Mobility is one of the most important aspects of urban livability. Yet too many
planners ignore mobility when they evaluate alternative land-use and
transportation plans. It is often up to mobility advocates to write a mobility
report for each region that evaluates current conditions and proposes solutions
to congestion and mobility problems.
Fortunately, there are plenty of data available to evaluate mobility problems
in urban regions. Many of these data are contained in appendices in this book.
Other data are available on the web or from each region's metropolitan planning
Writing a mobility report consists of four steps:
Here are some of the data needed to write a report and where they can be found:
- Gathering data
- Evaluate the problems
- Write up the results
- Have the report reviewed
- Generate publicity
More useful data can be found in the most recent
draft or final regional transportation plan written by the metropolitan
Here are some questions to ask when reviewing the above data.
- Population, land area, and population density for various
years--Highway Statistics (http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/ohim/ohimstat.htm)
- Daily vehicle-miles traveled for various years--Highway Statistics
- Miles of freeways, arterials, and collectors, and percent of miles
traveled on each--Highway Statistics
- Breakdown of commuting by auto, mass transit, or walking/bicycling--1990
- Breakdown of all trips and passenger miles by auto, transit, or
walking/bicycling--The metropolitan planning organization
- The average time it takes someone in the region to commute to work--1990
- The location of employment centers in the region; what percent of jobs are
downtown, what percent are in other centers?--The metropolitan planning
- EPA ranking of pollution (extreme, severe, serious, moderate, marginal,
none)--EPA (the MPO or regional EPA office)
- Congestion indices, costs, hours of delay, and trends--Texas Transportation
- Annual expenditures in the region on road construction, road maintenance,
transit capital, and transit operations and maintenance--The metropolitan
planning organization, state transportation department, and/or regional transit
- Annual revenues in the region from fuel taxes and other highway fees--The
state transportation agency (don't forget to include federal revenues)
- Annual transit farebox revenues--The regional transit agency
- National averages for urban densities, miles of freeway per capita,
congestion, and similar data--Highway Statistics
- The percent of the state that has been developed as urban
areas--Highway Statistics (in states whose urban areas overlap into other
states, 1990 census data may be needed to account for overlaps)
- The percent of the state that has been developed--Natural Resource
- Specific information about transportation bottlenecks, extraordinary
congestion, or other problems--The metropolitan planning organization combined
with personal experience
Here are some qualitative questions to consider:
- How does the region compare with others in terms of population density,
vehicle-miles traveled per capita, miles of freeway per capita, and congestion?
- What are the regional trends for population growth and density, travel by
mode, and congestion?
- If the region's congestion is increasing, is the region's road construction
program keeping up with the growth in vehicle miles traveled?
- How does the breakdown of regional expenditures on roads and transit
compare with the breakdown of travel by road or transit? Put another way, what
is the public expenditure per transit passenger mile vs. per auto passenger
- What portion of that public expenditure is subsidized? Subtract highway
expenses from highway revenues and transit expenses from farebox revenues; if
they are negative, that represents a subsidy.
- How big are the subsidies? Divide road and transit subsidies by road and
transit passenger miles to get subsidy per passenger mile.
- Compare the percentage of roads in the region that are interstates and
other freeways with the percentage of vehicle-miles traveled on those
interstates and freeways. Nationally, freeways make up 10 percent of urban road
miles (not counting local streets), yet they carry more than 40 percent of the
- How much does congestion cost the region each year? How much does it cost
each resident and each driver in the region?
- How does the regional transportation plan propose to spend transportation
dollars: on new highways, highway expansions, rail transit, bus transit, bike
paths, or traffic calming?
To write the report:
- How well does transit serve commuters who do not work downtown--which is
probably the vast majority of them?
- What is the most important bottleneck or congestion point in the region? Is
there a freeway that suffers congestion because a bridge has too few lanes? How
much would it cost to fix this bottleneck? What does the regional
transportation plan say about it?
- What approach is the metropolitan planning organization taking to
congestion in its regional transportation plan? Has it declared a moratorium on
road construction, as was done in the Twin Cities? Does it claim that
congestion "signals positive urban development," as Portland's Metro
What is the region's main transportation problem?
- Select a theme;
- Tie related issues to that theme;
- Identify a key example of that theme;
- Outline the report;
- Write it up.
whatever it is, should be the main theme of the report. The secondary themes
- Is it that the population is growing faster than the transportation network?
- Is it that people are driving more which increases congestion even though
the population isn't growing very fast?
- Is it that existing facilities are deteriorating?
Now make a list of all the specific problems in the region. It is especially
important to find issues that will appeal to the public. Members of the public
have a strong self interest: They want low taxes, affordable housing, safe
neighborhoods, and free-flowing traffic. But most people also have a sense of
community interest, so they will support rail transit, urban densification, or
other impositions if they can be convinced it is the right thing to do.
- What the metropolitan planning organization is doing (or failing to do)
- What ought to be done about it.
The report must convince people that light rail, density, and similar policies
are not only bad for their self interest, they are bad for the public interest.
Further, the report must present a credible alternative that will solve
congestion and other problems in a way that doesn't create a conflict between
self interest and community interest.
Here are some types of issues that may relate to the theme:
If the theme
is selected carefully, all of these issues should relate closely to it. If most
of the issues don't really relate to the theme, a different theme may be
Somewhere in the region is one specific problem that can serve as the key
example of the theme.
- Is the region planning to build an expensive rail transit line or otherwise
spending too much money on transit?
- Are cities in the region spending their highway dollars on traffic calming
and other projects that actually reduce highway capacities?
- Are regional or local planners pushing for high-density developments or
higher-density zoning by erroneously claiming that these will reduce congestion?
- Is congestion frightening away businesses that might want to locate in the
- Are there any safety problems associated with congestion?
- Is fuel being wasted because traffic signals are not synchronized?
- Does stop-and-go driving contribute to regional air pollution problems?
- Do residents of poor and minority neighborhoods have special transportation
- Are food, gas, or other prices higher in congested areas?
Whatever the example is, it should be a
problem is easily solvable and relates to many of the issues on the list.
Now there is have enough information to write the report. A report always reads
best if it is written from an outline. Here is a basic outline based on the
- Perhaps there is a major bottleneck that the metropolitan planning
organization is not fixing.
- Perhaps it is a misguided proposal for rail transit that will consume most
of the region's transportation funds yet do little or nothing for congestion.
- Perhaps a local government is subsidizing a high-density development that
will lead to more congestion.
If the outline is detailed enough, the report can almost write itself: just two
or three paragraphs for each item in the outline. Some items may require more,
but if one statement in the outline leads into pages of material then either
the report is getting off on a tangent or the outline should be revised to make
it better balanced.
- Key Example
- Subtheme 1
- Subtheme 2
- Related issues
- Issue 1
- Issue 2 etc.
- What the region is doing
- What the metropolitan planning organization says
- What the regional transportation plan says
- What the state transportation department says
- What city officials or transportation departments say
- What ought to be done
- Promote freedom of choice and mobility
- Stop wasting money on things that don't work
- Do cost-effective projects that reduce congestion
- Reform regional transit
Depending on the length of the report, it may need a brief summary at the
beginning. Most people will do no more than read the summary, but the report
itself should be several pages long with plenty of references so that those who
read the summary will feel assured that the report has a solid basis. If the
summary is about 700 to 800 words long, it can be submitted to local newspapers
as an op-ed.
At the end of tool 6 is a summary of a hypothetical mobility report that
follows the above outline for Portland, Oregon. The report itself would contain
much more information about each of the issues, what the region is doing, and
what ought to be done. But this summary shows how the data gathered in step one
combined with the evaluation in step two and the theme and issues in step three
naturally lead to a consistent outline.
There is nothing more devastating to a report than releasing it to the public
only to find that some of the key facts are wrong. Even if the error appears
only peripheral to the report, it can so damage the report's credibility--and
by extension, the mobility coalition's credibility--that it will do more harm
than good. The best way to avoid such mistakes is to have outside reviews of
Ideally, the local university may have transportation or urban planning experts
who will be willing to review it. If not, ask one or more of the experts listed
at the end of the book to review it or to suggest reviewers. It wouldn't hurt
to have several reviewers including people who both tend to agree and tend to
disagree with the mobility coalition's view. The people who disagree can be
expected to work the hardest to find problems. When these problem are fixed,
the report is solid. Of course, if the problems aren't fixed, the report is
likely to have trouble after it is released.
A regional mobility report will do no good if no one knows about it. But the
report is a good way to advance the cause by generating publicity and
attracting members to the mobility coalition. Plan to spend at least as much
time on the publicity effort as it takes to write the report itself.
Ask several members of the coalition to sign onto the report either as authors,
cosponsors, or supporters. If the report is announced at a press conference,
get representatives of each group that is signed on to participate in the
Transportation makes a good television news issue because it moves. For
television coverage, the best time to hold a press conference is morning or
early afternoon. Televisions stations will then go out to video traffic to use
with their tape of the press conference. They will be particularly happy if the
report highlights a particular bottleneck that is close to their broadcast
Arrange to be on one or more radio talk shows after the press conference. Talk
show hosts are always looking for issues of local and regional interest, and
congestion is one of the best.
Be sure to submit the executive summary (slightly rewritten so that it no
longer looks like an executive summary) to the largest daily paper in the area
as an op-ed. If there are neighborhood papers that print op-eds, rewrite the
summary to include examples local to each neighborhood and submit it to them as
well. Have members of the coalition write letters of support to the editors
after the op-eds appear.
If the report is well written, it will generate lots of feedback, both positive
and negative. Get the names, addresses, and email addresses of the people who
are positive and add them to the list of potential coalition members. Keep in
touch with them; if they say they are too busy to help ask them for the names
of people they know who are interested in the issue. Keeping in touch with
people who have email addresses is very easy and a good way to keep people's
After a time, people will tend to forget the mobility report. Maintain interest
by publishing annual updates or new reports on special issues. Each report can
be accompanied by a press conference, op-ed, radio appearances, and so forth.
The following summary, which is almost exactly 800 words long (meaning it is
suitable for an op ed), follows the above outline.
To keep the report readable, follow
most of the rules in the paper titled "How to Write an Op-Ed." For example, the
summary uses a minimum of numbers and jargon. The report itself can have more
numbers, but whenever possible they should be expressed as graphs. The text
itself should use numbers only where absolutely necessary.
Interstate 5 from Vancouver, Washington to Wilsonville, Oregon consists of six
or more lanes of heavy traffic--except for a two-mile stretch from North
Columbia Boulevard to Jantzen Beach. Here the freeway dwindles to just four
lanes, and this bottleneck causes some of the worst congestion in Oregon.
- It starts with an example: a major bottleneck long ignored by regional
transportation planners. It adds that congestion is costly to everyone in many
- It states the major theme: Due to rapid population growth, traffic is
growing and congestion is rapidly getting worse.
- It presents the first subtheme: Congestion is worsening because
Portland-area planners are deliberately not accommodating new traffic.
- Through a series of bullets, it presents a number of related issues,
including the impact on minorities and air pollution; the regional
densification plan; and traffic calming. The full report would have subchapters
on each of these issues.
- It continues with the second subtheme: that congestion can be reduced
without raising taxes with a number of cost-effective solutions.
- It closes with an upbeat paragraph pointing out that reducing congestion is
good for livability and the economy.
The Texas Transportation Institute says that congestion costs Portland-area
residents $765 million per year in lost time. Since there are about a million
drivers in the region, that works out to about $765 per driver. This is the
only cost of congestion: Congestion increases the cost of gasoline, groceries,
and other goods because it increases the cost of getting those goods to
Moreover, says the Texas Transportation Institute, Portland-area congestion is
rapidly getting worse. In just two years, from 1994 to 1996, the cost per
driver increased by nearly a third.
Why is congestion growing so rapidly? Part of the reason is that the Portland
area is growing so fast. But a more important reason is that Metro, Portland's
regional planning agency, is deliberately trying to make congestion worse in a
misguided attempt to get Portlanders to stop driving. "Congestion," says Metro,
"signals positive urban development."
Thus Metro and the state transportation department have put off fixing the I-5
Jantzen Beach bottleneck because they wanted to spend funds on a light-rail
line to Vancouver instead. Never mind that the light rail line would carry far
fewer people than two new lanes of freeway, or that most of those people would
have taken the bus if the light rail were not there.
Even after Vancouver voters decided not to fund their share of the light rail
in 1995, Metro continued to delay any action on the I-5 bottleneck. Even after
Oregon voters decided not to fund their share in 1996 and Portland voters
decided not to build the light rail in 1998, Metro and the state continue to
The I-5 bottleneck is just one of the more blatant examples of how Metro is
ignoring this region's transportation needs.
Portland-area voters created Metro in 1992 on the
promise that it would save Portland from becoming like Los Angeles. In fact, a
1994 Metro document says that Metro's real goal is to "replicate" Los Angeles
congestion in Portland.
- Tri-Met, Portland's transit agency, says that, for less than 5 percent of
the cost of the south-north light rail, it could run a dozen different bus
routes on "light-rail schedules"--that is, faster and more frequent than
regular bus routes. But Metro says there are no funds for this because it wants
to build light rail.
- Minority residents in North Portland need better transportation so they can
get better paying jobs. Metro wants to build light rail through their
neighborhoods, giving them access to a few downtown jobs but greatly increasing
congestion and making it harder for them to reach places like Beaverton where
most of the region's new jobs are located.
- Metro says that building light rail will lead to a tiny, almost
insignificant improvement in air quality. In fact, spending money on light rail
instead of things that reduce congestion will make air pollution worse, because
cars pollute the most in heavily congested, stop-and-go traffic.
- Metro and the city of Portland are committed to increasing congestion by
reducing traffic flows on major roads. Portland is spending $2 million per year
on what it calls "traffic calming"--but it should better be called "road-rage
- If Metro hopes that congestion will lead to significant reductions in
driving, those hopes ought to have been dashed by the agency's own
calculations. They show that, after Metro implements its plan to increase
Portland-area population densities by 67 percent, 88 percent of all trips in
the Portland area will still be by car--down less than 5 percent from current
- According to those same calculations, that small reduction in driving
combined with a large anticipated population increase will triple the number of
miles of congested roads.
Portland-area residents don't want Los Angeles-style congestion here. Instead,
they want solutions that will reduce congestion and preserve this region's
livability. That means wasting no more money on light-rail. Instead, let
Tri-Met try some innovative, low-cost transit ideas such as running buses on
light-rail schedules or carrying people in small, low-cost shuttle vans.
At the same time, ending the light-rail projects will free up funds to solve
bottlenecks such as the one on I-5 at Jantzen Beach. Meanwhile, instead of
traffic "calming," Portland should smooth traffic flows on major streets
through the use of low-cost improvements in traffic signals.
Portland-area residents want to preserve this region's livability. They equally
care about protecting the area's economic well being. Fortunately, reducing
congestion helps satisfy both goals.