Automobile dependence and the effects on the region

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Conversations are occurring across the country about transit and how important it is for cities. First and foremost, I agree 100 percent about the importance. However, I wonder if it’s truly transit that is desired in all cases, or if it’s decreasing the dependence on the automobile that is the goal.

Let's take Colorado Springs for example. Our transit system is single-focused toward buses and incredibly underfunded, therefore the level of service is not great — that may be a generous statement. This is not a good combination. Buses are not sexy or desirable, and they have a stigma about them. To quote — perhaps out of context — Steve Mouzon's book, The Original Green, “buses are not lovable therefore not financially sustainable.”

If I was to poll the readers, I’d guess that less than 20 percent have even ridden a bus in the Springs, and that less than 1 percent ride the bus regularly. (Don't worry; I'm not going to poll you.) That's not to say that the readers don't advocate for transit, I’m sure many people believe that transit is a large issue in the Springs and it needs to be fixed.

I don't have a silver bullet for transit in Colorado Springs, and I won't pretend to. But if the goal is for our buses to be financially self-sustainable, we don't have a prayer. I strongly believe that there’s an inverse relationship between our funding toward new roads, bridges and streets, and having an effective transit system. The more funding that we put toward "mitigating congestion,” the greater the imbalance of the convenience of driving a single-occupant vehicle versus riding transit.

The increased capacity of our streets allows for shorter travel times. Therefore, our consumptive nature as a country leads us into thinking we can travel more frequently and greater distances, which spreads out our infrastructure and yes, it encourages sprawl. This same inverse relationship goes toward the actual maintenance of our roads and streets.

According to the 2011 QLI Study, published by the Pikes Peak United Way, there was an approximately $900 Million backlog of unmet road maintenance needs. $900 Million, in our Region! I hope you’re in shock, because you should be.

First of all, that was 2011, nearly four years ago. For being touted as a "conservative city," this is the most fiscally irresponsible statistic for the Springs. What in the hell are we doing with what could be over $1 billion in maintenance deficit at this point!?

Our region, and the cities within it, needs a policy to stop widening streets and adding lanes until we can at least stabilize our maintenance deficit. If we're going to pretend to be conservative, we need to financially stabilize ourselves, which may mean that we have a higher tolerance for congestion and poor driving conditions. Easier said than done, right? (I know, you hate me right now. But, most of us have loved ones, future loved ones, or a legacy that we would like to leave for the future of this community.)

Because I have taken on the unpopular role of creating discourse, and provocative suggestions about the region’s appeal, I'll continue to do so by saying that “sexy” transit solutions like a light rail system are not feasible in this community. Although it’s great to ride the light rail in Denver, and incredibly efficient, we cannot sustain it in Colorado Springs. We’d need a more dense population near the core of the city — the disincentive being more congestion — before we can even consider such a thing.

Connecting Colorado Springs to Denver via commuter rail would go a long way to serving many development goals in Colorado Springs, including economic development through a higher tax base.

In reality, we need to start focusing on the corridors in our community that have more lanes for traffic than meet the demand, and remove some of those lanes in favor of other modes of travel. For example, imagine if we removed one lane of vehicle traffic going each way on Academy Boulevard and replaced with it with protected bicycle lanes. In doing this, we would provide a safe bicycle corridor AND decrease the maintenance of the streets. And it's likely that congestion levels wouldn’t even skip a beat on this particular over-engineered road.

Continuing to add lanes is not the answer to reducing the budget; it is, in fact, the opposite approach. Reduction of our inventory and encouraging more density through infill are the keys to decreasing our $1 billion-plus maintenance deficit.

I’ll leave you with a saying heavily quoted in the planning industry: "Widening roads to relieve congestion is like loosening your belt to relieve obesity.”

John Olson is a licensed landscape architect, residing in Colorado Springs. He serves as the Director of Planning and Landscape Architecture for EVstudio Planning & Civil Engineering. He is also a co-founder of Colorado Springs Urban Intervention, which implemented Better Block Pikes Peak in 2012, the recent Walkability Signage found in Downtown Colorado Springs, and perhaps most notably, Curbside Cuisine.

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