Overview of the Austin’s Traffic Congestion Problem


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At any given moment while on Guadalupe Street you would be able to the many different modes of transportation used by the people of Austin. These modes can range from busses, cars, mopeds, skateboards, rollerblades, bikes, walking, and now the recently added electric scooters. The multiple forms of transportation have come about from the increasing number of vehicles on the roads. Austin located in Travis County has 989,391 currently registered vehicles. People are willing to find alternative means of transport to avoid the never-ending pain of traffic. Traffic congestion has been defined as the instance where traffic volume is greater than road capacity leading to slower speeds, longer trip durations, and increased vehicle queue lengths. In a study done by the INRIX Austin drivers spent an average of 47 hours in congestion during the highest traveling times causing it to be ranked the 13th worst city in the U. S. and 42nd worst in the world in respect to traffic congestion.

The infamous southbound interstate 35 was labeled 6th on the “Top 10 Worst U. S. Corridors” with an average speed of 23. 4 mph during rush hour traffic accumulating up to 63 hours of delay. A survey conducted in 2017 found that 83% of Austin Drivers are unhappy with the traffic. The effects of congestion to a city are far greater than an annoyance for people trying to get at a certain location. More than 80% of air pollution in major cities is due to motor vehicle emissions. Vehicle emission contain carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, sulfur dioxide, and suspended particulate matter (Xue et. al, 2013). Traffic congestion has been labeled as one of the major factors in air quality degradation and traffic emissions (Carr et al. , 2002). When congestion occurs the average speed on the road decreases resulting in a longer period for emissions to occur.

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As stated prior the average Austin driver spent an average of 47 hours in congestion meaning 47 hours of pollution per driver through car emissions. Typically, the driving patterns experienced from traffic congestion result in vehicles spending more time idling and engaging in more frequent acceleration and deceleration events. In comparison to “cruise” conditions the increased accelerating and decelerating pattern showed up to 4-, 3-, 2- fold increases in Carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides respectively (Sjodin et al. , 1998). This increased pollution becomes a significant health risk as humans are directly being exposed. Traffic congestion has already been known to induce driver stress by increasing the feelings of time pressure and congestion adds to the health risks. Congestion increases total trip pollutant inhalation by motorist delay (Bigazzi et al. , 2015). Increases in exposure are not only limited to motorists but also by residences that are nearby roads that experience heavy congestion. The lower vehicle speeds increase pollutant concentrations as congestion reduces the dispersion of particulate matter (Benson, 1989).

Particulate matter that is emitted includes dust, soot fly ash, diesel exhaust particles and smoke (NRDC, 2014). According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has linked asthma to air pollution as there have been a direct relationship between hospitalizations for asthma and rise in particulate matter in the local air. In-transit exposure to particulate matter is believed to cause worsening of childhood asthma (Volckens et al. , 2015). Cardio vascular and other respirator diseases have also been linked with abundance pollution in major urban cities. Particulate matter containing toxic substances can be inhaled and transported into the respiratory tract. The adverse effects of ambient air pollution and particulate matters are more pronounced on children, elderly, and people with pre-existing conditions (Lee et al. , 2014). As a means of combating congestion Austin has embarked on plan to promote community by bike.

Austin set a goal of converting 7 percent of central-city trips from car to bike by closing the gap in the city’s bike network and to add physical barriers to better separate bike and car traffic. Through added bike infrastructure bike transportation is more sought out. Many people have been hesitant to use bike as most cyclist accidents and deaths occurred on roads where there were no designated bike lanes. Bicycle accidents in Austin have decreased by one-third over the past five years according to the Austin-Travis Country EMS. In 2012 a total of 587 bike accidents occurred, leading to the proposal of new bike lanes resulted in dropping accidents by 20%. Even companies like Uber have transitioned to providing bike services by partnering with Jump and promoting it as a smarter, greener, more accessible and friendlier option. In a case study performed for Stockholm in Sweden suggested that if all car drivers living within a distance corresponding of a 30 min bicycle ride to work switched to biking the result would 111,000 new cyclist and large potential for reduction of emission and exposure (Johansson et al. , 2017). Mean population exposure would be reduced by 7% for both nitrogen oxide and black carbon saving 449 years of life annually (Johansson et al. , 2017). Similarly, the inclusion of electric scooters by the companies Bird and Lime Scooters are also reducing congestion. Using the electric scooter can either increase or lessen your carbon footprint. If the electric scooter ride were to be replacing a trip that one would normally be making with a car then the footprint decreases however if the trip was in place of one that would be made walking, then there is a higher environmental cost. Emissions as stated above Overall electric scooters are expected to benefit the environment as many rides are less than 2 miles and last year the share of vehicle trips that was less than 6 miles was 60% according to the US Department of Energy. The public of Austin has a 76% positive view of the use of electric scooters. In survey’s which I conducted with students in the West Campus area the majority where in favor of the new modes of transportation that are becoming widely available as opposed as having to drive. When asked where they frequently ride bikes or scooter the top 3 answers were places with west campus, campus, or the Capital.

The use and efficiency of these alternative modes of transportation can only grow to a certain extent as the main factor is that a cities’ streets must be designed to accommodate these modes. In some areas where there are no designed bike lanes or sidewalks the use of bikes or electric scooters causes more congestion. A solution to accommodate to the trend of micro mobility that some cities are piloting are “fossil-fuel-free streets” which prioritize walking and biking over other modes. This is to undo the poor urban planning that is currently established which prioritizes car transportation over everything. Cities already take up a third of the total available urban space therefore the opportunity to repurpose them is present. Converting to people oriented streets leads to reduced congestion which in turn reduces pollution emission from vehicles as well the amount of exposure.

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