policy. In California, we’ve shown that we’re willing to do a lot of things to reduce our carbon footprint, but still pretty unwilling to confront our relationship with the car, and our impulse driving alone everywhere.
Another way to answer that question, which is in some ways the same answer from a different perspective, is to say that the biggest issue in transportation today is the same big issue that has always distorted our surface transportation system, which is that getting in your car and going wherever you want is often too inexpensive relative to its social costs. This was causing problems in the 1950s, in the 1980s and is still causing problems today. We now know, because we know so much more about climate change and pollution, that this problem is much greater, and graver, than we first thought. But that is the essential problem, and always has been.
Q: What topics do you hope to cover in future issues of Transfers?
MM: My hope is to cover a wide variety of transportation-related topics. The pitfall of any editor is that they just publish a whole bunch of articles that reflect their personal interests. I don’t want to do that. I think that the PSR [Pacific Southwest Region University Transportation Center] funds a range of institutions with many people who do good work on a wide variety of transportation issues, all of which we want to showcase. I would be disappointed if we produced an entire issue on congestion pricing. Even though that would delight a part of me, it wouldn’t delight the part of me that’s an editor. What we want to deliver is a highly accessible digest of a wide swath of transportation research.
Q: What has been your favorite Transfers article? You can say your own.
MM: I enjoyed writing mine, but it’s not my favorite.
Q: How about the skateboarding one?
MM: Actually, I really liked the fact that we published something about skateboarding. I say that not only because it’s a nice topic, but it’s also emblematic of what Transfers can do, which is to take a nice, novel piece of research on a topic that’s maybe overlooked and give it a boost that’s meaningful not only for the author but also for a lot of people who read it.
Q: But second favorite is yours?
MM: And then mine, of course.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Transfers Magazine is the biannual research publication of the Pacific Southwest Region University Transportation Center (PSR), a federally-funded network of eight partner campuses in Arizona, California, and Hawaii.