Sacramento’s Failed Transportation Plan

The Ship Is Sinking, So Stay the Course

By Randal O’Toole in The Antiplanner, posted in Why Planning Fails, Transportation

In his 1989 book, The New Realities, Peter Drucker wrote:

Above all, any government activity almost at once becomes “moral.” No longer is it viewed as “economic,” as one alternative use of scarce resources of people and money. It becomes an “absolute.” It is in the nature of government activities that they come to be seen as symbols and sacred rather than as utilities and means to an end. The absence of results does not raise the question, Shouldn’t we rather do something different? Instead, it leads to a doubling of effort; it only indicates how strong the forces of evil are.

I thought of this quote when reading Sacramento’s 2006 Metropolitan Transportation Plan. In a remarkably candid review of the region’s previous transportation plans, this document states:
“Many expectations during the past 25 years have not worked out.

• Sprawl around the edges continues to out-pace infill into existing communities, and businesses increasingly prefer suburban locations.

• Even though gasoline prices are at an all-time high, the total amount of driving has more than doubled since 1980.

• Even so, total smog emissions from motor vehicles are now half what they were in 1980, because technology has reduced auto emissions by 98 percent from 1980 models.

• Lack of road building and the resulting congestion have not encouraged many people to take transit instead of driving, even at the extreme congestion levels seen in big cities like Los Angeles. Instead, drivers move onto neighborhood streets, seeking to avoid heavy traffic.

• A 1999 Sacramento Regional Transit survey showed that half of those who commute on transit, and three-quarters of those who ride transit for other reasons, do not have access to an auto.
Furthermore, those percentages rose through the 1990s, so transit increasingly serves those who cannot otherwise choose to drive, despite a focus on luring drivers out of their autos.

• Shipping of goods by truck has ballooned, instead of shifting to railroads, with trucks serving as rolling warehouses feeding just-in-time manufacturing, and stores with computerized inventories”

The above is from page 3 of the plan; I added the bullets for clarity.

In essence, the plan admits that past plans, which aimed to reduce congestion and air pollution by changing people’s behavior, have failed. Moreover, plans to create a more compact community failed. The only thing that succeeded was the technological improvements to autos that reduced air pollution. As the Antiplanner has noted before, behavioral solutions don’t work; technical solutions do.

So what does the plan propose to do? “The 2006 MTP continues the direction of the MTP 2025,” says page 4. This includes “transportation funds for community design, to encourage people to walk, bicycle, or ride transit” and giving “first priority to expanding the transit system.”

In short, exactly as Drucker describes, planners admit that their plans don’t work — so they are going to redouble their efforts. On one hand, it is too bad that planners in other regions are not more candid about the failure of their plans. On the other hand, it is too bad that planners everywhere take so long to learn the lessons of their failures.

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©2007 Coalition On Sustainable Transportation