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Growing Metros Need Tech, Transit to Reduce Congestion

Where traffic congestion is concerned, Nashville, Tenn., may not be on par with the likes of Boston or Los Angeles, but that doesn’t mean commuters aren’t feeling its effects. According to a recent report, the metro area ranks in the top 20 for most congested cities in the nation, and officials there think technology and new transit options might help alleviate some of that pressure.

In this central metro region of 1.9 million residents, traffic congestion jumped 20 percent from 2017 to 2018, according to a recent traffic congestion report by traffic analysis firm INRIX. In fact, commuters spent 87 hours in traffic in 2018. And the inner-city average speed is now about 17 mph.

“Anecdotally, we see that our highways are clogged for longer periods in the afternoon rush,” said Michael Briggs, manager of multimodal transportation planning at the Metro Nashville Planning Department.

“However, when we pull traffic count data for 24 hours, we don’t see significant increases in traffic counts averaged over the most recent five- and 10-year periods given the growth of our city, particularly downtown with jobs and new housing,” he added. “The commuting experience has changed because there are more people trying to get in and out of certain areas of the city, at the same time, mostly in single-occupant vehicles.”

If the traffic congestion issue in Nashville sounds like it's getting worse — and the INRIX study gives reason to believe it is — the region is not the most congested in the country. In fact, not by a long shot. It ranked as the 20th most congested metro in the nation in 2018, up from No. 23 a year earlier.

The most congested urban area last year was Boston, where drivers spent 164 hours in traffic, according to INRIX research, followed by Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles. It should be noted that Boston’s congestion was actually 10 percent less in 2018 than in 2017, the study pointed out, which translates to spending about two minutes less in traffic each way, said Trevor Reed, one of the authors of the INRIX report.

Strategies to reduce traffic congestion, said Reed, generally fall into a few categories: expanding the road network, regulatory approaches like congestion pricing and intelligent transportation management.

When it comes to solving congestion, “there are approaches that do work,” he added. “And it’s the difference between policy and politics, a lot of times.

“There’s huge potential for managing road-space smarter,” Reed continued, offering up ideas like intelligent traffic signals to smooth the flow of vehicles or giving signal priority to transit vehicles, allowing them to operate on schedule.

“From increasing mobility to increasing transit reliability, you have to incorporate something, probably, from all the different baskets,” said Reed.

Nashville has taken a number of policy directions which, over time, could ultimately ease traffic congestion. The region’s future land use plan known as NashvilleNext in coordination with the future transit plan nMotion offers a vision for an urban region not so car-dependent. However, last May, voters turned down a massive transit investment plan calling for light rail lines, beefed up bus routes and more. The proposal was estimated to cost $5.4 billion to $9 billion, a price tag voters roundly rejected.

“There’s still a need to do something because we know that 84 percent of downtown Nashville employees drive to work alone,” said Briggs. “There are 72 new building developments projected for downtown, so another 40,000 additional workers are anticipated.”

Nashville isn’t the only city seeing double-digit growth in traffic congestion. Tampa Bay, Fla., saw congestion increase 11 percent in 2018, according to INRIX. That growth comes from a number of sources, said Vik Bhide, smart mobility division manager at the Transportation and Stormwater Services Department in Tampa.

“We’ve seen significant growth to the region including new residents, record tourism, major development activity, special events, low gas prices,” said Bhide, who added the region has too few transit options. “Until this year we had among the lowest per capita spending on transit for a region our size, with many suburban communities not having any options.”

For its part, Nashville has taken steps to grow ridership on the region’s bus system known as WeGo Public Transit and encouraged efforts to promote carpooling, biking and even remote-working. The city has also launched a pilot project to enable e-scooters.

That said, autos remain the No. 1 mode of mobility in the Music City, and until this changes, expect traffic, said Reed.

“Basically, what we’re seeing there is, they have a very robust road network, but they’ve reached a point where their roads have become saturated, and they still have complete auto-dependency, really,” said Reed. “They’ve reached that tipping point within the last year or two years, according to our data.”

Solving traffic congestion requires a range of approaches, said Reed. Today, bigger cities are focused less on expanding the road network and more on approaches like shared mobility — in the form of better transit and more mobility options.

“That’s kind of the trend line that we do see, overall,” he added. Roadway expansion “is probably the least popular, and the least effective approach.”

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