Sometime soon, probably in October, the citizens of Naperville are apparently going to get an opportunity to review and comment upon a preliminary plan to do things like improve traffic flow and reduce traffic congestion.
Traffic is the number one concern for many Napervillians. Although considerable advances have been made by banning parking along Washington Street during peak traffic times, and timing traffic lights, driving through Naperville can still be a frustrating challenge.
Additional parking lots have reduced the congestion that results when people cruise around looking for a place to park, but there are still plenty of times when the whole downtown just sort of shuts down. When that happens, a great many people, more than the city staff would like to believe, simply stay away, and don’t go downtown during lunchtime or after 6 p.m. on nice days, don’t use Metra in the middle of the day, and shop in malls where parking is more available.
While that reduces congestion, it’s a bad solution. We could easily have fewer cars downtown if we made it even more frustrating to drive or, as some have suggested, made it more expensive to park.
However, I’m pretty sure that our merchants and restaurant owners don’t want to solve our traffic problem by having their customers stay home. Instead, we need to reduce the things that discourage folks from visiting downtown businesses until everyone is able to do everything they want to do whenever they want to do it.
Much of the reason that driving is difficult and biking is impossible downtown is short term planning. Yes, the river, the railroad, and the way we developed historically created unique problems, but we have done almost nothing to overcome them. What we need is a long term plan that deals with them.
Adaptive traffic control systems, that respond to non-recurrent congestion like weather and special events, will indeed be helpful, if expensive, and there are indeed roads and bridges that need reconfiguration. But it is essential that those things be done in the context of a long range plan that includes both non-motorized and public transportation.
Public transportation inevitably fails not because of cost or technology but because the public fails to accept it. What is important is to first develop a consensus on things like routes, access, and right of way, and to determine where, when, and in what manner people want to be conveyed.
People don’t, for example, want to ride with a lot of other people, especially in dirty or noisy vehicles. They don’t like having to learn schedules, or worry about transportation not being there when they need it. They don’t like making frequent stops, and they want to bring things with them, like children, bikes or groceries. Basically, folks want privacy, cleanliness, convenience, and especially safety for a price that is less than what it costs to drive a car.
Well, I know of at least 30 companies around the world who think they have the answer. Every one of them has a personal automated transport system that costs less than 15 percent of what a streetcar line costs to build, if we had the room to build one, which we don’t. A couple of them are even operational. Are they ready to be installed in a town like ours? No, not even close.
And that’s OK because we’re not ready either. In fact, we haven’t even begun. But as we review things like traffic plans, we should be thinking of what we will want and need years in the future, when the technology actually will be ready. They left a hole in the Chicago Post Office long before there was a road to go through it. It’s called vision.