Moving ahead or stuck in traffic
by Pat Byington
For two decades I’ve been a proud resident of the Highland Park neighborhood in Birmingham’s Southside. Work, grocery stores, restaurants, libraries, church, you name it: all have been a short walk or a quick drive away for my family. When it comes to transportation, I’m spoiled.
This fall, my soccer team of 20 years, Rojo (sponsored by the great Southside restaurant of the same name), changed leagues, resulting in some games being played on Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m. on fields located off Highway 280 in Shelby County.
That’s where I experienced what, for me, can only be described as a transportation nightmare: sitting in a car, wasting gas, inching along ever so slowly toward our destination. A trip that took 20 minutes on a weekend took nearly an hour.
As my anxiety rose, compounded by being late to the game, I could only imagine the emotions of my fellow travelers to the left and the right of me. Perhaps they were late for their children’s soccer practice, Wednesday night church services, “one-on-one” time doing homework with a daughter or son or just dinner with the family. My fellow Southside teammate, who was carpooling with me, just kept repeating the same mantra while we were sitting there in gridlock: How do people do this?
Last month, Governor Bob Riley announced that help was on the way for the thousands of residents who are trapped in their cars daily on Highway 280. He announced a plan to build, in three years, a $710-million double-decker toll road that he says will solve the Highway 280 problem. When all is said and done, Highway 280 will increase from 6 to 10 lanes. Even our interstates don’t have that many lanes.
It’s decision time in Birmingham when it comes to transportation, and the governor has put his cards on the table, but we should not pick up the first hand we have been dealt.
As we all know, Atlanta showed great vision in the 1950s, upgrading its airport to become a modern transportation hub. At the time, Atlanta and Birmingham had similar populations, but Atlanta then grew exponentially, becoming an international city that eventually landed the Olympics. Atlanta’s efforts in aviation show how key transportation decisions can transform a city.
Unfortunately, at the same time, Atlanta added to an imbalanced and unhealthy transportation system based almost solely on the automobile. In 1961, Atlanta residents thought they had finished their portion of the interstate highway system. For years after that, the city tried to build their way out of congestion by constructing more and more roads.
It didn’t work. Just try to drive across Atlanta today and you’ll be hammered by traffic delays. Sobered by this dysfunctional road system, Atlanta is trying to ease its problems by building more public transit.
Birmingham needs to seriously consider multiple alternative transportation solutions other than the car-based strategy that the governor is offering.
Consider light rail, for example. In Charlotte, N.C. the longtime Republican mayor Pat McCrory fought tooth and nail to implement a light rail system from downtown to the suburbs. He had to fight off lawsuits, initial traffic congestion, and even a referendum. But according to Charlotte’s top business leader, Chamber of Commerce president Bob Morgan, after one year, $1.8 billion in new development (the equivalent of a new auto assembly plant) has been announced along the rail line, and ridership is about to shatter 20-year projections. People are now calling for new routes, something that was unheard of when the project started.
Morgan also described how new mixed-use, transit-oriented development has sprung up along the line, especially downtown. People have made lifestyle changes, he said, including downtown workers who are living in condominiums or apartments near rail stations. Many of them have sold their cars and no longer have to pay for insurance, gas, parking, or auto maintenance—while getting transit subsidies from their employers.
With just one rail line, Charlotte has taken 12,000 to 15,000 cars off the road. If we did that, imagine how much cleaner our air would be.
According to local transportation planners, Birmingham may not be quite ready for light rail along Highway 280 or other congested areas like I-65 because of land use patterns along these routes. We have "car-only" land use patterns that discourage walking, bicycling and transit. But we can change that by building up the transit infrastructure. For example, we could dedicate a lane for bus rapid transit service from Highway 280 toward downtown. Light rail could follow, once transit becomes reliable and accepted.
Planners are also considering carpool lanes and enhanced transit service along I-65. In downtown Birmingham, the new In-Town Transit Partnership project, an exclusive lane for a specialized bus rapid transit service, is also on the drawing board and could be implemented in two years if funding is provided.
We have a decision to make: Are we going to have a transportation system that relies solely on the automobile, or are we going to provide options? Options that create jobs, protect the environment and save us precious time in a busy world.
Pat Byington is senior associate at The Wilderness Society. He also publishes Bama Environmental News (www.bamanews.com)