Planning Baltimore's transportation future might be harder than it looks, according to a Brookings Institution expert who studies the topic globally.
Anthony Downs, senior fellow at the Washington think tank, told about 450 business and civic leaders at the Downtown Partnership's State of Downtown Baltimore breakfast yesterday that traffic congestion will get worse here and elsewhere, given a rising population and increased prosperity.
"Get used to it," he told his audience yesterday at the Wyndham Baltimore Inner Harbor. "Traffic congestion is here to stay, and there's nothing you can do to get rid of it. There are some things that can be done to slow down the speed with which it gets worse, but you cannot eliminate it."
A new or expanded expressway or light rail system could help initially, Downs said, but traffic will become just as clogged as it was before, even if a road's capacity is doubled.
Commuters who previously traveled in off-peak hours would start to travel during peak hours because of the increased capacity of the road; others would shift from alternate routes to the expanded one; and still others would switch from rail or bus travel to driving, given the new convenience, Downs said.
"Once a major expressway has become congested at peak hours, its congestion cannot be eliminated by expanding its capacity," Downs said. "And expanding light rail has not significantly reduced peak hour congestion in any city where it has been tried. Most regions that add new transit systems are growing rapidly, and that's enough to swamp any expansion."
In a talk sprinkled with jokes, Downs kept his audience laughing as he shared his philosophy of transportation, which he has outlined in two books, Stuck in Traffic: Coping with Peak-Hour Traffic Congestion and his new Still Stuck in Traffic.
James L. Shea, chairman of the Downtown Partnership and managing partner of law firm Venable LLP, told the breakfast audience that "Baltimore needs a better transportation plan so we can move people to and through the city."
But Downs reminded the audience that Baltimore's traffic congestion is far less severe than that of many U.S. cities. Baltimore ranks 25th in the nation for traffic congestion, according to the most recent figures available, he said.
Even so, he said, Baltimore is not taking full advantage of the fact that transportation and land-use planning come under the jurisdiction of the city.
"The most important thing you can do to improve downtown traffic is to marshal your resources to make the city's traffic flow better," he said. "Invest in improving your streets, even if it means tearing down some historic buildings to do so."