Suburban traffic piles up. Private companies and developers join towns to cut rush-hour crunch
Washington — In El Segundo, Calif., the Hughes Aircraft Corporation has set up a private transit system to help its employees get to work. The system has nine regular bus routes and an annual budget of $650,000. In suburban Baltimore, a coalition of developers, businesses, and government agencies is organizing van pools and helping to establish mass-transit links to ease the flow of traffic into the area.
These are just a few examples of what urban development experts say is a growing trend toward private-sector involvement in the development and funding of transportation in the United States, particularly in fast-growing suburban areas.
``This isn't being done out of a sense of altruism; it's self-interest and good business,'' says Kenneth Orski, president of Urban Mobility Corporation, a Washington-based transportation consulting firm. In recent years, he says, many companies have moved offices and manufacturing facilities to new suburban locations. Along with this move has come a dramatic increase in suburban traffic.
Increasingly, he says, developers and employers are being held partly accountable for the traffic in a community.
The problem is compounded by the emergence of high-density office and commercial centers, often referred to as ``urban villages,'' on the periphery of most major cities. These centers have become small-scale downtowns -- combining shops, high-rises, and restaurants.
The structure of transportation systems in most US cities is poorly suited to these developments, experts say. Highways and subways usually radiate out from the city's central core, the emphasis being on moving people from the suburbs to the downtown and back again.
``The public is bouncing up against its own conception of what cities are,'' says Christopher Leinberger, an urban development consultant in Los Angeles. ``We thought we were getting sprawl, but what we got are urban problems on a different scale.''
Most suburban highway networks were built during the 1960s and '70s and are now at or above their intended capacity.
The result: a growing number of suburban areas where bumper-to-bumper crawl and even gridlock is the rush-hour norm. In some suburban areas, particularly around shopping malls and high-rise office complexes, traffic jams no longer occur just twice a day, but fill most daylight hours and last far into the evening.
Across the country, rapid suburban development and the related traffic dilemmas have become hot issues in local politics. Indeed, public surveys in some cities show traffic congestion surpassing crime, housing, and pollution as top-ranking concerns for local residents.
Many cities and counties have responded with building moratoriums and tough development approval processes designed to limit the impact of new projects on public services, such as sewers and roads.
``The most recent wave of growth-control measures is almost entirely motivated by concern about traffic,'' Orski says. Walnut Creek, Calif., for example, recently passed a referendum that effectively prohibits further development in the city until traffic levels are reduced.
In many communities, the development process has become a complex series of negotiations, with developers and employers offering to help finance transportation projects or participate in traffic-reduction programs in exchange for zoning variances or other concessions.
Businesses are also concerned about the impact of too much traffic on worker morale and productivity. In Montgomery County, Md., an employers association recently warned that traffic is becoming so bad along one local highway that it threatens to hinder economic activity in the area.
Many analysts agree that the era of large-scale federal support for the construction and expansion of transit systems is over. As federal dollars dwindle, private-sector contributions are expected to play an increasingly important role in the construction of new facilities.
So-called cooperative financing deals are one way this is being done. One approach is based on the idea that private developers should pay a ``fair share'' of the cost their projects, such as a new office building or subdivision, impose on a community. In Orange County, Calif., for instance, the Irvine Company agreed to pay $60 million in local transportation improvements as part of developing a new commercial center. The improvements include three freeway off-ramps, two parkways, and 14 projects related to traffic control.
Local governments also assess businesses for the benefit they may get from new transportation facilities. For example, Los Angeles plans to create special districts around transit stations on the proposed Wilshire Line to help raise $170 million of the subway system's capital cost. The assessments are expected to cover 5 percent of the total $3.4 billion cost of the project.
But urban development experts say that, while the private sector can help foot the bill, this does not address the more fundamental problem of too many cars on too few roads.
``We're coming to the conclusion that building new roads can't in and of itself solve many suburban traffic problems,'' says Urban Mobility's Orski. ``What you need to do is manage the demand side of the equation'' by limiting the number of cars in heavily developed areas.
Many firms have long had programs to encourage the use of mass transit and car pooling. A more large-scale approach, however, has been the creation of transportation management associations -- coalitions of developers, businesses, and government agencies which deal with problems in a given area. More than 20 such associations have emerged in the past five years in rapidly growing regions such as Tysons Corner, Va., north Dallas, and Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley.
``Our real mission is to reduce traffic congestion during rush hour,'' says A. J. Zissler, executive director of the Greater BWI Commuter Assistance Center, a transportation management association near the Baltimore airport.
Ms. Zissler says her organization often acts as a ``broker'' between the members of the association. An example of this, she says, is the association's work with local employers and the Baltimore Transit Authority to extend bus service into the region.
The various associations' activities include: helping to organize van pools and ride-sharing, pushing for staggered work hours, and lobbying for government transportation projects. Proponents emphasize the ``flexibility'' of such associations, which vary widely in their structure and objectives, and say they provide for a measure of cohesion and cooperation that wouldn't otherwise exist.
``Many suburban areas are a mish-mash of overlapping political jurisdictions and lack an overall vision or sense of direction on how all the pieces fit together,'' Leinberger says. The associations provide a unifying forum, he says, which cuts across local political jurisdictions.
Experts point out, however, that none of these new forms of private involvement in transportation will solve the suburban traffic problem. A major readjustment of work and living patterns has occurred, they say, and this is being followed by other necessary adjustments. The expansion of transportation systems is just one of these.